On this day in 1918, a full two weeks after an armistice ended World War I in Europe, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck of Germany finally surrenders his forces in German East Africa.
A master of guerrilla warfare known for his brave and honorable conduct, Lettow-Vorbeck emerged from the First World War as the only undefeated military commander on either side of the conflict. From the beginning, the colonel knew the British navy’s dominance of the seas meant that few reinforcements would be sent from his homeland and, as a result, that the German war effort in its African colonies would have to be carried out on his own initiative.
In classic Prussian fashion, Lettow-Vorbeck organized his African soldiers—called askaris—into independent field companies and trained them in the skills of bush fighting. With successful raids against the British colonies of Kenya and Rhodesia, the confidence of Lettow-Vorbeck’s troops only continued to rise. Meanwhile, on the British side, consistently confused command and lack of cooperation between army and navy forces—as well as a decision not to divert any resources from the Western Front for the campaign in Africa—contributed to a string of failed amphibious expeditions along the coast of East Africa, from Uganda to the Zambezi River.
With a force that never exceeded 14,000–including 3,000 German and 11,000 askari troops–Lettow-Vorbeck managed to consistently defeat Allied forces (mostly British and South African) of 10 times that number. In November 1918, when World War I ended, Lettow-Vorbeck was alive and well, with 3,000 soldiers at his command. He chose to surrender at Mbaala, Zambia, on November 25, 1918, returning to Germany, where he was greeted as a national hero.
Immediately following the war, Lettow-Vorbeck joined the Freikorps, the military police force, helping to squelch the radical socialist Spartacist uprising in early 1919. The following year, however, he was forced to resign from the army after supporting the failed right-wing Kapp Putsch against the Weimar government. After publishing his memoirs, called My Reminiscences of East Africa, he returned to public life, serving as a deputy in the German Reichstag from May 1929 until July 1930. During the subsequent years, Lettow-Vorbeck unsuccessfully attempted to establish a conservative opposition to Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party. By the end of World War II, the former hero was living in poverty. In a testament to his greatness, a group of former South African and British officers led by his former nemesis, the South African leader Jan Smuts, arranged for a small pension to be paid him until his death, on March 9, 1964.