Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

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"General of the Infantry"[1] Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck (20 March 1870 – 9 March 1964) was a Prussian general in the Imperial German Army and the commander of its forces in the German East Africa campaign. For four years, with a force that never exceeded about 14,000 (3,000 Germans and 11,000 Black Africans), he held in check a much larger force of 300,000 British, Belgian, and Portuguese troops. Essentially undefeated in the field, von Lettow-Vorbeck was the only German commander to successfully invade imperial British soil during World War I. His exploits in the campaign have come down "as the greatest single guerrilla operation in history, and the most successful." In Africa and around the world through media, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was known mystically as "The Bush Ghost" (German: Der Buschgeist).


Life and colonial military

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was born in Pomerania and followed his father into the army, joining the Potsdam cadet school before being commissioned as a lieutenant. In 1900 he was posted to Beijing with the German contingent of the international forces that put down the Boxer Rebellion (1900). Posted to German South-West Africa (Namibia), he then served during the brutal repression of the Namaqua and Herero uprisings, sustaining wounds in the left eye and chest. Following his recovery in Germany, Lettow-Vorbeck was promoted to major and appointed to the staff of the 11th Army Corps. In 1909 he was given command of a battalion of marines at Wilhelmshaven naval base.

World War I

Loyal and brave Askari march to battle for Imperial Germany, the Kaiser and General von Lettow-Vorbeck

On the outbreak of war in 1914, Lettow-Vorbeck was the commander of a small force in German East Africa (Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda). He was determined to tie down as many Allied troops as he could in the region to prevent them from being deployed elsewhere. During a four-year guerrilla campaign he ran rings around his enemies. With an army that never numbered more than 14,000 men, comprising about 3,000 Germans and 11,000 Askaris (Black African soldiers), he succeeded in occupying ten times that number of Allied troops.

"..with the means available, protection of the Colony could not be ensured even by purely defensive followed that it was necessary, not to split up our small available forces in local defence, but... to keep them together, to grip the enemy by the throat and force him to employ his forces for self-defence." – General von Lettow-Vorbeck describing the defence of German East Africa

In August 1914 Lettow-Vorbeck raided British positions around Mount Kiliminjaro and Lake Victoria in British East Africa (Kenya). In response, a British-Indian force under Major-General Arthur Aitken landed near the German East African port of Tanga on 3 November 1914. Aitken made no attempt at concealing his plans and Lettow-Vorbeck was given time to reinforce his defences. When they came under fire Aitken’s poorly trained Indians panicked and ran. Although they were outnumbered eight to one, the Germans counter-attacked. Aitken’s troops were driven back to their boats, where they re-embarked on 5 November. At the cost of 150 casualties Lettow-Vorbeck had inflicted 850 casualties and captured hundreds of rifles, machine guns, and 600,000 rounds of ammunition. These supplies helped equip his army for the next year.

Britain commanded the sea and was able to send reinforcements from South Africa. Lettow-Vorbeck, heavily outnumbered and with limited resources, switched to a guerrilla campaign, mounting raids on the railways and forts in Kenya and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). The only heavy artillery he possessed were the guns of the scuttled service raider ‘Königsberg’.

In March 1916, General Jan Smuts assumed command of the Allied forces. He attacked from the north out of Kenya, while forces from the Belgian Congo advanced from the west. Another force advanced over Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi) from the south-east. All failed to catch Lettow-Vorbeck and all suffered heavy casualties from tropical diseases. For every man the Allies lost in battle, a further 30 were lost through sickness. Lettow-Vorbeck’s Askaris on the other hand, were more resistant to local diseases.

Although Lettow-Vorbeck always managed to disengage his forces before they were overwhelmed, by late 1916 he was confined to the southern part of German East Africa. At this time Smuts began to withdraw his South African, Rhodesian, and Indian troops and replace them with Africans, who were more resistant to the climate and local diseases.

In 1917 moves were again made against Lettow-Vorbeck from Kenya, Nyasaland and the Belgian Congo. His forces divided into three groups and two of them managed to escape the offensives but the third, of around 5,000 men, was forced to surrender.

In late 1917 he was promoted to general. As the British closed in, Lettow-Vorbeck crossed south into Portuguese Mozambique. He was still raiding in 1918 when he learned of the Armistice, reputedly from a British prisoner. On 25 November 1918, he surrendered his unbeaten force, now reduced to about 1,500 men, to the British in Northern Rhodesia. During the campaign the British (including African and Indian units) lost over 10,000 men. German losses were about 2,000. East Africans suffered far more. One estimate is that around 100,000 carriers and camp followers died on both sides.


On returning to Germany in 1919 Lettow-Vorbeck was given a hero’s reception, leading his remaining officers and some of his best Askari, affectionately called "Reichsneger" (English: Imperial negroes) by the common people, on a victory parade through Berlin. During the early chaotic years of the Weimar Republic he took part in the Freikorps’ suppression of the communists in Hamburg and supported the right-wing Kapp Putsch (1920), a decision that led to his dismissal from the Reichswehr. He later served as a Reichstag deputy for the German Nationalists (1928-30).

An inspirational leader, fluent in East African languages and respectful towards his men, Lettow-Vorbeck was able to maintain the loyalty of his Askaris, many of whom he promoted to officer rank. Although his discipline was harsh, the desertion rates of Africans in his army were lower than in Allied units. Lettow-Vorbeck was the only German commander to invade British territory during the war and one writer has called his campaign ‘the greatest single guerrilla operation in history’. He was also chivalrous towards his enemies, forming firm post-war friendships with many, including Jan Smuts.[2] He and Smuts formed a lasting friendship and he sat next to Smuts as guest of honour at the anniversary dinner of the East African Expeditionary Force. Smuts had even took time to congratulate him when he had received the Imperial order in 1916. At the beginning of December 1929, on invitation of general Smuts, von Lettow-Vorbeck participated in London as a guest in a festessen of the East Africa fighters. After World War II, Smuts, on hearing of the plight of his former enemy, sent him regular food parcels.

Due to his legendary standing among the populace came in 1938, when at age 68, he was named a General for Special Purposes, but was never recalled into active Service, because he was openly against Adolf Hitler.

One of von Lettow-Vorbeck's junior officers, Theodor von Hippel, used his experience in Africa to be instrumental in forming the Brandenburgers, the commando unit of the German Abwehr intelligence agency in World War II.


By the end of World War II, von Lettow-Vorbeck was destitute. His two sons, Rüdiger and Arnd had both been killed in action serving in the Wehrmacht. His house in Bremen had been destroyed by Allied bombs, and he depended for a time on food packages from Meinertzhagen and Smuts. With the German economic miracle, he began to enjoy comfortable circumstances again. In 1953 he visited his other home, East Africa, where he was heartily welcomed by surviving Askaris who greeted him with their old marching song Heia Safari! and was received with full military honours by British colonial officials.

In 1964, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck died a respected hero in Hamburg. The West German government and the Bundeswehr flew in two former Askaris as state guests, so that they could attend the funeral of "their" general. Several officers of the Bundeswehr were assigned as an honor guard, and West Germany's Minister of Defense, Kai-Uwe von Hassel, gave the eulogy, saying that the deceased, "was truly undefeated in the field." Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was buried with full military honours in Pronstorf, Schleswig-Holstein in the cemetery of Vicelin Church.


  • Von Lettow-Vorbeck. Heia Safari! Deutschlands Kampf in Ostafrika [Heia Safari! Germany's Campaign in East Africa]. Leipzig: Hase & Köhler. 1920.
  • Von Lettow-Vorbeck. Meine Erinnerungen aus Ostafrika. Leipzig: Hase & Köhler, 1920. Published in Great Britain as My Reminiscences of East Africa. London: Hurst & Blankett, 1920. U.S. edition entitled East African Campaigns with an introduction by John Gunther. New York: Robert Speller & Sons, 1957. My Reminiscences of East Africa at (English) (German)
  • Von Lettow-Vorbeck. Mein Leben. Biberach an der Riss: Koehlers Verlag. 1957. – My Life. Loves Park, Illinois: Rilling Enterprises, 2012. First English translation.

See also

External links


  1. This was the highest German General rank of the Prussian Army and of the Reichswehr
  2. National Army Museum
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