Tuesday, December 30, 2014

First World War Series- Part 4

The Battle for German East Africa
Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck was the commander of the German forces in the German East Africa campaign and over a period of four years fought the most successful guerrilla operation in the history of modern warfare. With a force that never exceeded about 14000 men he kept in check a force of over 300,000 British, Belgian, and Portuguese troops. Lettow-Vorbeck's plan for the war was quite simple he knew that East Africa would be a sideshow to Europe but he was determined to tie down as many British troops as he could to keep them away from the Western Front. 

He disregarded orders from Berlin and the wishes of the colony's Governor, Heinrich Schnee, to keep the colony neutral and as soon as war was declared began his preparations. His chief protagonist was the South African General J. C. Smuts who a few year earlier had fought a similar campaign against the British in the South African. The biggest contrast between the two forces was their make up, Lettow- Vorbeck favored professional German Staff officers leading African Askari and over the course of the campaign he forged this body of men into a formidable fighting force that easily out fought, out marched and out witted the British. Smuts by contrast was saddled with a ragtag army of a mixed bag of Indian Battalions, a core of South African regulars that were the backbone of the force and a colorful bunch of aged volunteers, named somewhat optimistically, the  Legion of Frontiersmen (see below)

Undefeated in combat, Lettow-Vorbeck was the only German commander to successfully invade British territory during the First World War. He finally received a message from the allied General Jacob van Deventer, informing him that an armistice had been signed. He agreed to a cease-fire and marched his forces north to Abercorn (now Mbala) where he surrendered his undefeated army, arriving there on 25 November. His remaining men then consisted of just thirty German officers, 125 German non-commissioned officers and other enlisted ranks, 1,168 Askaris, and some 3,500 porters. He returned to Germany where he and his Officers were welcomed as hero’s and paraded in their tattered colonial uniforms through Brandenburg Gates that were decorated in their honor. 

The Legion of Frontiersmen

Assembled by the South African War veteran, Colonel P.D. Driscoll D.S.O., they were officially known as the 25th (Service) Battalion Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) but in East Africa, they simply became known as “The Old and the Bold” Even allowing for the fact they came from a  nation noted for fostering eccentric characters, it’s hard to imagine a more colorful and diverse group of adventurers than are found in this gathering.Their number boasted F.C. Selous, the noted hunter and naturalist; a large number of late members of the French Foreign Legion; a dusting of millionaire; one royal servant from Buckingham Palace; a circus clown; several cowboys from Texas; a handful of musicians from the dance band at the Empire; a lighthouse keeper from Scotland; an opera singer; a professional strong man; an Irishman who had been sentenced to death by the President of Costa Rica and who had, presumably, escaped; a band of Mounties; a music hall acrobat; a lion tamer and last but by no means least, an ex-general of the Honduran Army who designed and built them an experimental bomb throwing device which nearly annihilated the entire British High Command, who rather unwisely, showed up to witness it’s test firing. Whatever their reasons for volunteering one thing is for certain- they were easily the most romantic and remarkable group of fighting men ever to depart British soil to go into battle abroad!

Friday, November 14, 2014

First World War Series- Part 3

The sinking of the SMS Königsberg
One of the most intriguing and drawn out Naval engagements of the First World War unfolded in the labyrinth of mangrove swamps that guard the mouth of Rufiji River, in southern Tanzania. At the outbreak of hostilities the most powerful German warship in the Indian Ocean was the Cruiser SMS Königsberg, a swift and heavily armed vessel that was a menace to shipping on the East Coast of Africa. A group of British warships were dispatched to hunt her down and eventual succeeded in cornering her in the mouth of the Rufiji Delta. The ensuing game of cat and mouse that unfolded in that maze of channels, are the stuff of legends, with the Germans hiding their ship by camouflaging it with vegetation while the British tried to pinpoint the vessels' location to deliver a knockout blow. At first they tried using aerial observation but after the first plane was shot down they turned to the remarkable figure of “Jungleman" Pretorious. Major J.A. Pretorious was a former Elephant Hunter who had spent much time before the war wandering around that part of the world. He knew the people that lived there and spoke their language fluently so he was able to disguised himself and slip ashore to gather intelligence on the location of their target. Once they had fixed the Königsberg’s location a plan was devised to bring in two “Monitors” which were flat bottomed gun boats specifically designed to operate in the shallow waters like those found in the delta. To get them into position however, they would need covering fire which meant the entire flotilla would have to move close inshore and risk running aground on the maze of shoals at the mouth of the river. What the British needed were accurate charts so they turned once again to their maverick talisman Pretorious. Disguised as a local fisherman he commandeering a dugout canoe spent weeks using his punt pole to surreptitiously measure the depth of the various channels at high tide, often under the watchful gaze of German machine gun emplacements. Being out of uniform he risked being shot out of hand as a spy if captured but cooly carried out his mission and on the 10th of July at spring tide the whole plan came together. The Königsberg came under withering fire and after several hours her crew lay scuttling charges and sank her in the delta where she lies to this day.

The Guns

The Germans recovered Königsberg's ten 4.1” quick-firing guns, mounted them on improvised field carriages, and used them with great success as powerful field guns in their guerrilla campaign against the Allies around East Africa. Likewise the British salvaged the guns from the Pegasus a cruiser, sunk by the Königsberg in an earlier engagement so these guns carried on their duel for years after their respective ships had been sunk. Three of Königsberg's guns survived; one is on display outside Fort Jesus, Mombasa, Kenya, another outside the Union Building in Pretoria, South Africa and a third at Jinja Barracks in Uganda.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Close encounter's while on a walking safari

Probably the closest call I have had in 25 years of guiding was an incident that happened on a walking safari in Matusidona National Park, just after I got my license. We were tracking a pride of lion that we knew were in the area and as we were following their spoor, I was aware of a heard of buffalo that were walking parallel to us. In my mind, I was already planning to go and find them after we had caught up with the lion’s which we did in due course. As was to be expected they were not delighted to see us and they reacted in typical and predictable fashion- after a bit of snarling and growling they moving off into another thicket out of sight and we decided to let them be and move on. Now sometimes the male in this particular pride would double back as you were leaving and give you a second grunt and growl- not a full charge, but just enough to make sure you knew you weren’t welcome, and in anticipation of this, I switched to walk at the back of the group. I pointed them in the direction of a clearing I could see up ahead, where I knew we would be running into the buffalo, and we set off again with me looking over my shoulder in case the lion’s came back. As we came to the edge of the clearing I ran into the person in front of me and realized that the whole group had stuttered to a halt because they had now spotted the large heard of buffalo up ahead. Typically buffalo in herds are docile beasts, or so I thought! I strode confidently to the head of the line, to lead them out into the open where I expecting to find the usual spectacle, of a large herd of bovines milling around for our viewing pleasure and boy- was I in for a surprise! You see, unbeknownst to me, the lion’s had been terrorizing that heard of buffalo all night, and now with us disturbing the lion’s, the buffalo had heard the growl’s and every bull in the herd had now decided to settle this matter once and for all. The sight that greeted me emerging from the Mopani scrub was that of a gang of 50 angry buffalo bulls bearing down on me at a brisk trot. 

Now for a guide on foot, the prospect of a single charging Buffalo is the stuff of nightmares, but I didn’t have they first clue what one should do, when faced with 50 charging buffalo! For starters I only carried 20 rounds of ammunition for my rifle, which was considered a bit excessive by most of my colleagues, but in spite of this there was definitely not going to be enough bullets to go around. I decided that since the buffalo’s argument was with the lion’s our best course of action was to get out of their way, but as soon as we moved sideways they tracked on our movement and began coming even faster. Faced with this “Custer’s Last Stand” scenario, I decided that I would rather take my chances with a pride of lion in thick bush, than 50 angry buffalo out in the open, and beat a hasty retreat back towards where we had come from. Fortunately this proved to be the right course of action as the buffalo phalanx thundered right up to the brush line, but not knowing exactly where the lion’s were in the thicket, they were reluctant to go any further.They milled around on the edge of the clearing, bellowing and taking out their considerable frustrations on the Mopani scrub while we ducked back through the brush, all the while keeping a sharp eye out in case we ran into the lion’s again. We eventually made it safely back to camp, to my great relief but I had learned a valuable lesson about never taking for granted how you expect certain animals to behave in any given situation.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Funny encounters on safari!

As a young guide I was dispatched to pick up a canoe safari that would be arriving the following day, at Nyamepi Camp in Mana Pools. Arriving after dark, I shared a camp fire and a welcome cup of tea with another guide, Alistair,  who’s guests were flying in the following day and after a simple dinner, we both turned in for the night. As was the custom, we had each set up our bedroll’s, under mosquito nets, in the back of our vehicles, to avoid the attentions of the camps’ resident Hyena but at some point in the night, I awoke to find the tree next to me heaving and trashing, with something that looked suspiciously like a large vacuum hose hanging from its branches?! Once I was fully awake I realized that what I was looking at, was an elephant standing under the low hanging branches of a tree with most of his body was hidden from sight. The vacuum hose was his trunk, which which he was busy sucking up seed pods, and shoveling them up into his mouth. 

Soon he emerged into the starlight, and in three strides was looming alongside my Land Rover while I lay in the back, completely relaxed, enjoying the view. Then the unexpected happened! He was obviously trying to figure out what the white cone of my mosquito net was and tried to turn his head to look at it straight on. Being so close to the Land Rover, his tusk struck the “bull bars” on the back of the truck rocking the vehicle on it’s suspension and I fully expected him to back up in order to turn his head. Instead he raised his head up- lifting his tusk over the bars and then craned his neck to get a better look into the back of the truck. Suddenly, I had his entire head- trunk and two very long, very pointy looking tusks IN the back of the truck with me! His face was pressed up against my mosi net, I could have reached up and touched the tip of his tusk which was now close to puncturing a hole in the net and possibly me beneath it! I lay very still- not quite sure of what would happen next, but after a short pause, that seemed like an eternity, he lifted his head out of the truck, strolled around the front and then made a bee line for where Alistair lay snoring quietly. 

To my mind he appeared to tiptoe up to Alistair’s Land Rover, silently running his tusks through the bars on the back and then quite deliberately gave the entire vehicle a jolly good shake, his tusks ringing the bars on the back like an old school bell at break time! Alistair awoke to this bedlam and swore loud and long at which point, the elephant turned around and swaggered off in the moonlight, having proved his point that this was his patch. I called over to Alistair  to ask if he was OK and his wry comment was, if memory serves, something like “Another close call!” shortly followed by more snoring. 

Ask any guide you know and they will tell you- Elephants definitely have a great sense of humor!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

David Livingstone 1865- 1873

In January 1866 Livingstone arrived in East Africa to head up the Royal Geographic's expedition in search of the source of the Nile and he had accepted the assignment to focus public attention on the slave trade in East Africa. It was now impossible to travel unless you were part of a large convoy of caravans so he would joined his modest caravan with one of these larger affairs and set sail into the interior but the slave trade was on his doorstep every morning and he was powerless to do anything to stop it. All he can do is keep a detailed record of every atrocity he witnessed, and write letters to influential men back in Briton pleading for them to take up this cause. 

To get these letters to the coast he must entrust them to the slaver traders who were under no illusion of the threat he posed to their livelihood, so they destroyed his letters isolating him in the interior of the continent, where they could keep an eye on him. For several years this state of affairs continued and Livingstone was content to bide his time certain that eventually someone will come looking for him. So the stage was set for the most well publicized meeting in Africa's history and on the 10th of November 1871 an unknown journalist marched into the village of Ujiji and also into the pages of history- his name was Henry Morton Stanley. 

Stanley prove a godsend to Livingstone since as a journalist he could put the East African slave trade on the front page of every major newspaper in the Western World. As Livingstone had predicted, the British public were outraged and would force their government to pass legislation to close the slave markets of East Africa for ever. These articles would also lead to a remarkable resurgence in Livingstone's popularity and tragically he would never become aware of this since he had chosen to remain in Africa to set of on one final epic journey to explore the East African watershed, but it was a journey he would not survive...

Visiting Africa during the rains

If you live in Africa you yearn for the rain. At this time of year we all live, straining our ears, for that distant rumbling of thunder that marks the changing of the seasons and if you work in a safari camp, this time of year takes on an even greater significant. It marked the end of the tourist season and a long anticipated rest since, for some reason, very few people chose to traveled in what has now become known as the "green season" As a guide, I must confess, it's my favorite time of year to be in the bush, since it's the time when the wilderness is bursting at the seams with life. Every puddle is alive with butterflies, tadpoles, dragonflies and frogs and overhead the sky whirls and buzzes with the most astonishing collection of insects all going about their business. The argument against traveling in the wet season centers around the quality of the game viewing experience, and while it's true that the game are spread out and hard to see since visibility is reduced, there are other factors to consider. 

Firstly- I would rather watch one fat, happy, healthy animal going about his business than 100 of the same, at the end of their tether for lack of food and water. Secondly- since it's the season of plenty, everything is breeding and all the migrant birds are here as well, so while you may not see large numbers of herbivores you will see a sample of them, as well as an extraordinary wealth of other smaller life forms. Thirdly- if it does rain it's seldom set in rain that goes on and on, usually it over is one blinding burst of thunder and lightening and then the sun come's out, and you can carry on with your game viewing. It's the best time of year for photography since the black sky's and towering thunder clouds make for a spectacular backdrop to any photograph and the air is clear of haze, thanks to the cleansing rain. Lions and Leopards are easy to find since they don't like getting wet and so, in the morning, walk down the road's to avoid the heavy dew in the undergrowth. But best of all, I love the green season because `i have the place to myself- that is unless you, and everyone else reading this, are convinced and decide to come and join me!!

Ten Reasons to visit in the "Green Season"
  • Migrant Birds- The bird population seams to almost double as the migrants arrive following the rains and the abundance of food they bring!
  • Photography- Dark skys, clear air and every shade of green you could possibly imagine make this my favorite time of year to be taking photographs.
  • Cats- They don't like getting wet and since the heavy undergrowth is laden with dew in the morning they walk down the roads making them easier to track and find
  • Frogs- At night, wherever you are, you will be serenaded by a host of different species of frog, each lustily singing his own tune
  • Thunder and Lightening- If you haven't lived through a tropical thunder storm then you haven't lived
  • Babies- In the green season, all the inhabitants of the bush are fat and happy and producing offspring
  • Insects and Butterflies- the air is full of the buzzing and whirling of an astonishing diversity of the most outlandish looking creatures imaginable- contrary to popular opinion most of them are not the slightest bit interested in you.
  • You might get stuck!- Trust me, it will be the one experience you will never forget
  • You will get wet!- So what, the rain comes in great lumps and before it rains it's hot and humid so you welcome getting wet to cool down
  • You will have the place to yourself! Unless everyone else reads this and decides to join you!

First World War Series- Part 2

The true story that inspired the “African Queen

Geoffrey Spicer-Simson joined the navy in 1890 as a cadet and had  advanced some way through the ranks, but a series of mishaps had stalled his career leaving him the oldest lieutenant commander in the navy. During an exercise to test the defenses of Portsmouth harbor, he had driven his ship onto the beach for which he had been court-martialed. Later, having made amends, he was at the helm of a Destroyer which he drove into a Liberty ship which had subsequently sunk, costing the life of one of the sailor’s aboard, and he was court-martialed a second time. 

At the outset of the First World War he had been in charge of a costal flotilla based out of Ramsgate. Safe in his home port Spicer-Simpson had been enjoying High Tea with his wife and some of her admiring friends at the local hotel and got to watch from the window of the pub as the Germans torpedoed his flagship, the HMS Niger, which sank in under twenty minutes and with her went any hopes he may have had for further advancement. One could argue that only a man with as little prospects as Spicer-Simpson would volunteer for an assignment with such seemingly little chance of success as this African adventure!

At the outset of the First World War the German Navy ruled the waves, at least on Lake Tanganyika they did! They had two steamers under military orders on the Lake as well as an assortment of smaller craft. On the 21 April 1915 an unusual visitor showed up at the Admiralty in London with a plan to do something about this state of affairs- his name was John Lee, an elephant hunter from Northern Rhodesia. He explained his plan to the Admiral, Sir Henry Jackson, who listened with growing interest. It was possible, said Lee, to transport two light craft overland, up the new railway line as far as the copper belt in Northern Rhodesia, and from there the boats could be dragged overland, to the headwaters of the Laulaba River. Once launched, they could make their way onto the Lake Tanganyika, and engage the German force thus taking them by surprise.  Sir Henry ratified the plan, largely on a matter of principle. “It is both the duty and the tradition of the Royal Navy to engage the enemy wherever there is water to float a ship,” as he noted in a memo and the task for the execution of this impossible endeavor would fall to one of the most colorful characters in Navel history- Geoffrey Spicer-Simson. 

Men, boats and material were procured and transported to Cape Town where they began the tedious rail journey North. They passed through Victoria Falls, crossing the Railway Bridge and forged onwards, eventually arriving on the copper belt, where Lee was waiting for them. He had two steam traction engine, some trucks and as an afterthought- a span of oxen that would prove to be vital in getting over the Mitumba Mountians that stood between the men and their destination. When the steam engine lost traction or where too heavy for the soft ground the Oxen would in-spanned and using block and tackle drag the 8 ton loads up impossibly steep inclines until they found themselves cresting the mountains and beginning their decent to the waiting river below.

The boats were launched and made their way  to the mouth of the river and there they prepared for action. On Boxing Day, 1815, the 45-ton Kingani steamed into view and the two launches dashed out to meet her and since the Kingani’s gun could only fire forward, the battle was to be a short one. With the capture of the Kingani, Spicer-Simson had added to his growing fleet but he still had to tackle the much larger and more heavily armed 60-ton Hedwig von Wissmann.

On 14 January he sized on the opportunity for further success when the Hedwig came looking for her sister ship only to lumber into the same ambush that had caused her disappearance. After a prolonged engagement she was eventually sunk and Spicer-Simson was delighted to have captured a large German naval ensign—the first to be captured intact in the whole War. It would seem that their task was done, so it was with considerable shock that the men discovered that there was yet another German ship on the Lake, called the Graf von Götzen and at 1,200 tons, she dwarfed Spicer-Simpson’s tiny launches by 150 times. Fortunately he had the common sense to ignore the Admiralty's orders to engage this behemoth, exercising a caution that bordered on cowardice, and once it became clear that the land battle for Tanganika was going to be lost, the Germans scuttled this vessel at the mouth of the Lukuga River, thereby saving the Admiralty considerable trouble. This vessel was later salvaged and after being refurbished continues, to this day, to act as a ferry service for the people living up and down the lake. Spicer-Simpson would be awarded the D.S.O and retired to Canada after the war but the story of his heroic deeds would become the basis for the book and movie The African Queen which was destine to become one of the classic tale of the African continent.