Updated: Feb 10, 2022
The operational situation in East Africa in late 1915
HIn December 1915 Britain and Belgium were making plans to invade German East Africa (GEA, now Tanzania). British troops would advance from Uganda, British East Africa (BEA, now Kenya), Nyasaland (Malawi) and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) whilst their ally advanced from the Belgian Congo (Democratic Republic of the Congo).
In order to occupy German attention the Belgians requested that the British make diversionary moves on the western side of Lake Victoria. The British consented and planned two operations, a crossing of the Kagera River south of the Ugandan border with GEA, and the temporary occupation of the Lupembe peninsula south of Bukoba in GEA. This peninsula forms the south side of Kemondo Bay. A company of the Indian Army regiment the 98th Infantry was chosen for the latter operation, and it was to be transported and supported with gunfire by the Royal Navy Lake Flotilla.
The Lake Flotilla
During 1914 and 1915 the British had secured control of Lake Victoria by arming the civilian passenger and goods vessels that steamed their way between Kisumu in BEA and ports in Uganda. Royal Navy sailors were sent up by train from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast to supplement the local African crews, along with a variety of weapons that were fitted to the decks of the steamers. Selected European civilian officers on the vessels were commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.
Three steamers were tasked with supporting the 98th Infantry’s occupation of the Lupembe peninsula:
HMS Winifred – a twin-screw 600-tons passenger ferry armed with one 4-inch gun, one 12-pounder gun and one machine gun.
HMS Nyanza – a single-screw 1000-tons cargo vessel armed with one 4-inch gun, one 6-pounder gun and one machine gun.
HMS Kavirondo – a tugboat armed with one 12-pounder gun, one 3-pounder gun and a machine gun.
The 98th Infantry
The 98th Infantry had been despatched to East Africa as part of Indian Expeditionary Force 'B' which initially landed at Tanga in GEA in November 1914. The 98th was a Class Company Regiment, 25% of the sepoys were Ahirs from the Eastern Punjab and the remainder were equal numbers of Rajputs and Hindustani Musulmans. Although holding the Battle Honour China 1900 the regiment had on that campaign not moved beyond Hong Kong, and it had not seen active service since that date. Machine guns were not issued to the 98th until just before embarkation for East Africa.
At Tanga the 98th Infantry did not flee as others did, but when ordered to advance it chose to lie down and not become closely engaged with the enemy, and thus the Regiment was regarded as being unreliable. After the evacuation from Tanga the 98th was employed on guarding the Uganda Railway, and then was deployed to north-western BEA and the Lake Victoria region. There the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Colin Campbell Renton, shot himself on the 2nd September 1915; the unit war diary described the fatality as an accident that occurred whilst hunting game. Lieutenant Colonel D.R. Adye was appointed as the new Commanding Officer. During 1915 the 98th appears to have regained confidence in itself as detachments fought minor skirmishes with German troops.
In December 1915 the 98th Infantry had 'E' Company commanded by Lieutenant D.R. Montford located at Kisumu. 'E' Company worked with the Lake Flotilla and provided detachments for vessels, and this company was chosen to occupy the Lupembe peninsula for two or three days to divert enemy troops away from the Belgian Congolese border area. Overall command of this operation was in the hands of the Senior Naval Officer (SNO) who was aboard HMS Nyanza.
Enemy troops on the western shore of Lake Victoria
The Germans operated from a base at Bukoba just to the north of Kemondo Bay. From Bukoba enemy troops under Major Willibald von Stuemer were deployed northwards on the Kagera River line where British troops from Uganda confronted them. In June 1915 a British force had successfully raided Bukoba, overcome limited opposition, destroyed a large communications tower, and then sailed away again. It was assumed that a similar but much smaller operation could be carried out at Lupembe where it was believed that only a small German detachment was located.
However the British military planners had not obtained sound intelligence reports on enemy troop dispositions near Lupembe. Nor had they considered that Willibald von Stuemer might have learned something from the Bukoba raid, and that his troops might be better prepared to deal with a British landing in his area.
On 2nd December Nyanza, Winifred and Kavirondo left Kisumu. The first two vessels were loaded with two officers and nearly 100 sepoys of 'E' Company 98th Infantry, plus 100 porters who were tasked with carrying stores and ammunition off the landing beach. A Royal Navy landing party with two .450-inch machine guns accompanied the sepoys. The vessels lay off the Ugandan shore at Sango Bay for two nights and then steamed south, passing Bukoba and Lupembe in an attempted deception plan that may not have succeeded. They then took cover behind the uninhabited Bukerebe Island.
At dawn on 6th December the ships entered Kemondo Bay and approached the chosen landing beach on the north side of Lupembe Point. There are three main features on the Lupembe peninsula which had been named Hills A, B, and C, the latter being the highest. The plan was to seize Hill B, bombard Hill C and seize it, and to dig in on the summit of Hill C for two or three days. An orderly evacuation would then take place, as it was believed that the Germans would be too weak to interfere with the British plan.
The naval guns bombarded trenches that were seen above the beach, and also a redoubt that was observed further along the shore of the bay. At 0645 hours the troops were moved to the beach in six ships’ boats that were towed by a motor launch. Enemy rifle fire wounded two sepoys in the boats. From the shore Lieutenant A.J. St Leger-Hansard led a section of sepoys up Hill B, but he was opposed by two platoons of enemy riflemen firing from a knoll on the slopes of the hill. Four sepoys were hit by German rifle fire before Hill B was secure. The German reservist Lieutenant Koller was defending Kenondo Bay with 50 Askari, and he fiercely resisted the British landing. Perhaps his men were alert because of the previous day’s sighting of the British steamers.
Lieutenant Montford then wheeled right with the remainder of his company and advanced on Hill C. The ground was a mixture of banana plantation and rocky bush, but the Company Commander and his men gained the summit and occupied it. However Montford had been wounded, along with eleven sepoys. Montford’s wound was a shot through the thigh, but he refused to be evacuated and used a stick as a support. His presence on the battlefield was later to be a crucial factor in averting disaster.
The naval machine gunners left their carriages behind and quickly moved their weapons up on both flanks of Hill C just as a German counter-attack developed. The concerted fire of the two .450-inch guns deterred the enemy Askari who retired into thick bush on the hill’s lower slopes. This attack had got to within 200 metres of the sepoys’ hastily-dug trenches. Naval gunfire was then concentrated on enemy riflemen firing from the redoubt; whilst this was happening gangs of porters cut a path from Hill B to Hill C. Tools, greatcoats, sepoys’ personal kits and ammunition reserves were landed on the beach. Winifred moved to the south side of the peninsula where she hoped to suppress enemy movement along that flank.
But by now more of Koller’s men were moving forward to disappear into the bush below Hill C. The naval gunfire could not be relied upon to stop an enemy attack that the gunners could not see until it had been launched. Meanwhile enemy snipers were wounding more men, including Lieutenant St Leger-Hansard. At 1100 hours Montford signalled his feeling of insecurity to the SNO. He felt that he could stay on the hill but that future evacuation might be extremely dangerous.
The SNO decided that the forceful German reaction signified that the mission had been achieved, albeit in a much shorter time than had been anticipated. The order for evacuation was given and stores, personal kits and porters were embarked in an orderly fashion.
A further 200 or more enemy troops were then seen marching down the road from Bukoba to Kemondo Bay. This was a detachment of 120 Askari from the Bukoba garrison under Captain Louis von Brandis, accompanied by a group of Ruga Ruga irregular Askari. The Kavirondo was the only vessel carrying shrapnel ammunition and she was tasked to engage these troops.
The German arrivals were observed understandably rushing into the bush to seek cover from the shrapnel. Half of 'E' Company then withdrew from Hill C to Hill B. One .450-inch gun was embarked whilst the other maintained a position above the beach, however German guns then came into action. A 4.7-centimetre enemy gun engaged the .450-inch machine gun until a 4-inch lyddite shell from Nyanza scored a hit on the German gun position. Then a 6-centimetre gun came into action from above the redoubt, and the enemy small-arms fire increased in volume. 'E' Company continued its tactical withdrawal back to the beach. An enemy machine gun opened up from the shoreline but fortunately the landing cove was in dead ground to the German gunner, and could not be observed by him.
Evacuating the infantry & naval machine gunners
Winifred had been ordered back to the north side of the peninsula and she was protecting the evacuation from the beach. Three of the ships’ boats were with Winifred, having evacuated the porters and stores, whilst three more boats were on the beach. These latter three boats were loaded with the infantry and naval machine gunners and were waiting for the motor launch to return and take them in tow. At that point the motor launch broke down.
The two wounded infantry officers, the naval machine gun officer and the Beach Master, plus the three sailors of the machine gun crew, split themselves amongst the three boats and started rowing to the safety of the ships. As soon as they rounded the rocks along the shore the German fire intensified. The first boat got to the Winifred with two men killed and four wounded. The second boat got to safety with unrecorded casualties, but the third boat had her oarsmen hit and started to drift.
The Winifred and Kavirondo approached to within 200 metres of the shore to provide fire support whilst the Nyanza fired from deeper water. An enemy 6-centimetre shell struck Winifred wounding several men. Lieutenant Robert Aslin, Royal Naval Reserve and HMS Hyacinth, was mortally wounded by a bullet as he attempted to throw a line from Kavirondo to the third boat. Finally Winifred got a line to the drifting boat and then at 1600 hours she towed all six of the ships’ boats out of the bay, two of them by this time being submerged.
A close run thing
The SNO had made the correct decision at the right moment and 'E' Company and its supporting personnel had got away in the nick of time. The naval gun fire had proved to be decisive in limiting German fire and movement until all the British troops were evacuated. Winifred had borne the brunt of the enemy fire and she was chipped by enemy bullets from stem to stern.
The British diversion plan had worked for a few hours but at a cost. The 98th Infantry had lost four men killed, two officers and 29 men wounded and one man wounded and taken prisoner. It is likely that at least one wounded man died later. Two naval machine gunners were wounded as well as the casualties that occurred amongst the crews of the vessels.
The German account of the fight states that one Askari and one porter were killed and that three Askari, two Ruga Ruga and one German reservist, Chief Pharmacist Held, were wounded. The British reaction to the operation appears to be one of embarrassment covered by fabrication, as an entry in the Nairobi Headquarters War Diary claimed that the Germans had suffered severe casualties. The British Official History claims that “the affair was magnified by the enemy into a German victory”. The unofficial Royal Navy account claimed that the Germans took over 100 casualties including six Germans killed. Whilst enemy casualty figures may have been understated the Germans had won decisively on the battlefield, forcing a British evacuation 48 hours before it had been anticipated.
Robert Aslin lies buried in Entebbe European Cemetery, Uganda. The dead sepoys lie in unmarked graves in the African bush and are commemorated on the Nairobi British and Indian Memorial, Kenya.
The German dead also lie somewhere in the African bush and they are commemorated by a memorial adjacent to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Moshi in Tanzania.
In the Spring of 1916 the 98th Infantry and the Lake Flotilla worked together during the clearing of the enemy from Lake Victoria and in the advance south towards the GEA Central Railway. During the advance sailors from the Flotilla dismounted some of their guns and placed them on wheeled carriages.
(Gratitude is expressed to Per Finsted of Denmark for his accurate translation of German text which allowed comments and information from both sides to be included in this article.)