An East African Intelligence Department Officer at the Tanga Landing
Updated: Jan 21, 2020
Although it is not widely known, an East Africa Force intelligence officer was involved in the abortive British landing at Tanga in early November 1914 (see the article on the 2nd Loyal North Lancashires at Tanga). He was the only soldier involved in the operation who was not a part of Indian Expeditionary Force ‘B’ that sailed from India to invade German East Africa.
The officer was Major A. Russell, a resident of East Africa, and he was deployed along with 2nd Lieutenant H.P. Ishmael, an intelligence officer in Indian Expeditionary Force ‘B’. Both men knew Tanga and they were selected to land ahead of the invasion to obtain knowledge of where German troops were deployed, and also what the attitude of the local African inhabitants was towards their colonial masters.
At around 2200 hours on 1st November 1914 both men landed near what became named the Red House because of the colour of its roof. Major Russell, wearing civilian clothing, walked through plantations until he arrived at Tanga town; he then moved to the harbour but nearly walked into a German sentry post. He retraced his steps and had a conversation with an African farmer who lived next to his cassava field. The farmer and one of his neighbours told Russell about German troops they had seen nearby, and stated that they had no liking for the Germans but they feared and respected them. Russell then returned to the landing site near the Red House, waited for Ishmael who did not return, and then he was rowed back to his ship, the Karmala, where he made his report.
2nd Lieutenant Ishmael, who according to Russell was “spotlessly dressed in new uniform, with Sam Browne belt and .45-inch revolver all complete” decided to move along the coast road towards the big German hospital. He was seen by an enemy sentry who shot and captured him; he was taken to the hospital but died of his wounds shortly afterwards. He was the first British casualty of the Tanga landing.
During the following day, 2nd December, the Royal Navy dithered about an unofficial truce that it had agreed with the Germans and no troops were landed. That night Russell was tasked to go ashore again, which he did, drawing enemy fire as he landed which was returned by his boat crew; this forced the enemy picquet to withdraw. Russell retraced his steps from the previous night and returned with similar information. The local cassava farmer was puzzled as to why the British had not already arrived. Meanwhile the landing of British troops started just before dawn on 3rd November. What happened next has been explained in the article on the Loyal North Lancashires.
Major Russell joined the East Africa Labour Department and in 1918 was awarded a Military Cross (MC); in 1919 he was appointed to be an Officer in the Order of the British Empire (OBE).
The bravery of 2nd Lieutenant Henry Plummer Ishmael, age 32 and son of David and Banu Ishmael, is commemorated on a brass tablet in the Kampala Protestant Cathedral, shown above, and on a stone screen wall tablet in Tanga Memorial Cemetery, shown below.