The Old and the Bold

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German East Africa

May to October 1917

The strategic situation in which the 25th Battalion Royal Fusiliers found themselves on their arrival back in theatre on 29th May was much changed to that when they had left.  Lieutenant-General J. C. Smuts had relinquished overall command of the forces in East Africa as the battalion had left theatre for South Africa and been replaced by Lieutenant-General A. R. Hoskins.  On their arrival back in theatre he too handed over the command to be replaced by Lieutenant-General J. L. van Deventer.


At that time, with the exception of two detachments, the German forces were organised in two main bodies.  The Western force, consisting of between two and three thousand men, under the command of Tafel, had fallen back on Mahenge and controlled the country to about a 70 mile radius from that place whilst the Eastern (main) force, numbering some four to five thousand troops under the direct command of the German Commander-in-Chief Von Lettow-Vorbeck, was in the coastal area facing the British troops at Kilwa and Lindi.


At 8 a.m. on the 29th May the battalion disembarked at Lindi and marched to the camp there.  Here they would come under the overall command of Brigadier-General O’Grady in a column that also consisted of 3/2nd King’s African Rifles, the Machine Gun Section and Trench Mortars of 2nd West India Regiment, a section of the 3rd Battery South African Field Artillery and one company of the 61st Pioneers.  The first week of June saw the battalion exercising daily in bush formation, marching and active reconnaissance as preparations were carried out for an operation to clear the German forces, estimated at a strength of six companies, from the Ngapa-Schaeffer’s Farm-Mayani area.  On 9th June a practice embarkation was carried out and the following evening at 6 p.m. the battalion, numbering 400 rifles and three machine guns, embarked on two lighters and was towed up the estuary from Lindi, along with the rest of the force, by Royal Navy motor launch.  Having travelled eight miles up the estuary to the head of the delta and past the enemy’s lines the battalion began disembarkation at 10 p.m. and was all ashore by 1 a.m. on the 11th.  They proceeded inland for about nine miles through dense bush until they reached the main German position and where, until the middle of the afternoon, they were in constant action {See Ziwani 11th June}.  After some initial resistance the operation was completed successfully and, by 13th June, the Germans had abandoned their positions and retreated along the Mkwaya Tramway leaving the area in British hands.  The 25th Royal Fusiliers, their work done, marched back to Lindi, arriving there at 11 a.m. on the 14th June.

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“DURING THE FINAL ROUNDING-UP CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE GERMANS IN EAST AFRICA : ONE OF THE FRONTIERSMEN BATTALIONS OF THE ROYAL FUSILIERS ON THE MARCH”

The Illustrated War News, Volume 7 Part 73, 31 October 1917, Page 37

The area abandoned by the Germans was occupied by the British and actively patrolled for the rest of June and into July.  Whilst offensive operations were being planned on other fronts the Lindi force, which included the 25th Royal Fusiliers, was simply to contain the enemy opposing it and not to take on any large scale offensive pending the arrival of reinforcements.  This situation proved most unsatisfactory for the battalion as the area was an unhealthy one for white troops, the sick parade averaged from 40 to 60 daily with as many as 50% of the battalion hospitalised in Lindi at any one time.  On 26th June the battalion was able to parade only 155 men for an inspection by the Senior Medical Officer for Lindi, of these only 36 were considered sufficiently fit to go on column.  These 36 (20 machine gunners and 16 rifles) were to march out on the 28th but the order was cancelled, instead the battalion was instructed to move camp 3 miles to a site vacated by a King’s African Rifles unit.  July continued in much the same vein with the reconnaissance continuing but preparations were now got underway for an advance early in August, route marches became the order of the day and exercises in bush formation and field tactics were carried out regularly.

At the end of July the Germans had reinforced their force on the Kilwa front, most likely at the expense of either their reserves or of the Lindi front, with this in mind it was decided that now was an opportune time to launch another offensive by the Lindi force.  Operational orders were received by the battalion on 22nd July for them to move out on the 26th which, at 6 a.m. that morning, they did as they marched out for Mayani with 20 officers and 314 other ranks, 4 machine guns, 8 Lewis guns and associated transport.  Five days were spent there patrolling the surrounding area before once again they were on the move, this time to Mingoyo from where they would commence their offensive.  On the 2nd August the enemy's forward position on the Mohambika stream was occupied by 3/2nd King’s African Rifles and, on the 3rd, Lindi Force advanced in three columns against the German main positions from Tandamuti Hill to Mandawa.  The 25th Royal Fusiliers, 3/4th King’s African Rifles and 259th Machine Gun Company made up the left, or main, column with the enemy’s right flank on Tandamuti Hill as their objective.  The column encountered stiff resistance from a concealed redoubt which proved impossible to take and, as a result, the advance stalled.  Heavy casualties were taken, especially by the 30th Punjabis, and with no breakthrough possible all three columns entrenched on the ground gained in preparation for a fresh advance{See Tandamuti 3rd August}.  The 25th Royal Fusiliers moved back into camp at Ziwani with orders to be ready to move at a moments notice as part of the General Reserve.  Operations resumed on 10th August with the Royal Navy monitors bombarding Tandamuti Hill whilst Lindi Force was to perform a turning movement to the south.  The 25th Royal Fusiliers left camp at 11 a.m. and marched as reserve to the 3/2nd King’s African Rifles between Tandamuti Hill and the trolley line.  No opposition was met with as the turning movement proved successful, the Germans abandoning their line and falling back on another strongly defended position at Nurunyu.


Fresh operational orders were received on 13th August for the advance to recommence but heavy rain caused these plans to be postponed until the 17th.  When it did finally get under way the battalion, now in a column with 1/2nd King’s African Rifles and a Stokes Mortar Section all under Colonel Taylor, acted as the rearguard as they crossed the trolley line and moved towards Nurunyu.  At 10.30 a.m. on the 18th August the advance guard drove in an enemy patrol and from then on continued contact with enemy forces was maintained as a heavy engagement ensued.  German reinforcements were brought up and, with the enemy surrounding the column, the 25th Royal Fusiliers and 1/2nd King’s African Rifles formed a hollow defensive square as enemy attacks on all sides were repulsed {See Nurunyu 18th August}.  At 9.30 p.m. the fighting was broken off as the Germans withdrew to their main lines of defence, bomb and ammunition supply was renewed in preparation for further attacks the following morning but none came.  Having received reliable information that the German forces opposing Lindi Force had been further reinforced it was thought advisable to once again halt the advance and confine actions in that area to patrolling and re-organisation until the Kilwa force was ready to move.


On 22nd August the 25th Royal Fusiliers marched back to the main camp on the trolley line, west of Tandamuti and designated C.23.  Here, for the rest of August and into September, they continued to send out patrols and mount daily picquets as required.  Little contact with the enemy occurred but occasional shelling of the camp by one of the 4.1” Königsberg guns was endured with few consequences except on 3rd September when an officer was wounded and a sergeant killed by one of these shells.  With battalion numbers dwindling through sickness the battalion moved from C.23 on 4th September to forward positions on the Nurunyu front where they relieved the 8th South African Infantry, themselves much debilitated through sickness.  Headquarters, the machine gun section and ‘A’ and ‘B’ companies moved to the centre camp whilst ‘C’ and ‘D’ companies moved to the left camp.  The men in centre camp provided a picquet of 20 men on a ridge further forward which put considerable strain on the men owing to the small numbers available as by 11th September the effective battalion strength had dropped to 98 all ranks.

Image Imperial War Museum, Q45744

The 8th South African Infantry relieved the battalion on 13th September and the men returned to camp at C.23 where they once again performed the usual camp duties and picquets.  Whilst there 2 officers and 196 other ranks from the fourth reinforcement draft arrived on 18th September to strengthen the battalion, they were badly equipped and not of the highest calibre of men physically but were nevertheless desperately needed.


By the middle of September, with both Kilwa and Lindi forces reinforced, it was considered a suitable time to recommence the advance and make a combined movement southwards from Kilwa and south-westwards from Lindi.  The battalion moved out from camp on 23rd September as part of the Lindi Force Reserve but two days later were ordered to join No.3 Column as it proceeded towards Mtua.  The column encountered strong German rearguards as they fell back but the 25th Royal Fusiliers were held in reserve throughout, being used instead to move ammunition, rations and stretchers forward and to protect the extending lines of communication.

On 30th September, as the advance continued and with the battalion still being held in reserve, Lieutenant-Colonel Driscoll finally succumbed to illness and had to leave the battalion with the adjutant, Captain C. E. S. Bull, assuming command.


The pressure being applied to the German forces by both Kilwa and Lindi forces eventually saw them give way and retire to the Massassi area where they would regroup.  Anticipating this move the Nigerian Brigade was detached from Kilwa Force and sent south across country to assist Lindi Force by cutting off the German’s line of retirement.  The Nigerians made touch with the right of Lindi Force at Mtama on 11th October as flanking movements against the German forces there began but, once again, and no doubt influenced by the introduction of the Nigerians, the German’s chose not to stand and fight but instead withdrew westwards towards Nyangao.  Well aware of the dangers posed by the advancing Lindi force, the German Commander, Von Lettow-Vorbeck, finally decided to check this force by using a significant part of his reserve to reinforce his troops at Nyangao on 13th October and in so doing brought on what was to become one of the severest actions of the whole campaign.


On the 14th October the Nigerian Brigade, consisting of 1st, 2nd and 4th Battalions Nigerian Regiment along with Nigerian Battery and Stokes Mortar sections, had advanced towards its objectives.  The 1st Nigerians were left at a point four miles north of Nyangao on the 15th and the remainder of the brigade continued to march westwards.  Meeting with increasing resistance as it progressed, by the 16th October, the brigade found themselves cut off by strong German forces around Mahiwa.  The 1st Nigerians were beaten back as they attempted to break through and in order to relieve the beleaguered brigade both Lindi Force columns were ordered to press on vigorously.  Both columns were heavily engaged with German forces on the 17th as attack and counter-attack became the order of the day, darkness fell with this still proceeding and resumed again the following morning.  No.4 Column, to which the 126 men of the 25th Royal Fusiliers now found themselves attached, pressed the enemy strongly that morning in order for No. 3 Column to finally effect a successful junction with the Nigerian Brigade.  Another ferocious German counter-attack was launched which resulted in a gap emerging between the fronts of the two British columns, at 3.40 that afternoon the 25th Royal Fusiliers were ordered forward to fill this gap.  Whether accidentally or by design the battalion ended up advancing towards the wrong German entrenched positions and in so doing passed in front of a number of German machine guns, the result was devastating and the battalion was “cut to pieces”, emerging from the action with fewer than 50 men {See Nyangao 18th October}.  It was to prove to be the battalion’s final action of the war.



Sources:

WO95/5325 - 25th Battalion Royal Fusiliers War Diary 1917 May - 1917 Sep.

CAB44/9 - Draft Official History, East Africa: Volume II, Chapter XVII; The Campaign of 1917: Preliminary.

CAB44/10 - Draft Official History, East Africa: Volume II, Chapter XVIII; Kilwa, Nyangao and Tandamuti

Lieut.-General A. R. Hoskins Despatch dated 30th May 1917, London Gazette, No.30447 dated 27th December 1917.

Lieut.-General Sir J. L. van Deventer Despatch dated 21st January 1918, London Gazette, No.30611 dated 5th April 1918.

Three Years of War in East Africa - Capt. Angus Buchanan M.C.

With the Nigerians in German East Africa - Capt. W. D. Downes M.C.

The Great War Letters of Roland Mountfort - Chris Holland & Rob Phillips.

The Royal Fusiliers in the Great War - H. C. O’Neill.

Brothers in War - Michael Walsh