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Part 2: Operations in German East Africa

May to December 1916

(This is a continuation of the article THE LOYAL NORTH LANCASHIRE MACHINE GUN COMPANY Part 1 : Formation and Operations in British East Africa, October 1915 to April 1916.)

For maps relating to the Article below please click
HERE

The advance down the Pangani River

In March 1915 the enemy commander, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, had briefly contested the British advance into German East Africa at Latema-Reata Nek, and then had withdrawn to Kahe on the Usambara Railway line that ran from Moshi to Tanga on the Indian Ocean coast.  In the Kahe area the Germans fought defensive actions that allowed them to break contact with the British advance and withdraw down the railway line.  Heavy seasonal rains fell during April and the British under the South African General Jan Smuts stayed north of the Ruwu River, occupying high ground whenever that was possible. 

During the rains the South African mounted troops under Major General J.L. van Deventer made an epic and muddy trek from Arusha south-westwards to seize Kondoa Irangi, but the remainder of the British force, now reorganised into the 1st British Division, stayed ready to advance south down the Usambara Railway line and the Pangani River valley. 

In late May this advance started.  The Divisional Commander, Major General A.R. Hoskins, a former Inspector General of the King’s African Rifles, organised a River Column, a Centre Column and an Eastern Column; the latter column moved cross-country from Mbuyuni in British East Africa.  The Centre Column followed the railway track towards Tanga whilst the River Column, commanded by Brigadier General S.H. Sheppard DSO RE, marched down the Pangani River.    The Loyal North Lancashire Machine Gun Company (LNL MG Coy) formed part of the Divisional Reserve and marched many kilometres behind the leading elements of River Column.

The advance to the Lukigura River

Unfortunately the War Diary of the LNL MG Coy has not survived and the engagements of the Company have to be interpreted from other sources.  Initially the Company marched down the Pangani River, sometimes having to cut trails through the bush for the 40 mules and 620 African porters.  Mules were fed 10 grains of Arsenic each day as a prophylactic to counter tsetse fly disease, and the men received quinine when it was available to counter malaria.  Because of General Smuts’ inability to plan for logistics, on most days only half-rations were issued and this measure often dropped down to quarter-rations.  Consequently the Company was constantly losing men who were medically evacuated under rudimentary conditions to be treated for tropical diseases and debilitation.

Right: Map of the LNL MG Coy area of operations

Having reached Mkalamo on the Pangani River the Company followed the British advance southwards down a German hand-powered trolley line to Handeni.  The enemy had used this line to move supplies away from the British advance and towards the Central Railway that traversed German East Africa from Lake Tanganyika to Dar Es Salaam on the Indian Ocean coast.  From Handeni the enemy had marched south-westwards to the Lukigura River; here Hauptman Doring and his men were dug into a defensive position.   Doring had under his command the 1st Field Company and the 5th and 7th Schutzen Companies, these latter two companies consisted of European former members of shooting clubs that had been part of the German military reserve system. 

The fight at the Lukigura River, 24th June 1916

British ground and air reconnaissance reports confirmed Doring’s defensive positions, and General Smuts seized an opportunity to outflank and get behind his enemy.  A special mobile column was formed under Major General Hoskins.  This column contained

•       The 25th Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen)
•       The 2nd Kashmir Rifles
•       The 5th and 6th South African Infantry battalions
•       The 27th Mountain Battery, Indian Army, less one section (two guns) of its six mule-packed 10-pounder screw-guns
•       The Loyal North Lancashire Machine Gun Company.

Above: Schutztruppe machine gunners and porters practise their drills

The mobile column was to turn the enemy’s left flank whilst Brigadier Sheppard’s column ‘demonstrated frontally’ by engaging Doring to hold him in place.  This frontal column contained:

•       the 29th Punjabis,
•       the 130th Baluchis,
•       the 2nd Rhodesia Regiment,
•       the East African Squadron of the 17th Cavalry (Indian Army),
•       the King’s African Rifles Mounted Infantry Company,
•       No 5 South African Field Battery (four 13-pounder horse-drawn guns),
•       No 8 Field Battery (six 12-pounder ox-drawn guns, manned by white and mixed-race Volunteers from India),
•       two armoured cars of No 1 Light Battery.    All of the units in both columns were under-strength due to medical evacuations.


The mobile column set off on a 50 kilometre march on the evening of 23rd June 1916.  For rations the troops had been issued with biltong – sun-dried strips of meat from game animals that had been shot for food.  Hoskins halted his column from midnight to 0300 hours and then, as dawn broke, he crossed the Lukigura River at Kwa Negero unopposed, although his troops were by now exhausted.

Meanwhile at 0700 hours on 24th June Sheppard’s armoured cars came into contact with a German outpost.  The cars pushed forward towards the bridge over the river but attracted heavy rifle, machine gun and pom-pom fire; one car was disabled but the crew gallantly recovered it to a safe position.   Sheppard’s advance guard then deployed and engaged the enemy whilst his field batteries came into action; this part of the plan worked and attracted the attention of the Germans.

Just before noon Hoskins’ advance guard, the Gurkhas and Dogras of the Kashmir Rifles, spotted some of Doring’s men on a ridge; the Germans withdrew onto a higher ridge named Kwa De Rema.  The Kashmiris deployed to attack but hesitated.  Then two of the LNL MG Coy machine guns came into action delivering supporting fire and the Frontiersmen of the 25th Royal Fusiliers charged forward, taking the Kashmiris with them.  The charge went straight up to and into the German trenches where bayonets plunged and kukris swung ferociously as men frustrated by long months of hardly seeing their enemies finally came face to face with them.   Doring’s men now swiftly evacuated the position but had to run through a gauntlet of fire from the sepoys of Sheppard’s 29th Punjabis who were waiting for them by the river.

The Indian mountain gunners joined in the Fusiliers’ charge but the two South African battalions did not participate.  Four dead Germans and 30 dead Askari were found after the action.  Hoskins’ column captured 14 Germans, 20 Askari and the enemy machine guns plus a field gun.  Sheppard’s column captured 7 Germans and 12 Askari.  German heavy naval guns recovered from the sunken cruiser Konigsberg now shelled the British force, but did not cause casualties.  British casualties were 6 killed and 26 wounded ( 3 of the dead and 15 of the wounded were Royal Fusiliers) in Hoskins’ mobile column, and 4 killed and 10 wounded in Sheppard’s frontal column.

Left: A British armoured car in East Africa


When firing at Lukigura commenced several mules belonging to the LNL MG Coy bolted.  One mule, carrying a machine gun, was lost completely in the bush, despite the troops searching for it for three days.  Doubtless the weary mule soon became a victim of the animal predators that stalked the bush.

During the Lukigura River action one other unit manned by men of the 2nd Battalion the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment participated.  This was the Mounted Infantry Company commanded by Captain G.P Atkinson MC.  However this company needed reinforcing because of the loss of men through sickness.  When new recruits could not be found it was decided to disband the Mounted Infantry Company.  George Atkinson was attached to the 17th Cavalry East African Squadron, a few of his men went to signalling or intelligence duties, and the bulk of the remaining 30 or 40 men were posted to the LNL MG Coy.  This injection of fellow Lancashire Lads boosted the LNL MG Company’s dwindling strength.

Due to the inadequate logistical staff work already mentioned, the 1st Division was now out of supplies.  A short move forward of 12 kilometres was made to the Msiha River where the British troops dug themselves in until the supply situation improved.  Rations remained short on the Msiha, no forage was issued for the mules and there were no new clothing issues for the men, many of whom now wore ragged garments.  Several weeks would pass before mail was received.  This location gained the name of Shell Camp because it regularly attracted the attention of the German naval gunners.  British aircraft could not locate the German guns, and the British artillery on the Msiha River did not have the range to engage the enemy gunners.  On 2nd August 1916 4760 Company Sergeant Major Thomas Nelson of The Loyal North Lancashire Machine Gun Company was killed by shellfire on the Msiha River.

The fight at the Wami River, 17th August 1916

The Germans then fought skilful delaying actions southwards through the high Nguru Mountains.  General Smuts had been reinforced from South Africa and a third British Division was now in the field; all three divisions were manoeuvred to try and trap the Germans on the River Wami.  But von Lettow was too wily for Smuts, whose South African horsemen were losing mounts daily to tsetse fly.

Eventually, on 17th August 1916, a battle was fought along the northern bank of the Wami.  The new 3rd Division of South Africans, reinforced by the 130th Baluchis and a section of the 27th Battery, Indian Army, attacked from the west.  Their opponent was Abteilung (formation) Schulz which consisted of the 4th, 9th and 21st Field Companies, with the 13th Field Company and the Wangoni Company held in reserve.  Schulz’s men gave little ground and effective German machine gunnery kept the parched British troops away from the river water that they desperately needed.  Three German machine guns were silenced by a mountain gun of the 27th (Bengal) Mountain Battery that was manhandled forward; the gunners escaped serious wounds because of the steel gun shields that had been improvised and fitted in Nairobi.

From the east Sheppard advanced with the 29th Punjabis, 2nd Kashmir Rifles and one company of the 2nd Rhodesia Regiment; deployed in support were the 17th Cavalry East African Squadron, the 5th Battery South African Field Artillery and four guns of the LNL MG Coy.  But Abteilung Stemmermann consisting of the 14th, 18th and 22nd Field Companies was waiting and ready.  The Punjabis ran into a heavily defended position along a tributary of the Wami River and the British advance was halted.  The LNL MG Coy guns came into action and the Rhodesians moved forward to reinforce the Punjabis, but every British outflanking attempt was countered by an effective German counter move.  In this type of fighting the defence had the definite advantage as water and reserve ammunition would have been already stockpiled near the forward trenches, and reserves could be kept at rest to the rear until British out-flanking attempts were observed.

At around 1500 hours the Kashmiris relieved the Punjabis but then firing died down, and by 1700 hours British scouts reported that the enemy position had been evacuated.  The two-pronged British advance had resulted in the Germans abandoning the north bank of the Wami River, but the planned cutting-off of a sizeable number of enemy troops had failed.  Von Lettow’s Schutztruppe withdrew towards Morogoro on the Central Railway unmolested because the British logistics system had broken down again; Smuts’ men were halted for three days whilst supplies caught up with them, and whilst pioneers bridged the Wami.

The advance towards the Mgeta River

A successful British general advance was now made onto the Central Railway.  The South Africans to the west had to fight some sharp actions in hilly country, but the British on the east occupied Morogoro without a fight.  On the coast Dar Es Salaam had been seized by a British seaborne landing whilst Belgian Congolese troops were advancing eastwards down the railway line from Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika.  The British supply system was now facilitated by shipments into Dar Es Salaam harbour which were then sent up the Central Railway to Morogoro and beyond.  The only problem was that the Germans had dropped the big railway bridge over the Ruvu River, but the British improvised by running separate trains from each bank of the river whilst a new bridge was constructed; the supplies were boated over the river from one train to the other.  Casualties could now be evacuated down the railway line from medical units at Morogoro to a Hospital at Dar Es Salaam, and before long a hospital was also located at Morogoro.

South of Morogoro lay the Uluguru Mountains, and von Lettow’s men made fighting withdrawals through the hills and down each flank of them.  New troops from West Africa had arrived and the Gold Coast (now named Ghana) Regiment was used to advance through the mountains.  An ORBAT (Order of Battle) dated 23rd August 1916 lists the LNL MG Coy as now being part of the 2nd East African Brigade of the 1st British East African Division. The brigade was commanded by Brigadier General J.A. Hannyngton.  Other units in or attached to the brigade were:

•       the 57th Wilde’s Rifles,
•       a half battalion of the 3rd Kashmir Rifles,
•       the 3rd King’s African Rifles,
•       the East African Mounted Rifles (a white settler unit),
•       the King’s African Rifles Mounted Infantry,
•       a machine gun section of the 129th Baluchis,
•       the 7th Field Battery (four 15-pounder ox-drawn guns manned by Royal Garrison Artillery personnel, mainly from Mauritius),
•       the 27th (Bengal) Mountain Battery,(less 1 section of two guns).

At the south-western end of the Uluguru Mountains a large enemy supply dump had been established at Kisaki.  The Germans were busy shifting the stores from this dump further southwards, using vast gangs of African villagers that were conscripted through the local tribal chiefs.  Objections to such conscription were not raised as objectors were hung.  General Smuts planned another encircling action to capture the dump and all the enemy units north of the Mgeta River. Again all British forces advanced concurrently.

The South African units on the western flanks of the mountains ran into strongly held and well-sited defences and lost many men.  Meanwhile in the central mountains and on the eastern flank the British units advanced steadily against German rear-guard actions, but were hampered by difficult terrain and enemy demolitions, particularly of bridges over fast-flowing rivers.  A new road had to be blasted through the hills to get the British heavy artillery forward.  The infantrymen at the vanguard of the British advance were receiving incoming shells from large enemy guns, including one from the Konigsberg, but the British mountain and field guns with the vanguard did not have the range to reply to the Germans.  Meanwhile at the south-eastern end of the mountains some of von Lettow’s men dug themselves into a sound defensive position at a village named Nkessa’s (after the local African chief), and they waited for the British to arrive.

Above: LNL MG Coy camouflaged gun position - rear view

The action on the Dutumi River, 10th – 12th September 1916

Entrenched at Nkessa’s was an enlarged Abteilung Stemmerman now containing the 3rd, 14th, 18th and 22nd Field Companies plus the 4th Schutzen Company.  Captain Paul Stemmermann was one of von Lettow’s most able formation commanders.  A road ran from Tulo to Kisaki through Nkessa’s, down which the British 1st Division advanced.  Stemmerman’s men defended the low ground south of the road with detachments holding a ridge of high ground to the north of the road.  Abteilungen (formations) Schulz and von Liebermann were poised ready to counterattack in support of Stemmermann.  To the west other Abteilungen were punishing South African attempts to seize Kisaki.

On 10th September 1916 2nd East African Brigade led the divisional advance, with the 3rd Kashmiri Rifles acting as vanguard. When Stemmermann’s outposts were bumped at 1000 hours, and the scale of the defence appreciated, the 57th Wilde’s Rifles and a section of the 27th (Bengal) Mountain Battery were sent right-flanking to seize the high ground named Kitoho Hill.  The sepoys and gunners achieved this task by noon and were followed by the 3rd King’s African Rifles (3 KAR) which was tasked with turning the enemy right flank; by nightfall the KAR Askaris had found a small tributary of the Dutumi that provided the water that the battalion badly needed. 

Meanwhile down on the plain below the LNL MG Coy had come into action to support the Kashmiris.  The Kashmiris advanced north of the road and the LNL machine gunners advanced south of it, both units being supported by the Bengali mountain gunners; however movement and visibility were both hampered by long grass and sugar cane plantations.  As dusk fell the British advance was halted about 460 metres from Stemmermann’s main position.

At dawn on 11th September 3 KAR pushed forward, crossed the Dutumi River and advanced two companies down the west bank.  Abteilung von Liebermann then counter-attacked 3 KAR and drove the advancing companies backwards.  To give the machine guns the chance to exploit their range effectively half of the LNL MG Coy had been moved up the slopes of Kitoho Hill and dug into good fire positions.  These machine gunners on the slopes of Kitoho Hill probably could not engage the counter-attacking enemy across the river because of the dense bush that blocked observation.  Von Liebermann’s Abteilung specialised in counter-attacks, and it was not halted. 

During this day the 5th South African Field Battery got through the pass that British pioneers had carved out of the Nguru Mountains, and the battery came into action east of Nkessa’s.  The Gold Coast Regiment was brought forward and whilst two companies went right-flanking to support 3 KAR the remainder moved forward on the British left and engaged Stemmermann’s trenches.  By 1700 hours the Germans were still controlling the battlefield and von Lettow himself was in charge, with a total of around 2,200 men and 24 machine guns opposing the 1st East African Division.

Left: German position on the Mgeta River

British scouts reported at dawn on 12th September that most of the German defences north of the road had been abandoned, and the 57th Wilde’s rifles moved swiftly downhill to link up with the Kashmiris and confront an enemy position close to Nkessa’s village.  To the west 3 KAR and the two Gold Coast companies advanced again across very difficult ground down the enemy side of the river.  The Gold Coasters on the plain and the LNL machine gunners attacked Stemmermann, but he gave no ground away and stood firm, causing many Gold Coast casualties.  Around 1700 hours Stemmermann put in a counter-attack on the Gold Coasters’ left flank, but both sides were severely hampered by the thick bush, and the German attack petered out.  However the LNL machine gunners on Kitoho Hill had seized the opportunity to engage the Germans, now that they were out of their trenches, with effective enfilade fire.  And so a day of confused fighting around Nkessa’s ended, with the troops of both sides exhausted, dehydrated and hungry.  British 1st Division battle casualties so far were around 90 all ranks whilst German figures suggest 15 to 20 men killed, wounded or missing. During the night the Germans made their usual clean break out of the battlefield, withdrawing south of the Mgeta River.  Yet another British encircling manoeuvre had failed because of superior German battlefield skills, particularly in the selection and temporary defence of excellent positions, and also in the application of thorough Battle Procedure drills that resulted in orderly night-time withdrawals involving the minimum loss of men, equipment and supplies.  But what should also not be omitted is that the Germans were fighting on and for their own territory, and they and their Askari were men who enjoyed fighting fiercely and professionally.

The end of the first Loyal North Lancashire Machine Gun Company.

The British troops were exhausted and as usual under-supplied, and heavy rains started to fall.  Operations on the Mgeta River ground to a halt with the British holding the north bank and the Germans the south bank.  3 KAR mounted a short cross-river operation and then withdrew.  Most of the South African troops would soon be withdrawn to the healthier climate of their homeland.  General Smuts looked to initiatives elsewhere, such as landings on the southern German East African coastline.  But he also was soon to depart for a far more pleasant posting in London where he would claim the honours for seizing most of the enemy territory.  Von Lettow and his Schutztruppe sat tight, planted and harvested food crops, and laid down a series of stores dumps that they would use in 1917 as they fought a withdrawal southwards.  Despite General Smuts’ future claims about the seizure of territory, the Schutztruppe was still a potent unbeaten army, and it would remain so until after the Armistice had been declared in Europe.

Above: LNL MG Coy camouflaged gun position - front view

The Loyal North Lancashire Machine Gun Company was now reduced by sickness to a strength of five officers and less than 30 Non Commissioned Officers and men.  The company, wearing rags for clothing, was ordered to march back to Morogoro; doubtless friendly Army Service Corps drivers with empty trucks provided lifts when that was possible.  From Morogoro the company was instructed to make its way back to the 2nd Battalion The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, now stationed near Kilwa after returning from three months rest and rehabilitation in South Africa.  Kilwa was on the Indian Ocean coast south of Dar Es Salaam.  Mechanical transport was not supplied and the company, whose numbers still decreased weekly through medical evacuations caused by disease and debilitation, was told to march on an old slave-traders’ route through the bush to Dar Es Salaam.  The company strength was now:

•       5 officers
•       20 other ranks
•       35 mules carrying the guns
•       100 1st Line porters carrying ammunition and stores
•       A group of 2nd Line porters carrying 8 days-worth of rations.

The route covered 200 kilometres and the company arrived at Dar Es Salaam on the morning of the eighth day.  Here a medical board found three officers (Major R.E. Berkeley and Lieutenants J.E. Bowden and W. Halton) and 17 rank and file fit to proceed by ship to Kilwa.  These survivors proceeded to join their battalion which had been ordered to move to Egypt, as the three months rehabilitation in South Africa had not prevented high incidences of malaria occurring again within the battalion’s ranks.

But the 2LNL battalion commander, Lieutenant C.E.A. Jourdain DSO, had been ordered to leave all fit men behind to serve in a second Loyal North Lancashire Machine Gun Company that was to be formed around the nucleus of the 20 survivors of the first company.  And so this saga will be extended, and further articles will follow.


   Footnote

The use of British infantry soldiers  as specialist machine gunners in East Africa was undoubtedly more profitable than just employing them as riflemen – a task that African Askari could perform more satisfactorily.  But General Jan Smuts’ tactical limitations (he had been an outstanding guerrilla leader 15 years previously, but had been a politician since then) led to the British having few battles with the professionally superior German force led by Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.  Apart from the rare British success at Lukigura the fighting was done on ground chosen by the German defenders, and they then dominated their British opponents.

Interestingly the commander of the successful outflanking movement at Lukigura was General Hoskins, an officer with East African experience.  Hoskins was to take over from Smuts as theatre commander but not for long, as from his London power-base Smuts was to be instrumental in getting Hoskins dismissed and posted to Mesopotamia, whilst another South African General, Jacob Louis van Deventer, was recalled from his farm and appointed to command the East African theatre.  Hoskins’ problem was that in order to resolve the logistical shambles that Smuts had left behind, he requested too much support from London, and that doomed him.  But without any doubt, Smuts’ dismissal of logistics as a military requirement put many of the Loyal North Lancashire machine gunners into hospital with disease caused by debilitation, and some of those lads  did not come out of hospital alive.

A hand-written poem, composed by a white soldier, has survived. It displays the frustrations of a man perhaps unable to get rid of dysentery, fevers or other tropical ailments:         

TULO          

(or any other camp in this blasted country)
Dawn on the Ulunguru Hills! 
Dawn on Mvuha Plain!!                           
And lost, damned souls in Tulo Camp are awaking to life again;             
To the hopelessness and the helplessness of the weary, dreary day,      
To the consciousness of their wretchedness fretting their lives away.     

In Tulo, under the Uluguru Hills.
Noon on the Uluguru Hills, Noon and the sky is aflame,                      
And the camp lies bare to the blinding sun, in its nakedness and its shame,                                                                                             
In its ghastliness, and its nastiness, the swarming flies and the stench. The squalid hut, and the rotting horse, and the filth in the open trench. 

In Tulo, under the Uluguru Hills.
Night on the Uluguru Hills. 
Night on Mvuha Plain.                               
And the lost damned souls in Tulo camp are fretting in sleep again,       
All the weariness and the dreariness, of this helpless, hopeless plight.       

While lion creep through the sleeping camp, the death that stalks by night.                                                                                               
In Tulo,
under the Ulunguru Hills.

SOURCES:

•       Official History. Military Operations East Africa, Volume I, August 1914 – September 1916 compiled by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hordern.   
•       Extracts from the draft Volume II of Official History. Military Operations East Africa held in the UK National Archives.      
•       The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment 1914-1919 by Colonel H.C. Wylly CB. 
•       War Diaries of 2nd Bn The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, 25th Bn The Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) and The Mounted Infantry Company.       
•       I Can Never Say Enough About the Men.  A History of the Jammu and Kashmir Rifles throughout their World War One East Africa Campaign by Andrew Kerr.
•       British Intelligence Supplement No 7 (East Africa) dated October 1916.
•       The London Gazette and Medal Index Cards.
•       Documents in the archives of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment Musuem at Preston, UK.

Photographs of the machine gunners of the 2nd Bn The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment were kindly provided by the copyright holder The Queen’s Lancashire Regiment Museum, Preston, UK.

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