Battle of Tanga ends in defeat for British colonial troops

On November 5, 1914, the men of Indian Expeditionary Force B (IEF B) evacuate the seaside town of Tanga in German East Africa after failing in their amphibious invasion of the region on behalf of the British navy in World War I.

As soon as the war broke out on the European continent in the summer of 1914, it quickly spread to Africa, where nearly all of the belligerent powers had significant colonial interests. For its part, Britain’s primary objective in Africa was to gain control of the entire coast of East Africa, the southern half of which was in German hands, through a purely naval operation. In early November, the British Admiralty chose as its first target the town of Tanga. The region’s busiest seaport, Tanga was also the northernmost point of the crucial Usambara railway line. Troops for the invasion would come from the principal garrison of the British colonial empire, India. As India’s best troops had already been sent to the war’s other fronts—France, Egypt and Mesopotamia—the task fell to the inadequately trained Indian Expeditionary Force B, under the command of General Arthur Aitken.

German forces in East Africa were led by the formidable General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, whose attentions at the time of the Tanga invasion were focused on preparing for the threat of a possible British invasion at the southern end of the railway line, near Mount Kilimanjaro. On November 2, then, when Aitken and the 8,000 members of IEF B launched their invasion, only one German company was left to defend Tanga. The expedition’s hesitant and blundering advance from their ships, however, allowed time for the Germans to regroup and for Lettow-Vorbeck to send seven companies by the morning of November 4, with two more scheduled to arrive that day.

Organized in efficient Prussian fashion and trained well in the methods of bush fighting, Lettow-Vorbeck’s still-outnumbered forces overwhelmed the British positions and forced them into a hasty retreat to their ships. By 3:20 p.m. on November 5, the evacuation was completed, marking the first—but not the last—British amphibious expedition to fail in German East Africa.

Lettow-Vorbeck’s campaign in East Africa would become Germany’s longest of World War I: He did not surrender until November 25, 1918, two weeks after the general armistice. Despite limited resources—British dominance of the seas meant that few German forces could be sent to reinforce their countrymen in Africa—the legendary general managed to engage his enemies along the coast of East Africa from Uganda to the Zambezi River without ever letting them catch him in defeat.

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