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Ikoma Fort & the disappearance of Lieut J.A. Sutherland - 29th June 1917

Updated: Jan 15, 2022

Hidden by trees and on the edge of the Serengeti National Park in north-eastern Tanzania (formerly German East Africa) is a substantial fort built by the German colonial military authorities from 1890 onwards. It was designed to dominate the Masai Steppe to the northwest, as initial German moves into the area had met with fierce resistance from the Masai tribe.

The entrance to Ikoma Fort

During the first 20 months of the First World War East African Campaign the Fort was used as a base for the German 14th Field Company, and mounted patrols from Ikoma raided across the border to the north into British East Africa (BEA) in search of herds of cattle. After capturing the cattle, often from poorly armed tribesmen, the Germans drove the herds back to feed their troops concentrated at Moshi, south of Mount Kilimanjaro.

The view from the walls of Ikoma Fort - perfect for a machine gunner

During 1916 as the Allies invaded German East Africa (GEA), the German garrison at Ikoma moved south and eventually joined the remainder of the Schutztruppe (the local German army) in south-east GEA, in between Lake Nyasa and the Indian Ocean.

Sketch map showing the location of Ikoma, east of Musoma

During 1917, from south-eastern GEA, an ambitious German officer, Captain Max Wintgens, decided to lead a raiding party back into the north of the colony. Wintgens and his 500 men moved and fought well, defeating or avoiding British forces sent to stop them. Many former Askari joined Wintgens as his men carried the German flag back into territory that the British thought was theirs.

A corner tower on Ikoma Fort

But Wintgens contracted typhus during his trek and surrendered to a Belgian unit advancing from the Congo (he was later awarded the prestigious German Pour La Merite for his service in East Africa). Command of the German raiders was swiftly taken up by Captain Heinrich Neumann, a very efficient but also very ruthless leader. Naumann made life difficult for his pursuers by sometimes sending detachments simultaneously on different missions in northern GEA.

The plain overlooked by Ikoma Fort

Naumann and his group, hotly pursued by Belgian troops who responded to a British call for help and who were transported on Lake Victoria by the British Lake Flotilla, headed for Ikoma. There, on 29th June 1917, Naumann laid a very successful ambush and inflicted on the Belgians their worst defeat during the campaign. Fighting with the Belgians was a British force of scouts from the East Lake Border Police led by former elephant-hunter Lieutenant J.A. Sutherland.

Naumann and his men were ferocious and only half the Belgian and British troops got away from the trap that the Germans had laid for them. Over 110 Allied troops were killed including a large number of those who surrendered. Naumann captured all the weapons of a Belgian machine gun company, 138 rifles and 25,000 rounds of ammunition.

Lieutenant Sutherland was last seen alive whilst being escorted into the fort by German Askari.

The German HQ inside Ikoma Fort

Naumann trekked on from Ikoma across northern GEA and again deployed detachments to different locations. One of these detachments caused alarm and despondency in Nairobi by attacking trains at Kahe station, near Moshi and the BEA border.

But on 2nd October the resilience and morale of Naumann and his men wavered and they were surrounded by British troops and surrendered. The other German detachments also surrendered during the following weeks. Four hundred of Naumann's men were captured and around 170 others had been killed during the raid north. The King's African Rifles Mounted Infantry Company had played a significant role in tracking the raiders and blocking their escape routes.

In 1918 Naumann was sent to England to stand trial for the murder of Lieutenant Sutherland; he was sentenced to death which was commuted to seven year's imprisonment, but he was returned to Germany in November 1919.

Inscription on the British and Indian Memorial, Dar Es Salaam War Cemetery

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