Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck (1870–1964) was remarkable among military commanders
of the First World War in that he served for the entire period without ever having
Often compared with the better-known T.E. Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia—Lettow-Vorbeck
similarly was a master of guerrilla warfare, this time in East Africa. With a force
never great than 14,000 in total—comprised of 3,000 German and 11,000 Askari (native
African) troops—Lettow-Vorbeck ran rings around Allied forces (for the most part
British and South African) that were ten times larger than his own.
Prior to the war Lettow-Vorbeck had seen service during the Boxer Rebellion, and
in German Southwest Africa (Namibia) during the Hottentot and Herero Rebellion of
1904-08, during which he was wounded and sent to South Africa to recuperate. Six
months before the the outbreak of war in 1914, Lettow-Vorbeck—then a Lieutenant-Colonel—was
given command of Germany's forces in East Africa, which included twelve companies
of Askari troops.
Lettow-Vorbeck realized quickly that the German campaign against Allied forces in
East Africa needed to be conducted on his own terms, largely by seizing (and retaining)
the initiative. In August 1914 he began his war by attacking the British railway
in Kenya. Three months later a large mixed British and Indian invasion force landed
at Tanga Bay to conquer German East Africa; in numerical terms at least they outnumbered
Lettow-Vorbeck's available force by some eight to one. Nevertheless, right from the
start he demonstrated great tactical planning.
With the Allied landing a success, Lettow-Vorbeck pulled his forces some distance
back, not in full retreat as seemed apparent, but simply in order to draw the British
and Indian forces further inland, catching them in a crossfire and inflicting heavy
casualties, quickly obliging a British retreat back to Tanga Bay to consolidate.
Over the next couple of years Lettow-Vorbeck launched raids into the British colonies
of Kenya and Rhodesia, the aim being to destroy forts situated there, along with
railway track and carriages. His Askari troops, trained in the Prussian manner, gained
in confidence and experience with each successful raid. Jan Smuts—himself an enemy
of the British during the Boer War of 1899–1902, but now serving with them - was
tasked in March 1916 with dealing with Lettow-Vorbeck, and in doing so launched an
attack from South Africa with a force of 45,000 men. As with the British beforehand,
Lettow-Vorbeck led Smuts a merry dance, although curiously this did not subsequently
harm Smuts’ political career in any way.
In 1917 the Allies turned up the heat on Lettow-Vorbeck, with attacks launched from
such disparate locations as Kenya, Rhodesia, Congo and Mozambique - the latter two
spearheaded by Belgian and Portuguese forces, respectively. With his forces running
low on supplies—both ammunition and food—Lettow-Vorbeck was forced to live off the
land, although a successful raid upon a Portuguese arms dump near the Mozambique
border largely resolved his arms shortage. Lettow-Vorbeck launched fresh raids against
Rhodesian forts in 1918, tackling one after another. He was in the midst of planning
further large raids when news of the 11 November Armistice reached him (from a British
Far from beaten, and with a force of some 3,000 men available to him, Lettow-Vorbeck
nonetheless decided to surrender to the British on 25 November at Mbaala, Zambia.
Returning to Germany as a national hero (and having been promoted general in the
field), Lettow-Vorbeck was likewise admired by his former enemies as a courageous,
tenacious and honorable fighter.
Once in Germany he immediately joined the Freikorps, and at the head of a brigade
successfully crushed Spartacist forces in Hamburg. Lettow-Vorbeck was however obliged
to resign from the army having declared his support for the right-wing Kapp Putsch
His memoirs of his wartime experiences were subsequently published (in English translation)
as My Reminiscences of East Africa. When Smuts, his former opponent, in the aftermath
of the Second World War, heard that Lettow-Vorbeck was living in destitution, he
arranged (along with former South African and British officers) for a small pension
to be paid to him until his death on 9 March 1964 at the age of 94.