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.

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