RNR Defends Songea: November 1916


As a response to a need for troops to be deployed on the Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland borders with German East Africa, towards the end of 1915 the British War Office made an appeal to the British South Africa Company to raise a native battalion in Southern Rhodesia. Lt Colonel Alfred James Tomlinson of the BSAP was appointed Commanding Officer of the new regiment, with officers and senior ranks being drawn from the Native Affairs Department (later Internal Affairs) and the BSAP. Recruitment of troops was initially from the Ndebele tribe, but when it was found that the full quota of five hundred could not solely be drawn from this source, the net was spread wider to include Mashona men and regional migrant workers employed on farms and mines. Equipped with Zulu War-vintage Martini-Henry rifles, the battalion of the Rhodesia Native Regiment was transported to Zomba for further training, and then on to New Langenberg in occupied German East Africa. The unit’s strength return on 16 September 1916 stood at 17 white officers, 43 white senior ranks, and 442 black troops. 


The Allied theatre commander, General Jan Smuts, was wanting to secure south-east German East Africa so as to avoid the Germans from having a haven where they could rest and recuperate. General Edward Northey, Commander of the Nyasa-Rhodesia Field Force, therefore had as his prime objective the strategic occupation of the southern areas of German East Africa, and in so doing thwarting the advances of the German troops and askaris of Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. Failing in his efforts to receive assistance from the Portuguese commander General Ferreira Gil, Northey looked to his only reserve, the partially trained Rhodesia Native Regiment to occupy Songea, east of Lake Nyasa. No 2 Company under Major Clive Carbutt would remain at New Langenberg, as Lt Col Thompson moved on Songea with No 1 Company, commanded by Major F. Addison. This was the only Company where .303 SMLE rifles had replaced the old rifles, but due to the fact that the machine-gun porters had not arrived, none of the guns was taken. The Company was transported by steamer to Weidhafen, from where they marched towards Songea At that time Songea, a rich farming area, was occupied by an unknown number of German troops and their askaris. As the expedition disembarked at Weidhafen Tomlinson’s Intelligence Officer, Captain James McCarthy MC of the Northern Rhodesia Police, went ahead on the track to Songea, reconnoitring the route with his scouts and twenty troops. Later that afternoon, Tomlinson followed with 29 white and 165 native soldiers, with a long and cumbersome column of porters. A minor fleeting skirmish late that night made Tomlinson decide to call a halt until first light, the inexperience and apprehension amongst his troops very evident. The following morning, Tomlinson caught up with McCarthy, who was similarly being hampered by the very nervous behaviour of his soldiers. Tomlinson was however unrelenting in his march on Songea, averaging over fifty kilometres a day, despite the fact that they encountered several bridges damaged by a retreating group of Germans. 


On 20 September, the advance party entered the deserted garrison at Songea, the four Germans and their thirty askaris having moved off to the north east. Addison and the main body of troops and porters arrived the next day. Heliograph stations were set up and intensive local patrols commenced to assess the area and to trade for rations with the local farmers. It was discovered that there were no German field companies in the area, making it apparent that the landing at Weidhafen and the occupation of Songea had caught the Germans unawares. The Rhodesian presence was welcomed by the locals who had had difficult times with the Germans, enduring forced conscription and having their crops and livestock requisitioned. Corporals Lita (also recorded as Rita; later awarded the DCM) and Tanganyika conducted clandestine operations into German-dominated areas, sending vital written reports back to Tomlinson, providing a picture of German movements and strategies. It rapidly became apparent that the Germans were planning to retake Songea. 


By the end of October, increased German strength to the north of the RNR garrison at Songea was starting to push back British patrols, resulting in the deaths in action of Privates Bidu, Magugwana and Sikotu. Northey made it very clear to Tomlinson that the Rhodesians had to hold Songea, no matter at what cost. Tomlinson immediately set about strengthening his position, removing huts that may hinder fields of fire, as well as digging perimeter trenches. Barbed wire conveniently left behind by the Germans, was used to further fortify the outer perimeter, while RSM Usher was tasked with bringing up more ammunition from Weidhafen. Hundreds of porters brought in stocks of grain from the mission at Peramiho, and within the garrison itself, every available spare container was filled with water as the Rhodesians braced themselves for the inevitable arrival of the enemy. Determined to retake Songea, von Lettow-Vorbeck appointed Major Gideon von Grawert to command an assault on Songea. Based at Likuyu, about 120 kilometres north east of Songea, von Grawert advanced with the 7th Schutzen Company , made up of German reservists, and the Penzel’s detachment. About 140 kilometres to the north of the Rhodesian garrison, Captain Walter von Falkenstein would come down from Kitanda with the 12th Field Company and troops who had previously retired from Songea. 


On 11 November, von Falkenstein neared Songea, ambushing a resupply column on the track from Weidhafen. In the ensuing skirmish, the string of porters dropped their loads comprising four days of provisions, and made a dash for the safety of Songea. Encouraged by such easy pickings and in the belief that the garrison was ill-trained and weak, the impatient and aggressive von Falkenstein could not wait for von Grawert, launching an attack on Songea at first light on Sunday 12 November. His efforts, however, failed to yield the element of surprise as he came up against the RNR troops alert and ready in their routine morning ‘stand-to’ positions. The defenders kept the advantage, as the Germans’ machine-gun jammed, leaving both sides to depend on the weight and accuracy of their rifle fire. Captain F.J. Wane (Mentioned in Despatches) sustained a gunshot wound to the shoulder, whilst on the eastern section of the perimeter. Private Lupiya, a drummer with the regimental band, was shot and killed. At the trenches the situation became confused, as frightened porters and local villagers sought shelter in the midst of the firing Rhodesian troops, resulting in a number getting shot. Upon observing enemy troops entering a hospital building which overlooked the trenches, Sergeant Charles Craxton took four troops and ran 350 metres to the building to set fire to the thatched roof, resulting in the Germans immediately aborting their attempts to gain the strategic position. His gallant actions would earn Sgt Craxton the Military Medal. He was also Mentioned in Despatches. 


At noon on that Sunday, von Grawert’s column of 200 arrived, immediately attacking the Rhodesian garrison from the north and east with heavy rifle and Maxim machine-gun fire. The RNR signalling section, however, managed to assemble their heliograph equipment and flash a message to a nearby relay point on Kalinda Hill, stating that they were under heavy attack. By evening the Rhodesians’ defences had held, as they retaliated with rifle fire and rifle grenades, with only one native soldier Private Chewa, being wounded. Their assailants however, had lost von Falkenstein and nine askaris, with a further twenty wounded. Running low on ammunition, the Germans retired two miles away, to regroup and to bury von Falkenstein. Tomlinson was very pleased with his troops stand, noting that they acted with discipline and courage, obeying commands and using ammunition efficiently. The barbed wire and trench defences contributed to their holding off a force that was twice their strength and armed with machine-guns. One isolated company, hundreds of miles away from other units, successfully withstood repeated German assaults, holding this important supply base in the south of German East Africa. The following morning was quiet with only occasional shots being fired by the Germans. A patrol came under machine-gun fire from the east. And later that night, the Germans carried out a brief attack lasting only fifteen minutes. 


Over the next few days, Tomlinson sent out small African-led patrols, resulting in information being gained that the Germans were awaiting reinforcements and a field gun to launch a more concerted attack on the Rhodesian stronghold. Late on the night of 18 November, under cover of a heavy thunderstorm which threatened to flood the Rhodesian trenches, von Grawert attacked the northern perimeter of the garrison, but was repelled in a space of ten minutes. The next day, the signalling relay at Kalinda sent a messenger to the garrison with the news that South African Infantry had arrived at Weidhafen. Colonel Byron of the Fifth South African Infantry arrived at Songea on the afternoon of Friday 24 November, his column comprising 300 men and two machine-guns. With the garrison now in the hands of a much stronger force and now under Byron’s command, the Rhodesia Native Regiment commenced operational patrols over the next few weeks, successfully engaging the enemy on numerous occasions. The RNR would continue to outperform, silencing those who were initially sceptical of the ability of an African soldier to fight in a war situation. African NCOs like Sgt Lita proved to be capable patrol leaders, notably excelling in the gathering of local intelligence. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his outstanding contribution. Sgt Salima and Cpl Suga were both awarded the Military Medal and several others were Mentioned in Despatches. 


The Director of Military Operations in the War Office wrote to the BSACo, adding to reports from Brigadier General Northey “…as to the good conduct and military aptitude of all ranks of the Matabili (sic) Native Regiment, as shown in the operations at Malangani, Ilembule and Songea.” Such accolades would earn the young Regiment the Battle Honours, ‘East Africa 1916-18’, honours which would be proudly emblazoned on the Regimental Colours of the RNR’s successor, the Rhodesian African Rifles.

The Rhodesian Soldier