Who's Who - Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

Col. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck 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 suffered defeat.

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.

Lettow-Vorbeck realised 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.

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.

In August 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 prisoner).

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 honourable 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 in 1920.

His memoirs of his wartime experiences were subsequently published (in English translation) as My Reminiscences of East Africa.  From May 1929 until July 1930 he served as a deputy in the Reichstag, later unsuccessfully trying to establish a conservative opposition to Hitler.

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.

A sandbag was a sack filled with earth from which defences were built.

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