12/2/1916 Salaita Hill: another failed attempt to invade German East Africa

German East Africa remains the one overseas possession of the Kaiser that has yet to be overrun by the Allies. Nevertheless, the British are determined that German East Africa will be conquered. British forces in their East African colony have been reinforced by British colonists from Rhodesia and a large South African contingent under Jan Christiaan Smuts, who has been appointed overall commander of the invasion of the German colony. Smuts fought against the British in the Boer War but now he sees the interests of his people as being best served by a close alliance with London. He hopes that his familiarity with African conditions will allow him to succeed against the Germans where the British have failed.

The British and South Africans plan a reconnaissance in strength against the Germans defending Salaita Hill, which would then pave the way for an advance on the German-held border town of Taveta. The Allies have a marked superiority in numbers, which engenders a certain overconfidence. However they are beset by racial tensions: the (white) South Africans resent having to serve with Indian troops, whom they see as their inferiors.

Under the command of Britain’s General Malleson the British Empire forces plan a frontal assault on German positions, preceded by an artillery bombardment. Unfortunately, faulty intelligence means that the shells largely miss the Germans; the bombardment mainly serves to warn the Germans that an attack is imminent. German artillery then disrupts the Allied infantry’s assault. Although the South Africans manage to penetrate the German positions, their advance soon grinds to a halt.

Punishing machine gun fire pushes back the South Africans, who then find themselves beset by a flanking attack by German reinforcements rushed to Salaita by Lettow-Vorbeck, the senior German commander. The South Africans are put to flight by the enemy forces (who are mostly Askaris: Africans recruited into the German colonial service). A complete rout of the British and South Africans is prevented only by the brave stand of the Indian troops, who cover the retreat of the rest.

image source:

map (The Soldier’s Burden)

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3 thoughts on “12/2/1916 Salaita Hill: another failed attempt to invade German East Africa

  1. Is there evidence of racism by the Rhodesian infantry at Salaita?
    Certainly there was by the South Africans who were newly in theatre. This attitude was modified somewhat when the Indians returned a South African machine gun abandoned on the field of battle.
    However, the Rhodesians had been serving in British East Africa for some time and the Commanding Officer of 130 Baluchis wrote a touching letter to the Officers and men of the Rhodesian Regiment after the battle thanking them for offering to come to their assistance when beset by the German reinforcements.

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    • Fair point. My source for racial tension at the battle is not a great one – a referenced comment on the fights’ Wikipedia page. That only mentions the South Africans having a problem with the Indian troops. I fear I may be guilty of the northern hemisphere tendency to lump all white southern Africans together and have edited the post to remove any reference to the Rhodesians.

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      • No worries. I live in Kenya and have a particular interest in that battle. If you are interested to email me directly, I would be happy to share a short article that I recently wrote concerning Salita. stewartsfinalrv@hotmail.com

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