A Soldier's Soldier: Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

by N.B. Forrest

6 January 2005

[From Instauration, December 1996]

Recently while watching CNN I heard some nitwit of a U.S. Army colonel in Croatia told his men Croatians are racists and would kill black soldiers "just because of the color of their skin." Now it's quite possible that the Croatians are not too happy about having U.S. soldiers of any color in their midst. Nevertheless I am sure they have no plans to kill any American Negroes, if for no other reason than that Clinton, to placate the black vote, would promptly turn the Croats' beautiful European land into a smoking heap of rubble.

What disgusts me is the attitude of this white army officer. At one time the military was a bastion of conservative Majority members. No longer. While plenty of solid Majority types still remain in the armed forces, as well as a growing number of race-conscious Majority activists, they are still greatly outnumbered by politically correct morons, all too ready to dance to the latest multiracial, multicultural tune. The dingbat colonel is obviously one of them. When he was reprimanded, his superior officer described him as "his finest battalion commander."

There was a time when American officers were made of sterner stuff. The same could be said of Russian officers. One German colonel who could find useful employment in the modern U.S. Army was Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, a Prussian of the old school. Anybody seeing a picture of him in civies would surely comment, "He has to be a Prussian officer." The close-cropped skull, the eagle nose, the hard lines of his face, told no lies. When he sits, he sits at attention. No doubt many a wayward lieutenant withered under von Lettow-Vorbeck's terrible glare. He was a man's man and a soldier's soldier.

It is all but forgotten now, but Germany once held a string of colonies in the Dark Continent, a result of the European nations' "Scramble for Africa." German East Africa, later called Tanganyika, was a huge land, three times the size of Germany, with a population of seven million in 1914, a 600-mile coastline, tall mountains, including famed Mount Kilimanjaro, malarial swamps, brush-covered deserts, fertile uplands and vast inland lakes. It was an empire in itself and had just started to show real signs of economic progress when WWI ignited.

As luck would have it, Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck was appointed commander of the German colonial forces, the Schutztruppe. He was the perfect choice. At age 44, he had spent 25 years in the army and probably had more colonial military experience than any other German officer.

The military forces at von Lettow-Vorbeck's disposal consisted of the Schutztruppe, with 216 German officers and NCOs and 2,540 black soldiers. A police force with 45 Germans and 2,154 African "askaris" was also available, plus a number of German army reservists and some 450 German sailors and marines trapped in the colony by the war. Modern arms were in short supply. The colony's "Luftwaffe" consisted of one rickety biplane that crashed on its first flight. Most of the soldiers and policemen were armed with old black powder rifles. Artillery comprised a couple of 1873 field pieces. Ten usable guns of heavy caliber were obtained by dismounting them from the wreck of a grounded light cruiser.

During the course of WWI the German High Command managed to send two blockade runners to German East Africa with some ammunition and guns. A bizarre plan to resuppy the colony by Zeppelin failed, after an epic flight from Bulgaria to the Sudan. Von Lettow-Vorbeck had to capture or manufacture most of his own supplies. Food, clothing, medicine, even weapons were created out of almost nothing by ingenious German farmers and administrators. The Colonel was able to eventually pull together an army of 3,000 Germans and 11,000 Africans. At the beginning, at least, it was hardly a crack military force. Von Lettow-Vorbeck himself called it "a travesty of a military organization!" With this largely homemade, ramshackle bunch of amateur and professional fighters, he would fight the British and their allies to a standstill for four years.

The first major action of the campaign occurred at the port of Tanga in the Indian Ocean. An 8,000-man force of the British Indian army landed with the intention of simply rolling over the Colonel's troops. A bitter battle in early November 1914 ended in total and humiliating defeat of the Brits. Even nature lent a hand when huge swarms of African bees attacked a retreating British column, causing everyone to run amok. Germans killed, wounded or captured hundreds of British troops and seized enough rifles and machine-guns to arm three companies, plus field telephones, uniforms and a wealth of other gear. The British sadly boarded their transports and retreated to British East Africa, now Kenya.

While there were serious deficiences in the British force, starting with the poorly trained Hindu troops who composed many of the infantrymen, their defeat was a grim signal that His Majesty's army was facing a master in the art of war. This lesson would be taught again and again in four bloody years of warfare. During this time the British put together a formidable African army of their own, replete with South Africans, black mercenaries, Rhodesians and British Kenyan settlers. They would quickly erase the stain of Tanga, but the German enemy fought on brilliantly.

Von Lettow-Vorbeck's overall situation was extremely precarious. The British would either do the smart thing and let him wither on the vine or they would attempt to squash him, in which event he intended to make them pay for their victory in buckets of blood. Thanks to the Colonel's aggressive tactics, the British soon had little choice but to try to run the Germans down and wipe out their miniscule army.

The main campaign revolved around the British attempt to push the Germans out of the populated and relatively developed northeast corner of German East Africa, along the border with Kenya and south of Mount Kilimanjaro. Most of the German colonists were concentrated there, as were the most productive plantations.

It took the British until the summer of 1916 to push the Germans out the Kilimanjaro line and down towards the center of the colony. Fighting every step of the way, the vastly outnumbered von Lettow-Vorbeck doggedly opposed the onslaught of the 250,000 men of the British Emprie and various allies.

One the western border of the colony a separate war was fought against Belgian colonial trooops from the Belgian Congo. Some of the black soldiers, it was rumored, were cannibals. At the same time, a mini-war for naval supremacy on the huge inland lakes was being waged, a series of battles that the British managed to win by crating armed launches over the untamed jungles for hundreds of miles.

Slowly and relentlessly the British ground down the German forces. Some detachments were cut off and destroyed or forced to surrender. More and more territory was lost, including the principal towns and food producing regions. The end seemed near.

On November 25, 1917, what was left of von Lettow-Vorbeck's army crossed the Rovuma River into Portugese East Africa, better known as Mozambique. Portugal, an ally of the British, was fair game. And the Germans needed someplace to run to.

The decrepit Portugese colonial troops were a pushover for the battle-hardened Germans. The Portugese officers were plagued with syphilis. Their African soldiers were more primitive than those in the German ranks and had far less training and discipline. The hapless Portugese were soundly thrashed from pillar to post. In one incident a German private was seen cuddling, as if he were a baby, a white Portugese soldier, who was weeping hysterically after being captured. A fine example for African blacks! The Germans lived well on the bounty from the captured forts and camps of the derelict colonial power.

The exasperating, frustrating, "bush war" continued until November 25, 1918, two weeks after the war ended in Europe. The last armed clash occurred on November 12, but it took another 13 days to arrange a suitable -- and honorable -- surrender. By that time the Germans, having left the dust of Mozambique behind them, had recrossed German East Africa and were in Northern Rhodesia! The Germans stiffly laid down their rifles, most of them of British manufacture, and adjusted to their new status as prisoners of war. After a few unfortunate incidents and despite an attack of the Spanish flu that killed nearly 10% of the Schutztruppe survivors, the British treated their captured foes with every courtesy. In early March 1919, the Germans finally arrived back in the Heimat and were given a well-deserved heroes' welcome to honor the only undefeated German army of WWI.

The tale of this campaign is interesting for any student of military history, but the figure of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck is the main attraction. In his miliary skill and manly personal qualities, he was a living reminder of an ancient Spartan warrior.

Just what kind of man was von Lettow-Vorbeck? He was first and foremost a German officer, with all that the term implies. He was indeed something of a martinet and had a cold streak, as evidenced by his recommendation of suicide to a subordinate who had behaved in a cowardly manner under fire, "I believe you still have your pistol. Let me hear some interesting news about you in the morning." The news was soon forthcoming.

While his tough Prussian traits might seem harsh to us milk-toast moderns, they were exactly what was needed on the battlefield. As for his African troops, the Colonel considered them first-rate fighters, provided they were under German command. A typical European officer of 1914 vintage, he would have scoffed at notions of racial equality. He treated his men firmly but well, with no nonsense about being on their level. They repaid him with respect, obedience and, it is said, affection, though understandably some of the Germans, especially the reservists, were prone at times to sagging spirits and low morale. The Colonel ignored the muttering. He knew that good men would win out over the bad.

The war in East Africa had far fewer of the brutal incidents that are usually recorded in the history of war, though admittedly a few inexcusable deeds were committed by both sides. The contrast between the noble von Lettow-Vorbeck and the civilian governor of the German East Africa was the stuff of drama. As one British officer put it, "[von Lettow-Vorbeck] had the bearing of a Prussian Guardsman, but none of the bluster and swagger attributed to such. His manner was just what it should have been, courteous and polite." As for the governor? "A man of the less presentable lawyer class, full of cunning, by no means a fool, but not a gentleman." The British have a way with words!

The Colonel shared every hardship with his troops without complaint. When rations were short, he cut those of the officers first. When, shortly after the surrender, the British seemed about to renege on a few of their promises, some Germans plotted to escape from their poorly guarded prison camp. Their commanding officer would have none of it. They had given their word to abide by the surrender and they would keep would keep their word. When he returned to Tanganyika in 1953 for a visit. Von Lettow-Vorbeck was mobbed by his old African troops. It was a touching and revealing scene.

Perhaps more revealing was another visit in 1964, the year of the Colonel's death. Thanks largely to his efforts, the Bundestag finally voted to give his black troops their back pay. (The British never got around to it, despite a clear-cut stipulation in the surrender document inserted by the Colonel himself.) A German banker accompanied Tanzanian government officials to the office building where the payments were to be made. The question arose as to how to sort out the frauds from the real veterans? The German banker, probably a veteran himself, gave each old codger a broomstick and barked out the German drill commands. Only the honest claimants passed the test.

The author of a biography of von Lettow-Vorbeck ended it with the observation that some old black Africans, if asked, might proudly stand at attention and reply to a question about his identity, "Mimi ni askari Mdaichi." (I am a German soldier.)

In a now almost forgotten war, more than 80 years ago, a German officer was by his sterling personal example and leadership, able to take an army of Africans and a few of his fellow Germans and march them into legend. As long as men honor courage, devotion to duty and love of country, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck will find a worthy place in the pantheon of heroes.


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