Lake Victoria, German East Africa, 6th
In December 1915 Britain
and Belgium were making
plans to invade German East Africa (GEA, now Tanzania). British troops would advance from Uganda, British East Africa (BEA, now Kenya), Nyasaland (Malawi)
and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia)
whilst their ally advanced from the Belgian Congo (Democratic Republic of the Congo).
(Maps of the area in which the Action took place can be found HERE)
In order to occupy German attention the Belgians requested
that the British make diversionary moves on the western side of Lake Victoria. The
British consented and planned two operations, a crossing of the Kagera River
south of the Ugandan border with GEA, and the temporary occupation of the
Lubembe peninsula south of Bukoba in GEA.
This peninsula forms the south side of Kemondo Bay. A company of the Indian Army regiment the 98th
Infantry was chosen for the latter operation, and it was to be transported and
supported with gunfire by the Royal Navy Lake Flotilla.
Right: HMS Winifred at Kisumu
The Lake Flotilla
During 1914 and 1915 the British had secured control of
Lake Victoria by arming the civilian passenger and goods vessels that steamed
their way between Kisumu in BEA and ports in Uganda. Royal Navy sailors were sent up by train from
Mombasa on the Indian Ocean
coast to supplement the local African crews, along with a variety of weapons
that were fitted to the decks of the steamers.
Selected European civilian officers on the vessels were commissioned
into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.
Three steamers were tasked with supporting the 98th
Infantry’s occupation of the Lubembe peninsula:
HMSWinifred – a twin-screw 600-tons
passenger ferry armed with one 4-inch gun, one 12-pounder gun and one machine
HMS Nyanza – a single-screw 1000-tons cargo vessel
armed with one 4-inch gun, one 6-pounder gun and one machine gun.
HMSKavirondo – a tugboat armed with one
12-pounder gun, one 3-pounder gun and a machine gun.
Above: Kemondo Bay and its entrances on a wet day
The 98th Infantry had been despatched to East Africa as part of Indian Expeditionary Force “B”
which initially landed at Tanga in GEA in November 1914. The 98th was a Class Company
Regiment, 25% of the sepoys were Ahirs from the Eastern
Punjab and the remainder were equal numbers of Rajputs and
Hindustani Musulmans. Although holding
the Battle Honour China
1900 the regiment had on that campaign not moved beyond Hong
Kong, and it had not seen active service since that date. Machine guns were not issued to the 98th
until just before embarkation for East Africa.
At Tanga the 98th Infantry did not flee as
others did, but when ordered to advance it chose to lie down and not become
closely engaged with the enemy, and thus the Regiment was regarded as being
unreliable. After the evacuation from
Tanga the 98th was employed on guarding the Uganda Railway, and then
was deployed to north-western BEA and the Lake Victoria
region. There the Commanding Officer,
Lieutenant Colonel Colin Campbell Renton, shot himself on the 2nd
September 1915; the unit war diary described the fatality as an accident that
occurred whilst hunting game. Lieutenant
Colonel D.R. Adye was appointed as the new Commanding Officer. During 1915 the 98th appears to
have regained confidence in itself as detachments fought minor skirmishes with
In December 1915 the 98th Infantry had “E”
Company commanded by Lieutenant D.R. Montford located at Kisumu. “E” Company worked with the Lake Flotilla
and provided detachments for vessels, and this company was chosen to occupy the
Lubembe peninsula for two or three days to divert enemy troops away from the
Belgian Congolese border area. Overall
command of this operation was in the hands of the Senior Naval Officer (SNO)
who was aboard HMS Nyanza.
Right: Panel 25 Nairobi British & Indian Memorial
Enemy troops on
the western shore
of Lake Victoria
The Germans operated from a base at Bukoba just to the
north of Kemondo Bay.
From Bukoba enemy troops under Major Willibald von Stuemer were deployed
northwards on the Kagera River line where British troops from Uganda
confronted them. In June 1915 a British
force had successfully raided Bukoba, overcome limited opposition, destroyed a
large communications tower, and then sailed away again. It was assumed that a similar but much
smaller operation could be carried out at Lubembe where it was believed that only
a small German detachment was located.
However the British military planners had not obtained sound
intelligence reports on enemy troop dispositions near Lubembe. Nor had they considered that Willibald von
Stuemer might have learned something from the Bukoba raid, and that his troops
might be better prepared to deal with a British landing in his area.
Above: Lubembe peninsula from the bay shore
On 2nd December Nyanza, Winifred and Kavirondo left Kisumu. The first two vessels were loaded with two
officers and nearly 100 sepoys of “E” Company 98th Infantry, plus
100 porters who were tasked with carrying stores and ammunition off the landing
beach. A Royal Navy landing party with
two .450-inch machine guns accompanied the sepoys. The vessels lay off the Ugandan shore at Sango Bay
for two nights and then steamed south, passing Bukoba and Lubembe in an
attempted deception plan that may not have succeeded. They then took cover behind the uninhabited Bukerebe Island.
At dawn on 6th December the ships entered Kemondo Bay and approached the chosen landing
beach on the north side of Lubembe Point.
There are three main features on the Lubembe peninsula which had been
named Hills A, B, and C, the latter being the highest. The plan was to seize Hill B, bombard Hill C
and seize it, and to dig in on the summit of Hill C for two or three days. An orderly evacuation would then take place,
as it was believed that the Germans would be too weak to interfere with the
Left: Kemondo Bay and Lupembe Peninsula. Hills A, B and C can be seen as marked
The naval guns bombarded trenches that were seen above the
beach, and also a redoubt that was observed further along the shore of the
bay. At 0645 hours the troops were moved
to the beach in six ships’ boats that were towed by a motor launch.
Enemy rifle fire wounded two sepoys in the
boats. From the shore Lieutenant A.J. St
Leger-Hansard led a section of sepoys up Hill B, but he was opposed by two
platoons of enemy riflemen firing from a knoll on the slopes of the hill. Four sepoys were hit by German rifle fire
before Hill B was secure. The German
reservist Lieutenant Koller was defending Kenondo Bay
with 50 Askari, and he fiercely resisted the British landing. Perhaps his men were alert because of the
previous day’s sighting of the British steamers.
Lieutenant Montford then wheeled right with the remainder
of his company and advanced on Hill C.
The ground was a mixture of banana plantation and rocky bush, but the
Company Commander and his men gained the summit and occupied it. However Montford had been wounded, along with
eleven sepoys. Montford’s wound was a
shot through the thigh, but he refused to be evacuated and used a stick as a support. His presence on the battlefield was later to
be a crucial factor in averting disaster.
Above: The high ground behind Kemondo Bay
The naval machine gunners left their carriages behind and
quickly moved their weapons up on both flanks of Hill C just as a German
counter-attack developed. The concerted
fire of the two .450-inch guns deterred the enemy Askari who retired into thick
bush on the hill’s lower slopes. This attack
had got to within 200 metres of the sepoys’ hastily-dug trenches. Naval gunfire was then concentrated on enemy
riflemen firing from the redoubt; whilst this was happening gangs of porters
cut a path from Hill B to Hill C. Tools,
greatcoats, sepoys’ personal kits and ammunition reserves were landed on the
beach. Winifred moved to the south side of the peninsula where she hoped
to suppress enemy movement along that flank.
But by now more of Koller’s men were moving forward to
disappear into the bush below Hill C.
The naval gunfire could not be relied upon to stop an enemy attack that
the gunners could not see until it had been launched. Meanwhile enemy snipers were wounding more
men, including Lieutenant St Leger-Hansard.
At 1100 hours Montford signalled his feeling of insecurity to the
SNO. He felt that he could stay on the
hill but that future evacuation might be extremely dangerous.
The SNO decided that the forceful German reaction signified
that the mission had been achieved, albeit in a much shorter time than had been
anticipated. The order for evacuation
was given and stores, personal kits and porters were embarked in an orderly
A further 200 or more enemy troops were then seen marching
down the road from Bukoba to Kemondo
Bay. This was a detachment of 120 Askari from the
Bukoba garrison under Captain Louis von Brandis, accompanied by a group of Ruga
Ruga irregular Askari. The Kavirondo was the only vessel carrying
shrapnel ammunition and she was tasked to engage these troops. The German arrivals were observed understandably
rushing into the bush to seek cover from the shrapnel. Half of “E” Company then withdrew from Hill C
to Hill B. One .450-inch gun was
embarked whilst the other maintained a position above the beach, however German
guns then came into action. A 4.7-centimetre
enemy gun engaged the .450-inch machine gun until a 4-inch lyddite shell from Nyanza scored a hit on the German gun
position. Then a 6-centimetre gun came
into action from above the redoubt, and the enemy small-arms fire increased in
volume. “E” Company continued its
tactical withdrawal back to the beach.
An enemy machine gun opened up from the shoreline but fortunately the
landing cove was in dead ground to the German gunner, and could not be observed
Left: Panel 24 Nairobi British & Indian Memorial
infantry and naval machine gunners
been ordered back to the north side of the peninsula and she was protecting the
evacuation from the beach. Three of the
ships’ boats were with Winifred,
having evacuated the porters and stores, whilst three more boats were on the
beach. These latter three boats were
loaded with the infantry and naval machine gunners and were waiting for the
motor launch to return and take them in tow.
At that point the motor launch broke down.
The two wounded infantry officers, the naval machine gun
officer and the Beach Master, plus the three sailors of the machine gun crew,
split themselves amongst the three boats and started rowing to the safety of
the ships. As soon as they rounded the
rocks along the shore the German fire intensified. The first boat got to the Winifred with two men killed and four
wounded. The second boat got to safety
with unrecorded casualties, but the third boat had her oarsmen hit and started
The Winifred and
Kavirondo approached to within 200
metres of the shore to provide fire support whilst the Nyanza fired from deeper water.
An enemy 6-centimetre shell struck Winifred
wounding several men. Lieutenant Robert
Aslin, Royal Naval Reserve and HMS
Hyacinth, was mortally wounded by a bullet as he attempted to throw a line
from Kavirondo to the third
boat. Finally Winifred got a line to the drifting boat and then at 1600 hours she
towed all six of the ships’ boats out of the bay, two of them by this time
Above: The Nyanza, still in service on Lake Victoria !
A close run thing
The SNO had made the correct decision at the right moment
and “E” Company and its supporting personnel had got away in the nick of
time. The naval gun fire had proved to
be decisive in limiting German fire and movement until all the British troops
were evacuated. Winifred had borne the brunt of the enemy fire and she was chipped
by enemy bullets from stem to stern.
The British diversion plan had worked for a few hours but
at a cost. The 98th Infantry
had lost four men killed, two officers and 29 men wounded and one man wounded
and taken prisoner. It is likely that at
least one wounded man died later. Two
naval machine gunners were wounded as well as the casualties that occurred
amongst the crews of the vessels.
The German account of the fight states that one Askari and
one porter were killed and that three Askari, two Ruga Ruga and one German
reservist, Chief Pharmacist Held, were wounded.
The British reaction to the operation appears to be one of embarrassment
covered by fabrication, as an entry in the Nairobi Headquarters War Diary
claimed that the Germans had suffered severe casualties. The British Official History claims that “the
affair was magnified by the enemy into a German victory”. The unofficial Royal Navy account claimed
that the Germans took over 100 casualties including six Germans killed. Whilst enemy casualty figures may have been
understated the Germans had won decisively on the battlefield, forcing a
British evacuation 48 hours before it had been anticipated.
Robert Aslin lies buried in Entebbe European Cemetery, Uganda. The dead sepoys lie in unmarked graves in the
African bush and are commemorated on the Nairobi British and Indian Memorial, Kenya. The German dead also lie somewhere in the
African bush and they are commemorated by a memorial adjacent to the
Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Moshi in Tanzania.
In the Spring of 1916 the 98th Infantry and the
worked together during the clearing of the enemy from Lake
Victoria and in the advance south towards the GEA Central
Railway. During the advance sailors from
the Flotilla dismounted some of their guns and placed them on wheeled
(Gratitude is expressed to Per Finsted of Denmark for his accurate
translation of German text.)
Africa. August 1914 to
September 1916 compiled by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hordern (pages
224 – 225).
Infantry War Diary for 6th December 1915 plus Montford’s report (WO95/5333) ·
Nairobi Area HQ War Diary for 9th
December 1915 (WO95/5360). ·
Die Operationen in Ostafrika by Ludwig Boell.
The Battle of Tanga 1914 by
Annual Army List for 1915 and
Medal Index Cards.
Backwater. Lake Victoria Nyanza during
the campaign against German East Africa an article in the
Naval Review, Vol IX No 2, May 1921.
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