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German East Africa December 1914 - January 1915

The north-eastern coast of German East Africa in December 1914
After the decisive German victory at the Battle of Tanga in early November 1914 Indian Expeditionary Force ‘B’ (IEF ‘B’) retreated by sea from Tanga in German East Africa (GEA) to Mombasa in British East Africa (BEA).  In BEA the Force amalgamated with IEF ‘C’ that had been there, defending the Uganda Railway, since October.  The IEF ‘B’ commander, Major General A.E. Aitken, was ordered back to London on 17th December and Major General R. Wapshare took over command of British troops in the theatre.  Brigadier General M.J. Tighe CB CIE DSO commanded troops in the Mombasa Area.

British morale was low but across the GEA border south of Mombasa German morale was high.  The professional and no-nonsense German commander, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, had won both a battle and the confidence and cooperation of the settlers in GEA.  German Schutztruppe (local army) patrols then crossed the BEA border in several places, especially on the Indian Ocean coast north of Tanga.  This caused a panic-stricken rush northwards of BEA African civilians from the border area, resulting in the British civilian authorities having to shelter and feed 5,000 displaced persons.

In December 1914 Brigadier Tighe sought to end this refugee problem by re-asserting British authority in BEA territory and by occupying German territory across the border towards Tanga.  On the German side Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck was making plans of his own for a confrontation with the British.  The outcome was to be a series of military actions that terminated in another dramatic British defeat but also in an expensive German victory.  The final result was to be a reprimand from London for General Wapshare and a painful re-assessment of Schutztruppe capabilities and tactics by Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck.

Above: Vanga Waterfront

The activity in December 1914
In mid-December the main British base on the BEA coast south of Mombasa was at Msambweni near Gazi, where good beaches allowed re-supply from ships’ boats.  Outposts were located 10 to 15 miles further south at Kikoneni and on the River Ramisi.  The area further south was unhealthy for Indian and European troops because of malaria, and tsetse fly killed animals that were taken there.  The Germans patrolled into the abandoned British territory but their main bases were south of the border at Duga and Kilulu.

General Tighe planned an operation to seize control of lost British territory that involved around 1,800 soldiers with six machine guns, supported by 5,500 porters.  The British combat troops involved were:

•             101st Grenadiers (Indian Army)
•             2nd Kashmir Rifles (Indian Imperial Service troops)
•             Jind Infantry (half a battalion) (Indian Imperial Service troops)
•             ‘B’ and ‘D’ Companies 3rd King’s African Rifles (KAR - BEA Troops)
•             Arab company (to become the Arab Rifles – BEA troops)
•             A Scout company (BEA Troops)
•             Two machine gun sections

British troops available on 17th December when the advance began were:

- At Msambweni: the Kashmiris, the two KAR companies and a machine gun section. 
- At Kikoneni and the upper Ramisi ford: Jind Infantry.
- At Mwele Mdogo: Scout company (Arabs and Africans) under Lieutenant Jones.
- Troops afloat were on the ships Barjora and Rheinfels: one section No. 28 Mountain Battery, one section naval 3-pounder guns.
- Troops from Mombasa were:  101st Grenadiers, one section machine guns, the Arab Company under Major Wavell, a Brigade Signal Section and two sections of No. 139 Indian Field Ambulance.

Naval demonstrations were requested particularly at Moa and Manza Bay in attempts to prevent German reinforcements from moving forward. 

The capture of Mafia Island
On 10th January 1915 four companies of 1 KAR and a Grenadier company attacked Mafia Island near the mouth of the Rufiji River south of Dar Es Salaam in GEA.  After a sharp little fight the island was garrisoned by a company of the 63rd Palamcottah Light Infantry, Indian Army, and on 14th January the attacking force returned to Mombasa (1).  This was to prove fortuitous for Brigadier Tighe on the southern BEA coastline.

The first German probing attacks on Jasin
Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck had been planning his own operation in the Jasin area and he had moved six companies by rail from Moshi near Mount Kilimanjaro to Tanga.  There they married up with three other companies in the area south of Jasin.   On 10th January 1915 an enemy probing attack was made against Jasin that was pushed back (2), and two days later a German Field Company of Askari and a half-company of European reservists attempted to envelop Jasin from the north.  The defenders, two companies of Kashmiris assisted by a KAR company from Umba Camp, resisted the attack.  Two companies of Jind Infantry arrived as reinforcements from Umba accompanied by a section of 28 Mountain Battery that had just been landed and they removed an enemy group that had occupied a sisal factory located 900 yards to the west of the main defensive position.

 The British response was to reinforce Jasin with another company, from which 40 men were detached to man a strongpoint in the sisal factory.  Meanwhile Colonel Vallings had fallen sick and the Commanding Officer of the 101st Grenadiers, Lieutenant Colonel P.H. Cunningham, had taken over command at Umba.  Four days later the Germans attacked again with three companies but they were driven off, however von Lettow-Vorbeck had achieved his reconnoitring objectives and he was ready for a serious attack. 

On 17th January the force from Mafia Island arrived off-shore with the four 1 KAR Companies that were aboard scheduled to replace the two 3 KAR Companies who had been working very hard in the coastal area for several weeks. 

Left: The British Fort at Vanga

The final German attack on Jasin

By the next day, 18th January, only one 1 KAR company was ashore when a strong enemy dawn attack was launched on Jasin.  On that day the Jasin garrison consisted of two companies of Kashmiris (184 men with 40 of them in the sisal factory) and one of Grenadiers that was joined by another company of Grenadiers from Umba as the attack started (a total of 138 Grenadiers, stated to be Konkani Mahrattas), plus 9 KAR Machine gunners and 5 signallers.  Lieutenant Colonel Raghbir Singh, 2nd Kashmiris, commanded the position.

Colonel Cunningham at Umba saw the Jasin signal rockets and immediately sent up ‘B’ Company 1 KAR and the two 3 KAR companies.  Captain G.J. Giffard, the Queen’s Regiment and KAR, was the senior officer.  Finding that the Jasin position and the sisal factory were surrounded and that his progress was checked by enemy on a ridge on the right bank of the Jimbo River, Giffard ordered an attack across the river.  The two 3 KAR companies crossed the river and fought against the enemy on the ridge, gaining a good foothold there, but no ammunition was sent forward to them and after two hours of hard combat they fell back across the river.  Giffard had led his 1 KAR company in an attempt to relieve the sisal factory but that failed, and he also re-crossed the river to request reinforcements.

Meanwhile the sepoys in the main defensive position resisted the strong enemy attack, but the defensive position had not been well planned and was unsatisfactory as adjacent sisal plants allowed the enemy to make a concealed approach, and the garrison’s water source was located 30 yards outside the position perimeter.

The Kashmiri sepoys in the sisal factory were undoubtedly lacking in fire discipline as by 1100 hours they had fired their last round (3).  To quote from the Official History:

“They had no thought of surrender.  Led by Subadar Mardan Ali, they charged out with bayonets and kukris, scattering into the bush, and eventually 29 of the 40 (sepoys) reached Umba Camp.”

Mardan Ali, along with Sepoys Billu and Saif Ali, later received the Indian Distinguished Service Medal.  In fact some sepoys including Mardan Ali got through to Jasin Post, the main defended location, and were later captured there. 

Further fighting on the Jimbo River

On receiving Giffard’s report Colonel Cunningham sent forward ‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies 1 KAR (‘E’ Company remained in reserve at Umba Camp), two companies of Jind Infantry, and the section of the 28th Mountain Battery.  The mountain gunners were quickly exchanging fire with German machine guns at 300 yards range and taking a toll of the Schutztruppe’s European machine gunners, and when enemy bayonet charges were made on the gun positions the gunners fired 40 rounds in 5 minutes on the fuse setting “shrapnel zero”.

Giffard ordered a resumption of the previous attack across the Jimbo River.  On the right 1 KAR’s objective was the sisal factory.  Throughout the East Africa Campaign the Jind Infantry never failed to attack when ordered, and on this occasion their mission was to assault in the centre and to relieve Jasin Post.  The two 3 KAR companies, now understrength because of casualties suffered earlier, did likewise on the left, their objective also being to relieve Jasin Post. 

At noon the Jind Infantry fired three volleys into the bush across the river and the 120 sepoys charged.  But German Askari were concealed and waiting and in a short time 36 sepoys were shot dead and 21 others were wounded, including the Jind Commanding Officer Major General Natha Singh and the unit’s one British officer with it at that time, Captain H.E.  Macbrayne (4), 15th Sikhs.  The Jind men withdrew across the river, and Subadar Harnam Singh later received an Indian Order of Merit, 2nd Class, for the gallantry he displayed before he was severely wounded and taken prisoner. 

On the British left flank the two 3 KAR companies, now weakened by casualties lost in the earlier attack, again established themselves across the river on the ridge but they were alone as the surviving Jind sepoys had retired and the 1 KAR Askari had been outflanked.  Finally a message arrived from Colonel Cunningham ordering a withdrawal and the Askari, now surrounded, broke away from the ridge on animal paths in the bush and returned to Umba camp.  Reinforcements ordered from Samanya and Bwaga Macho had got lost in the bush or clashed with the enemy and finished up at Umba Camp.

Brigadier Tighe then arrived at Umba and called off further action for that day; he believed that Jasin Post had sufficient ammunition and supplies to last for several more days.  Two Kashmiri sepoys, Bal Bahadur Chetti and Dal Bahadur Thapa, volunteered to get a message through the enemy lines to Jasin Post during the hours of darkness.  Their attempt failed as they were seen and fired at but they returned with useful information; both men later received the Indian Order of Merit, 2nd Class.

  The fall of Jasin Post

At dawn on 19th January the German companies surrounding Jasin Post opened fire with rifles, several machine guns and three field guns.  The Kashmiri troops lost their fire discipline and returned fire effectively but furiously, rapidly expending the ammunition stock.  Many of the Grenadiers were new replacements from India sent to make up the Tanga losses and they were suffering from the effects of the tropical climate, malaria and low morale.  Most would not raise themselves to return fire and those that did mostly fired blindly into the air. The KAR machine gun had a stoppage and remained out of action.  The water supply within the perimeter ran out.  Colonel Raghbir Singh was killed and that event increased the general demoralisation within the post. 

Captain G.J.G. Hanson, a Special Service Officer with the Kashmiris, was the senior officer in the post and at around 0800 hours, deciding that further resistance was useless, he ordered a white flag to be raised.  Jasin Post had surrendered.  The 2nd Kashmir Rifles in the Post (not including the sisal factory) lost 12 men killed and 13 wounded; the 101st Grenadiers lost 6 killed and 4 wounded.  There were probably many more minor shrapnel wounds that were not recorded at the time (5).

Meanwhile reinforcements were arriving from Mombasa but Brigadier Tighe did not initiate further military activity.  Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck sent for Captain Hanson and the senior officer with the Grenadiers, Captain J. Turner, and complemented them on their defence, returning their swords.  He then paroled (6) them in exchange for a wounded German officer and his wife captured on Mafia Island.  Hanson and Turner returned to the British lines but their sepoys remained in German hands as prisoners of war.

The two KAR companies were the vanguard of the British advance, followed by the Kashmiris and Grenadiers.  By 20th December enemy outposts, generally manned by coastal Arabs, had been driven back across the Umba River and Umba Valley Camp was constructed by the British to the north of and near the mouth of the river.  On the following day the KAR entered Vanga to find the former German occupants gone.

KAR patrols then crossed the border to reconnoitre the defended village of Jasin, known to the Germans as Jassini, and on 23rd December a 3 KAR attack captured the lightly-held position but the attackers were ordered to withdraw into British territory.  The following day the enemy reoccupied the village.  On Christmas Day at 0600 hours the two KAR Companies and a Grenadier company mounted a surprise bayonet attack on Jasin and captured it, killing seven of the enemy including the German commander who was still wearing his pyjamas when he died.  British losses were two killed and three wounded.  But again the victors, under Captain T.O. FitzGerald, King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment and KAR, had to withdraw; however they withdrew with the dead German officer’s substantial Christmas provisions, as it would have been a shame to leave them behind.

Thinking that he had established British control over the border area General Tighe established a coastal base at Goa, near Umba Valley Camp, where he could receive sea-borne supplies and thus not be reliant on so many porters.  Three companies (two during daylight and a third sent from Umba to add more strength at night) garrisoned Jasin which was found to be deserted, and four more companies occupied a new camp at Samanya, whilst further inland half of the Grenadiers plus Wavell’s Arabs and a machine gun section occupied Bwaga Macho.  Lieutenant Colonel H.A. Vallings, 29th Punjabis, commanded the troops in Umba Camp area.  This situation remained unchallenged and unaltered until the second week of 1915.

British repercussions

General Wapshare ordered a return to the healthier ground around Msambweni and Gazi, resulting in the British having lost many men killed, wounded, taken prisoner and diseased for no gain whatsoever (7).  From London Lord Kitchener sent a telegram to General Wapshare stating:

“You are entirely mistaken to suppose that offensive operations are necessary.  The experience at Jasin shows you are not well informed of the strength of the enemy . . . you should concentrate your forces and give up risky expeditions . . . in East Africa, where we cannot reinforce you sufficiently to be sure of success.”

British morale was again shaken.  The KAR, the Jind Infantry and the Kashmiris had not let the side down, and the mountain gunners had excelled themselves, killing and wounding many enemy Europeans.  But the British had made two fundamental mistakes: Jasin Post was sited in an undefendable location, and the attacks against the enemy-held ridgeline south of the Jumbo River were scattered and piecemeal instead of being concentrated and using maximum force.  Sepoys and Askari paid the price for these errors of military judgement.

Above: German Graves from the Jasin fighting

The German consequences of the Jasin fighting

Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck had won another battle and had gained precious booty in the form of captured rifles and equipment.  He had used conventional military tactics but this had cost him 200,000 rounds of ammunition and seven of his Regular German Army officers were dead, along with 20 local Europeans and 61 Askari; 31 other Europeans, including the Colonel himself, and around 150 Askari had been wounded.  The Schutztruppe could not sustain losses of both ammunition and men on this scale because the Royal Navy had so far prevented GEA from receiving supplies and reinforcements by sea.

After appreciating his situation the Colonel changed the Schutztruppe’s tactics to those more suitable for a war of attrition.  He did not indulge in large battles until late 1917.  Instead he fought delaying actions on favourable ground, utilising the vast civilian African manpower available to him in GEA to dig defences and carry supplies.  After a delaying action had caused Allied casualties and disrupted an advance the Schutztruppe would withdraw on interior lines of communication, falling back onto pre-positioned supply dumps.  Meanwhile the Allies were lengthening their lines of communication every week, constantly creating more logistical problems for themselves.  Colonel (later General) Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and his men would still be in the African bush fighting the British in November 1918 after an Armistice had been agreed in France and Flanders.

Left: The Jasin Memorial Panel


The Indian dead from the Jasin fighting are commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on the Tanga (Jasin) Memorial that occupies part of the screen wall in the Tanga Memorial Cemetery, Tanzania.  The German European dead are buried under a large concrete slab near Tanga European Cemetery.  The Askari of both sides were buried where they fell.


1.    Indian Order of Merit, 2nd Class

Subadar Harnam Singh, Jind Infantry. 

For his gallant conduct at Jasin on the 18th January 1915.  He rallied a small party to cover a retirement and held the enemy in check until his party were all killed and he himself severely wounded and taken prisoner.

  No 310 Sepoy Bal Bahadur Chetti and No. 1275 Sepoy Dal Bahadur Thapa, both 2nd Kashmir Rifles. 

For gallant behaviour on the night of the 18th-19th January 1915, at Jasin, in volunteering to carry a message to Jasin Post.  The post was surrounded by the enemy and the errand was one of great danger.  At night, with two Africans, they proceeded in a dug-out through the mangrove swamps adjoining the post and, though unable to get through the enemy’s outposts, which were in a close ring round the post and fired on them, remained out all night and brought in useful information.

2.    Indian Distinguished Service Medal

No. 1211 Gunner Mehr Khan, 28th Mountain Battery.

Conspicuous gallantry in going back about 40 yards four times under the close fire of 3 machine guns, to bring up the side shields of his gun, which had been left behind.

  Subadar Mardan Ali, 2nd Kashmir Rifles. 

Who held on to his post until the last round according to orders.  Brought in his belt boxes of ammunition.  He was a most cheery and useful NCO throughout the fight and carried the flag of truce to the enemy (prisoner).

No. 1091 Sepoy Billu, 2nd Kashmir Rifles.
No. 6 Sepoy Saif Ali, 2nd Kashmir Rifles.

  Other sepoys who received the Indian Distinguished Service Medal at the same time as those listed above, and whose awards therefore may be related to the Jasin fighting are:

No. 1367 Havildar Gujar Singh, Jind Infantry.
No. 2276 Sepoy Sadhu Singh, Jind Infantry.
No 2287 Sepoy Lakha Singh, Jind Infantry.
No. 2 Havildar Madhu, 2nd Kashmir Rifles.

3.    African Distinguished Conduct Medal

Seven Askari were awarded the African Distinguished Conduct Medal for acts of gallantry performed during the Jasin fighting:

No 258 Private Bule; No. 278 Corporal Matukutu; and No 262 Private Tabu.  All three men shared a common citation:

For conspicuous gallantry in rescuing wounded during the retirement from Jasin on 18th January 1915.  They each in turn engaged the pursuing enemy in hand to hand combat, and succeeded in bringing off their wounded comrades without the loss of a single rifle.  


Yuzbashi Effendi Said Abdar Rahman.

Has on several occasions shown conspicuous bravery.  On 18th January 1915, he withdrew his company with great skill from Jasin Ridge, after their ammunition was expended, and though heavily pressed by the enemy he brought back all the wounded with safety.  

No 566 Sergeant Juma Gabanda.

Showed conspicuous bravery in crossing the Suba River (near Jasin) by himself, and succeeded in finding a path by which he brought up the section within 50 yards of the enemy.  He maintained his position under heavy machine gun fire until his ammunition was exhausted.  

No. 152 Lance Corporal Kiblagat Arap Tumogan.

For conspicuous bravery in saving a maxim gun from falling into the hands of the enemy during the retirement from the Jasin Ridge on 18-19th January 1915.  

No. 1925 Colour Sergeant George Williams DCM received a Bar to his DCM, see the following note.  

  A citation for a Victoria Cross

No. 1925 Colour Sergeant George Williams, 3 KAR, was already cited for an African Distinguished Conduct Medal for courage and enterprise displayed in the Tsavo Valley in September 1914, and he received that award later in 1915. 

After Jasin Brigadier Tighe cited him for a Victoria Cross:

Commanded ‘D’ Company on the 18th after Lieutenant Dean had been wounded and the Effendi killed.  He succeeded in extricating the Company and machine gun under a very heavy rifle and machine gun fire after all the ammunition had been expended.  This NCO has frequently come to my notice for acts of gallantry and skill. (8)

  However this citation created an argument of protocol between the Colonial and the War Offices centred on who was responsible for initiating KAR awards, and the end result was that George received nothing but his first African Distinguished Conduct Medal.  Sadly George Williams was killed in action in Portuguese East Africa during the last year of the war.


·         John Arnold (compiler). The African DCM. (Orders and Medals Research Society 1998).
·         Rana Chhina. The Indian Distinguished Service Medal. (2001, InvictaIndia).
·         Peter Duckers. Reward of Valour. The Indian Order of Merit, 1914-1918. (1999, Jade Publishing Limited).
·         Charles Hordern (compiler). History of the Great War. Military Operations East Africa, Volume I, August 1914-September 1916. (Reprint 1990, The Battery Press, Nashville).
·         Andrew Kerr. I can never say enough about the men. (PMC Management Consultants Ltd, India 2010).
·         General Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck. My Reminiscences of East Africa. (Reprint by Battery Press, Nashville).
·         Charles Miller. Battle for the Bundu. The First World War in East Africa. (1974, Purnell Book Services Ltd).
·         Edward Paice. Tip & Run. The Untold Tragedy of the Great War in East Africa. (2007, Weidenfeld & Nicholson).
·         Keith Steward FRGS. Article: An African Hero Who Deserved the Victoria Cross: Colour Sergeant George Williams KAR, DCM and Bar.  In the Journal of the Orders and Medals Research Society, March 2005.
·         War Diaries and other documents in the National Archives: HQ Mombasa Area, December 1914 and January 1915 (WO95 5360); 1st Battalion The King’s African Rifles, January 1915 (WO 5369); Record of the 3rd Battalion The King’s African Rifles During the Great Campaign in East Africa 1914 – 1918 (WO106/273).

(1)    An article by the author describing the Mafia Island operation can be found on-line at: (2)    The Official History does not mention this initial attack but the 3 KAR Record does.
(3)    Standing Orders for Umba Force stipulated that 300 rounds per man should be maintained on every position.  In the case of the sisal factory it may have been that some of that ammunition was stored in Jasin Post.
(4)    Captain MacBrayne was a Special Service Officer with the Jind Infantry.
(5)    In his book I Can Never Say Enough About The Men Andrew Kerr quotes a statement that of the 135 Kashmiri prisoners 115 were wounded.
(6)    The Germans in East Africa, often not wanting to be encumbered by prisoners, frequently paroled them on the understanding that these men would not serve operationally again whilst the war lasted.
(7)      The Official History gives these British casualty figures for the Jasin fighting: Killed: 2 Indian officers, 74 sepoys and 15 Askari.  Wounded: 5 British officers, 3 Indian officers, 39 sepoys and 48 Askari.  Captured: 263 sepoys, KAR MG Section 1 European and 7 Askari, 31st (Indian) Signal Company 2 Europeans and 3 sepoys (a Captured total of 276 all ranks).  Missing: 1 Askari.
(8)    Citation in Mombasa Area War Diary January 1915, in Brigadier Tighe’s report on Jasin.  The actual VC citation would have been more polished and better phrased.