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The EK1

The two German ships that eluded the Royal Navy and brought welcome weapons and supplies to the German Army in East Africa during 1915 and 1916

Above: Colonial era buildings at Sudi Bay

Harry has supplied some fantastic photographs of the area today. To see them, maps of the area and further illustrations plese click


During the Great War the German High Command in Europe did not forget its Schutztruppe, as the overseas force was named in German East Africa (GEA), now named Tanzania.  The local commander in GEA, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, put up a determined, professional and valiant resistance to Allied invasions from several directions – seaborne from India, plus land intrusions from Uganda, British East Africa (BEA), (now Kenya), the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Nyasaland (now Malawi), and Portuguese East Africa (PEA), (now Mozambique). 

Von Lettow’s admirable fighting ability dissipated Allied war efforts, particularly in the allocation of shipping, away from other more important theatres and Berlin was determined to keep the Schutztruppe in the field and fully operational.  To this end two successful naval re-supply efforts got through to GEA, defying the British naval blockade of that territory’s coastline, whilst a later re-supply attempt by air was aborted.

The arrival of the Rubens

On 14th April 1915 the British-built cargo ship Rubens, of 3,587 tons, operated by the German navy under Oberleutnant zur See der Reserve Carl Christiansen (Right), arrived in Manza Bay, 16 kilometres north of Tanga in GEA which itself is 130 kilometres south of Mombasa, the main port in BEA.  The Rubens had been impounded by the Germans at Hamburg on the outbreak of war and she was now disguised as the Danish steamer Kronberg.  However the arrival was not without incident and high drama. 

British naval intelligence was aware of the approach of the Rubens and the Royal Navy Flagship of the Cape Station, HMS Hyacinth, was alerted.  At that time Hugh Boustead was a Midshipman aboard the Hyacinth and he later wrote that the intelligence report said that a cargo ship carrying timber and flying a Scandinavian flag would be at a certain position at a certain time, and that under the timber were arms and ammunition for the German troops in GEA; the Hyacinth’s mission was to intercept and capture this ship. 

Hyacinth diligently plotted her course and arrived at an interception point just before the appointed time; the Admiral, Captain, Commander and crew then all searched the horizons, but there was no sign of another vessel.  After 30 minutes the Navigator became agitated and checked his position to discover that he had made an error placing the Hyacinth around 25 sea-miles south of where she should be.  Whilst the Navigator and Captain were almost speechless with shock about the damage to their professional careers the Flagship steamed swiftly to where she should have been.  A further signal from naval intelligence advised that the enemy ship would be entering Mansa Bay at 0600 hours the following morning.

(British naval intelligence was intercepting signals between the Rubens and German shore radio stations such as at Bukoba on Lake Victoria, as well as with the German cruiser Konigsberg that was in the Rufiji Delta further south in GEA.)

Next morning Hyacinth spotted the Rubens entering Manza Bay to pick up a pilot, and engaged her with 6-inch guns; meanwhile the crew of the Rubens abandoned ship and rowed ashore to the shelter of mangrove swamps.  The Hyacinth gunners blasted Rubens for over an hour and sent a boarding party to seize the hulk, but the party returned having been machine gunned by Schutztruppe Askari positioned on the beach, to report that boarding was not possible because of a fierce fire raging on deck.  Satisfied that the mission had been accomplished, and with one of her two engines now broken down, Hyacinth departed from Manza Bay for Zanzibar and declared victory. 

Above: Rubens scuttled in Mansa Bay

But Carl Christiansen, who was wounded by shrapnel fired from Hyacinth as he rowed to shore, had successfully deceived his enemy.  As part of his deception plan he had scuttled Rubens in shallow water and started a deck fire using petrol.  His cargo was intact although part of it was under water.  (The Royal Navy Official History mentions the shelling of the Rubens but ignores the fact that her cargo was not seized or destroyed.) 

Salvaging the Rubens German military efficiency now took over and unhindered by any British military action – which in itself represented a serious intelligence failure – the cargo of the Rubens was recovered apart from 1,450 tonnes of prime Westphalian coal that had been destined for the Konigsberg.  Divers from the Konigsberg assisted in the salvage operations. Items recovered were: ·       

1,800 Mauser rifles. ·       
4,500,000 rifle and machine gun rounds. ·       
Two 6-centimetre guns. ·       
Four machine guns. ·       
1,000 rounds of 10.5-centimetre (4.1-inch) naval gun ammunition. ·       
500 rounds of 8.8-centimetre naval gun ammunition. ·       
3,000 rounds of 6-centimetre gun ammunition. ·       
3,000 rounds of 3.7-centimetre gun ammunition. ·       
One ton of Trinitroanysol explosive. ·       
200 tents. ·       
Telegraph and telephone material, medical supplies, machine tools, cutting torches, military clothing, provisions and many other minor items.

Above: Salvaging the cargo of the Rubens in Mansa Bay

The landing of this cargo was both important militarily in that it gave the Schutztruppe a much-enhanced weapons capability, especially the modern smokeless rifles that allowed expansion of rifle companies, and also for German morale in the colony.  The Fatherland had looked after its own.  Kapitan-Leutnant Carl Christiansen and his 30 sailors were welcome and popular additions to the pool of German military manpower.

At first the British ignored reports of this dramatic German re-supply coup, and when enemy cartridge cases were recovered from the field with 1915 stamped onto them it was believed that they had reached the Schutztruppe via PEA, then a neutral territory.  It was only when the British raided Bukoba in late June 1915 and released a British internee named Munro that the truth was accepted, as Munro had been advised by his German captors of the recovery of the Rubens’ cargo.

Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s only major problem was with the reliability of the small arms ammunition that had been under water (the heavier ammunition had been well-packaged to resist water intrusion).   The problem was tackled by allocating all existing small arms rounds already in GEA for machine gunnery.  The newly-arrived cartridges were stripped down on a rudimentary production line in Tanga and the powder was cleaned and some of the firing caps replaced.  The results of batch-tests then decided whether a round was issued to rifle companies for operations (20% or lower mis-fires) or for training (over 20% mis-fires).

Above: Crew members from the Rubens ashore in Tanga

The arrival of the Marie

On 16th March 1916 a second German blockade-running supply ship successfully evaded the Royal Navy and landed at Sudi Bay, GEA, a few kilometres west of the Rovuma River that marked the border with PEA.  This was the Sperrbrecher 15, re-named the Marie; the vessel had departed from Hamburg on 16th January.  Her skipper, Leutnant zur See der Reserve Conrad Sorenson (Below Right), had maintained complete radio silence during the voyage.  (Sorensen, like Christiansen, was a Dane from the Southern Jutland region that had become part of Germany after a war between the two countries in 1864.)

As she slipped into Sudi Bay, a river-mouth creek that soon dog-legs into areas of plantations, the local German shore defences opened fire fearing that she was British, but friendly contact was quickly established.  Whilst the crew of the Marie was given baskets of local fruit the German District Commander in nearby Lindi, Leutnant Hinrichs (formerly First Officer of the Konigsberg) arrived on a bicycle accompanied by Hauptman (army Captain) Paul Kaiser.  These two officers and their fellow administrators in GEA swiftly and efficiently mobilised scores of thousands of African labourers not only for unloading the cargo but also for hauling and carrying it up to Dar Es Salaam, the GEA capital.

As a substitute for a dock floating platforms for unloading were constructed from shore to ship, and a haulage route was cut through the bush to join the dirt road leading north to Dar Es Salaam.  It took ten days to fully unload the Marie and move the cargo ashore and the final tally of items discharged was:

·        Four modern 10.5-centimetre Howitzers.
·        Two 7.5-centimetre Mountain Guns.
·        2,000 modern rifles.
·        Six machine guns with telescopic sights.
·        3,000,000 rounds of assorted ammunition.
·        200 kilograms of quinine (to fight the ever-present malaria).
·        50,000 pre-packed porter loads containing uniforms, food, equipment, medical supplies, and comforts such as sweets.
·        A quantity of decorations and military awards.  These were particularly useful to von Lettow for raising morale and maintaining esprit de corps within the Schutztruppe.

Also landed from the Marie was a detachment of professional artillerymen led by Hauptman Roland von Kaltenborn-Stachau; von Lettow was to make excellent use of these gunners and their guns for the duration of the war.

The arrival of HMS Hyacinth

Eventually British intelligence was alerted to the presence of the Marie and Hyacinth came to investigate, bombarding Marie’s presumed location.  Hyacinth’s bombardment resulted in five major hits and 100 minor hits on Marie.  However because the tide was out Marie was canted over on one side in a creek and thus avoided serious damage, and ten days of non-stop repair work made her seaworthy. 

Left: HMS Hyacinth canted to use guns inland

On 11th April 1916 six British warships returned and fired over 300 shells during a three-hour action.  To assist in fire direction two whalers, Childers and Echo, were sent into Sudi Bay.  The shore defences engaged the whalers and the British sailors had a hectic time, Echo being holed by three 4.1-inch shells.  Later a Distinguished Service Order was awarded to Commander Henry Dalrymple Bridges, Royal Navy, with the citation:

Commander Bridges proceeded into Sudi Harbour with two whalers on the llth April, 1916, and remained under fire with his vessels in a very hot corner, spotting the fall of shot from H.M.S. Hyacinth to enable her to destroy a store ship which was in the harbor.  In order to reach the requisite position the whalers were obliged to run up a narrow harbour, where they were confronted with a heavy fire from 4-in. guns at close range.  

Lieutenant Herbert Keer Case, Royal Naval Reserve, was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross:

Lieutenant Case was in command of one of the whalers which proceeded into Sudi Harbour on the llth April, 1916, and handled his vessel under fire in the confined waters of the harbour with great skill and gallantry. His quiet and calm behaviour set a perfect example to those under him.

Boatswain John Park Mortimer, Royal Navy, also received a Distinguished Service Cross:  

 Mr. Mortimer was in one of the whalers which entered Sudi Harbour on the llth April, 1916, and gave every assistance to his Captain, encouraging the guns' crews, making good spotting corrections, and rendering first aid readily and efficiently to the wounded.  

Seaman Lawrence J. Walsh, Royal Naval Reserve, O.N.2131, received a Conspicuous Gallantry Medal:  

In recognition of his services in one of the whalers which entered Sudi Harbour on the llth April, 1916. He continued to steer the whaler after being seriously wounded, his leg being badly shattered, until out of range of gun fire, when it was possible to remove the conning tower plates and relieve him.

Above Right: Distinguished Service Cross

Amazingly Marie had not been hit, although four crew members had been killed and four others had been wounded.  On the night of 23rd April the ship slipped out of Sudi Bay and sailed north close to the shore.  When shallows were reached Hinrichs and Leutnant Sprockhoff, also a former member of the Konigsberg’s crew, sailed ahead in a dhow and guided Marie into deeper water.  Sorensen then steamed away from the British blockading squadron to Batavia, now named Jakarta, in neutral Dutch Java, now an Indonesian island.  (The Royal Navy Official History makes no mention whatsoever of the Marie incident.)

The Fatherland had looked after its own again.  The Schutztruppe possessed new and potent weapons and Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck could proudly wear his recently-awarded Iron Cross, 1st and 2nd Class.

Above: The mouth of Sudi Bay

Once again the British did not wish to believe the scale of this second German re-supply coup, but their Chief Scout, Peter Pretorious, observed an enemy Field Company making extensive use of ammunition on an improvised bush firing range.  He later wrote:

 We had slept on a big, isolated hill – a good spot from which to make observations. At sundown I had seen a big German camp, and so was astir at the first glints of day. To my amazement I saw the Germans come out and start musketry practice with rifles, firing away hundreds of rounds of ammunition at nothing but trees and boulders. This waste of cartridges astounded me, as we had been under the impression that the war would shortly end on account of the enemy’s shortage of ammunition.

I remained on the hill until ten o’clock, watching this surprising spectacle, and when the Germans had retired to camp for breakfast I went down to their “Bisley” and picked up some of the cartridge cases. They were inscribed “Magdeburg 1916”.
Where had all this ammunition come from? I could only surmise that a German or neutral steamer had managed to land on the east coast with supplies, and if that were so it was bad news for us, and meant the prolongation of the campaign

This was followed by intelligence reports of the guns and supplies that were being moved north to Dar Es Salaam.  The new German howitzers were soon in use against the British advance from BEA into GEA.   In late 1917 a German airship flying from Bulgaria attempted to resupply the Schutztruppe, but the mission was aborted whilst the ship was over the Sudan, see: ).

Right: A former seaman from the Rubens now in GEA Schutztruppe uniform.

Endnotes – unplanned Allied assistance to the GEA Schutztruppe

 After the debacle of the landings at Tanga on 4th and 5th November 1914, Indian Expeditionary Force ‘B’ steamed away leaving on the beach or nearby:

·    455 service rifles.
·    Eight serviceable machine guns plus others that could be cannibalised for parts (the Royal Navy had forbidden the evacuation of machine guns to avoid small-boat damage).
·    Over 500,000 small arms rounds.
.    Telegraph equipment, greatcoats, blankets and uniforms.
·    The substantial officers’ mess stocks of food and wine brought by the 2nd Battalion the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment from India (and doubtless similar stocks brought by other regiments).  

2.     After the Portuguese withdrawal from Newala, GEA, in late November 1916 the following were left behind in good order (see: ):

·        four new 7.6-centimetre mountain guns with ammunition.
·        seven machine guns and a quantity of rifles.
·        100,000 rounds of rifle and machine gun ammunition.
·        two Fiat cars.
·        a wireless station.
·        45 supply carts with horses and mules.
·        An unknown tonnage of provisions and medical supplies.  

3.     After the German invasion of Portuguese East Africa in December 1917 and until the end of the war in November the following year the Schutztruppe experienced few difficulties in seizing Portuguese garrison stocks of weapons and supplies, whenever these were needed.  The rolls of trading cloth taken from these garrison posts were traded with local Africans for food, and the Africans were appreciative of this gesture as the Portuguese tended to commandeer what they wanted without payment.

SOURCES (the most economically-priced copies are listed):

Ø     Official History. East Africa August 1914 to September 1916 compiled by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hordern (Naval & Military Press reprint).

Ø     Official History. Naval Operations Volume III by Sir Julian S. Corbett (Naval & Military Press reprint).

Ø     My Reminiscences of East Africa by General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (Battery Classics reprint).

Ø     The Wind of Morning. An Autobiography by Sir Hugh Boustead (Linden Publishing Company paperback).

Ø     Jungle Man by P.J. Pretorius CMG DSO and Bar (Alexander Books paperback).

Ø     Tip & Run. The Untold Tragedy of the War in Africa by Edward Paice (Phoenix paperback).

Ø     Blockade and Jungle edited by Christen P. Christensen (Battery Press, Nashville).

Ø     Fahrt nach Ostafrica by Knud Knudsen (Otto Lenz, Leipzig 1918).

Ø     Die Operationen in Ostafrika by Ludwig Boell.

(Gratitude is acknowledged to Per Finsted of Denmark who provided detailed information on the two blockade runners and their Captains.)