The Battle of Tanga, German East Africa 1914

How German and British forces were organized, trained, equipped and led
Harvey, Kenneth J.
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The Battle of Tanga, German East Africa 1914

Author: Kenneth J. Harvey
Description: Master's thesis presented to the Faculty of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas 2003
Paperback, 22x28 cm, 107 pages, 18 map sketches


In November 1914, British Indian Expeditionary Force B conducted an amphibious assault on the Port of Tanga in German East Africa. The British possessed all the tools required for success; they outnumbered the defenders almost eight to one, they possessed the only artillery and naval guns available for the battle, and they landed where the Germans were weak. Despite these factors, a hastily organized German defence force of 1,100 soldiers not only defeated the 8,000 British soldiers, but also compelled Indian Expeditionary Force B to retreat to Mombasa. This thesis examines the manner in which German and British forces were organized, trained, equipped, and led. Additionally, it identifies the critical factors that together led to British defeat at Tanga.

From Chapter 2, Tanga:

On 2 November 1914, almost three months after its creation, IEF "B" arrived off the Indian Ocean port of Tanga. Tanga's inner harbor was relatively shallow and protected by the Tanga Peninsula and Toten Island. It consisted of around 900 buildings, eighty of them being large, stone, and close to the waterfront.1 The town itself consisted of two main areas divided by the Usambara Railway, the native quarter and the European settlement. Dense vegetation surrounded the town. Tanga was about ten meters above sea level and its port had a rudimentary jetty without any loading cranes. The inner harbor was too shallow for large ships to dock at the jetty; ships had to be unloaded by lighters in the harbor. East of town, toward the Tanga Peninsula, were relatively flat coastal plains covered with thick, dense vegetation. The vegetation transitioned to rubber tree plantations and Beehive farms south of Askari Road. Tanga Peninsula ended in cliffs rising twenty to thirty meters above small, muddy, beaches along the Indian Ocean. The beaches on the eastern edge of the peninsula were sandwiched between the cliffs and partially submerged mangrove swamps.

Tanga in 1914 was one of two ports in German East Africa with a railway terminus. The single track Usambara Railway ran 150 miles from the port of Tanga to Moshi, in the fertile Kilimanjaro region of German East Africa.2 The Usambara Railway was a small railway with limited capacity; each trainload could only transport one FK with baggage or two FKs without baggage in a single trip.3 As the Usambara Railway entered Tanga, it traveled in a semi-circle past the railway station to its terminus by the jetty. The railway sat in a deep cut that formed a large embankment on either side as it skirted the eastern edge of the town. East of the railway embankment was a large drainage ditch that ran south from the harbor. Three small bridges crossed the embankment and the drainage ditch. The Northern most bridge was part of Hospital Road. Hospital Road led from Tanga, past the German Hospital and through the interior of Tanga Peninsula to the signal tower on Ras Kasone, the northern portion of the Tanga headland.

The road continued from there to a large white house on the eastern edge of the peninsula. The center bridge was part of Askari Road, which paralleled Hospital Road toward the peninsula, and also joined a spur of Hospital Road near the eastern edge of the peninsula next to a large red house. The southern bridge only crossed the railway embankment. This bridge was part of a track that ran towards the rubber plantations southeast of Tanga. On the morning of November 2, the only defensive force in Tanga was a platoon from the 17th FK.

As the sixteen ships of IEF "B" anchored off Tanga at 0450, H.M.S. Fox began working into the harbor. The Fox was unable to reach the inner harbor until 0700, as fear of mines and German removal of all the navigation aids had slowed the ship. Dr. Auracher, the German District Commissioner for Tanga, was informed of the British presence at 0630, when a lookout on the Tanga Peninsula spotted smoke from the convoy.5 Dr. Auracher used a small dingy and boarded the Fox around 0730. Once on board. Captain Caulfeild informed Dr. Auracher that the neutrality agreement between Tanga and the British Empire was invalid. Caulfeild then issued him an ultimatum to surrender the town or face naval bombardment.6 Dr. Auracher replied that Tanga was an open town and he did not have the authority to surrender the town without permission from Dr. Schnee the Colonial Governor.7 After discussing travel time and communication means, Captain Caulfeild gave Dr. Auracher two and a half hours to raise a white flag over the town or suffer the consequences.8 As Dr. Auracher prepared to leave the Fox, he was recalled to Caulfeild's office, where Caulfeild informed him that he would be shot if anything happened to the Fox. Caulfeild then demanded to know if the harbor was mined.9 Dr. Auracher refused to answer the question and Caulfeild again threatened to shoot him if the Fox encountered any mines.10 As he left the ship, Dr. Auracher deliberately choose an indirect route to the shore to reinforce Caulfeild's belief that the harbor was mined."

Once on shore. Dr. Auracher went to the telegraph office and sent two cables. The first cable was to Moshi informing Lieutenant Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck, the Schutztruppe Commander, of the situation. The second cable was to Dar-es-Salaam informing Dr. Schnee, the Governor, of the British demands. Lettow-Vorbeck's response was immediate. He told Auracher to not surrender and to defend the town. Von Lettow-Vorbeck told Auracher that he assumed all responsibility for any consequences of defending Tanga. Von Lettow-Vorbeck's reassurance was important, as it was in direct contravention of Dr. Schnee's response that a bombardment of Tanga must be avoided at all cost, even if that meant surrendering the town. Dr. Auracher read both responses, left the telegraph office, and ordered non-combatants to evacuate Tanga. He then put on his Schutztruppe lieutenant's uniform and joined the platoon defending Tanga.

Von Lettow-Vorbeck next telegraphed Captain Baumstark, the regional detachment commander and ordered him to reinforce Tanga with the 17th FK and to prepare the rest of his detachment for movement to Tanga if the British actually landed there.13 He then issued orders to the Schutztruppe forces in Kilimanjaro to consolidate at Moshi for movement to Tanga.14 Von Lettow-Vorbeck coordinated with the railway personnel, who had already been inducted into the Schutztruppe, to be prepared to transport units to Tanga that morning.15 Baumstark issued movement orders to his units and began moving to Tanga himself. The bulk of the 17th FK took about four hours to reach Tanga by foot from Kange.

The lone defending platoon, joined by Lieutenant Auracher and the Tanga Police, established a thin defensive line along the railway embankment on the eastern edge of town. Scouts were sent to the peninsula to observe the British force. As the seventy-five Askari and police of the lone platoon prepared to defend Tanga, Caulfeild's two and half hour deadline passed. Caulfeild decided to give Dr. Auracher more time and continued to wait in the harbor. At 1045, Caulfeild realized there would be no response to his ultimatum, signaled "No surrender"16 to Aitken, and rejoined the convoy. Aitken called a meeting of the commanding officers to discuss the situation. Upon arrival, Aitken's staff gave them each a copy of Operation Order 1 for a landing that day. It took until early afternoon for all the commanders to board the Karmala, Aitken's flagship. Aitken and his subordinate leaders discussed the landing. Even though the surrender demand had been refused, Aitken did not adjust the first line of his order, "From reliable information received it appears improbable that the enemy will actively oppose our landing" Caulfeild informed the group that until the harbor had been swept for mines, none of the ships could enter Tanga harbor to unload.18

Aitken and his staff then discussed the three possible landing beaches, Beach C on the interior of the harbor. Beach B on the northern side of the headland, and Beach A on the eastern edge of the headland. The actual jetty was to have been the landing site, but as the Fox had not swept for mines, neither it nor Beach C was available. Beach B was also ruled out, as Caulfeild believed any artillery in Tanga could range it.'9 This left IEF "B" with Beach A. Beach A was an extremely small muddy beach with the headland cliff on the one side and partially submerged mangrove swamps on the ocean side. Just above Beach A was the red house that IEF "B" used as a landmark. With the plan now given out, IEF "B" was forced to wait until 1500 hours for all of the commanders to be ferried back to their own ships before moving towards Beach A. An interesting aspect of command arrangements was that other than wireless, Caulfeild and Aitken did not have any direct means of contact. Neither of them thought of placing a liaison officer with the other for coordination during the landings.

IEF "B" arrived at Beach A by 1600, but was unable to begin landing until Caulfeild completed minesweeping at 1740. During the mine sweeping operations the ships of IEF "B" were observed by a patrol from the 17th FK.21 The Fox promptly opened fire and drove the patrol from the headland, but not before von Lettow-Vorbeck had confirmation that Tanga was the British objective. At 1800, the first landing party of 13th Rajputs, from Tighe's Imperial Service Brigade (ISB), disembarked. There was confusion and disorganization. It was not until 2200 hours that the lighters carrying the 13th Rajputs were finally lined up with the tugs and could begin movement from the ships to Beach A.22 At 2230, the 13th Rajputs encountered a coral reef 500 meters from the beach, the lighters were too deep to fit over the reef, and the troops were forced to disembark and wade the remaining distance through chest high water.23 As the troops landed, they secured the cliff exits from Beach A to the Tanga headland. The feelings of many of the British officers were summed up by Meinertzhagen, "So here we are with only a small portion of our force, risking a landing in the face of an enemy of unknown strength and on a beach that has not been reconnoitered and which looks like a rank mangrove swamp."24

Aitken and Von Lettow-Vorbeck had both been busy while Tighe's ISB continued to land. As the daylight passed, Aitken realized he could not accomplish the landing plan he issued that day, so he issued Operations Order 2 to IEF "B."

(1) Owing to the necessity for sweeping for mines in Tanga Bay the convoy (or part of it) will anchor tonight 2-3 miles east of Tanga.
(2) The covering party will now consist of the 13th Rajputs and 61st Pioneers, all under the command of Brigadier-General M.J. Tighe, C.B., C.I.E.,D.S.O. the town of Tanga is to be seized tonight.
(3) 300 porters will be landed for the carriage of 1st Line equipment, telegraph stores, etc.
(4) A visual station will be established on the shore, west of the anchored convoy, and a cable run to Tanga.
(5) Reports to Karmala. 5

There remained no mention of the enemy. IEF "B" was to continue to seize Tanga as planned, despite the facts that the surrender had been refused and they could not use Beach B because German artillery might range it. Von Lettow-Vorbeck had received confirmation of IEF "B" landing when the 17th FK patrol returned to Tanga. Other than marshalling trains and units, Von Lettow-Vorbeck had not ordered any unit to move to Tanga besides the 17th FK.26 After receiving confirmation that IEF "B" was landing at Beach A, he dispatched Lieutenant Merensky's Detachment, with the 6th FK, 6th SCHK and part of the 1st FK, from Moshi on the Usambara Railway to Tanga.27 He noted that the Askari were in high spirits as they left from Moshi, but felt "not so much to the fact that the Askari clearly understood the gravity of the situation, as that for him a trip in a railway train is at all times a great delight."28 Von Lettow-Vorbeck also ordered Baumstark to march the 15th and 16th FKs south to Tanga.29 The remaining detachments in the Kilimanjaro region were to march to Moshi leaving only one FK each to defend the region from IEF "C."

As the Schutztruppe units moved towards Tanga, the ISB continued to land; by 0230, its 13th Rajputs and four of the six companies of its 61st Pioneers were ashore. The soldiers of IEF "B" were "debilitated by nearly a month of sea-sickness and cramped quarters, were thoroughly exhausted."30 Even with tired, exhausted soldiers, Tighe began forming the 13th Rajputs and the 61st Pioneers into attack formation at 0430, 3 November. Tighe ordered two companies of the 13th Rajputs with a machine gun section to lead the attack and seize the telegraph office and jetty.31 Once that was complete, Tighe planned to lead the remainder of the 13th Rajputs and three companies of the 61st Pioneers to envelope Tanga from the south and complete the capture of the town32 At 0515, Lieutenant Colonel Stewart led the 13th Rajputs vanguard element through the bush toward Tanga. […]




1. Operational Situation in Africa 1914
2. Pre-War Colonies in Africa
3. German East Africa in 1912
4. Field Company Organization
5. Schutztruppe Dispositions in August 1914
6. Schutztruppe Organization
7. Schutztruppe Concentration in Kilimanjaro
8. IEF "B" Organization
9. German Disposition as Believed by IEF "B"
10. British Plan of Attack on German East Africa
11. Tanga
12. Landing Beaches
13. Battle on 3 November, Initial Moves
14. Battle on 3 November, Expanding the Battle
15. Battle on 3 November, German Counter-Attack
16. Battle on 4 November, Plans
17. Battle on 4 November, Penetration into Tanga
18. Battle on 4 November, German Counter-Attack