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Fight in thick bush on the Pangani at Mkalamo

Updated: Feb 11, 2022

This article continues the account of River Column's advance down the Pangani River.

The southern British advance into German East Africa (Tanzania) was down the Pangani River and the adjacent Usambara railway track.

On 1st June 1916 River and Centre Columns met at Bwiko but had to halt for four days as the British advance had out-run its replenishment capability. Behind the leading battalions railway track destroyed by the enemy was being repaired by the Indian Army’s 25th and 26th Railway Companies (Sappers & Miners), and bridges and roads were constructed or repaired by the 61st King George’s Own Pioneers and the Faridkot Sappers & Miners (Imperial Service Troops).

Indian Field Ambulances evacuated casualties and sick men, whose numbers increased dramatically each week due to disease and debilitation, by carts and trucks to railheads.

The old Usambara railway line at Mombo, looking south-east

From Bwiko, Hannyngton’s column advanced down the railway whilst Sheppard’s again hacked its way down the Pangani River. From Mombo, south-east of Bwiko, a hand-powered trolley line ran south-west to Handeni, and the Germans were moving their equipment and supplies down this line and then onwards by porter towards the Central Railway. British aerial reconnaissance flown by 26th Squadron Royal Flying Corps reported an enemy defensive position at Mkalamo, where the trolley line crossed the Pangani. Improvised bombs were dropped onto this position.

Sketch map showing the British Pangani River route and the German trolley line (hand-powered) from Mombo to Handeni, crossing the Pangani at Mkalamo.

Mkalamo was approached on 9th June. Lieutenant-Colonel P.H. Dyke commanded the advanced troops and his regiment, 130th Baluchis, was in the lead with the 29th Punjabis in support, the latter unit having been brought forward from Divisional Reserve. A company of the 61st Pioneers and a section of the 27th Mountain Battery were also up with Dyke. The main body of the column was about four kilometres to the rear.

Mombo today with fruit vendors in action.

The British were on the west bank of the river which at this point was fast-flowing, thirty metres wide and teeming with crocodiles that lay in wait for men, horses, mules and oxen. The German Abteilung (Formation) Doring (Nos. 1, 3 and 16 Field Companies with a platoon of No. 5 Field Company) was entrenched in thick bush just west of the trolley line bridge.

Dyke had been advancing along the river bank but, at around 11.30 hrs, German gunners on hills to the east spotted him and engaged the column.

This village is on the old line of the trolley rails and the hill in the background was the location of the German gun that engaged the British column on the Pangani.

Here at around 13.00 hrs the two leading companies of Baluchis under the second in command, Major H.D. Moore, stumbled onto No. 3 Field Company’s trenches and were engaged at close range.

Sketch of the action at Mkalamo.

Moore tried to find an enemy flank but lost men quickly, including 2nd Lieutenants Roderick Spicer Russell Porter and Lawrence Benjamin Myers mortally wounded and machine gun officer Lieutenant Cousins severely wounded. But the Baluchis held their ground and beat back counter-attacks by Nos. 1 and 16 Field Companies.

Dyke tried to find an open enemy flank by sending forward four companies of 29th Punjabis on the right of the Baluchis and three companies on the left; one Punjabi company was retained as rearguard. To counter this, Doring extended his flanks. The mountain guns came into action but the bush was so thick that targets could not be identified. The Baluchis were fighting fierce close-quarter actions and the Punjabis were trying to find the Baluchis’ flanks and the enemy rear, but thick bush continued to impede both observation and movement as well as machine gun and rifle bullets, which were deflected or absorbed.

Mkalamo bridge today.

This local resident at Mkalamo stated that in his youth he had found a pile of brass cartridges at the base of a tree by the river. These were probably fired by a Geman machine gun positioned on a platform in the tree.

The column’s main body now came up and Sheppard took command of the battle. However he did not take control, as his men were either fighting individual battles or trying to orientate themselves in the bush. No. 2 Company Kashmir Rifles was sent to reinforce the Punjabi left flank and it repulsed an enemy attack mounted by No. 3 Field Company, but not before German Askari had over-run the column medical aid post. As dusk fell the Germans pulled back and the British column dug itself in.

The thick bush on the Mkalamo battlefield.

The Pangani River at Mkalamo today.

Doring had fought a useful action and during the night his Abteilung made a clean break down the trolley line towards Handeni. The Baluchis had lost eleven men killed and twenty wounded, the other units involved lost a total of six killed and fourteen wounded.The low number of casualties was attributed to the enemy Askari firing high, as they usually did in thick bush.The Germans were thought to have lost thirty or more men killed, wounded and missing.

For gallantry displayed both at Ruwu River and Mkalamo, Captain John Valentine MacDonald, M.D., Indian Medical Service, attached to 29th Punjabis, was awarded a Military Cross.

The road is the old trolley line from Mombo to Mkalamo and onwards to Handeni. This became a main German withdrawal route southwards to the Central Railway. Cars can easily drive on this road in the dry season.

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