Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The Advance down the Pangani River Valley Tanzania

Following the route of General Smuts’ advance with the 1st and 3rd British Divisions between 18th May and 15th June 1916

Required Reading:
Official History of the War Military Operations East Africa August 1914 – September 1916 compiled by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hordern.
Rough Guide Map of Kenya and Northern Tanzania.
Rough Guide and Lonely Planet Guide to Tanzania.
Three internet articles:

Should you be driving from Moshi to Korogwe on the highway between Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam then you can either drive fast, hopefully avoiding even faster trucks and buses plus the occasional speed trap, or else you can leisurely follow a battlefield tour route of an interesting military advance.

The Rough Guide map of Kenya and Northern Tanzania covers the route.  The page and Sketch numbers in brackets refer to the Official History.  Accommodation along the route is not plentiful but can be located in the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet guide books to Tanzania.  These two books should also be used to determine the seasonal weather conditions that you are likely to meet.  This article is designed to assist a guide who is making a reconnaissance of the route, and who makes his or her own time and distance appreciations.  Unless 4WD is mentioned, a normal two-wheel drive vehicle is perfectly adequate.  

Rough guide map of Pangani Valley route
The military background

After the declaration of war Britain had opened hostilities against German East Africa with an attack by the Royal Navy on Dar Es Salaam, German East Africa (GEA – now named Tanzania) on 8th August 1914.  The military commander in GEA, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, responded with the seizure of Taveta across the border with British East Africa (BEA – now named Kenya).  The Germans then mounted foot-patrol raids with their African infantry companies from Taveta against the Uganda Railway that ran from Mombasa on the BEA coast inland to Lake Victoria.  Until reinforcements arrived in the form of Indian Expeditionary Force ‘C’ the British defended their territory using Askari (soldiers) of King’s African Rifles units recruited from BEA, Uganda and Nyasaland, plus a handful of locally recruited European units.

The British then despatched Indian Army Expeditionary Force ‘B’ to invade GEA at Tanga.  After two days of heavy fighting the British re-embarked, although they could have remained in occupation of Tanga as the Germans themselves had withdrawn.  Force ‘B’ sailed up to Mombasa to join the other troops in BEA.  During 1915 London forbade further invasions of GEA and the Germans held the initiative and mounted more raids against the Uganda Railway.

South Africa agreed to participate in the East African campaign after her successful invasion of German South West Africa in 1915.  Two South African divisions were sent to BEA and the South African General J.C. Smuts was appointed to be theatre commander.  He was tasked with invading and capturing GEA.  The invasion commenced in March 1916 and the British seized Moshi south of Mount Kilimanjaro.  Fierce fighting took place at Kahe before the heavy seasonal rains closed down operations during April (Sketch 26).  In mid-May a British advance started down the Pangani Valley from a start line on the Ruvu River that runs into the Pangani south of Kahe.

The opposing forces

Smuts had sent most of his South African troops through Arusha to seize Kondoa Irangi (Sketch 28), and von Lettow had responded by speed-marching up there with several field companies.  Major Kraut defended the Pangani valley with seven companies and two batteries (page 287).  Smuts re-configured his 1st and 2nd Divisions into three columns (page 289).  The River Column, a brigade of Indian and British units, advanced through the thick thorn bush alongside the Pangani River.  Centre Column, basically an Indian Army brigade, advanced down the road that followed the route of the Usambara Railway running from Moshi to Tanga.  Eastern Column, a 3rd King’s African Rifles (3 KAR) battle group, advanced overland from Mbuyuni in BEA towards Same on the Usambara Railway, aiming for a gap in the Pare Mountains that flanked the northeastern side of the Pangani Valley (Sketch 31).  Four battalions plus supporting sub-units were tasked to be reserves.

The British had constructed a military railway line from Voi in BEA through Taveta to Kahe (Sketch 4), where it joined the Usambara Railway.  Kraut’s plan was to withdraw down the railway, ripping up the tracks as he went.  German guns were mounted onto railway wagons to provide very mobile fire support.  At all times the Germans worked to an excellent logistical plan, falling back onto prepared positions and supply dumps.  In comparison Smuts, a very successful guerrilla commander in the South African War, had no time whatsoever for conventional military logistics. The consequences of this were that his men often went on half or quarter rations, as supplies from railheads had to be carried by African porters who themselves were malnourished and vastly over-tasked.  Smuts’ logistical failings were to kill many more of his men than the enemy ever did.  Apart from living in a hostile densely-bushed environment housing predatory wild animals, the British troops were exposed to a variety of malignant tropical diseases which their under-nourished bodies could not resist.      

Driving South from the Ruvu River  

As you cross the Ruvu River you see the Northern Pare Mountains looming high on your left – a natural boundary for the advancing troops (image 1).  The road runs straight and flat down to Lembeni (page 290) where you have a good opportunity to see the railway running below the Southern Pare Mountains (image 2).  Most features of the Usambara Railway are as they were in the Spring of 1916.

Image 1 - Looking east up the Ruvu River at Kifaru

Image 2 - The Usambara Railway at Lembini

At Same further down the road an interesting option is presented.  You can continue straight on down the tarmac road towards Bwiko, or you can turn left on a bush road through the Ngulu Gap (image 3) and then follow the bush road as it runs below the northeastern slopes of the Usambara Hills.  On 27th May Smuts diverted troops from Centre Column (page 290) onto this route where they met up with the 3 KAR Column from Mbuyuni (Sketch 31).  As you bounce down this route you get the feeling of being in the real Africa, and the villages of Zerizeri and Gonja have hardly changed since 1916 (images 4 & 5).  South of Gonja you cross the Shegulu Bridge which the Germans had demolished (page 292) and have a good view of Lasa Hill which the British turned on the east (page 292).  Soon you drive alongside Mkomazi Station (image 7) where the enhanced KAR Column met up with the diminished Centre Column on 31st May 1916.  Then turn right (north) up the highway.

Image 3 - Looking east to the Ngulu Gap
Image 4 - Zerizeri Village
Image 5 - The bush road near Gonga
Image 6 - Lasa Hill ahead with the SouthernUsambara Mountains on the left
Image 7 - Mkomasi Station looking south

The action at German Bridge  

Whether you drive straight down the highway from Same, or if you went behind the mountains on the bush road and then turned north, pull off the highway into a campsite on the west where the mountains, road and railway all squeeze together.  The reason for the squeeze is quickly seen as the Pangani River has swung in towards the mountains (Sketch 31).  You are at the site of the fight at German Bridge (page 291).  A low ridge running from the mountain appears to be the vital ground (image 9) which 130 Baluchis and 27 Indian Mountain Battery outflanked on the slopes above, whilst 2nd Rhodesia Regiment made the frontal assault.

Image 8 - The Pangani River at German Bridge
Image 9 - The battlefield at German Bridge

The action at Mkalamo

Drive onwards down the highway through Bwiko to Mombo.  If you have 4WD or a very sturdy 2WD vehicle you can divert west on a rough track to the Pangani at Mkalamo, and then go onwards to Handeni if you wish, following the route of Centre and River columns.  This track is the old German trolley line (page 294) that Kraut moved most of his troops and supplies down (Sketch 32).  Even if you don’t go through to Handeni at least try to reach Mkalamo where a very stiff fight in deep bush took place on 9th June 1916 resulting in 48 British casualties (page 296).  You bounce along into the real Africa again and pass under Mafi Hill where German gunners engaged a British aircraft (page 296 & image 10) and then drop down onto the river (image 11).  Interpret the battlefield yourself (Sketch 33) remembering that dense bush obscured the view of most of the participants, and that in 1916 the river was much wider and deeper (page 295 footnote 3).  Here 130 Baluchis was leading and had a very savage fight at close-quarters.  Talk to the inhabitants of the local hamlet.  You might meet a nice elderly chap who can show you a tree under which a mound of cartridge cases were found.  This was probably where a German machine gun was sited on a tree platform.

Image 10 - Mafi Hill from the fromer trolley line
Image 11 - Mkalamo battlefield across the Pangani River

Return to Mombo where a cool, interesting diversion is to drive north up into the hills to the old German administrative centre of Wilhelmstal, now named Lushoto (Sketch 32).  Several examples of original German colonial architecture are still standing, including the church.

The fight for Zuganatto Bridge

From Mombo carry on down the highway towards Korogwe (Sketch 32).  This route was taken by 3 KAR battle group whilst the remainder of Smuts’ men moved down the trolley line.  About 27 kilometres south of Mombo look for a parking place on the south of the road adjacent to a railway bridge over the Pangani (image 12).  This bridge was dropped by the Germans as they withdrew in early June (page 298).  Walk over the bridge and down the track to Mauri (Sketch 34).  Mauri Station (image 13) was a British railhead once the bridge had been repaired, and you get the definite feeling that not much has changed since Smuts’ men arrived here.

Image 12 - Mauri Bridge
Image 13 - Mauri Station

Now follow the highway down to Korogwe, noting Fundi Hill on your left and the part that it played in the German defence (page 299), and swing right with the highway towards Dar Es Salaam (Sketch 34).  You will immediately see a bridge so park off the highway.  Now survey the battlefield at Zuganatto Bridge (page 299) where 3 KAR took the then wooden structure from the south and Lieutenant Baron Eric von Otter, 3 KAR, won his Military Cross.  The supports to the old bridge piers can be seen in the river (image 14), and the high ground that 3 KAR seized can be noted beyond.

Image 14 - Zuganato Bridge today with the old brideg supports showing on the far bank
Look around Korogwe station and visualise the scene of demolition that the British found (pages 299 & 300) before they established an important railhead here.

Onwards from Korogwe

If your destination is Dar Es Salaam then continue down the highway.  However if you want to reconnoitre a really interesting and unspoiled  larger battlefield then take the road to Tanga (pages 60 to 96 and Sketches 9 to 11).  When driving to Tanga an interesting excursion is to drive up into the Southern Usambara Mountains to see the old German Research Centre at Amani (4WD definitely needed).  Whatever your movements now, you are unlikely to quickly forget the beautiful Pangani Valley (image 15) where a disciplined and well-led German withdrawal slowed down a considerably stronger British force.

Image 15 - The Pangani Valley at dawn
Map showing early operations in German East Africa

My Reminiscences of East Africa by General von Lettow-Vorbeck.
The 2nd Rhodesia Regiment in East Africa by Lieutenant Colonel A.E. Capell.
Marching on Tanga by Francis Brett Young.
The Desert and The Green by The Earl of Lytton.              
The King’s Africa Rifles by Lieutenant Colonel H. Moyse-Bartlett.