Updated: Feb 11, 2022
Whilst the main British attack into German East Africa (Tanzania) was delivered from the Taveta region of British East Africa (Kenya), another attack came down Lake Victoria to seize Ukerewe Island. It was important to seize the island so that a later attack on Mwanza could be mounted from Ukerewe.
Ukerewe Island was very fertile. In the past it had provided the Germans with wood fuel for vessels on the Lake and it was a major rice growing area and a source of several vegetables. Normally the garrison was around 60 men strong but this was strengthened when the rice was cropped and sent to mills on the island and at Mwanza. The next crop was due to be harvested in mid-June, and the retention of this crop was important to the German supply system.
On 6th June 1916 an assault force consisting of half of 4th King's African Rifles (4 KAR) (450 men), the Baganda rifles (200 men), the Intelligence Scouts (140 men) and the Machine Gun Section of the 98th Infantry, Indian Army, (36 men) concentrated on the uninhabited island of Bukerebe near Bukoba, accompanied by medical and supply sections and a contingent of porters. Two days later the assault force sailed in three steamers of the Lake Flotilla whilst two more steamers provided a diversion on the north side of Ukerewe and another was tasked with preventing canoes from leaving the island.
The British Force Commander, Colonel D.R. Adye, Indian Army, landed his headquarters and the 4 KAR Askari at 0630 hours on a beach one mile to the west of Nansio Bay and then moved across country to capture the port of Nansio.
Concurrently the Baganda Rifles, Intelligence Scouts and Indian machine gunners were landed in the bay north of Missuri Point.
Captain J.J. Drought and his Intelligence Scouts moved quickly through the bush to where a narrow causeway reached out towards the Eastern Lake shore. On the causeway was a German advance party of 50 men that was leading a Field Company onto the island.
Without waiting for orders the Intelligence Scouts charged into the enemy with the bayonet, driving the German Askari back and capturing a 1.5-inch Krupp gun with its ox team and 400 rounds of ammunition. By the time that the Bagandans and machine gunners appeared the fight was over and the enemy had abandoned his crossing across the Rugesi Channel and onto the island.
Colonel Adye ordered the island to be searched and eight Germans and two 37-mm field guns were captured. Interestingly a canoe-torpedo was discovered which had been designed for attacking a British steamer.
William Shorthose, an officer in 4 KAR, (pictured below with his orderly on Ukerewe Island) later wrote:
“A few of the enemy that we had cut off from the mainland refused to surrender and sought shelter in a large white stone house which had been built on the highest point in the island. This we stormed one morning early, with the loss of one man severely wounded, and thereafter the enemy took to the bush, from which shelter he soon emerged to surrender. A small party escaped to the mainland in dug-out canoe. Thus we occupied Ukerewe, The Germans’ main rice supply. Oranges, rice, lemons, maize, beans, potatoes, and other kinds of fruit and cereals grew in abundance on this fertile little island.”
The 60 enemy Askari on the island discarded their uniforms and blended into the population, who were very worried that the British might sail away allowing the enemy to return, as the German punishment for collaboration with the Allies was an instant hanging. But a British Political Officer with a garrison of 50 Baganda Rifles, later strengthened by a further 50, maintained control of Ukerewe and the rice crop was purchased from the local farmers.
Stone outcrops on the mainland to the east of the island where the Germans re-grouped. Today a vehicle ferry leaves from here for Ukerewe Island.
With Ukerewe Island securely held by the British, an attack on Mwanza could be mounted.