(Note: This week marks ten years since my first Badass post. Thank you for your support!)
Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck was a Tom Selleck-‘stached badass cigar-chomping World War I German military commander who fought one of the most intense guerilla wars in modern military history, stomping his enemies’ nutsacks into gibbery wet bits up and down the eastern coast of Africa despite constantly being outnumbered by roughly a factor of seven billion. Which, of course, is pretty fucking weird considering that hopefully you’re aware that Germany kind of totally lost World War I, plus most people probably don’t even realize that a decent chunk of World War I was fought in Rwanda and Burundi. Yet here was Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, right in the middle of the shit, shouting orders to hardcore Mauser-slinging African tribal infantry in perfect Swahili as they maneuvered through impenetrable jungles preparing to ambush English supply depots at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro.
A no-bullshit master of backcountry African bush warfare, Lettow-Vorbeck was not only a hero of Germany, but a man who to this day commands the respect of a worthy adversary from the South Africans – which is damn high praise. And, if that’s not enough, after the war he was placed under Nazi surveillance because he personally told Hitler to “go fuck himself.” Which is literally a direct quote, not just me going off on some foul-mouthed tirade or something.
The son of a Prussian Army officer and a minor member of the Prussian nobility, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck grew up as part of the excellent Imperial German military tradition where every boy old enough to flush a toilet is taught how to disembowel a cuirassier with a razor-sharp cavalry saber. He graduated from the prestigious Imperial Kriegsacademie in 1899, battled machete-swinging Chinese guerillas during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, and was wounded in the eye and chest by shrapnel while fighting a native African uprising in Namibia in 1904. While getting nailed in the fucking eye by a white-hot shard of twisted metal wasn’t exactly the most insanely fun thing this side of riding the Radioactive Nightmare roller coaster at Six Flags Nuclear Post-Apocalyptic Hellhole, Lettow-Vorbeck did get a front-row seat to how hardcore guerillas can really fucking piss off a bunch of front-line, well-equipped European soldiers pretty damn effectively. And he learned some tricks.
When 1914 rolled around, it was pretty goddamned obvious that the entire globe was about to erupt into a catastrophic series of horrific explosions. So the moment he was placed in command of a ridiculously-small infantry unit in German East Africa (present-day Tanzania), Lettow-Vorbeck immediately started preparing for the idea that he would have to single-handedly fight the entire British colonial army in Kenya and Uganda pretty much all by himself. Lettow-Vorbeck’s commanding officer was all like, “Naw brah chill, we got a treaty in place with the British dudes saying that all the African colonies are gonna remain neutral even if World War I breaks out, so just hit this shit and let’s watch SVU,” but the lifelong Prussian officer wasn’t buying it. He ignored a direct order not to mobilize for war, organized a cadre of 250 German officers to command 2,500 hardcore African tribal warriors known as Askari, and began training his men in how to fight a badass guerilla war against impossible odds.
It turns out that disobeying a direct order was the best thing Lettow-Vorbeck could have done. Because roughly fifteen seconds after the Great War turning into a shooting match, a huge flotilla of British troop transport ships came rolling up on the German-controlled port city of Tanga.
Let’s do this.
The British amphibian assault force that rolled up on Tanga in 1914 outnumbered Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s army roughly eight to one. It was supported by naval artillery, troop transports, airplane reconnaissance, and when the loading planks slammed down on the Tangan shore they unloaded over ten thousand hardcore British and Indian troops, most of whom immediately barfed from seasickness and then locked and loaded their rifles.
Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, seeing a force eight times his size, withdrew to the jungles surrounding Tanga, ranged in his machine guns, and started spreading out a field of rapid-fire death that sprayed the landing craft with a torrential downpour of hot lead. The British force organized and charged into the jungle after him, but Lettow-Vorbeck’s men did as they were trained to do – they scattered, broke apart into small, mobile, asskicking units of 100-200 men each, and picked apart the disorganized British force piece by piece as they tried to clumsily make their way through the jungle. After blunting their attack, the Germans took over, got the invaders on their heels, pushed them back to their boats, forced them to sail away, and then captured a fucking shit-ton of machine guns, artillery, rifles, and ammunition they’d left behind on their way outta town. The British suffered 4,000 casualties in the battle. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck lost 15 Germans and 54 Askaris.
On like neckbone.
After kickflipping the British invasion like a pissed-off 1960s Baptist minister rage-smashing Beatles records over his head, Paul von 44-year-old Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck moved north into Kenya, where he awesomely became the first and only German military commander in history to ever launch an invasion into British territory. Badly outnumbered, undersupplied, and knowing that his only food was going to come from knife-hunting savannah lions on the Serengeti, Lettow-Vorbeck went to work doing everything in his power to cripple the British infrastructure and wreak havoc on their war effort.
Charging insanely into combat at the head of his force of hardcore African infantrymen drawn from the most warlike tribes of Tanzania, Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck moved quickly through the savannahs and jungles, surprise-attacked British rail lines in Kenya, bombed communications bases near Mount Kilimanjaro, and destroyed bridges near Lake Victoria with a little more than dynamite and his boner. In his rampage, the Prussian face-smasher even captured a massive cache of weapons and ammo in the Kenyan city of Taveta, making off with crates of captured Enfields and over a million rounds of ammunition. Commanding just 218 officers and 3,000 Askari, Lettow-Vorbeck also fucked up a 100-mile stretch of the Uganda Railway, setting trains and bridges on fire, disrupting the British war effort in Africa, and forcing the Brits to send troops and supplies to Africa when they were supposed to be deploying to the Western Front in Europe.
Lemme ride that donkey donkay
The only reinforcements Lettow-Vorbeck received came in 1915, when the German heavy cruiser Konigsberg sunk in the Rufiji Delta and the marooned crew agreed to join Vorbeck’s raiders. The always-resourceful Prussian commander got the crew to show him the wreck, then used winches and ropes to hoist out the ship’s artillery, raising four 105mm howitzers from the relatively-shallow depths. He forged wheels out of barrels, mounted the guns on them, and augmented his forces with a battery of cannons that were primarily designed to sink naval vessels.
For the next three years, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck made life a living hell for the British military in Africa. When they sat back, set ambushes, and waited for him to hit a city or a railroad station, he snuck around behind them and burned a supply depot a hundred miles away. When they tried to take the fight into the jungle and hunt him down, they lost thousands of men to malaria, sleeping sickness, and other horrible mosquito-born shit, and then right when they thought they’d finally surrounded him Vorbeck would come up behind them, shoot them in the ass with a ship cannon, and then melt back into the jungle without a trace.
At the Battle of Mahiwa in 1917, he was simultaneously attacked by a force of English, Belgians, and Portuguese who outnumbered him four to one and had him pinned down in an area where he had no choice but to fight, so Lettow-Vorpek personally scouted the battlefield on his bicycle, positioned his unit’s machine guns, and not only turned back a direct assault from 5,000 screaming enemy soldiers, but somehow slipped part of his force around, flanked the attackers, and launched an epic Askari bayonet charge, sending his warriors screaming across the field towards machine gunners armed only with a sharpened iron stake attached to the end of their rifle. In intense hand-to-hand face-punching shank-o-matic fighting, Lettow-Vorbeck’s men overcame the massive force, dealing 3000 casualties and losing just 519 men.
He also captured their camp, which, according to him, included “so much wine and schnapps that even with the best will in the world it was impossible to consume it all.”
A master of the African bush (a moniker that sounds sounds fantastically pornographic), Lettow-Vorbeck’s guerilla jungle war got a little hotter in when he had to face a competent new British commander – a tough-as-nails South African Boer named Jan Smuts who’d led his own bush war a few years earlier and whose name further improves the double-entendre potential of this paragraph.
Smuts showed up with 45,000 well-trained South African and Indian soldiers, and despite Lettow-Vorbek’s ability to repeatedly outmaneuver his adversary and escape all attempts to surround him, repeated attacks began to grind down the German forces. With no reinforcements to replace his lost men, Lettow-Vorbeck left Uganda and shifted his attacks into Mozambique and Rhodesia, hammering Portuguese, Belgian, and South African bases there. The war ended shortly after, and the old-school warrior dutifully marched out of the jungle and surrendered his command. He had fought all of World War I from beginning to end, was constantly outnumbered, and single-handedly made life miserable for the British Empire in Africa despite never having more than 11,000 men at any given time.
An epic, unconquered champion of the German people, Lettow-Vorbeck and his officers returned home in 1918 and were given a hero’s parade down the streets of Berlin. After retiring as a Major-General, Lettow-Vorbeck entered politics as a hardcore Kaiser-lovin’ monarchist, led troops to Hamburg to throw down a Communist uprising in 1919, served in the Reichstag in 1929, and constantly opposed the politics of a young punk named Adolph Hitler. After Hitler seized power as Chancellor he offered the Great War hero a position as a foreign ambassador. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck told Hitler to fuck off. He was subsequently denied his pension, had his home searched, and was kept under constant surveillance as a potential “enemy of the people” (or whatever the Nazis called them), but what can you do.
As an awesome side note, in 1953 Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck returned to East Africa at the request of his old enemy Jan Smuts, who by now was a good friend of Vorbeck’s and was also the Prime Minister of South Africa. When he arrived in Tanzania, Vorbeck was greeted by a group of Askari veterans who had served under him. They sang the song of his regiment, Heia Safari! and threw up a cheer as soon as they saw their commander.
Shillington, Kevin. Encyclopedia of African History. Routledge, 2005.
Strachan,Hew. The First World War. Penguin, 2005.
Tucker, Spencer C. and Priscilla Mary Roberts. The Encyclopedia of World War I. ABC-CLIO, 2005.
Tucker, Spencer C. The European Powers in the First World War. Routledge, 2013.