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The Kionga Triangle and Newala, German East Africa

Portugal and the war

Although Portugal did not enter the war as an Ally until 9th March 1916 this had not deterred Germany from attacking neutral Portuguese posts both in Portuguese West Africa (Angola) and in Portuguese East Africa (PEA – now named Mozambique).   In PEA on 24th August 1914 German Staff Surgeon Doctor Weck led a detachment of Askari across the Rovuma River into Portuguese territory and seized the post at Maziua, 400 kilometres inland from Porto Amelia on the Indian Ocean coast.  The post commander, medical Sergeant Costa, and his Askari garrison were killed.  Weck then returned to German East Africa (GEA) stating that he thought that he had been helping the Portuguese by attacking a rebel garrison.  His government in Berlin apologized to Portugal.

The German aggression resulted in the Portuguese government sending military expeditions from Lisbon to protect Angola and PEA.  Unfortunately the white troops sent to PEA were inadequately trained, poorly equipped and administered for tropical conditions, and often led by officers inexperienced in modern warfare; this resulted in their decimation through tropical and social diseases before they even met the enemy.  Belatedly the PEA military command recruited several new companies of African troops, exactly as the British were doing further to the north.  Many years previously the Germans had realized the value of well-trained and well-officered Askari. Now Portuguese eyes were focused on the Kionga Triangle, and plans were made to seize it.

To see the maps of the area, please go HERE

Above: The Portuguese post at Kionga

The Kionga Triangle

Five hundred and fifty square kilometres of GEA extended across the mouth of the Rovuma River down to Cape Delgado.  This had occurred because of European rivalries during the scramble to colonise Africa.  In the latter part of the 19th Century Britain, Germany, Italy and Portugal negotiated by various means with the Arab Sultan of Zanzibar who claimed possession of the East African coastline.  The Sultan only wished to concede to Portugal land south of the river known as the Minangani that ran into Tungi Bay, but for economic and strategic reasons Portugal wished to also occupy the land running north through Cape Delgado to the Rovuma River.  Germany did not want Portuguese occupation of this triangle of land and worked with England to share all the Sultan’s coastline from the Minangani up to the Juba River in what is now Somalia.

Portugal riposted on 18th February 1887 by ordering the naval ships Afonso de Albuquerque and Douro to bombard Minangani and Tungi for five days.  Portuguese landing parties then secured the land running up to the Rovuma.  This high-handed action resulted in an arbitration between Germany, Britain, Portugal and, in the background, the Sultan of Zanzibar.  The final decision, unacceptable to the Portuguese, allotted Cape Delgado to Portugal but the land north of the Cape was at the Sultan’s disposal, and Germany acquired and occupied it.  Since 1887 Portugal had harboured an injustice at being deprived of the Kionga Triangle.

The seizure of the Kionga Triangle

On the day following the Portuguese declaration of war the local commander at Palmas, Major da Silveira, marched a force of 400 men north into the Kionga Triangle.    His troop composition for the advance was:

·        3 companies of European infantry

·        3 companies of African infantry

·        1 battery of mountain artillery

·        1 battery of machine guns

As only a few German frontier guards were in the triangle da Silveira moved in unopposed and dug defensive positions along the south bank of the Rovuma.

Right: Portuguese  postcard of marines in Africa.

From the north bank of the 1,800 metres-wide river a few small German posts harassed da Silveira’s men with small raids.   The Portuguese decided to clear the north bank of enemy and on 21st May, under covering fire from the cruiser Adamastor and the gunboat Chaimite, marines landed on the north bank and burnt down a sugar factory and other buildings before withdrawing.

Six days later a Portuguese force returned across the river, again under naval covering fire, to permanently garrison the north bank.  However by this time a German detachment from Lindi under the naval Lieutenant Leonhard Sprockhoff had marched down to the Rovuma.  Sprockhoff covertly deployed his 100 men and 2 machine guns and waited until the Portuguese started to disembark from their barges.  Then the German machine gunners fired into the packed enemy ranks, killing 33 men, wounding 24 and capturing 8 including the captain of the Chaimite, along with his and another gunboat.  The battered remnants of the Portuguese landing force went back across the river and stayed there.

There was little action on the Rovuma for the next few months as the Germans had their hands full dealing with the British and Belgian advances into German East Africa from the north, west and south-west.  The Portuguese garrison on the south bank of the river suffered due to the climatic conditions and poor administration, as this account by a Portuguese captain shows:

Above: Portuguese trenches on the south bank of the Rovuma River

The exhausting life on the swampy bank of the Rovuma, with the deleterious effect of an unforgiving climate, the nervous depression caused by the proximity of the enemy, without the compensation of good and regular food drained the strength of almost all the troops, who were reduced to the most abject physical state.  By night, in the trenches and posts and lookouts, there was the humidity, the haze of the rainy season, and the cold; by day, shaking with fever, unable to rest because of the searing heat in the tents, everywhere became a veritable hell.

The young white troops of the Portuguese Expeditionary Forces wilted in the harsh and unforgiving African conditions and wasted away into hospital beds and early graves, or if they were lucky were medically evacuated back to Portugal.

Seizing the north bank of the Rovuma

On the 5th July 1916 Major General Ferreira Gil landed at Palmas, south of Cape Delgado, accompanied by his staff and part of his infantry.  Gil commanded the Portuguese Third Expeditionary Force that had been sent from Lisbon, but he had to wait two months before the remainder of his troops arrived.  His new white soldiers fared no better than the previous expeditionary forces, and by the end of July 845 of Gil’s men had been medically evacuated to the capital Lourenco Marques in the south of PEA. 

The Allied theatre commander, General J.C. Smuts, wanted Gil to advance north into GEA and seize the enemy agricultural areas, but Gil wanted to move up the German coastline, seizing ports and harbours under the covering fire of the Portuguese navy.  The Royal Navy acted first and occupied the southern GEA coastline by mid-September.

Gil moved on the 19th September with three columns crossing the river; he had a total of 2,700 men, 14 mountain guns and 10 machine guns.  At Namoto rafts were used but at Kambire and Nyika the river was waded, it being only around 900 metres wide at these points.  The crossings were unopposed as Sprockhoff’s men had moved further to the west.  The Portuguese hoisted their national flag and camped along the river bank; lack of transport initially prevented a move further inland.

The advance towards Masasi

Gil and Smuts finally agreed on a suitable plan and on the 25th September Gil started an advance on Masasi in GEA.  Captain L. Pinto was sent on a reconnaissance mission with 2 companies of Askari and 2 machine guns.  Pinto marched his men from Migomba along the north bank of the Rovuma through Mayembe and Nichamwe to Mahuta, which he reached on the 4th October.   But Sprockhoff was waiting at Mahuta, and he ambushed Pinto’s column, killing around 14 Portuguese and 53 Askari.  The Germans seized many rifles whilst Pinto retreated back to Kikumbuliro on the Rovuma.  Gil sent two groups of reinforcements to Kikumbuliro.

Above: A Portuguese machine gun post on the Rovuma

On the 18th October Major J. Pires started another advance from Kikumbuliro towards Masasi.  He took with him:

·        4 companies of African infantry

·        2 companies of Portuguese infantry

·        2 batteries of machine guns

·        1 battery of mountain guns

.        a mounted infantry detachment

After skirmishing with German patrols along the route, on 26th October Pires reached Newala Fort, a strong and impressive structure built on the summit of a steep hill at an altitude of 780 metres above sea level.  Whilst halted on the lower slopes of the hill a German gun in the fort suddenly shelled the massed Portuguese troops and porters, causing mayhem for a time.  Pires halted for the night and next morning sent out reconnaissance patrols that discovered that the Germans had withdrawn and the fort was empty.  The Portuguese quickly occupied the fort, but discovered a critical weakness in its defences – the only source of water was from wells dug at a distance of nearly 2.5 kilometres away from the fort.  Pires had to divide his force so that a detachment always garrisoned the wells.

Gil sent up reinforcements by motor lorry, including another company of Portuguese infantry.  A new commander arrived, Major Leopoldo da Silva, and he pushed on north to Kivambo, leaving garrisons at the fort and the wells.  But again Sprockhoff was waiting for the Portuguese, and after several hours of fighting on the 8th November da Silva was killed.  His successor, Major A. da Cunha, decided to withdraw to Newala

The German attack on Newala

When the commander of the German Schutztruppe, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, received news from Sprockhoff of the Portuguese move towards Masasi he organized reinforcements for the area.  Captain Max Looff, former commander of the cruiser Konigsberg, commanded the reinforcements and he reached Masasi from Utete on the 8th October.  He was joined by 2 platoons of the 20th Field Company from Lindi, and from Kilwa by Abteilung Rothe, which consisted of:

·        No 4 SchutzenKompagnie (former rifle club volunteers from the settler community)

·        the Tanga Landsturm (Reservist) Company

·        3 machine guns

·        one 3-pounder gun

·        one 4.2-inch gun from the Konigsberg (brought from Dar Es Salaam and commanded by Lieutenant Hauser)

The hauling of the guns over rough trails took time, but on 22nd November Looff’s column containing 524 riflemen and 6 machine guns (including Sprockhoff’s detachment) surrounded Newala Fort.  The two German artillery pieces were still moving forward from Masasi.    Located at Newala now were about 800 Portuguese troops, 7 machine guns and 4 mountain guns.  Many sick men had been evacuated by da Cunha.  That day Rothe’s infantry captured the wells after a hard 12-hour fight in which over 60 Portuguese troops were killed.  Three dead officers were amongst the German casualties.

Above: Portuguese soldiers at Lisbon embarking for Africa.

As soon as his guns came up Looff used them against the fort, and Hauser’s 4.2-inch gun was soon knocking chunks out of the stone walls.  Inside the fort water was running low and the unfortunate PEA porters were pushed out of the entrance.  The Germans pushed them back and these desperate and unwanted men died of hunger, thirst or wounds below the walls.

In response to wireless calls for reinforcements to break the siege Gil first sent 100 men from Mahuta who were beaten back by Looff’s outposts, and then 70 Portuguese, 200 Askari and 2 machine guns under Captain Benedito de Azevedo.  The German platoons from the 20th Field Company under Lieutenant Herbert Hinrichs had entrenched themselves on de Azevedo’s route, and the Portuguese were repulsed losing 4 men killed and 23 wounded.

In the early hours of the 29th November 1916 the Portuguese defenders in the fort used the cover of thick ground mist to exfiltrate away from Newala and down the slopes of the Makonde Plateau to the Rovuma River.  Next morning the Germans found the fort emptied of men, but not of serviceable weapons and equipment.  Looff’s men joyfully seized:

  4 new 7.6-centimetre mountain guns with ammunition

   7 machine guns and a quantity of rifles

   100,000 rounds of rifle and machine gun ammunition

    2 Fiat cars

     a wireless station

    45 supply carts

    horses and mules

    tons of provisions and medical supplies

Above: Lourenco Marques docks, Portuguese East Africa

Demoralisation now set in amongst the Portuguese troops and nearly all of them were ordered or else made their own way to the coast.  Bad news was not welcome in Lisbon and Gil was removed from command.  However more than a few Portuguese officers and soldiers had fought well, often to the death.  Captain Benedito de Azevado, Sergeant Machado and Corporal Ali received the Cruz de Guerra.  As the rains started the Rovuma River rose and the German southern border was secure.  Abteilung Rothe moved to fight in the Lindi area whilst Looff and his remaining men conducted a ‘pacification’ operation to subdue rebellious tribesmen on the Makonde Plateau.  The next time that the Portuguese Expeditionary Forces were to fight the German Schutztruppe would be over a year later inside Portuguese East Africa.  Meanwhile the Germans made good use of their substantial haul of military booty.

After the war the Treaty of Versaille awarded the Kionga Triangle to Portugal and it is now a part of Mozambique.

Above: Lourenco Marques prison, Portuguese East Africa


o       Official History. Volume I. Military Operations East Africa August 1914 to September 1916 compiled by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hordern.

o       Draft Chapter XIII of the Official History Volume II. (CAB 44/5 in the UK National Archives.)

o       Portugal e a Grande Guerra by Aniceto Afonso and Carlos de Matos Gomes.

o       Tip & Run. The untold tragedy of the Great War in Africa by Edward Paice.

o       My Reminiscences of East Africa by General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.

o       Die Operationen in Ostafrika by Ludwig Boell.

o       Portugal and the Scramble for Africa 1875-1891 by Eric Axelson.

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