Battle of the Bees

The First World War, as a truly global conflict, involved a number of actions outside of Europe, many of which have since become obscure. Perhaps the single least glorious moment for the British Army in these colonial engagements occured during their invasion of German East Africa, today Tanzania, on the 4th of November 1914.

British Expeditionary Force "B", composed of only partly trained Indian volunteers and led by an old Indian army officer, Arthur Edward Aitken, was tasked with the invasion. Instead of attacking from neighbouring British East Africa, today Kenya, Aitken had decided to invade with an amphibious assault on the major port city of Tanga. Though his plan relied on surprise,    the press had widely reported the task force's departure from India, and the British ships had then sailed in broad daylight down the coast of East Africa. The element of surprise was further eliminated when the British protected cruiser HMS Fox was sent to Tanga to both inform the German governor that the previous truce guaranteeing the neutrality of Dar es Salaam (the capital) and of Tanga was off, and to demand the immediate surrender of the port.


However when, on 2 November, the HMS Fox arrived off of Tanga and the ship's captain, Commander F.W. Caufield, went ashore to deliver the British ultimatum, the governor was away. Instead the German Commissioner, Herr Auracher, took the message. Stalling for time, Auracher asked for an hour's grace with which to consult his superiors, which Caufield granted. Caufield then asked whether Tanga's harbour was mined and was assured that it was, though there actually were no mines. Auracher immediately rushed off to find the German military commander, Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck, to inform him of the situation. Caufield waited three hours for the commissioner to reappear before returning to his ship. He ordered the harbour swept for the non-existant mines, a process which lasted well into the next day, and then the HMS Fox departed to escort in the Force "B" troop transports. While the British wasted time, Lettow-Vorbeck's men were being rushed, by rail, to the defense of Tanga.

Eventually Force "B" began landing two miles from the city in Manza Bay. This area, though recommended by Caufield, consisted of a mangrove swamp and was a terrible location for a beachhead, so bad in fact that it took two days for Aitken to disembark his 8,000 men. The Germans soldiers, one thousand strong, had plenty of time to arrive in Tanga, establish defensive lines, and scout the British position. At noon on 4 November, Aitken, without any preliminary scouting of his own, set out from the swamp and headed for the city. Force "B" marched right into the withering fire of well-concealed defenders waiting in ambush. All hell broke loose. Some British troops managed to break through to Tanga and seize the customs house but were soon forced to retreat by naval shelling from the HMS Fox, which had no idea where the German positions were. Fierce fighting lasted into the late afternoon, when further German reinforcements launched a flanking bayonet charge which broke the British line.

German troops on march

As the British fell back in disorder they were set upon by thousands of the local (and very aggressive) African bees, which had been angered by the firing. The bees harried the British viciously, turning their already chaotic retreat into a full-fledged rout back to the troop transports. As well as suffering one thousand casualties, Force "B" abandoned virtually all of its equipment, including thousands of modern rifles, 600 thousand rounds of ammunition, 16 machine guns, and valuable field telephones, all of which Lettow-Vorbeck captured and with which he re-equiped his men.

Though the Germans had been outnumbered eight to one they had only lost sixty-nine men. Under a British flag of truce the following morning, Lettow-Vorbeck promised to care for the injured British soldiers. The defense of Tanga was the first of a series of successes for Lettow-Vorbeck in East Africa. For the next four years, in one of the most impressive guerrilla campaigns in history, Lettow-Vorbeck held 300,000 Allied troops in check with a force never greater than 14,000. He was also the only German commander to successfully invade British soil during the First World War and went undefeated for the duration of the conflict.


For the British the battle was an unmitigated disaster. The British government intially tried to cover up this East African debacle. Yet the news eventually reached the press, at which point it became obvious that a scapegoat was needed. Blame didn't fall on the inept Major General Aitken, or on the equally bungling Commander Caufield, or even on Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. Rather the surviving soldiers and the press agreed that the British had been beaten because of the Germans' deliberate and unsporting use of bees on the battlefield.



Map of Tanzania