This Day In History: The Germans Defeat The British At The Battle Of Tanga (1914)

On this day in 1914, during the early phases of WWI the British army suffered a severe setback in Africa. On this date in history, the British army was forced to retreat from a key town on the east coast of Africa. On the 7th of November, the soldiers of the British expeditionary force are forced to evacuate the town of Tanga in German East Africa (today in Tanzania).

The European powers had carved up the entire continent of Africa between them. Britain, France, and Germany among others had established huge empires on the continent. German had established a large colony in East Africa and this was seen by Britain as a threat to its own interest in Africa and in the Indian Ocean. The British wanted to seize the entire east coast of Africa. Tanga was key to the British objectives, as it was not only an important port but was also the terminus of an important railway. The British High Command ordered that the town was to be seized by the navy. They decided to launch an amphibious operation in order to seize Tanga. The British could not spare their best men who were all on the Western front and they decided to use poorly-trained Indian troops. The best Indian troops had been sent to Mesopotamia to fight the Ottoman Turks. The task force charged with seizing Tanga, was under the command of General Arthur Aitken, an experienced soldier.

The Germans were apparently at a great disadvantage as they had fewer men and the British navy had cut off their links to the Mother Country and to any further supplies. However, they were led by the brilliant General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.  He was preparing for an invasion from the south by the British. He left only a token force of Germans at Tanga and they were mainly composed of colonial troops.  On November the 2nd, the British advanced on Tanga from the sea and landed near Tanga, but they did not advance quickly enough. This allowed the German commander  Lettow-Vorbeck to send reinforcements to Tanga. However, even so, the British outnumbered the Germans by more than three to one. The  German troops many of whom were native Africans  were well drilled in the Prussian manner and highly professional. Despite being outnumbered they advanced on the British positions and overwhelmed them. The inexperienced and poorly led Indian troops were soon put to flight and their General ordered the evacuation of their positions.

German war cemetery in Dae Es Salaam

Lettow-Vorbeck’s campaign in East Africa would  frustrate their British and their allies until the end of the war. Despite being outnumbered he outwitted the British and the Belgians for many years. This was despite the fact that he had not received any reinforcements and supplies from Germany. He did not surrender until November 25, 1918, two weeks after the general armistice and he and his men were given a hero’s welcome when they returned to Germany.