The Greatest Guerilla Campaign in the Twentieth Century was fought in German East Africa

 

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Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck is a long name but one worth remembering because he is the greatest guerrilla commander of the Twentieth Century. His achievements in World War One are the only reason to study German East Africa. The colony existed from 1885 and lasted till the end of the First World War. There were never more than three or four thousand Germans in German East Africa, which was comprised of the modern day nations of Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi.

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However small their numbers, they were Germans after all and they put an immense area of land under cultivation – their main cash crop being sisal which is used to make rope, twine, and mats. I have sisal mats in my apartment in Washington. In order to create a strong economic framework, the German Government spent lots of money building railways and ports so the sisal could get to market and these improvements were finished shortly before the outbreak of the First World War in August of 1914.

After some months, the British finally got around to doing something about German East Africa which they invade with a small force, certain that will scare the Germans into surrendering. They run into a force of askaris, the generic term for African soldiers, and mount a small assault to brush them aside. Not so fast. They had run smack into the famous Schutztruppe. With less than three hundred German officers and NCOs, von Lettow-Vorbeck had trained his almost three thousand askaris into a disciplined force as good as any European army. They made short work of the British in several engagements in late 1914 including his greatest battle, Tanga, and early 1915 at Jassin. Von Lettow-Vorbeck saw his mission as one of tying down as many British troops as he could.

Commanding his forces with all the verve of Stonewall Jackson in the Valley Campaign, von Lettow-Vorbeck did just that. He spoke fluent Swahili and created a strong bond with his men who went through many, many hardships often being held together solely by his personality and their respect for him. With this handful of men, von Lettow-Vorbeck tied down several hundred thousand or more British soldiers including tens of thousands of imperial troops and locally recruited white Rhodesian and South African units.

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He was a master of this kind of fighting and many historians consider him the greatest guerilla leader of the Twentieth Century. In his book, Battle for the Bundu: The First World War in German East Africa, author Charles Miller describes the guerilla campaign of von Lettow-Vorbeck as: “a midget German force led by an obscure Prussian officer who could have conducted post-graduate courses in irregular warfare tactics for Che Guevara, General Giap, and other more celebrated but far less skilled guerrilla fighters.”

One of von Lettow-Vorbeck’s younger officers, Theodor von Hippel, was later instrumental in creating the Brandenburgers, Germany’s elite special forces unit during World War Two.

Further reading:

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My Reminiscences of East Africa by General von Lettow-Vorbeck
The Great War in Africa by Byron Farewell

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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