Initial operations in German East Africa during 1916
During the Great War Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was
administered by a private chartered company named The British South Africa
Company. As the object of this company
was to return dividends to its shareholders the entry into the war of Southern
Rhodesia units was inevitably delayed by financial wrangling between the
company and the British Government (see HERE). When it had been established that the
military recruitment of white soldiers from Southern Rhodesia had exhausted the
available supply, attention was turned to the recruitment of Africans. This was not an easy political step to take
as although Northern Rhodesia to the north (now Zambia) and Nyasaland to the
east (now Malawi) recruited Africans for their military units, the white
settlers in Southern Rhodesia had always resisted “arming the natives” other
than in small auxiliary organisations.
But more riflemen were needed for operations on the
Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia borders with German East Africa. In November 1915 the Rhodesian forces
Commandant General, Colonel A.H.M. Edwards, proposed that an African battalion be
raised in Southern Rhodesia. The War
Office asked the British South Africa Company to do this, and after several
months of haggling and prevarication the company finally agreed to provide the
men, subject to reimbursement of all costs involved.
It was planned that the soldiers would be recruited from
the Ndebele tribe and the new unit was titled the Matabele Regiment. Officers and senior ranks were recruited from
the Southern Rhodesia Native Affairs Department and the British South Africa
Police. Lieutenant Colonel Alfred James
Tomlinson, British South Africa Police, was appointed to be the Commanding
Officer. African rates of pay were 25
shillings per month for privates and 30 shillings for sergeants. A gratuity of 10 pounds was fixed for the
next of kin of any soldier who died during service, and an award of 10 pounds
and an exemption from hut tax was decreed for any recipient of the
Distinguished Conduct Medal. Those men
partially disabled due to war service would qualify for a 10 pound payment, and
permanently disabled men would receive a pension of 3 pounds per month. Europeans were placed on the British South
Africa Police pay scale, where a sergeant was paid 180 shillings per month and
a Lieutenant 250 pounds per year.
Above: This is probably the band of the Rhodesia Native Regiment on a recruiting march
On 1st May 1916 132 Africans and 27 Europeans
moved into a tented camp at Letomba and training commenced. The Africans were issued with khaki shorts,
jumper and cap but no footwear. The
first rifles issued were single-shot Martini Henrys dating back to the Zulu
War, and the first sets of equipment were leather ones. It was soon realised that the recruitment of
500 Ndebeles was not going to happen as labour was scarce due to the Southern
Rhodesian economy having been boosted by the war. European employers producing crops, goods and
services for the war effort wanted to keep hold of their African labour; also
many Africans preferred to work on their tribal holdings of land rather than
work for wages. Men came forward from
the Mashona tribe and many others were recruited from mine compounds with the
agreement of the mining companies. Most
of these former miners were migrant workers from Nyasaland, Northern Rhodesia
and Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique).
Nearly all the recruits were illiterate as the educated Southern Rhodesian
Africans were not attracted towards military service. The variety of dialects being spoken resulted
in the two companies that were formed being manned by men from the same tribal
groupings where that was possible. The
unit was re-titled The Rhodesia Native Regiment.
Right: A soldier of the Rhodesia Native Regiment
Into German East
By July 426 Africans had been recruited and they were in
various stages of training. Suitable
junior non-commissioned officers were found amongst men who had previously
served in the British South Africa Native Police, the Northern Rhodesia Police
and the King’s African Rifles. General
Edward Northey, the commander of the Nyasaland-Rhodesia Field Force, had an
urgent requirement for troops, and the battalion was dispatched to Nyasaland
using the rail, coastal shipping and river steamer route through Beira and
Chinde in Portuguese East Africa.
Between 26th July and 17th August training was
continued at Zomba, the centre of the 1st King’s African
Rifles. On 18th August the
unit marched to Lake Nyasa and travelled by the steamer Guendolen to the head of the lake, from there it marched to New
Langenburg in occupied German East Africa to continue training.
Here a modified range course was fired using the Martini Henry
rifles but with new webbing equipment, and specialist sub-units were
formed. Six machine guns had been issued
and teams for them were trained.
Signallers learned to use flags and Begbie lamps; superstition initially
handicapped the use of heliograph mirrors and sunlight but this problem was
overcome. A demonstration was given on
the use of the rifle grenade but there were insufficient grenades for
individual practice. Patrols, company
attacks and the digging of defensive positions were rehearsed and many route
marches were made. An important aspect
of the training was the instruction on military tactics and leadership given to
European junior officers and sergeants, as many of them had been immediately
promoted from the rank of Trooper in the British South African Police.
Whilst in Nyasaland malaria had begun to affect and
debilitate the unit. On 1st
September 1916 the strength return of the Rhodesia Native Regiment listed 17
European officers, 43 European senior ranks and 442 African troops.
General Northey had hoped that Portugal, now an Ally,
would send troops north from Portuguese East Africa to occupy the south-eastern
area of German East Africa. However the
Portuguese commander, Major General Ferreira Gil, did not receive all the
elements of his expeditionary force from Lisbon until early September and he
was unable and unwilling to comply with the British request. Gil’s preference
had been to advance up the German coast line so that his naval assets could be
used, and he was ill-equipped to advance inland through difficult terrain. But the British had occupied the important
ports and harbours in southern German East Africa, and so for the moment the
Portuguese remained on the north bank of the Rovuma River near the coast.
Northey then decided to use his only reserve, the
partially trained Rhodesia Native Regiment, to seize Songea east of Lake
Nyasa. Tomlinson was ordered to move his
headquarters and one of his two companies from New Langenburg on 14th
September and travel again by the steamer Guendolen
to Wiedhaven, from where he would march to Songea “in order to deny it to the
enemy”. As only one of the two
companies, No 1 Company under Major F.H. Addison, had so far exchanged its old
rifles for Short Magazine Lee Enfields, that company was selected to move. Because machine gun porters had not yet
arrived at the battalion none of the guns were taken.
No 2 Company remained at New Langenburg under the command
of Major Clive Lancaster Carbutt who continued the training programme. When 80 machine gun porters arrived Carbutt
organized their training so that the porters integrated into the gun teams.
The advance on
Tomlinson was urgently dispatched into relatively unknown
territory without machine guns and without the support of any other unit. But the Allied theatre commander, the South
African General Jan Christiaan Smuts, wanted to prevent south-eastern German
East Africa becoming a sanctuary where the withdrawing enemy Schutztruppe under
Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck could rest and re-group. Songea, a good farming area, was occupied by the Germans but the strength of
the garrison was not known.
No 1 Company was accompanied by 176 supply porters known
as Tenga Tenga. Thirty five Africans who resided in the Songea area and
who now worked as scouts for Tomlinson’s Intelligence Officer, Captain James
Joseph McCarthy MC, Northern Rhodesia Police, also joined No 1 Company. Northey’s headquarters allocated an officer
to command the supply base at Wiedhaven, another to control the porters and a
third Swahili-speaking officer, Captain
Charles Grey, to join the battalion as an intelligence officer.
On 16th September at Wiedhaven a tactical
landing was made by Captain F.J. Wane with half of No 1 Company and the
scouts. When the area was reported clear
of the enemy the remainder of the troops, porters and supplies were
landed. A German patrol of 10 Askari
commanded by Sergeant Lindemann observed
the landing but did not engage the Rhodesians.
McCarthy set out with his scouts and 20 soldiers to reconnoitre the
track to Songea. Later in the afternoon Tomlinson followed with a main body of
29 Europeans, 165 African soldiers and a column of porters, planning to march
through the night.
However the soldiers and especially the scouts were only
partly-trained and inexperience and apprehension predominated. Around midnight four highly agitated scouts
ran back into the main body shouting that they had fired on a small German-led
patrol. This unsettled the soldiers and
Tomlinson soon halted until dawn in order to avoid walking into an enemy
ambush. He resumed the march at 0530
hours and later that morning caught up with McCarthy who had slowed down
because of nervousness amongst his party.
In fact the Germans were withdrawing ahead of McCarthy’s scouts, and
they did not want a contact as they had demolition tasks to perform on the
That afternoon Tomlinson ordered the signal section to
establish a heliograph post under Sergeant Clegg on the nearby Namusweya
Mountain that had line of sight to Wiedhaven.
As the porters were slowing down due to the hills being climbed the
column was split. Major Addison
commanded the main body whilst Tomlinson moved ahead marching through the night
with an advance party of 3 Europeans, 30 soldiers and McCarthy’s scouts. On the 18th September the advance
party came across bridges that had been burned by the withdrawing enemy and
improvised crossings were made using poles for support. The men gained some rest when a cow was
acquired from local herdsmen and slaughtered for a meal. That afternoon a couple more shots were fired
at the scouts but Tomlinson again pressed on by marching through the night.
Above: British motor transport on a bridge built by South African engineers
Another hot day was spent marching and crossing the Rovuma
River where a key bridge had also been burned, but another rest occurred when
maize was bought from farmers and a hot meal cooked. Hearing that Germans were at the nearby
Mangua Mission Tomlinson advanced there to find nine European Missionaries, 2
male and 7 nuns, plus a large quantity of rations packed into loads for
removal. The rations were very welcome
and the advance party stayed the night at the mission. McCarthy’s scouts brought in news that the
German troops at Songea were marching away.
The following morning, 20th September,
Tomlinson entered Songea after the scouts had established that the garrison of
4 Germans and 30 Askari had moved off towards Likuyu, over 160 kilometres to
the north-east. The Rhodesia Native
Regiment soldiers occupied the small Songea fortified post and brought in the
missionaries with their livestock from Mangua; next morning Addison and his
main body arrived.
No 1 Company and the scouts and porters were exhausted
having speed-marched and climbed over 500 metres to arrive at Songea. The advance party had averaged over 50
kilometres distance per day. Tomlinson
improved the Songea defences and commenced an intensive local patrol programme
that went out as far as Kitanda and the Mbarangandu River. Local farmers came in to exchange cattle and
produce for measures of cloth that had been brought for trading purposes. The signals section established more
heliograph posts and gained contact with its isolated detachment on Namusweya
Mountain, putting Tomlinson in touch with Wiedhaven and through that base to
Northey’s headquarters. Local chiefs
came in to accept British authority and request that the destroyed bridges be
re-built, which also was one of Tomlinson’s priorities. The Germans had no field companies in the
area and they had been caught off-balance by the landing at Wiedhaven and the
advance on Songea, but they started to plan a retaliation.
No 2 Company of
the Rhodesia Native Regiment goes into action
Meanwhile back at New Langenburg Carbutt continued
training No 2 Company and the machine gun teams. But as German troops from Tabora descended
onto the British lines of communication (see: HERE)
Northey had to deploy No 2 Company onto guarding supply dumps. On 11th October 1916 Carbutt was
ordered to march with his men and 4 machine guns to garrison New Utengule. When a detachment of 29 Field Company came
into the area two of Carbutt’s platoons pursued it to Buhora and occupied that
locality. Another platoon was used as
escorts on motor convoys moving between Buhora and Malangali.
On 23rd October one of the Buhora platoons
commanded by Lieutenant William Benzies was entrenched at the village of
Maborgoro when it was attacked by German troops commanded by Major Max Wintgens
. Benzies had with him 3 European
sergeants and 18 soldiers, and he had been ordered to dig in and await further
orders. A circular firing position was
dug using farmers’ hoes, the only digging implements issued, and the machine
gun was placed in the centre. A German
field company approached through the bush at the rear of the position and
attacked at 0800 hours. The defenders
fought for six hours until the machine gun was hit in the breech, jamming
it. The platoon was then surrounded by
enemy Askari appearing out of the smoke of a bush fire that had started. Three privates, Sikoti, Mangwana and Bidu,
were killed and Corporal Zakeyo, the machine gunner, was wounded along with
Sergeants Childs and Merrington. Benzies
and the remainder of his platoon were taken prisoner. The Germans had lost several men killed and
their Askari wanted vengeance, and if Benzies had not surrendered then it is
likely that there would have been few if any Rhodesian survivors.
Above: Map of the area around Malangali.
In early November enemy units under Major General Kurt
Wahle threatened a British supply base at Malangali. The base was not on the rocky ground that had
been defended when the British first seized Malangali (see: HERE ) but
was in a hollow overlooked by higher ground.
The only infantry troops at Malangali were 50 men of the 2nd South African Rifles
under Captain Tom Marriott, and so Carbutt was ordered to send from Buhora men
and machine guns under Lieutenant William Baker to strengthen the garrison;
this brought Marriott’s strength up to 100 men and 2 machine guns. Malangali had to be held because it was the
base that the South African troops in Iringa depended upon.
The defence of
On 7th November Wahle’s scouts were observing
the British position at Malangali and the next day an attack using artillery
and machine guns began. The British
telegraph line was cut and fire was directed into the perimeter from all
sides. On the 9th more German
troops under Captain Erich von Langenn-Steinkeller joined Wahle and bayonet
assaults began. A German shell from one of the British naval guns captured at
Ngominyi set the supply dump alight, burning rations and illuminating the
British position during the hours of darkness.
The Germans mounted three assaults but all were repulsed with loss to
the attackers. The machine guns of the
Rhodesia Native Regiment were handled well and their fire prevented the German
troops from breaking into the perimeter.
But Northey was arranging infantry support utilising the
roads that South African engineers and African labour had just completed from
New Langenburg towards Iringa and Lupembe.
Components for 50 light Hupmobile and Ford lorries had arrived in
Nyasaland where they had been assembled.
These cars were driven to Lupembe where they arrived to join Murray’s
Rhodesian Column late on the 8th September. Next morning at dawn 100 men of the British
South Africa Police, 30 men of the Northern Rhodesia Police and 4 machine guns
drove to within 3 kilometres of Malangali where they debussed and bivouacked
for the night. Murray sent the vehicles
back to Buhora for supplies. Meanwhile
Captain Charles Henry Fair, Northern Rhodesia Police, had been marching for two
days with his company towards Malangali from the east. Fair arrived in the area on the 8th
but he was unaware of Murray’s intended arrival by motor transport. Both Fair and Murray assessed that Wahle’s
force was too strong for a successful British attack.
A turning point in the battle came when Wahle learned that
one of his companies to the east had made contact with German troops under
Major Georg Kraut who had withdrawn away from the British forces in the Kidatu
region, south of Morogoro on the Central Railway. Wahle then prepared to march with the bulk of
his troops to join Kraut, leaving the 26th Field Company to contain
Malangali and hopefully starve it into surrender.
Above: A Tenga Tenga convoy leaves Wiedhaven
After reconnoitering separately for 24 hours Fair and
Murray discovered each other and joined forces.
On 12th September, the fifth day of the Malangali siege, a
successful attack was made on the 26th Field Company which by now
was withdrawing to be Wahle’s rearguard.
Losing only 4 men wounded, Murray & Fair killed 2 Germans and 9
Askari, and captured 7 Germans, 10 Askari, 72 porters, 1 machine gun, 39 cattle
and 15 donkeys and mules. The abortive
siege of Malangali had ended with a total loss to the Germans of 38
casualties. A lone British aeroplane had
appeared in the sky on 12th November and with rudimentary bombs it
engaged the enemy. This alarmed the
German Askari but cheered up the British troops at Malangali.
Within the perimeter the Rhodesia Native Regiment had lost
Private Mbujane killed by a sniper shot to the head and 2 men had been
wounded. One other defender had been
killed and 2 others wounded. These light
losses can be attributed to well-constructed trenches and fire positions and to
sound management of the defensive battle.
Captain Tom Marriott, South African Rifles, was later awarded a Military Cross:
For conspicuous gallantry during an enemy attack on the garrison which
he was commanding. The attacking force, with artillery, was far superior in
number, but by Capt. Marriott's energy in organising the defence and by his
fine example of coolness and courage he held the post and repulsed three enemy
assaults at close quarters, inflicting severe losses on the enemy.
Marriott, who had been wounded and
evacuated as a casualty from the first battle of Malangali on 24th-25th
July, was only there for the siege because he was passing through from hospital
to re-join his unit. As the German threat
became apparent Northey sent a telegram on 2nd November ordering
Marriott to command the post at Malangali.
Of the Rhodesia Native Regiment defenders Marriott praised Lieutenant
William Baker and Sergeant Major William John Carr, who was later commissioned. Both Baker and Carr were later awarded the
French Croix de Guerre. Another man who had pleased Marriott
during the defence was Sergeant Frederick Charles Booth, who was soon to become
the most famous member of the Rhodesia Native Regiment. All three men were to be Mentioned in Despatches.
Whilst Marriott did not mention the Rhodesian soldiers, Baker in his
report did, stating: “The native troops
reserved their fire and took good aim, whilst the fire control generally
exercised was of a high order. The
maxims were most efficiently worked and were the main factors in each instance
in breaking up the attack”.
Activities around Songea
Further south in Songea Tomlinson and No 1 Company,
although still without machine guns, were actively patrolling with McCarthy’s
scouts. This intense patrolling paid
dividends as the British presence was welcomed by local villagers who had
endured hardship in the past when the Germans conscripted porters and
requisitioned crops. A steady supply of
sound information started coming in from the local people. Most patrols were commanded by Europeans but
Tomlinson started tasking two literate African non commissioned officers as
commanders. These were Corporals Lita
and Tanganyika, and both men performed well at penetrating enemy-dominated
areas and at sending written reports back to Tomlinson. Other useful patrol commanders were Corporals
Salima, Juma and Paisha. Lita,
Tanganyika and Salima each captured prisoners who provided good information on
German movements and intentions.
By the end of October it was evident that German strength
in the area was increasing as British patrols were being pushed back down the
roads from Likuyu and Kitanda, and four Rhodesian soldiers were killed. Tomlinson was ordered by Northey to hold
Songea at all costs. The Rhodesia Native
Regiment improved the defences of Songea fort by demolishing houses that
blocked fields of fire and by digging more surrounding trenches. Barbed wire left behind by the Germans was
erected outside the perimeter.
Regimental Sergeant Major Usher was tasked with getting more stocks of
reserve ammunition up the track from Wiedhaven.
As villagers reported that German patrols were searching for the British
“lights”, the four isolated heliograph relay stations linking Songea to
Wiedhaven were permitted to withdraw if enemy troops approached them. A party of 200 porters brought in stocks of
grain from the nearby Peramiho Mission, and within the Songea perimeter every
available container was filled with water.
from South Africa
Smuts, further north in German East Africa,
appreciated the weakness in the Songea area and he sent down an infantry
battalion to reinforce Northey’s command.
The unit chosen was the 5th
South African Infantry under Lieutenant Colonel John Joseph Byron CMG. Byron moved from Morogoro to Dar Es Salaam where he embarked his men on 16th
October. However disease and casualties
had reduced the battalion to a total of only 150 men, and the troopship was
sent to Durban
to take on board 600 recruits before it sailed north again to disembark the
strengthened battalion at Chinde.
Unfortunately many of these white South African recruits were barely
trained, and many men had been enlisted without stringent medical
examinations. Both these factors were to
present Byron with problems in the field.
The German attack
Von Lettow had ordered two groups of troops to co-operate
in re-taking Songea. At Kitanda Captain
Walter von Falkenstein was to advance with the 12th Field Company
and the former Songea garrison. At
Likuyu Major Gideon von Grawert was to advance with the 7th Schutzen
Company of German reservists and the Penzel’s Detachment. Von Grawert was appointed to command the
attack on Songea.
On 11th November von Falkenstein’s troops
approached Songea whilst one of his patrols successfully ambushed a British
re-supply column on the Wiedhaven track.
The porters dropped the four-days’ supply of rations that they were
carrying and ran into Songea. Perhaps
due to misinformation from local villagers von Falkenstein had come to believe
that the British garrison was weak and ill-trained. But he was also an impatient man and he did
not wait for von Grawert but attacked at first light on 12th November
with his 180 men and one machine gun.
The German attack came in from the south-east just as the Rhodesia
Native Regiment “stood to” in an alert position in their trenches. The German machine gun jammed after firing a
few bursts and from then on both sides depended upon the weight and accuracy of
their rifle fire. The advantage lay with
the defenders as von Falkenstein had lost the element of surprise.
Whilst engaging the withdrawing enemy machine gunners
Captain Wane was shot in the shoulder, whilst a drummer in the regimental band,
Private Rupea, was shot dead when defending the eastern section of the
perimeter. A number of villagers and
porters added confusion to the battlefield by getting shot as they ran to jump
into the Rhodesian trenches. A party of
German troops entered a hospital building that overlooked the trenches and so
Sergeant Charles Craxton and 4 soldiers ran forward 350 metres to set the roof
of the building alight. The enemy party
hastily evacuated the building. For this
gallantry Craxton later received a Military
Around noon von Grawert arrived on the scene and with a
machine gun firing effectively in support his more than 200 men he attacked
from the north and east. But the Germans
could not suppress the Rhodesian rifle fire or the rifle grenades that the
defenders fired. The attackers failed to
get through the barbed wire and into the British trenches. At dusk, with his ammunition stocks running
low, von Grawert withdrew 3 kilometres to Unangwa Hill that overlooked Songea. Von Falkenstein and 7 Askari were dead and
another officer and 12 Askari had been wounded.
The Rhodesians had taken one more casualty, Private Chewa, who had
received a head wound.
During the next four days both sides patrolled against and
sniped at each other. Von Grawert
withdrew a further 10 kilometres to Nyambengo and did not attempt to disrupt
the Rhodesian heliograph link, and so Tomlinson learned that a relief force of
South African infantry was on its way.
The Signals Sergeant responsible for maintaining the heliograph link,
L.C. Symonds, was to later be Mentioned
in Despatches and to receive a French Medaille
On 18th November violent thunderstorms
delivered heavy rainfalls that flooded the trenches as well as negating the
heliographs, and at 1130 hours von Grawert used this opportune weather to
attack again from the north, but his men were pushed back after ten minutes of
fighting. Patrolling then continued in
which M.15 Corporal Lita was prominent.
He later received an Imperial Distinguished Conduct Medal:
For conspicuous gallantry in action on many occasions. His example and
influence with his men is incalculable. Byron and 350 men of his 5th
South African Infantry with 2 machine guns arrived at Songea on 24th November
and German activity in the area decreased.
Byron took over command of the garrison.
Tomlinson could be proud of the
performance of his men and their European officers and sergeants. All ranks had exercised good fire discipline
using only rifles and grenades and this had resulted in controlled conservation
of ammunition and a successful defence with minimal casualties. The Rhodesia Native Regiment, both at Songea
and further north at Malangali, had come to terms with the enemy and
battlefield conditions, and the unit’s self-confidence and morale was
high. But tougher marches and battles
(A few weeks after their capture
at Maborgoro William Benzies and his men either escaped or were allowed to
leave captivity, and they rejoined the British forces.)
o 1st Rhodesia
Native Regiment – some reminiscences by Lt
Col A.J. Tomlinson, Commanding
Officer, a series of articles published in the Rhodesian Defence
Force Journal from May 1919 to September 1920 and collated by C.E. Rogers in
o Official History. Military Operations East
Africa. Volume I. August
1914 – September 1916.
o Draft Chapter XII to the unpublished
Volume II of the Official History.
Military Operations East Africa. (CAB
44/4 in the UK
o Frontier Patrols by
Colonel Colin Harding CMG, DSO.
The history of the Rhodesian African Rifles and its forerunner, the
Rhodesia Native Regiment by Alexandre Binda.
o No Insignificant Part. The Rhodesia Native Regiment and the East
Africa Campaign of the First World War by Timothy J.
o Ragtime Soldiers. The Rhodesian experience in the First World
War by Peter McLaughlin.
o The History of the Northern
Rhodesia Police by Tim Wright.
o The Empire at War, Volume IV by Sir
Charles Lucas KCB, KCMG.