Paul Erich von Lettow-Vorbeck

From Academic Kids

General Paul Erich von Lettow-Vorbeck (March 20, 1870 - March 9, 1964) was the commander of the German East Africa campaign in World War I, the only colonial campaign of that war where Germany remained undefeated.

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General von Lettow-Vorbeck as a Colonel

Early life

Born to a military family in Saarlouis, von Lettow-Vorbeck studied military science as an artillery officer. He was posted to China in 1900 to quell the Boxer Rebellion. Afterwards, he was posted to German South-West Africa (now Namibia) to put down the Hottentot and Herero Rebellion between 1904 and 1908. He suffered injury and was forced to recuperate in South Africa, earning the friendship of Jan Smuts against whom he soon would fight. He also commanded the German colonial forces known as the Schutztruppe in Cameroon.

World War I career

In 1912, von Lettow-Vorbeck was appointed the commander of the small German garrison of 3000 soldiers and twelve Askari companies in German East Africa, modern-day Tanzania. With the beginning of the war in August, knowing the need to seize initiative, he ignored orders from Berlin and the colony's governor Dr. Heinrich von Schnee. He promptly prepared to repel an amphibious assault on the city of Tanga, where between November 2 and 5 of 1914, he fought one of his greatest battles. He then assembled his men and almost nonexistent supplies to attack the British railways in East Africa. He scored a second victory over the British at Jassin on January 18, 1915. While these victories gave him badly-needed modern rifles and other supplies, as well as critical boost to the morale of his men, von Lettow-Vorbeck also lost numerous experienced men in these pitched battles whom he could not easily replace.

As a consequence he afterwards avoided direct engagements with the British soldiers, instead directing his men to engage in guerilla raids into the British provinces of Kenya and Rhodesia, targeting British forts, railways and communications -- all with the goal of forcing the enemy to divert manpower from the main theatre in Europe. He gathered some 12,000 soldiers, most of them Askari, but all well-trained and well-disciplined. The Askari especially gained reputation for their fighting skills and loyalty. He too served as a model commander earning the respect of all men alike. He realized the critical needs of guerilla warfare in that he salvaged the German cruiser SMS Königsberg which had a capable crew under commander Max Looff, as well as numerous guns.

In March 1916, the British under Jan Smuts launched a formidable offensive with 45,000 men. Von Lettow-Vorbeck patiently used climate and terrain as his allies while his troops fought the British on his terms and to his advantage. The British, however, kept on adding more troops and forcing Lettow to yield territory. Nevertheless, he inflicted several costly defeats on the British, including one at Mahiwa in October 1917 where he lost 100 and the British, 1600.

Despite his efforts, the British inevitably seemed to win the overall war. He therefore raided south into Portuguese Mozambique where he gained men and supplies from attacking Portuguese garrisons. He reentered German East Africa in August 1918, only to turn west and attack Rhodesia which he raided. He won another marvellous victory at the principal city of Kasama on November 13, two days after the armistice. When the rumours of German surrender proved true, Lettow surrendered his undefeated army at Abercorn in present-day Zambia on November 23.

Post-War career

After the war, von Lettow-Vorbeck organized efforts to repatriate German soldiers and POWs and to ensure the equal treatment of Africans. He also met Sir Hagen, the British Intelligence Officer with whom he fought a personal war during the war. Thereafter, Lettow returned home in January 1919 to a hero's welcome and promotion to major general, the last edict of the Kaiser. He soon became a right wing extremist who participated in the chaotic politics of the Weimar Republic. Following strikes and arrests, he served in the Reichstag from 1929 to 1930. He fiercely opposed the Nazis, who upon inception of power made him work as a menial in Hamburg. There, Winston Churchill who still feared Lettow's military prowess but needed him for geopolitical necessities, tried to convince Lettow to assassinate Hitler. Lettow refused, on grounds that the original was lost forever and the only expiation was the total punishment of Germany. Thereafter, he resigned utterly from public life, with only a 1959 visit to his other home, East Africa where he received a hearty response. Smuts, along with former South African and British officers, arranged for a small pension to be paid to Lettow-Vorbeck until his death.

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was a daring yet prudent commander who showed uncanny ability to fight a guerilla war in an unfamiliar terrain. With limited men and utterly no supplies, he tied down British forces ten to twenty times his. He could not have done more for the German cause. In the end, he still remained undefeated, only to surrender because of Germany's defeat. He earned much respect from his fellow Askaris as well as white officers, friend and foe alike. He ranks as one of the greatest generals of the 20th century and a great guerrilla strategist of all time.

Upon his death in Germany, the government decided to distribute a sum of money to his veteran Askaris in Tanzania. If the veterans could correctly respond to German marching orders, they were allocated the stipend.


  • von Lettow-Vorbeck, HEIA SAFARI! Deutschlands Kampf in Ostafrika Leipzig, 1920.
  • von Lettow-Vorbeck, My Reminiscences of East Africa (English translation of the above) ISBN 0898391547

External links

cs:Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck pt:Lettow Worbeck


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