The campaigns in Africa, especially in the deserts of Namibia, were dominated by supplies, or lack thereof, of water.
South African General Sir Henry Lukin ought to have realized that the Germans wouldn’t let the wells of Sandfontein be captured without a fight the moment his column, known as Force A, occupied the watering hole in early September, but it didn’t unduly concern him or any of the British colony’s generals.
The commander of Germany‘s Schutztruppe (colonial defence force), Heydebreck, was a far better tactician and general. The Schutztruppe of German South West Africa would provide a brilliant resistance that would incorporate native troops, German troops, and aircraft into a problematic front for the British high command.
Command of the German colony would make a Boer rebellion under Manie Maritz a possibility that would deny Great Britain many South African reinforcements in vital fronts such as 1914 Belgium and France, and East Africa.
In the end, however, numbers prevailed and in June 1915 the colony was surrendered by governor Seitz to Boer general Botha who commanded 60,000 troops and acted as the British representative.
The 1914 portion of the campaign was marked mainly with a string of German victories, despite the landing of 8,000 enemy troops at Luederitzbucht. The most notable of these battles took place at Sandfontein, and opened on 26 September 1914. The British, both Lukin and Colonel Grant, ought to have detected the German trap, but fortunately for the Germans they were entirely ignorant of it.
A large force of 135 officers, 2,463 soldiers, and 522 natives 4 thirteen pounder guns and 4,347 animals marched to the water. The men had gone a long time in the hot sun without water, and the animals were near collapse from dehydration, and consequently little protection was set up as all the men and animals stood gathering water, with the entire formation exposed to the surrounding heights where the Germans hid.
The Germans pounced with a lesser force of 1,700 riflemen, mostly native, but all officers were German, and 4 machine gun teams and 10 artillery pieces. After stocking up on water, a patrol was sent out, and soon returned with heavy losses and under heavy fire. The Schutztruppe laid down a deadly cover of machine gun fire and advanced through the rocky hills toward the enemy at the wells.
Colonel Grant, whose force had come to reinforce Lukin’s small police garrison, now took command. He made an organized and successful retreat to a defensive perimeter around the nearby Kopje mountain. There was only a small building there and it was turned into a hospital and stable for the animals. Mobility for the South Africans became a major problem with heavy machine gun fire pouring all over the mountain, one of the German guns was extremely well placed and had an excellent range of fire with good defences and caused significant numbers of casualties.
The South Africans soon found that their telephone lines back to Ramans Drift had all been cut. They were surrounded with no way to call for reinforcements. The South African artillery, placed near the base of the mountain next to the improvised hospital, opened up and stung back at the Germans, but the German artillery returned with greater fire. The South African guns may have been outnumbered, but they continually repositioned and were extremely effective in determining range. They returned far more fire than expected, but were eventually knocked out.
The German guns then moved forward to within 1,200 yards of the northern face of Mount Kopje. The Germans commenced lobbing shells into the South African position, and the machine gun fire continued. The South Africans couldn’t even return fire, despite multiple attempts. Only half an hour after the Germans brought their guns foreword, the South Africans hoisted a white flag, and the engagement ended.
The second the fire ceased, both German and South African troops raced for the wells in no-man’s land where they congregated with great friendliness. A later South African account congratulated von
Heydebreck on his chivalry in dealing with his newly acquired prisoners. He sat and discussed the battle with Grant and congratulated him on his gallant defence.
When it came to burying the dead, the Germans gave the same honours to the enemy dead as they did their own. Heydebreck did what seemed impossible, he took an outnumbered force and ambushed the enemy with such overwhelming fire that they didn’t even have the ability to attempt a break out, and then pummelled them with artillery, machine gun fire, and constant raids that forced them to surrender. He was another example of how German commanders at the start of the First World War far surpassed the capabilities of their enemy counterparts.
Shortly after his great victory, Heydebreck died in an unfortunate accident. His replacement was Lieutenant Colonel Franke, who showed skill that in some respects surpassed that of Germany’s other great generals of Africa.
Shortly after taking command he stormed the South African fort Nautilia with just 600 men and decisively defeated the 800 man garrison. It was the last in a string of the German colony’s notable victories. Between the two German victories, air power was deployed to great effect. The three German aircraft in the colony performed reconnaissance and bombing runs.
In one instance improvised bombs were made out of stovepipes and artillery shells were dropped on the enemy at Haalen Burg on two separate occasions. The first on the 12th of November failed, but a second on the 29th succeeded in wounding four men, killing a fifth, and damaging some vital heavy artillery equipment. Similar air raids took place in other regions of German controlled Namibia.
Eventually the Schutztruppe succumbed to the enemy’s numbers, around 60,000, and surrendered after more than a year of effective resistance. With the surrender, Germany lost control of perhaps the most profitable of her colonies. Namibia, to this day, remains a valuable source of diamond and copper mining. Despite the rocky desert that covered most of the country, much of the land provided excellent farming capabilities.
In the end, the campaigns of German South West Africa proved successful for the Germans in that it delayed the mobilisation of South African troops against the stronger German presence in East Africa, and prevented any shipment of South African troops to Europe during the decisive battles of 1914.Share on Facebook