“A MACHINE GUN IN ACTION”
With the Nigerians in German East Africa, Captain W. D. Downes
18th August 1917
After the inconclusive action at Tandamuti on 3rd August the 25th Royal Fusiliers had withdrawn into camp at Ziwani where they reorganised in preparation for another advance. Operations recommenced on 10th August as Tandamuti Hill was bombarded by Royal Navy monitors and Lindi Force, with the 25th Royal Fusiliers as reserve, performed a turning movement to the south which saw the Germans abandon the previously secure position and retire onto further strongly defended positions at Nurunyu.
Heavy rain over the next few days prevented any further operations against the Germans until the 17th August when Brigadier-General O’Grady’s Lindi Force received fresh instructions that once again they were to attempt to dislodge the enemy from their positions by means of outflanking and subsidiary movements. This was by no means going to be an easy feat due to the country around Nurunyu being exceptionally difficult. On the southern side of the German position protection was afforded by wide and impassable swamps, most of the eastern face was covered by a dense sisal plantation whilst the stretch of open ground around the trolley line was lined with trenches and a sisal abbatis. Furthermore these trenches were flanked to the north by a steep escarpment at the top of which were further entrenchments surrounded by more thick bush.
The battalion, acting as the rearguard in Colonel Taylor’s column which also comprised the 1/2nd King’s African Rifles and a Stokes Mortar Section, left camp at C.23, the main camp west of Tandamuti. The column moved first northwards and then westwards towards Nurunyu until they made the first curve of the trolley line from Mingoyo, here they stopped and bivouacked for the night.
Before dawn on the 18th August the advance was continued, the 1/2nd King’s African Rifles lead the way across the trolley line and into “truly terrible thorn-bush country”. Throughout the morning the column pushed on in a south-westerly direction, in a wide circling movement, in order to attack the German left flank positions at Nurunyu from the west. These positions were held by Abteilung Rothe consisting of 19th FeldKompagnie and Tanga Kompagnie with Abteilung von Chappuis (4th SchutzKompagnie and 9th FeldKompagnie) in reserve. With other British forces holding the German’s attention to the east the column’s advance guard made contact with enemy troops at about 10.30 a.m. and drove in some outlying outposts. From then on the 1/2nd King’s African Rifles maintained continuous contact with the enemy as they pushed back the German left flank and drove a wedge between 19th FeldKompagnie and Tanga Kompagnie. However, as the bush grew ever thicker so as to prevent deployment and German fire increased as reinforcements from their reserve were moved forward, the decision was made to take up a defensive position.
As the position they now found themselves in was unsuitable for a night defence the 1/2nd King’s African Rifles established a firing line and, once done, withdrew to a position 600 yards in the rear where the Stokes Mortars Section and 25th Royal Fusiliers were drawn in to support and an all-round perimeter formed. In the thick bush that the column was in this was to prove a wise decision as the enemy could advance unseen and launch an attack from any direction.
The British position was hastily entrenched and no sooner had the lines on all sides been established than a determined German attack was launched upon the British right flank. This attack was repulsed but, as the firing continued, the Germans mounted further fierce and sustained attacks, on the rear and left of the British position, as they moved forward further reinforcements in the shape of the 3rd and 11th Felkompagnies, under the German commander von-Lettow-Vorbeck himself and maintained a heavy fire from close range. Still the British held firm in their ‘square’, the rifles, machine guns and mortars of the British force replying to the German fusilade and subjecting the attacking askaris to a heavy and concentrated fire and so they fought, until well after dark.
At about 8 p.m. the firing ceased and the British force was at last able to draw breathe for a short while. The lull in the action didn’t last long though as the Germans had used this time to reorganise their forces and surround the ‘square’.
At around 9.30 p.m. a shrill enemy whistle was heard and instantaneously a great burst of fire swept the square from the right flank, an enemy force having crept up close to the British position in the darkness and tried to take it by surprise. Another fierce fire-fight ensued but, after about twenty minutes, the German troops drew back and their firing gradually ceased.
Expecting the Germans to renew their attack, either in another night attack or early the following morning, the British force took the opportunity that the remaining hours of darkness offered to distribute ammunition to where it was needed and also attempt to get some rest. Thirst was also now a big problem, there being no water available within the ‘square’.
Battalion casualties, considering the heavy fighting that had occurred, were relatively light, due in no small part to the lie of the ground, their position being in a slight dip that could not easily be detected from the enemy lines. In the action on the 18th August the battalion suffered one man killed and four wounded, one of whom was the battalion chaplain, the 1/2nd King’s African Rifles casualties were significantly heavier though with twelve killed and forty-seven wounded.
As dawn broke the force stood to and some patrols were sent out to establish the situation on the ground. Some brief skirmishes took place but the enemy positions of the previous day were found to be empty, the Germans having removed to a new line some 700 yards away to the front and right flank of the British ‘square’. Communications were reopened with G.H.Q. and arrangements were made to re-supply with ammunition and to bring water to the camp, although bully and biscuit would remain the main food ration as fires were not allowed, this to deny the enemy artillery a mark on the position. The enemy shelling of the camp was desultory and inaccurate as the thick bush denied the observers any indication as to where the shells were falling, indeed their own men were in as much danger as the British of being hit.
For a further four days the troops remained in the shallow trenches of the ‘square’ before orders were finally received for the 25th Royal Fusiliers and the rest of Colonel Taylor’s advanced force to withdraw, under cover of darkness, to be redistributed in defensive positions further back. The withdrawal was accomplished without incident on 22nd August with the 25th Royal Fusiliers, by now reduced to no more than a small machine gun company, returning to the main camp at C.23 where they formed part of the reserve.
25th Bn. Royal Fusiliers
Captain, the Reverend H. W. Hutchings
1852 Sergeant L. Evans
42745 Private W. Clows
15051 Private J. McCallum
WO95/5325 - 25th Battalion Royal Fusiliers War Diary 1917 May - 1917 Sep.
CAB44/10 - Draft Official History, East Africa: Volume II, Chapter XVIII; Kilwa, Nyangao and Tandamuti.
Lieut.-General Sir J. L. van Deventer’s 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.
The Royal Fusiliers in the Great War - H. C. O’Neill.
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Killed in Action
25th Bn. Royal Fusiliers
12890 Private J. G. Carter
25th Bn. Royal Fusiliers attd. 1/2nd King’s African Rifles
13464 Sergeant J. W. H. Parker