The harbour of peace is the English translation of Dar-es-Salaam, the capital of the large and potentially wealthy colony of German East Africa. East Africa was the prize possession of the German colonial empire, but like all the rest, preparations for its defence were in a primitive state. Early in 1914 the German Government sent out the cruiser KÖNIGSBERG under the command of Captain Max Looff for the great exhibition that year and “to look after its interests.” KÖNIGSBERG had been completed in 1907 at the Kiel Dockyard and was in a high state of readiness. She displaced 3,400 tons, had a maximum speed of a shade over 23 knots and carried the usual ten 4.1inch guns and two torpedo tubes. KÖNIGSBERG was typical of the medium aged light cruisers the Germans had on foreign stations. However this cruiser was only on a visit and would soon return to Germany.
However East Africa was a very different struggle to the other colonial campaigns. The ingenuity was the same, the courage was the same, but some things made East Africa different from Tsingtau, South West Africa and the Kameroun. One of those differences was KÖNIGSBERG. A second difference was the presence of a creative and capable leader in charge of the German defenders, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. The third difference was the Germans managed to win the first major battle and defeat the British landing at Tanga in 1914. The combination of these three unforeseen things condemned the British to five years of war in the jungles of East Africa.
The British naval presence on the Cape Station consisted of Admiral King-Hall’s three elderly cruisers HYACINTH, ASTREA and PEGASUS, none of which could catch KÖNIGSBERG and only one was superior in armament. But Looff suffered from one potentially deadly disadvantage. He could only coal, in the German territory, as the rest of the coasts in the region were enemy colonies or unfriendly neutrals. The ability of the German to survive was strictly curtailed.
The British had problems too. There never had been any coastal defences and at Mombasa a few small saluting guns and some muzzle loaders from the ancient Portuguese fort were manned by ex-naval volunteers. Firing cannon balls at KÖNIGSBERG might have been an interesting exercise. While in Zanzibar the mixed population could not be relied upon to be loyal. Still on 4 August the authorities acted quickly and seized the German tug HELMUTH in the harbour.
Admiral King-Hall, the commander of the Cape Station, had problems of his own. He did not know where the German would strike and he had to defend troop convoys coming from India, the Anglo-Indian force massing to attack Tanga and the usual British and French trade in the region. For the time being all King-Hall could do was to operate against the raider’s supply lines. Dar-es-Salaam had the only effective base for the cruiser and so he began by attacking there, even though he knew that KÖNIGSBERG had not been there since July 30. On August 8 the ASTREA, King-Hall’s oldest ship approached Dar-es-Salaam and shelled the wireless station. Captain Sykes had orders to close the port, but the Germans did that for him by sinking the large floating dock and the survey ship MÖWE across the entrance, cutting KÖNIGSBERG off from its main base.
Commander J A Ingles in PEGASUS raided Tanga on 17 August and there disabled the merchant ship MARKGRAF. Six days later, (23) PEGASUS raided Bagamoyo to destroy the cable station but the landing party was driven off. The ship then shelled parts of the town before returning to Zanzibar, whose nervous authorities were calling out for naval protection.
Looff began operations well and even before the war was declared he was off Aden. Off the Somali coast he contacted the collier GOLDENFELS, coaled and moved further north. After two days of waiting he met the German liner ZIETEN bound for Germany with some of the crews of the China gunboats returning home. Many of these men were taken aboard KÖNIGSBERG and served out the war in a very different environment. Included with these men were two very valuable divers. Looff then captured the modern 6,000 ton CITY OF WINCHESTER. The ship carrying the first of the new season’s tea crop caused a sudden rise in the price of tea in London. There were more comments about the nasty Germans and the tea in the London papers than there were about the defeats in France. (The ship also carried some ammunition and a small gun which eventually served on Lake Tanganyika.) Looff took some coal but as it was poor quality he decided to risk not taking the rest and sank the ship. Nothing happened for days and Looff’s lack of coal became desperate. When loss seemed certain, he contacted the collier SOMALI and for moment was safe. KÖNIGSBERG had only sixteen tons in her bunkers before the 850 tons of good quality coal was transferred from SOMALI. Looff had a second attempt to find prizes and again failed, but met the SOMALI off the Aldabra Islands on 23 August. SOMALI had only 250 tons to transfer, so it was agreed that the ships would meet in the Rufljl Delta for re-supply.
Turning south he raided the French Madagascan port of Majanja. Although there were no ships in the harbour he destroyed facilities. After the raid, following the suggestion of Captain Herm of the SOMALI, Looff took the KÖNIGSBERG into the Rufiji where he could undertake necessary maintenance. KÖNIGSBERG entered the river on 3 September, using charts that had been carefully prepared by the survey ship MÖWE just a few months before.
The Germans in East Africa enjoyed a good deal of support from the native population, who seemed convinced of the inevitability of a German victory. This made espionage quite difficult for the British, but relatively simple for the Germans. In addition the British knew very little about the coast and their maps were outdated. The Germans had just completed a new survey of the region and marked several hidden ports where KÖNIGSBERG could lie low. The Rufiji Delta was one of these. All along the coast were observation posts, manned by Africans and linked by runners and telegraph to Dar-es-Salaam. Every time a British ship approached the coast, it was known. Apart from the telegraphs, communication was helped by two large railways. The central railway ran from Dar-es-Salaam west through the wartime capital of Tabora to the port of Udijidji on Lake Tanganyika. The northern railway ran from Tanga on the coast along the border with Kenya to Moshi at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. It was planned to extend to Lake Victoria but the project had been delayed.
It was at Moshi that Ton von Price, an Englishman by birth who had lived all his life in East Africa, gathered a force of white sharp shooters, crossed the border and seized the town of Taveta. Also it was at Moshi that General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck set up his headquarters of the army, to carry on the fight until Germany “won” in Europe. Initially von Lettow-Vorbeck’s plans were hampered by Governor Schnee, who followed the pattern of the other tropical colonial governors and tried to keep the colony neutral. He had to abandon that idea after the battle of Tanga. Unfortunately for the German war effort, these two men could not cooperate and their frequent squabbles led to much confusion.
Von Lettow-Vorbeck was fortunate in two officers. One was a real bonus, a retired army officer, General von Wahle, volunteered to serve under Lettow-Vorbeek and due to his age, rank and wisdom did a lot to smooth over the conflicts with the Governor. In addition he proved a most competent field officer. A second support for Lettow-Vorbeck was his second in command, Major Georg Kraut, claimed to be the best leader of guerrilla forces in the war. These were the men who were to try and save Looff and his ship, by defending it getting it supplies and providing a base from which it could operate. Schnee wanted neutrality, but he was prepared to do all he could to help KÖNIGSBERG.
It took a long time, but a supply line between Dar-es-Salaam and the Rufiji Delta was eventually established. Coal was smuggled south along the coast in dhows and a trail was cut through the jungle. But Looff was chaffing for action and of 19 September he received word that a British cruiser was lying in Zanzibar and he struck. At dawn on 20 September the attack began. The guardship, the ex-German tug HELMUTH thought the new comer was the Union Castle liner, GASCON and approached quite close until the commander, Lieutenant Charlewood saw the German flags break and the three funnels. A blank round made the order not to interfere quite clear and HELMUTH failed to give any alarm. Inside the small 2,000 ton cruiser PEGASUS, built before the turn of the century and carrying eight 4 inch guns, had no chance. It was anchored 200 yards from and parallel to the shore. The Germans opened ranging shots at four miles and PEGASUS did not manage a single reply until the third German salvo arrived. KÖNIGSBERG swept into the harbour turned smartly and fired broadsides into the British cruiser. Quickly the damage built up, PEGASUS’ replies became feeble and the ship was sinking fast. It suffered nearly two hundred hits and had thirty-one of the crew killed and fifty-five badly wounded. Not a single German was injured. On the way out Looff spotted HELMUTH. Fire was opened from a small gun. One shell was short, the second went over and the crew did not wait for the third one. Charlewood ordered everyone on deck and then into the water. The third shell severed HELMUTH’s main steam pipe.
The effect on world opinion was severe, and no matter how much the British emphasised the difference between the two ships, the fact remained a British warship had been sunk in a British harbour and the enemy had escaped.
Looff wanted to go on raiding but now received instructions to return to Germany, and his engineer officer told him that many important bearings and other equipment needed replacing. This could only be done in Dar-es-Salaam, so KÖNIGSBERG lay in the Rufiji Delta with parts of her engines scattered along jungle trails between the river and foundries of the capital. It was a race between the British search and the native porters.
The raid on Zanzibar had stirred up the hornets nest in London and on 22 September, Captain Sydney Drury-Lowe was put in charge of the search. He had two distinct advantages over King-Hall, in that he had no other responsibilities and his ships, CHATHAM, DARTMOUTH and WEYMOUTH were individually superior to KÖNIGSBERG in speed and firepower. But none the less he was reduced to shelling parts of the African coast as the British followed up every lead. As the weeks went by, KÖNIGSBERG prepared to sail.
In the middle of October, DARTMOUTH captured the German sea-going tug, ADJUTANT which was serving as a supply ship and from the seized maps, Drury-Lowe had the idea he might find the steamer PRESIDENT in Lindi. The British sent a steam picket boat to raid up the river, where three miles from the sea they found PRESIDENT.
The British raiders boarded the ship and seized what papers and documents they could find. Amongst these papers was a bill of lading from the President to KÖNIGSBERG signed at Sadale on 15 September. Drury-Lowe now followed up this clue, but before he could get CHATHAM into position he had to go to Mombasa for repairs. On October 21 CHATHAM checked in at Dar-es-Salaam to see if KÖNIGSBERG was there and claimed they could not see the white flags which were supposed to be flying from Government House. Twenty minutes was allowed for the Germans to send out a boat and then CHATHAM opened fire with 6 inch guns. White flags appeared everywhere, but Drury-Lowe did not realise his attack strengthened von Lettow-Vorbeck’s hand in his struggle with Governor Schnee. Who had heard of von Lettow-Vorbeck?
Drury-Lowe arrived off the Rufiji on October 30 and a raiding party went ashore to capture some natives. From the prisoners, the British learnt that there were several German ships in the river near Sadale and later in the day a lookout sighted the masts of KÖNIGSBERG and the search was over. It was none too soon, as Looff was almost ready to sail.
The new problem was now to discover what to do with KÖNIGSBERG now they had found it. CHATHAM drew too much water to go up river and fight and a landing would be a large and dangerous affair. In addition it would have to be made under the guns of KÖNIGSBERG and later, after Tanga, landings were definitely out of favour.