It’s Hard to Believe Swarms of Pissed-Off Bees Routed a British Army
The Battle of Tanga is a lesson in military failure
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
The remote African theater of World War I was overshadowed by the vastly greater devastation that tore Europe apart in 1914. Yet the war in Africa ravaged the continent and involved many thousands of soldiers who bled and lost their lives in terrifying and often bizarre circumstances.
In November 1914, the British Indian Expeditionary Force B under the command of Maj. Gen. Arthur Aitken attempted to seize the strategic town of Tanga in Tanzania — then part of German East Africa.
Tanga was an important seaport and railroad terminus, and control over the town would give Aitken an important base for driving the Germans from their African colonies. But the Battle of Tanga would become an embarrassing lesson in unpreparedness which allowed a small German colonial army to soundly defeat an enemy force eight times its size.
The Germans and their local Askari soldiers were also helped by a swarm of angry bees that routed one of the British Empire’s battalions.
In theory, Aitken should have made short work of the German forces. He had around 8,000 soldiers, most of them drawn from India and augmented by the better-trained 2nd Battalion, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. Around 1,000 soldiers — most of them Askaris — were all Lt. Col. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, the German commander, could call on to defend the port.
Aitken planned to land his soldiers east of Tanga along a strip of land that shielded the town from the Indian Ocean. To Tanga’s north was Manza Bay. From the eastern beach, the soldiers would march in a line toward the town with the Indian Ocean to their backs and the bay serving as a landmark to anchor the army’s right flank.
The plan started to go wrong before the soldiers hit the beach. As Byron Farwell described in his 1986 history The Great War in Africa, 1914–1918, the Indian troops were hardly in a condition to fight, being unfamiliar with their new Lee-Enfield rifles and assembled from different parts of India with vastly disparate languages and cultures.
If that wasn’t enough warning, Aitken exhausted his soldiers by needlessly confining them in cramped ships off the Kenyan port of Mombasa, a resupply stop during the voyage from India.
“It is not surprising that raw troops who had been confined for more than two weeks — and some for more than a month — aboard steamy, stinking transports, who had been fed bad food, been overcrowded, been seasick, and who were now kept sleepless all night, were not eager at first light to engage a fresh enemy in unknown strength on a strange shore,” Farwell wrote.
On the evening of Nov. 3, the expedition landed near Tanga. The army advanced the following day. As the soldiers approached, the waiting Germans and Askaris opened fire with their machine guns.
Indian troops on the advancing line’s left flank stalled and fell into disarray. The British right flank, strengthened by the Lancashire regiment and Gurkha troops, fought their way into Tanga. According to Farwell’s account, one Lancashire soldier who survived the battle even “went into action with a pet green parrot on his shoulder.”
Then the battle started getting weird. Hungry sailors on one of the ships borrowed a boat and rowed into town during the fighting. One of the sailors was wounded and the group fled back to sea. Then the Battle of Tanga turned into the Battle of the Bees.
Local Africans habitually made hives of hollow logs and hung them in trees. When rifle and machine gun bullets battered the hives, the bees swarmed out in force. Some men were driven almost insane by their stings. A signaller of the Royal Engineers who tried to remain at his post suffered 300 stings on his head. A North Lancashire officer, knocked unconscious by a bullet in his face, was stung back to life and staggered to the beach.
In parts of the battlefield the shooting ceased while both sides fled from the fury of the angry bees. This was the first but not the last time in this campaign that combatants were routed by bees.
German reinforcements arrived and Lettow-Vorbeck ordered a counter-attack. The British line then fully collapsed, and practically the entire force ran back to the beach under heavy fire, taking casualties as they ran. Only a few small groups of soldiers stayed behind, desperate to hold on during the ferocious German assault.
It wouldn’t be until the next night, Nov. 5, when the survivors boarded their ships and sailed away — minus most of their equipment. The Germans and Askaris were victories, but too disorganized to press onward and finish the hundreds of demoralized soldiers waiting for rescue.
Mainly, the British battle strategy was ruined by poor planning and a toxic command climate. Aitken despised Brig. Gen. Richard Wapshare, one of his two brigade commanders. And Capt. Richard Meinertzhagen, the accompanying British intelligence officer, loathed the Indian soldiers and described them in his diary as “the worst in India.”
Aitken also held racist views toward the black Askaris and expected them to be a pushover. They were in fact skilled warriors. At the battle’s conclusion, around 360 British and Indian troops were dead. The Germans lost 148 soldiers, most of them local troops.
The Indian troops were poorly trained and unprepared, but the blame falls heaviest on the European officers who incompetently served them and occasionally murdered them on the battlefield. During the retreat, Meinertzhagen executed two Indian soldiers with his pistol before an exploding shell fired from the cruiser HMS Fox blew “him against a palm tree,” according to Farwell.
Fox also tipped off Lettow-Vorbeck before the battle. As the invasion convoy approached from Mombasa, on the morning of Nov. 2, the cruiser’s captain disembarked and rowed into Tanga and told the Germans to surrender in an hour or risk being fired upon.
He then asked if the harbor was mined. “He was afraid of mines,” Farwell noted.
There were no mines but the Germans, understandably, lied and told the captain there were. As the British vainly swept the harbor, delaying the operation for another day, Lettow-Vorbeck raced reinforcements to Tanga by rail. The Askaris were — unlike the miserable Indian troops at sea — apparently exhilarated by the rare chance to travel via train, improving their morale.
Not that the operation was much of a secret before the Fox arrived, largely because of laziness and Aitken’s belief that Africans made poor soldiers. The invasion flotilla, 45 ships strong including 14 troop transports, was an obvious sight to German informants in Mombasa. “Secrecy was almost nonexistent” during the preparation stages, according to Farwell.
Nor did the British have much awareness of the terrain, or the bees.