Battle of Tanga: British invasion of German East Africa Defeated, Assisted by Encounters with African Bees ("Battle of the Bees")

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Battle of Tanga: British invasion of German East Africa Defeated, Assisted by Encounters with African Bees ("Battle of the Bees")

"Battle of Tanga, 3rd -5th November, 1914" by Martin Frost
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: November 3-5, 1914

My history lesson for today highlights a battle in the opening months of "The War to End All Wars" (aka World War One) which was largely overlooked by the public. The battle, however, was critical to the German war effort in East Africa, and brought fame to the German officer commanding the largely native forces at his disposal.


Germany came late to the European scramble for colonial empires – the 1880s – and was left with a few areas in Africa, Asia, and Polynesia. By 1914, the largest colonies in the German empire were in Africa, specifically German South West Africa and German East Africa (the modern-day nations of Namibia and Tanzania respectively). Several native rebellions had been snuffed out, one of the most notable was the 1904 Herroro rebellion in South West Africa, and the 1891-1898 Wahehe rebellion. [For more information on the Wahehe rebellion, please see my Burn Pit post from August of this year: battle_of_lugalo.]

Partly as a result of these rebellions, the colonial apparatus was reformed and the various German colonies became more productive. This provoked fear among other European colonial powers – especially Great Britain and France – fearing that Germany would use the Prussian-trained soldiers of its colonies to its military advantage (sometimes referred to as a "black peril"). [Of course, looking back from a century later, these fantastic fears are pure nonsense.] As a result, England paid closer attention to possible military action against German colonies in case of war.

German colonies in Africa, 1884-1920 (German East Africa on right)
German colonies in Africa, 1884-1920 (German East Africa on right)

With the advent of the Great War, the British and French military quickly organized invasions of German territories in Africa. These attacks were not the major focus of the Allied nations, as a large majority of Allied troops in the colonies were sent to western Europe, the main focus of operations. Consequently, local troops left behind were used to make these initial attacks. As an example, German South West Africa was invaded from the south by South African troops.

In the fall of 1914, British planners felt that an attack on German East Africa was a necessary next step. Earlier in the fall, the British and Germans had made a sort of "gentleman’s agreement" that recognized the neutrality of Dar es Salaam – the capital city of German East Africa – and the port of Tanga, located in the northeast corner of the German colony. However, with Tanga located only 50 miles from the border with British East Africa (now Kenya), it was decided that the port was a primary military target. With only token British troops in Africa, the War Ministry decided to ship troops from India to invade the German colony.

Indian Expeditionary Force B

The Expeditionary force consisted of the 27th Bangalore Brigade (one British and three Indian battalions) under Brigadier General Richard Wapshare, and the Imperial Service Brigade under Brigadier General Seymour Hulbert Sheppard, altogether 8000 troops under the overall command of Major General Arthur E. Aitken. The invasion force left India on October 16, arriving at the Kenyan port of Mombasa two weeks later.

The Indian troops assigned to the landing force were newly recruited and poorly trained. Battles are shaped by innumerable decisions and events leading up to the first shots fired, but in this case the British had all but sealed their fate when they left Mombasa for the port of Tanga. Maj. Gen. Aitken believed that by keeping his soldiers on transport ships, secrecy as to their numbers and his intentions could be ensured. After the voyage from India, the sea-sick and exhausted Indian soldiers were not given an opportunity to rest and recuperate before being ordered into action. Their poor physical condition would have a telling effect on the ensuing battle.

German East African Army

At the outbreak of World War I, the main German forces in German East Africa were the Schutztruppe. They consisted of volunteer European officers and NCOs, as well as medical and veterinarian officers. Enlisted ranks (known as askaris) were recruited locally. In German East Africa there were 14 field companies (Feldkompagnien) with 2,500 men under arms, with headquarters at Dar es Salaam. Including porters and laborers, the force totaled approximately 14,000 personnel. Lieutenant Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck assumed command in German East Africa in April of 1914. He led his units throughout World War I, eventually being promoted to Generalmajor.

A typical German Schutztruppe askari company, c. 1914; Photograph taken by Walther Dubbertin; Original in German Federal Archives, Koblenz, Germany
A typical German Schutztruppe askari company, c. 1914
Photograph taken by Walther Dubbertin
Original in German Federal Archives, Koblenz, Germany

A pre-war company consisted of 160 men in three platoons of 50 to 60 men each, including two machine gun teams; a company’s base strength could be expanded to 200 men, if necessary. Each of the 14 companies also had a minimum 250-man porter contingent as well as native irregulars known as Ruga-Ruga. The askaris were drilled with Prussian precision, achieved high levels of marksmanship, were very loyal, and were considered nearly the equal of any German soldiers.

Apis mellifera scutellata aka African Honey Bees: Unwitting German Allies

These bees are found in a range from the savannahs of central and equatorial East Africa to most of South Africa. This is a small bee with a short tongue which is highly aggressive and swarms frequently and is able to nest in a broad range of sites. Scientist have speculated that these bees, whose hives are often sought out by locals and destroyed for their honey, react more quickly and more aggressively than their European cousins. Additionally, more A. m. scutellata bees will attack a threat to the hive, often number in the hundreds (as opposed to a mere 10-12 attackers in other bee species in a similar situation).

Apis mellifera scutellata, African honey bee
Apis mellifera scutellata, African honey bee

Prelude to the Battle

On November 2, 1914 the British cruiser HMS Fox sailed into Tanga harbor. The vessel’s captain landed ashore to inform the Germans that the gentlemanly truce between the two nations was about to abruptly end. An ultimatum was delivered: Tanga must surrender by the following day, or be attacked. As he was leaving, the British captain demanded to know if the harbor was mined (it was not); he was, however, told that it was. As a result of this disinformation, British naval units spent the balance of the day and a portion of the next sweeping Tanga harbor for non-existent mines. This gave the Germans time to call in reinforcements from other nearby outposts to oppose the British amphibious attack.

Battle of Tanga

It was not until nearly nightfall on November 3 that the majority of the Indian Expeditionary Force B had landed. Some contingents of the British force landed at the port, while others came ashore on a beach about three miles east of the city. German reinforcements arrived throughout the day and night, eventually reaching 1000 men – both European and askari troops. Some skirimishing occurred during the night, but no major fighting commenced. During the night of November 3, Lt. Col. von Lettow-Vorbeck and some aides took bicycles from the railroad station into the streets of Tanga to inspect the town’s hospital. It had been shelled when a German machine gun had fired on a nearby British ship. As von Lettow-Vorbeck and his men walked through the town, they were challenged by an Indian sentry, demanding a password. The German commander bluffed his way past the soldier, cheekily giving the German password, "Stambuli."

Early the next morning, November 4, the 6th Feldkompagnie fought skirmish actions between Tanga and the landing zone at Ras Kazone. Von Lettow-Vorbeck issued an order to move all available troops to the railway station in the center of Tanga. He realized that they would be at least partly protected against naval artillery by the houses of the European settlement stretching between the railway station and the harbor to the north. A medical staff officer at the Hospital building counted one British cruiser and nine transport ships in the harbor at that moment. [The actual count was two cruisers and 14 transports.]

The flat area towards Ras Kazone (on the right side of the map below) and also the southern part of Tanga consisted of dense coconut and rubber plantations, enclosed by hedges. As von Lettow-Vorbeck feared additional landings further south, he concentrated his reserves at his right (southern) flank, were they could also be used for a counterattack should the main battle take place between Tanga and Ras Kazone.

The German defensive perimeter consisted of the following units, from left to right (or, viewing the map below, from north to south):

  • The 6th Field Company, which had recently received intensive training on machinegun tactics. It was ordered to defend the western side of the town.
  • The 16th and 17th Field Companies under Hauptmann Baumstark were positioned to the right rear of the 6th Company. They had been formed from police units and other small detachments. Their right flank was anchored on the railroad station.
  • Finally, further right were three companies with high combat value: the 7th and 8th Schützenkompanie (entirely consisting of European troops), together with three machine guns, and the askaris of the veteran 13th Field Company with 4 machine guns. These last three companies formed a reserve under command of von Lettow-Vorbeck himself.

Copy of map of the battle of Tanga, drawn by Lt. Col. von Lettow-Vorbeck himself [Image courtesy of]
Copy of map of the battle of Tanga, drawn by Lt. Col. von Lettow-Vorbeck himself
[Image courtesy of]

The British attack force was ready to move out by sunrise; however, Maj. Gen. Aitken sent word to all his units that a hearty breakfast was to be eaten by everyone. This order took up an essential two hours, during which time the invaders could have virtually walked into the city of Tanga. But the German forces were fully in place by 3:00 pm, when the British began their advance. Almost immediately, askari-manned machine guns opened up and inflicted casualties on the sick and exhausted Indian troops.

The fighting was very intense at the eastern outskirts of Tanga where the 6th Field Company was forced to retreat by the British North Lancashire regiment. The enemy reached the railway station and occupied part of the town when the remnants of the 6th Company reassembled and counterattacked using also the two European companies. A tough street fighting started as the newly arrived German companies tried to clear the enemy out in desperate house-to-house fighting.

Meanwhile the 16th and 17th Field Companies had engaged the enemy south of Tanga, but the askaris started to retreat after approximately one hour of firefights. Used to fight tribal warriors, they had never been confronted with an enemy with such a degree of firepower. Some of the German staff officers intervened immediately in an attempt to stem the retreat. One German officer is mentioned furiously throwing an empty wine bottle at retreating German askaris, while others tried to appeal to the pride of the askaris or exposed themselves to enemy fire to show them that the enemy fire was not as deadly and accurate as they believed.

Lt. Col. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (1870-1964); Photo taken in 1913 (photographer unknown); Image taken from German Federal Archives, Koblenz, Germany
Lt. Col. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (1870-1964)
Photo taken in 1913 (photographer unknown)
Image taken from German Federal Archives, Koblenz, Germany

Von Lettow-Vorbeck realized that the situation had become critical and that the front would not hold much longer against the attacks of superior numbers. At the harbor the Kashmiri rifles’ battalion, supported by naval artillery, was about to outflank the German defenses. Von Lettow-Vorbeck threw the 13th Field Company into the battle. The company immediately performed a bayonet charge against the left flank of the Lancashire regiment, supported by the continuous fire of four machine guns.

Fortuitously for the Germans, the 4th Field Company arrived by railway moments after the 13th’s attack; the newly arrived 4th Company was immediately used to support the attack by the 13th Company. The flanking attack drove back the exhausted Indian troops, many men dropping their weapons and other equipment and heading for the beach. Witnessing the successful advance, the other German units along the frontline enthusiastically joined the attack, routing the British and Indian troops in close combat in the plantations. The machine guns were used against the retreating troops causing numerous casualties. Unexpectedly, the German troops were supported by a new ally: swarms of bees attacked when their hives were battered by machine gun bullets. [The bees attacked both sides in this battle. British newspapers tried to use the "Battle of the Bees" as an insidious German battle ploy.]

It was already getting dark and the situation became quite confused. It became even more confused when an askari musician played the wrong bugle call, which caused many of the native companies to pull back west of the town. Von Lettow-Vorbeck began rushing about the field, trying to reverse the erroneous orders. For several hours – until nearly dawn on November 5 – the city of Tanga was undefended; the British could have simply marched in and occupied the town. The German commander needn’t have bothered, as the demoralized British and Indian units had pulled back to the main invasion beach. At about 6:30 pm the firing had stopped, and the battle for Tanga was ended.


Disgusted by the poor performance of his cobbled-together Anglo-Indian force, Maj. Gen. Aitken ordered his men back to their transports. They were all back on their ships by November 5, when the flotilla sailed away. The British force had sustained 360 men killed, 487 wounded, and 148 missing or presumed captured.

By contrast, Lt. Col. von Lettow-Vorbeck was thrilled with the overall performance of his men, outnumbered nearly 8 to 1. German casualties totaled 16 Germans and 55 askaris killed and 76 Germans and askaris wounded.

Footnote #1: In addition, the departing British and Indians abandoned large amounts of equipment, which the Germans promptly acquired. There were enough rifles for the Germans to rearm three companies with modern rifles (the askaris were using Mauser 1871 single-shot bolt-action rifles) along with 600,000 rounds of ammunition. They also found 16 machine guns, field telephones, and uniforms for the Schutztruppe for a year.

Footnote #2: Lt. Col. von Lettow-Vorbeck led his German forces for the rest of the war, winning every battle he fought. His remaining men did not surrender to Allied forces until two weeks after the armistice of November 11, 1918. Many of his forces had not been paid for a long time, yet his charismatic leadership kept them fighting the Allies.

Footnote #3: When von Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces surrendered, he issued written certificates to his men, promising that the German government would give them their back pay. In the year of his death, the West German parliament voted to deliver back pay to all surviving Askaris. A temporary cashier's office was set up in Mwanza on Lake Victoria. Of the 350 veterans who gathered, only a handful could produce the certificates that von Lettow-Vorbeck 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.

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