top of page

Capture of Mwanza & the British Advance to the German Central Railway - 14 July 1916

Updated: Feb 11, 2022

Mwanza headland at sunset

This article follows the one on the capture of Ukerewe Island.

The port of Mwanza was the obvious next target for the Allies. Brigadier Crewe proposed to General Tombeur, the Belgian commander, that a joint operation be mounted to capture Mwanza and to establish it as the major Allied base on the south of the Lake. General Tombeur held contrasting ideas to Brigadier Crewe and so Crewe decided to capture Mwanza using only British forces and launching them from Ukerewe.

Crewe moved all his troops to Ukerewe and formed two combat groups titled ”A” and “B” Forces. Force “A” contained 4 KAR minus a detachment, some Intelligence Scouts and the Nandi Scouts and a Field Ambulance detachment. Force “B” contained the Uganda Police Service Battalion, the detachment from 4 KAR, and detachments from the Baganda Rifles and the Field Ambulance. The General Reserve was 370 Baganda Rifles and the 98th Infantry machine gunners. The remainder of the 98th Infantry was in a very poor condition due to malaria affecting most of the sepoys.

The landings east of Mwanza and the subsequent advance south.

During the night of 12-13th July the Lake Flotilla disembarked Force “A” at Kongoro Point on the eastern side of the Mwanza peninsula. At dawn on the 13th July Force “B” was landed at Senga Point to the north. The Intelligence Scouts and 4 KAR had close contacts with German defenders in the darkness, shooting down advancing enemy Askari at two yards range. Crewe advanced his men throughout the next night, fighting off a German counter attack launched by troops withdrawing from the Eastern Lake area. One problem that emerged was that the Intelligence and Nandi Scouts were sometimes unsure whether Askari that they came across were Belgian or German because of the similarity in equipment, and this allowed groups of Schutztruppe Askari to break contact and retire rapidly.

The German radio station at Mwanza.

At 1500 hours on 14th July Mwanza was entered and occupied, the German forces having hastily withdrawn south before the British arrival, leaving their untouched lunch meals on their mess tables. As the British approached the town they witnessed the enemy demolition of a large radio mast that had been able to send signals to Berlin via Damascus. The Nandi Scouts were sent overland to try and intercept the withdrawing enemy but this attempt failed.

Force 'B' landing beach.

Harvey and his men marched back to Mwanza, meeting up with the Nandi Scouts and using them as their rearguard, whilst Crewe returned from Nyatembe by steamer with the captured enemy baggage, money, gun, medical stores and food. Mwanza had been taken and could be immediately utilised as an Allied base and the British cost in casualties had been 2 Askari killed and one officer and 7 Askari wounded; known enemy casualties were 2 Europeans and 22 Askari killed and 10 Europeans and 4 wounded Askari captured. But the Germans had been able to withdraw their forces more or less intact, and as had been demonstrated at Misungi their ability to fight back was not blunted.

Up to this point in the campaign Lake Force’s artillery had been the naval guns mounted on the Lake Flotilla. Now that operations were moving away from the Lake Crewe formed an improvised Naval battery by dismounting guns from steamers and fitting them with wheeled mountings, allowing the guns to be drawn by oxen. The battery consisted of one 15-pounder, two 6-pounders, two 3-pounders, and two machine guns.

Sketch map of the British advance to Tabora on the Central Railway.

Communications between Lake Force and the Lake Flotilla had been lost when “A” and “B” forces had started moving overland and it was not until noon on the 15th July that steamers from the Flotilla entered Mwanza Bay. Crewe immediately put 200 Askari from 4 KAR, 50 Intelligence Scouts and two machine guns aboard two of the steamers and sailed up Mwanza Gulf in an attempt to cut off the withdrawing enemy troops. At Nyatembe 4 KAR found three German steam vessels containing baggage, 112 boxes of German coins, a Colt automatic gun, medical stores and around 100 tons of much-needed Askari foodstuffs. Four Germans who had been left in charge of the vessels were captured.

Local Africans advised that the Germans were at Misungi and so the 4 KAR Askari under Captain R.B.L. Harvey (Royal Berkshire Regiment) marched there throughout the night, arriving at 0700 hours. A small enemy picquet was driven off and the village occupied. But within an hour a very strong German attack was mounted supported by several field guns and a quick firing pom-pom gun. Harvey and his men beat off the attack but were not strong enough to pursue the enemy force. With his ammunition running low Harvey withdrew northwards.

During the fighting at Misungi Sergeant Mohamed Khan Sabi displayed bravery and strong leadership by commanding the counter attack that forced the enemy to withdraw; for this he was awarded the African Distinguished Conduct Medal with the citation:

For conspicuous gallantry in action.He led his section with great gallantry in a flank attack against a superior force and forced them to withdraw. MISUNGI 16/7/16.

The Mwanza port area


The advance south to Malero

In late July whilst the Lake Force mopped up enemy remnants in the Eastern Lake area Crewe attended a conference at Entebbe with General Tombeur and the Governor of Uganda. Agreements were reached with the Belgians about who should control and administer captured German territory. The British-recruited porters of the Congo Carrier Section remained in support of Belgian operations, although the number of porters was decreasing because of sickness and desertion as the men were deployed further from their homelands. A joint decision was made to advance southwards to the German Central Railway at Tabora, in conjunction with the advances that General Smuts’ main force was making further to the east, however the Belgians insisted on using their own axes of advance rather than sharing an axis with the British.

Crewe established an advanced logistic base at Nyatembe, which was the furthest south that steamers could reach, and the Uganda Police Service Battalion garrisoned that location and Misungi. On 20th July 4 KAR was shipped to Nyatembe and then it advanced south through Mabuki and Ranere until on the 25th July it confronted the Schutztruppe rearguard at Ilola and attacked it. The enemy fought for a time then broke and fled into the bush, losing two Europeans and seven Askari killed whilst 4 KAR lost one Askari wounded. During the patrol actions that followed Private Saa Nani dispersed an enemy patrol, killing the commander; for this Saa Nani was awarded the African Distinguished Conduct Medal with the citation:

For conspicuous gallantry in action. With another man he patrolled forward, located an enemy patrol, dispersed it and killed the commander. He has previously done fine work. UILOLA 25/7/16.

Bismarck Rock at Mwanza.

Crewe then decided to halt in the area of Ilola and Maleru to concentrate his force and to allow the parallel Belgian column to the west to catch up with Lake Force. Due to sickness amongst both porters and Askari, particularly cases of dysentery, malaria, small-pox and cerebral spinal meningitis, the Allies needed to re-organise their supply situations and move more food and ammunition forward. The southern Ugandan Askari and porters had throughout their lives been used to eating the starchy banana dish named ‘Matoke’ as a daily food, and the absence of this crop on the road to Tabora affected both their health and morale. The Official History quotes Brigadier Crewe’s report dated 20th September 1916:

“Both the psychological effect of finding themselves far from their own districts and the physical effects, probably enhanced psychologically, of unfamiliar climates, told heavily on native carriers and were ever present factors in the problems of supply and transport. Recognition is due to the indefatigable and incessant labours of the officers and others responsible for the carrier services under such conditions.”

One problem facing the Allies was that the local inhabitants were very reluctant to step forward and volunteer to be porters. This was because the withdrawing Germans had taken the local rulers, named Sultans, with them as hostages and the villages were fearful that any dealings with the Allies would lead to the death of their Sultans.

This gun, recovered by German divers from the sunken cruiser Konigsberg, defended Mwanza harbour. It was captured by 4 KAR and taken back across Lake Victoria to Entebbe.

The advance south to the Central Railway

Crewe attempted to advance again on 5th August but because of losses due to sickness and intelligence reports of strong Schutztruppe units ahead, he decided to wait until the Belgians were level with Lake Force on their western axis. During a 4 KAR patrol action that day Sergeant Bakhit Berri showed considerable courage and initiative in dispersing two enemy patrols and taking three prisoners; for this he received an African Distinguished Conduct Medal with the citation:

For conspicuous gallantry in action, with 6 men he rushed a village where an enemy patrol was located, capturing three of the enemy.Later he dispersed another enemy patrol.ILOLA 5/8/16.

Crewe had a meeting with Tombeur at Nyamirembe on 6th August to try to instill some cooperation into the Belgian and British efforts but both senior officers were head-strong individuals, and apart from Lake Force porters being temporarily loaned to the Belgians the tactical planning of the joint advance to Tabora disintegrated into separate efforts that resembled a race.

Meanwhile 4 KAR continued patrolling forward and at Schinwa on 18th August No. R/448 Sergeant Jardein Boyu made a successful attack that killed several of his opponents and captured a herd of cattle; he received an African Distinguished Conduct Medal with the citation:

For conspicuous gallantry in action.He led (a) successful patrol with great courage and skill, killing several of the enemy and capturing a large number of cattle.


Because of Jardein Boyu’s Reservist number this is probably the incident that William Shorthose later described:

“On several occasions our patrols were successful in capturing those of the enemy, and by this means and reconnaissance our commander was informed of their movements.

The long-service native non-commissioned officers (NCOs) were not lacking in initiative. I quote one example. A party of the enemy, consisting of two Europeans and perhaps a dozen natives, was located a few days from Mwanza, and to the north-east of the position we then held at Malero. It was too far for us to send a patrol to deal with them, and the officer in charge at Mwanza despatched a few men under a native NCO, an old Nubian reservist, to deal with them.
The old soldier marched all day and part of a night and cleverly surprised the enemy at dawn, who were sheltering in a house. The house was quickly surrounded, and the NCO referred to crept up to a window and ordered the enemy to surrender. Some threw up their hands, But the others made a bid for liberty, only to be shot down by those outside. In the end every one of the enemy patrol was killed.”

Belgian troops advancing eastwards from the Congo, having crossed Lake Tanganyika.

By 26th August the porters loaned to the Belgians had returned to Malero and Lake Force ended its unhealthy sojourn there by advancing south. 4 KAR moved through Mwasimbi, occupying Shinyanga and halting there on the 30th of the month. Lake Force was level with the Belgians to the west, but Belgian units further southwest (some Belgian units had advanced down the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika) were under enemy pressure and Tombeur advanced all his men to help them; Crewe followed suit. The ground now was not the rolling plains near the Lake but thick tsetse-infested bush.

Crewe halted at Kigahuma on 9th September whilst a motor road was hacked out of the bush on his 120 mile-long Line of Communication, as donkeys and oxen were being killed by the tsetse fly. The porter situation was now critical as many new men fell sick after a few days work, and the latest draft of 500 men sent from Uganda was quarantined for plague at Mwanza. The remaining porters were divided into eight-mile relay teams and that re-organisation kept the supplies moving forward. Six days later, having built up a dump of 20 days’ supplies, Crewe left Kigahuma and after 48 hours marching reached Ngalia’s, but he had no knowledge of what his Allies were doing to his west until a Belgian patrol arrived to inform him that the western column was within seven miles of Tabora.

On the 25th September the Lake Force vanguard was positioned at Ndala preparing to move south to cut the Central Railway at Ilagula, 20 miles east of Tabora, when a Belgian motor cyclist arrived with the dramatic news that Tabora had been seized by the Belgians six days previously. Crewe met with Tombeur the next day at Tabora.

Belgian troops enter Tabora


The end of Lake Force

The Belgians considered that they had achieved their aims and stood fast at Tabora, administering the GEA territory that they occupied. 4 KAR moved to cut the railway at Ilagula and patrolled south, but there were no German units in the area; however a company that moved along the line to the east did have brushes with enemy patrols before it met a South African mounted unit.

General Smuts decided that Lake Force had completed its mission and disbanded it. Most units withdrew back to Mwanza and then across the lake to Uganda, but 4 KAR rested and then was tasked to march east along the railway to meet up with the South African forces there that had advanced south from Kondoa Irangi.

At Mwanza Brigadier Crewe handed over the dispersal of Lake Force to Colonel Adye and returned to South Africa to resume his political career. The Baganda Rifles, Nandi Scouts and the Naval Battery were disbanded during November, whilst the Uganda Carrier Corps was disbanded on 31st December. The Uganda Police Service Battalion was demobilized on 15th January 1917, the Askari reverting to their civilian police duties. The 98th Infantry returned to India in January 1917.

Belgian Victory Parade at Tabora.

Lake Force, plus the porters and oxen cart units that worked with the Belgians, was very much a Ugandan effort and despite its activities being more or less forgotten the Force’s contribution was significant in both clearing north-western GEA of the enemy and in supporting the much larger Belgian effort in the west. A remaining feature today of Lake Force’s operations in north-western GEA is the gun at a roundabout in Jinja, Uganda, that was taken back to Uganda with Lake Force; the gun had controlled Mwanza Bay for the Germans and it had been brought there from the cruiser Konigsberg that sank in the Rufiji Delta on the Indian Ocean coast.

The Konigsberg gun defending Mwanza Harbour.

The backbone of Lake Force was 4 KAR and that battalion was to see continuous operational service, passing through Nyasaland to fight in southern GEA, and then pursuing the Schutztruppe into Northern Rhodesia during the last days of the Great War. Soon more 4 KAR battalions were to be formed as the white South African troops became debilitated by malaria and other diseases, and so more Ugandans volunteered for military service in the remaining two years of the war. Doubtless some of these volunteers came from the disbanded Baganda Rifles and Nandi Scouts.

The rough craggy slopes of the Mwanza Headland.

Recent Posts

bottom of page