British taking Tanga from the Germans

 

 

Book Review: SEVENTEEN LETTERS TO TATHAM

A WW1 SURGEON IN EAST AFRICA

Author: Ann Chricton-Harris

 The book is based on the seventeen letters that the author’s grandfather, a surgeon with the Indian Medical Service, wrote to his brother a judge in India during the British African Campaign in world war one. Dr. Temple Harris came over from India with 8,000 troops, mostly Indian soldiers, and landed on the Raskazone beach in Tanga.

 The British had a disastrous time at the first battle at Tanga and were routed in three days, between 2nd and 4th November 1914, by the well-entrenched 1,000 German Officers and African Askaris. Tanga at the time was under German rule.

 Ms. Harris spent eight years researching the book, including finding others’ account of the battle and visiting Tanga to see the battle ground. She spent a week in Tanga, visiting the beach ‘A’ where the British landed, the railway cutting where the British were ambushed and the Red House field hospital where the seriously wounded were left in the care of her grandfather and four other medics as the defeated British fleet sailed away.

 Most of the battle sites mentioned in the book still exist today, many in the same form as during the battle. The WW1 tour is now a tourist attraction in Tanga.

 The Foreword is by noted British author William Boyd, of the ‘An Ice Cream War” fame. Mr. Boyd had also written a fascinating account of the battle in Tanga in his book.

According to him, one of the reasons for the British’s heavy defeat was the attack by a swarm of bees on the British soldiers.

 The text on the back cover is by Vice Admiral Sir Norman King KBE whose father was the British Consul in Dar es Salaam when the WW1 broke out. Sir Norman’s father coincidentally was at the Red House field hospital with Dr. Harris in November 1914.

 The book is published in Canada in September 2001 and will be officially launched on the 20th of the same month in Toronto. The book has 231 pages, including over 40 photographs, many from 1914 – 18 period and some from the author’s visit to Tanga in 1999.

WW1: 3-DAY BATTLE IN TANGA

By Ann Chricton-Harris

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British ships seen from Raz Kazone, November 2, 1914.

East Africa, and Tanga in particular, were much affected by a war whose genesis was far away and whose major theatre was in Europe. East Africa had suffered domination by two giant colonial powers for several decades - two powers whose settlers had farmed the land and managed to get along, with one another, relatively peacefully. The start of the 1914-18 war changed all that. It also significantly changed the lives of the indigenous Africans, the Indian traders and the Arabs who had lived there for generations.

This campaign was responsible for the deaths of many Africans; some were conscripted to fight, others coerced to act as carriers for either Germany or Britain.

Rumblings of war in the summer of 1914 caused confusion in Africa. The British felt it would be dangerous to let Africa remain neutral; the German-built railways were lifelines linking the eastern ports with the interior and Lake Victoria.

  To those Africans who had joined up to train as askaris with the German Schutztruppe, it was a chance to show their worth and their loyalty. They were much admired for their prowess in the field, but for others of the indigenous population, who knew nothing of the reasons for a war so far away, it must have been unimaginably confusing and disturbing.

War really came to East Africa on August 8th 1914 when the radio tower at Dar es Salaam was shelled by HMS Astraea. In the meantime Britain was mobilizing a large contingent of Indian soldiers and British officers to sail from India to ‘take Tanga’ and sweep on through to conquer German East Africa.

On 16th October 1914, the convoy of seventeen British ships left the port of Bombay for the long hot voyage to East Africa. On board were 8,000 men. The ships were overcrowded, the Indian troops poorly trained and their dietary needs ill-considered. The general in command was both arrogant and ignorant of the situation he was approaching.  

The British command had not reckoned on the brilliance and resourcefulness of the German leader, Col. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, who had come out to Africa to assess German troops prepared to put down potential Arab uprisings. Von Lettow had 1,000 men - Africans who were well trained, well disciplined and knew the country - men who were ready and anxious for the fight.

On November 2 the British convoy anchored off the Raz Kazone peninsula and noted three buildings that stood out against the lush vegetation: a low red-roofed house, a two storey white house and a signal tower. General Aitken issued the order, “Tanga is to be taken tonight.”

The shore itself was an obstacle course of twisted mangrove roots and the lighters were unable to move close into shore due to shoals and a falling tide.

 Von Lettow, who had waited to see exactly where the enemy would land, now rushed his troops down to Tanga from Moshi by train.

The narrow strip of beach below the so-called Red House was chosen for the landing the following day, November 3. The men were to scale the twenty foot cliff and regroup at the Red House.

If you have seen this beach, you can imagine thousands of men wading to shore, tripping over the mangroves, stumbling over the equipment piling up, then lugging their packs and ammunition up the cliff. Once there they waited for the order to move out, not actually given until noon next day. The sun beat down and food and water had been neglected by the time they received the order to attack.

The German force had barricaded the bridges over the railway track, were well prepared, and waited.

 The three days of battle were a disaster for the British. Although some men fought their way as far as the centre of town others were ambushed at the Railway cutting or lost in the plantation and long grass. Many panicked and threw down their arms. Those who could ran for the beach and swam, if they knew how, to the safety of the ships.

Dr. Harris wrote that the wounded (850 fell in three days) were “in or about a planter’s house" (the Red House). At that time there would have been outbuildings for agricultural equipment and servants. The British would likely have used tents for the overflow. We know that initially the wounded were operated on the kitchen table and without anaesthetic. Medical supplies were slow to be unloaded.

After three days a temporary truce was agreed upon for the removal of wounded. German officer Capt. Hammerstein and the British intelligence officer Capt. Meinertzhagen signed the agreement on the balcony of the Bombo hospital having had a good breakfast of asparagus, eggs and cream. They then rode together on mules down Askari road to take parole - not to fight again against Germany in that war - from those wounded and too ill to be taken off when the force retreated.

But this skips over the three days of hell endured by those who fought on. The odds were eight to one, yet the British were routed. Those of you living in Tanga know where the railway cutting is. In front, about 200 yards to the east is a ditch and between the two, flat open space. It was so then. Some enterprising British soldiers tried to reach the railway cutting but were mown down as they crossed the open land. The Germans were well camouflaged in the vegetation on the banks. Over the three days a few British soldiers did fight their way into the town found themselves cut off. Many Indian troops, through no fault of their own, had no battle experience, were ill from the sea voyage and tortured by thirst. Many turned and ran. Efforts of the British officers to stay the stampede were mostly unsuccessful. 

By the third day the fleet sailed away defeated. The Germans were jubilant.

Dr. Temple Harris and four other doctors were left behind caring for the hundreds of wounded. Two days later a hospital ship returned to take those not too ill to be moved from the Red House field hospital. During this time these “disconsolate medicos” as my understating grandfather described them, had no idea whether they would be overrun and slaughtered, taken prisoner or just forgotten by the British. Fortunately, a hospital ship was sent to rescue the less severely injured and the medical staff. The German doctor, Ludwig Deppe and his nurse wife laboured on at the Bombo hospital treating all comers, Africans, Indians, British and German alike. He wrote his story later and interesting reading it makes.

The “White House” used as Headquarters, which had been seen from the sea, stands today as does the signal tower.

The war in East Africa continued for four long years, isolated from the main fighting in Europe. It is a campaign little known except to military historians but the legendary guerrilla tactics of von Lettow-Vorbeck and his askaris are worth reading about. Tanga was later retaken by the British but Lettow-Vorbeck’s men remained the only German force not beaten in that war. He and his bedraggled but determined men surrendered with honour at Abercorn.

We remember with pleasure our visit to Tanga in March of 1999 to see the landing beach, the battle area, the town, the railway cutting, the various cemeteries, German (which includes their askaris), British and European, the Red House and the mangrove swamps. We found the people of Tanga friendly and helpful. With its lovely old colonial architecture and handsome harbour, Tanga is a town worth learning about.

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