Wednesday, October 17, 2012


To Gain All We Must Risk All: The Imperial German Contribution to 4GW

October 17, 2012
(The following article was contributed by Disciple of Night, a regular commenter on many blogs in the Liberty blogosphere. He emailed me a few weeks ago, asking my opinion on the impact General von Lettow-Vorbeck had on the development of what we today call unconventional warfare. I answered him, but rather than give specifics, I suggested he use what he’s learned in his study of the subject, to determine the answers himself. The following article is the result. Other than some minor editing for clarity and format, any of my personal additions to the article content are in the typical parenthetical form.–J.M.)

(Disclaimer: My favorite Clint Eastwood quote is from Magnum Force: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” I am certainly aware of mine. I am a graduate student with no military experience whatsoever. I believe in the power of history, which is why I feel compelled to examine this story. Everything presented in this essay is strictly based on what I have read and been taught by professionals. I would like to thank John Mosby for giving me the opportunity to write for his blog. Considering his vast wealth of knowledge and first-hand experience, it’s a huge leap of faith on his part. This means more to me than you realize. It’s an honor.)


I’ve come to believe a simple truth. “The Germans of the 20th century did more to advance modern warfare than any other nation (intechnology, administration and tactics) but they just couldn’t win.” (I don’t know that I agree with this, but it may have some validity as a basis of argument. The problem is, the German contributions have focused on the typically Prussian banality and unquestioning obedience to the leadership, rather than intuitiveness and initiation-J.M.) Ask a military historian who the greatest German commander was and you’ll probably hear names like Rommel, or Hindenburg, or Manstein. The trenches of the First World War’s Western Front captured the horror of mechanized slaughter in ways that hadn’t been seen since 1861 (Well, actually, that the world had arguably NEVER seen. The carnage of the War for Southern Independence was certainly devastating to the populace of the USA, it really wasn’t much on the scale of horror when compared to the rest of the world, especially the World Wars–J.M.). Yet, there existed men whose talents and abilities wouldn’t be fully appreciated in their own time.
The Germans had such a man: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. Fighting the British in a remote corner of the world, his story has often been overlooked for the sake of Flanders, the Somme and Verdun. Even when taking a graduate-level military history class (taught by a man who loved World War I more than any other subject) his name was never mentioned. Like an elite few before him, Vorbeck’s brilliance is now taught as gospel, and rightfully so. They called him the “Bush Ghost” for a reason. Author Karen Blixen (The Danish author of “Out of Africa,” her memoirs of living in Kenya–J.M.) wrote, “He belonged to the olden days, and I have never met a German who gave me such an impression of what Imperial Germany was and stood for.”
For those who know his exploits, Vorbeck’s career has been ranked as the most successful guerilla campaign of all time (I‘ve heard history professors and military experts call it “one of the most effective” –J.M.). With a force that never exceeded more than 14,000 men, the German general managed to consistently defeat a combined British, Belgian and Portuguese army of over 300,000 for almost five years. His main objective was to divert as many Allied soldiers to German East Africa as possible, thus relieving pressure from the Fatherland. He finally surrendered in 1918 after being informed of the Armistice. The British alone spent over £75 million pounds trying to stop him.

Terminal Learning Objective
This essay is designed to help fellow like-minded individuals glean from the past a list of easy-to-remember concepts that may come in handy if the worst happens to our beloved nation. I hope this contribution proves beneficial. I pray to God nightly that such a struggle can be averted. But as always, si vis pacem parabellum. (For more information, I highly recommend Vorbeck’s memoirs, which you can read for free on Google Books) I will first offer a basic summary of the campaign and then provide some detailed lessons I gleaned while reading.

The Setting

German East Africa (GEA, for our purposes) was a large swatch of land that included parts of modern day Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, Kenya, Uganda, and the Congo. It offered every possible terrain feature and climate: tropical jungles, rolling grasslands, towering mountains, murky swamps and parched deserts. Populated mainly by the Swahili people and Arab traders, it was in the process of economic development when war broke out in 1914 (like all the European colonies). GEA governor Heinrich Schnee and British East Africa (BEA) governor Henry Belfield had determined previously that the Congo Act of 1885 would stand: colonial possessions were forbidden from fighting in the event of war between their respective motherlands (Ironically, as Vorbeck describes in his memoirs, there was a technicality: war on the colony was prohibited only if a third party had offered to mediate; since this never happened, Vorbeck took the initiative). But the Europeans had been fighting each other over the rights to Africa for decades. They called it a “magnificent cake.” The chance to secure even more economic resources was too tempting for the British.

The Man

Vorbeck was assigned to command a GEA unit called the Schutztruppe (protection group). He arrived for duty in April, 1914. Headquartered in the capitol city of Dar-es-Salaam, only 2500 of the 14,000 Askari (Arabic word for soldier, applied universally to all colonial natives of Africa fighting for a European power) were under arms. The rest were tradesmen and laborers. He brought experience to the table, having fought against the Boxers in 1900 and Namibian rebels in 1904. Vorbeck discovered that his men were a constabulary force, not a professional army. They were poorly equipped, scattered all over the place, and the network of railways and roads connecting them was in bad shape. Vorbeck tried to solve these problems to the best of his ability, but war was declared in July.

The War Years

1914: The British hastily drew a plan to invade GEA with a two pronged assault. “C” group of the Indian Expeditionary Force (4000 strong) would attack Kilimanjaro where the largest concentration of white settlers lived. “B” group (8000 strong) would take the port city of Tanga. In August, the Kilimanjaro attack was repulsed by 1500 Germans and the Tanga landing would end with even higher casualties for the British. They were recorded as the most dismal defeats to that day. Morale among the Germans was high (Washington would have been proud). After Tanga, Vorbeck received word that another enemy force was attacking from the north: local tribes centered around Lake Victoria were revolting. No rest for the weary. 1914soon ended. The next year saw the Germans’ only naval vessal, the Koingsberg, duking it out with a squadron of British warships. After months of fighting, the ship was eventually scuttled. Vorbeck and his men arrived and cannibalized the main guns, converting them into field artillery (emphasis added by me. They utilized battlefield recovery to improve their ability to kill the enemy, instead of bitching and whining about how out-gunned they were? Hmmmm…..–J.M.). On land, numerous skirmishes were taking place all over the border with BEA. 1915 ended up being a rather quiet year with only minor engagements. Another major land offensive wouldn’t take place until 1916.

1916: A new British force under the command of General Smuts invaded from the north, reinforced by Belgians from the west. Vorbeck’s men fought battle after battle, but were eventually forced to withdraw further south in the face of superior numbers and equipment. From now until Armistice, his force would be on the move. The British coastal blockade was firmly tightened and all communication with the outside world was cut, save for captured English newspapers (which were often considered biased and unreliable). By the middle of the year, the Portuguese would also be attacking from their colony in the south.

1917: Facing increasingly difficult problems and his army slowing to a crawl, Vorbeck divided his force into three main columns. Most of his forces were now concentrated in Portuguese East Africa, surviving only on what they could find. After gaining considerable distance ahead of the British, the columns regrouped. Several local native chiefs had defected years earlier, due to the legendary cruelty of their Portuguese masters. This provided the Germans with valuable intelligence on the terrain. Despite winning skirmish after skirmish, Vorbeck is still forced to keep his men in small groups of as little as 100 (considerably different than the common misconception of guerrilla elements not being able to function in groups larger than 10-20, huh? Remember…unconventional warfare is nothing more than conventional small-unit tactics applied in unconventional environments–J.M.). Five companies had to share two machine guns and one field gun. Smuts was relived of the British force and replaced by General Hoskins, who was then replaced by General Deventer, a Boer. A new unit comprised the bulk of the British force: the King’s African Rifles.

1918: In March, news of the Spring Offensive greatly increased moral. Vorbeck’s men had learned to build makeshift boats and bridges from trees, so even in flood, the rivers wouldn’t stop their movement. The capture of large supply dumps at Namacurra in July allowed the Germans to discard all of their black powder 1871 rifles (there’s that battlefield recovery thing again –J.M.). Their perseverance had paid off. Unfortunately, they had reached the southern most part of PEA, and the British were landing in force at Quelimane, a nearby port. Vorbeck turned his army back to the north, towards GEA (It is amusing to note that the Portuguese seemed the least competent of all involved parties in this campaign). Met with strong enemy forces advancing from the north, Vorbeck turned west into British Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe –J.M.). In November, the British informed him of the armistice. Vorbeck’s men surrendered on the 28th, and returned to Germany to a hero’s welcome. His beloved German East Africa was divided between the British, Belgians and Portuguese. The loyal Askari who survived would not be paid until the collapse of the Third Reich (To spot imposters, the Germans required each to demonstrate the manual of arms with a broom. None failed.).

Lessons to Be Learned


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