Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck (March 20, 1870 - March 9, 1964) was a German general, the commander of the German East Africa campaign in World War I, the only colonial campaign of that war where Germany remained undefeated.
Afterwards, Lettow-Vorbeck was posted in Africa. Between 1904 and 1908, he went to German South-West Africa (now Namibia) to participate in the Hottentot and Herero Genocide. Lettow-Vorbeck suffered an injury to his left eye and was forced to recuperate in South Africa where he met Jan Smuts. Later he would fight against Smuts during World War I.
From January 1909 until January 1913, Lettow-Vorbeck was the commander of the 2nd Sea Battalion (II. Seebataillon) of the German Marines (Kaiserliche Marine-Infanterie) at Wilhelmshaven in Lower Saxony, Germany. He also commanded the German colonial forces known as the Protection Force (Schutztruppe) in Kamerun (now Cameroon, apart from a portion transferred to Nigeria).
In 1914, Lettow-Vorbeck was appointed the commander of the small German garrison of 3000 soldiers and twelve Askari companies in German East Africa, the mainland part of modern-day Tanzania. With the beginning of the war in August, knowing the need to seize the initiative, he ignored orders from Berlin and the colony's governor Dr. Heinrich Schnee. Schnee had insisted on neutrality for German East Africa. Lettow-Vorbeck promptly disregarded the governor, nominally his superior, and prepared to repel an amphibious assault on the city of Tanga, where between November 2 and 5 of 1914, he fought one of his greatest battles. He then assembled his men and almost nonexistent supplies to attack the British railways in East Africa. He scored a second victory over the British at Jassin on January 18, 1915. While these victories gave him badly-needed modern rifles and other supplies, as well as critical boost to the morale of his men, von Lettow-Vorbeck also lost numerous experienced men in these pitched battles, among them the "splendid Captain Tom von Prince, whom he could not easily replace.
Lettow-Vorbeck's plan for World War I was quite simple: knowing that East Africa would never be anything but a sideshow, he determined to tie down as many British troops as he possibly could; this would remove them from the Western Front, and in this way, might contribute to Germany's victory.
Lettow-Vorbeck knew he could count on his highly motivated officers (their casualty rate was certainly proof of that). As a consequence of costly personnel losses, he afterwards avoided direct engagements with British soldiers, instead directing his men to engage in guerrilla raids into the British provinces of Kenya and Rhodesia, targeting British forts, railways and communications — all with the goal of forcing the Entente to divert manpower from the main theatre in Europe. He gathered some 12,000 soldiers, most of them Askari, but all well-trained and well-disciplined. He realised the critical needs of guerrilla warfare in that he used everything available to him in matters of supply, he used the crew and artillery of the German cruiser SMS Königsberg (sunk in 1915 in the Rufiji River delta) which had a capable crew under commander Max Looff, as well as its numerous guns, which were converted into artillery pieces for the land fighting, which would be the largest standard land artillery pieces used in the East African theater.
In March 1916, the British under Jan Smuts launched a formidable offensive with 45,000 men. Lettow-Vorbeck patiently used climate and terrain as his allies while his troops fought the British on his terms and to his advantage. The British, however, kept on adding more troops and forcing Lettow to yield territory. Nevertheless, he fought on, including a pivotal battle at Mahiwa in October 1917 where he lost 519 men killed, wounded or missing and the British 2,700 killed, wounded or missing. After the news of the battle reached Germany he was promoted to Generalmajor. The British would recover their losses and continue to hold an overwhelming manpower advantage; for the Schutztruppe it was serious, there were no reserves to again fill the ranks.
Von Lettow now began a forced withdrawal to the south, with his troops at half rations and the British in pursuit. On November 25, 1917 Lettow’s advance column waded across the river Rovuma into Portuguese Mozambique. In essence he cut his own supply lines and the Schutztruppe caravan became a nomadic tribe. On their first day across the river they attacked the newly replenished Portuguese garrison of Ngomano and solved all their supply issues for the foreseeable future. When they captured a river steamer with a load of medical supplies, including quinine, at least some of their medical problems were no more. For almost an entire year they had now lived off the land, but mainly with provisions captured from the British and Portuguese; they had replaced their old rifles with new equipment and acquired machine guns and mortars after capturing Namakura (Nhamacurra in modern Mozambique) in July 1918. At the end they had more ammunition than they could carry.
On September 28, 1918 von Lettow again crossed the Rovuma and returned to German East Africa with the British still in pursuit. He then turned west and raided Northern Rhodesia, thus evading a trap the British had prepared for him in German East Africa. On November 13, two days after the armistice, he took the town of Kasama which the British had evacuated, and continued heading south-west towards Katanga. When he reached the Chambeshi River on the morning of 14 November, the British magistrate Hector Croad appeared under a white flag and delivered a message from the allied General van Deventer informing him of the armistice. Lettow-Vorbeck agreed to a cease-fire at the spot now marked by the 'Von Lettow-Vorbeck Memorial' in present-day Zambia. He was instructed by the British to march north to Abercorn (now Mbala) to surrender his undefeated army, which he did there on November 23. His remaining army then consisted of 30 German officers, 125 German non-commissioned officers and other enlisted ranks, 1,168 Askaris and some 3,000 porters.
The British and Belgian invasions of German East Africa set off a chain of events with devastating ramifications for the natives and their German overlords. The invasions caused interruptions throughout the colony so that the land no longer “basked in a climate of plenty.”
As military commander, Col. von Lettow-Vorbeck’s first obligation was to his army over the objections of Governor Heinrich Schnee. The governor regarded war as the worst possible calamity that could befall German East Africa; it would “undo everything his social and economic reforms had accomplished.” Lettow-Vorbeck knew he would have to give ground and escape confrontations with Allied forces. He thus established food depots along his intended line of march from Neu Moshi to the Uluguru Mountains, and if the neighboring villages were near starvation, that was a misfortune of war. Hardly any aid from Germany could penetrate the British blockade to alleviate the enormous supply deficiencies, and only two blockade runners succeeded in reaching the colony. On 14 April 1915 the freighter Kronborg arrived off Tanga at Manza Bay after a two months journey from Wilhelmshaven, and was promptly attacked by the British cruiser Hyacinth. Fortunately for the Germans, Kronborg had been scuttled by her captain to avoid a coal fire after repeated hits by the British cruiser and the ship settled in shallow water. Nearly its entire cargo could be salvaged. When the steamer Marie von Stettin arrived south of Lindi on 17 March 1916, its precious cargo of 1,500 tons was of only very modest help. By late September 1916 all of coastal German East Africa including Dar es Salaam and the Central Railroad were under British control, with the west occupied by Belgians; then during December 1917 the German colony was officially declared an Allied protectorate.
Lettow-Vorbeck and his caravan of Europeans, askaris, porters, women and children marched on, deliberately bypassing the tribal home lands of the native soldiers in an effort to forestall desertions. They traversed difficult territory, “swamps and jungles . . . what a dismal prospect there is in front of me [to succeed]” stated the Allied commander Gen. J.C. Smuts. But Smuts did not flinch. His new approach and objective was not to fight the Schutztruppe at all, but to go after their food supply. The end eventually came some time later with Smuts in London and Gen. J.L. van Deventer in command in East Africa.
In a 1919 book, Ludwig Deppe, a medical doctor campaigning with Lettow-Vorbeck and former head of the hospital at Tanga, looked back in rue and lamented the tragedy that was imposed by German forces on East Africa in their war with the invading Allies: “Behind us we leave destroyed fields, ransacked magazines and, for the immediate future, starvation. We are no longer the agents of culture, our track is marked by death, plundering and evacuated villages, just like the progress of our own and enemy armies in the Thirty Years War.”
While there was German callousness and harshness, there is neither a record of benevolence by the new British or Belgian masters in German East Africa. They assumed no responsibility for African welfare and provided little assistance to the malnourished native population; indeed, when food ran short for the Allied formations “the British askaris fell back on the practice of attacking and looting villages.” When the worldwide Spanish influenza epidemic swept into eastern Africa in 1918-19 it struck down thousands with impartiality, native and European alike. The weakened state of many natives made them especially susceptible, including the caged Schutztruppe askaris and porters herded together at the Tabora camps.
Lettow-Vorbeck returned home in early March 1919 to a hero’s welcome. On a black charger he led 120 returnees of the Schutztruppe in their tattered tropical uniforms on a victory parade through the Brandenburg Gate which was decorated in their honor. He never surrendered; he frequently won against great odds and was the only German commander to invade British territory successfully in World War I. After the war, he and J.C. Smuts formed a lasting friendship. When Smuts died in 1950, Lettow-Vorbeck sent his widow a moving letter of sympathy.
Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was a daring yet prudent commander who showed uncanny ability to fight a guerilla war in unfamiliar terrain. He was respected as a brilliant soldier and a first rate leader by his white officers, non-commissioned officers and Askaris – and beyond that, by his foes. In the field when rations had to be reduced and supplies dwindled,
The East African campaign then was essentially about a “modestly immense Allied army” that was engaged by “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 guerilla fighters.” Lettow-Vorbeck’s exploits in the African bush have come down “as the greatest single guerilla operation in history, and the most successful.”
One of Lettow’s junior officers, Theodor von Hippel, used his experience in Africa to be instrumental in forming the Brandenburgers, the commando unit of the German Abwehr intelligence agency in World War II.
He participated in the chaotic politics of the Weimar Republic. Although he remained in the Army for only fourteen months after his return to Germany, during that span he suppressed a communist uprising in Hamburg, and placed some of his troops at the disposal of monarchist reactionaries during the Kapp Putsch; the failure of the putsch forced his resignation from the Reichswehr in May 1920. From May 1928 to July 1930 he served as a deputy in the Reichstag. Lettow-Vorbeck "distrusted [Adolf] Hitler and his movement, even though Hitler offered him the ambassadorship to Great Britain in 1935, which he "declined with frigid hauteur. After his blunt refusal to serve he “was kept under continual surveillance” and his home office was searched. The only rehabilitation due to his legendary standing among the populace came in 1938, when at age 68, he was named a General for Special Purposes, but was never recalled into service.
At the end of World War II he was destitute. His two sons, Rüdiger and Arnd had been killed in action with the German Army, his house in Bremen was destroyed by Allied bombs, and he depended for a time on food packages from Meinertzhagen and Smuts. With the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and economic recovery, he came to enjoy comfortable circumstances again. In 1953 he visited his other home, East Africa, where he was heartily welcomed by surviving Askaris who greeted him with their old marching song Haya Safari! and was received with courtesy and military honours by British colonial officials.
In the year of von Lettow-Vorbeck’s death, 1964, half a century after he arrived at Dar es Salaam, the West German Bundestag voted to fund the back pay for the Askaris still alive. A temporary cashier’s office was set up in Mwanza on Lake Victoria. Of the 350 old men who gathered, only a handful could produce the certificates that von Lettow had given them in 1918. Others presented pieces of their old uniforms as proof of service. The German banker who had brought the money came up with an idea. As each claimant stepped forward, he was handed a broom and ordered in German to perform the manual of arms. Not one man failed the test.
Four barracks of the German Army (Bundeswehr) at Leer, Hamburg-Jenfeld, Bremen and Bad Segeberg were named in his honor. With personnel reductions and base closures of 178 military installations, the last of the barracks named after Lettow-Vorbeck (at Bad Segeberg) was closed in 2004.