The Rufiji Delta Incident, May 1915

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By 1915, the world was engulfed in the first ever global conflict. Although the war in Europe featured the bulk of the most intense conflict, many unique battles and campaigns took place in the far-flung colonies of the European powers. The British battled the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East Levant, and the continent of Africa had seen the result of a “race for space” since 1881. We shall not resign ourselves to a detailed study of Imperialism during this period, but suffice to say, France, Germany and the British Empire held colonies throughout the continent.

What is today known as Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania was an area then known as German East Africa, founded in the early 1880’s by the explorer Carl Peters. The colony saw a number of small insurrections and rebellions from 1881 to around 1905, most of which were effectively dealt with by colonial administrators, through treaties with local chiefs, the Mauser rifle and the Maxim machine gun! By 1914, the colony consisted of a number of local police units, Schutztruppen (“protective troops”), based at Dar-Es-Salaam, Moshi, Iringa and Mahenge. These units numbered some 110 German officers and NCO’s and around 2,700 native Askaris. The colony was not a particularly profitable one and despite the discovery of gold deposits, required frequent assistance from the Berlin treasury.

The military history of German East Africa during World War 1, is effectively the story of General Paul Emil Lettow-Vorbeck. Lettow-Vorbeck used his army of 3,500 Europeans and 35,000 native Askaris to conduct a highly effective guerrilla war against the British and South African forces.

His guerilla campaign compelled Britain to commit significant resources to a minor colonial theatre throughout the war and inflicted upwards of 10,000 casualties. Eventually weight of numbers, especially after forces coming from the Belgian Congo had attacked from the West, and dwindling supplies forced Lettow-Vorbeck to abandon the colony. He withdrew into Mozambique, then into Northern Rhodesia where he agreed a ceasefire three days after the end of the war, on receiving news of the armistice between the warring nations.
The Rufiji Delta lies 200km south of the bustling city of Dar-Es-Salaam, in what is today Tanzania. The delta is formed from the confluence of the Kilombero and Luwegu Rivers. On September 3, 1914, the German light cruiser SMS Konigsberg, captained by the capable Commander Looff, slipped over the sand bar at high tide and entered the deep waters of the estuary. The Konigsberg was a coastal commerce raider, with a somewhat checkered history.

Deployed by the Kriegsmarine to the Indian Ocean in early 1906, the cruiser was now being relentlessly pursued by a powerful Royal Navy task force comprising HMS Astraea, HMS Hyacinthe and HMS Pegasus. By August 1914, they had tracked Konigsberg to Dar-Es-Salaam and in order to escape his pursuers, Looff decided to seek refuge in the Rufiji Delta, after his officers had determined that its deeper waters would accommodate the warship’s shallow draft.

On 19 September 1914, Looff learned that a 2-funnel British warship had entered the harbour at Zanzibar. Early the next morning, Looff decided to act. After taking on coal, he made an early morning departure from the delta, at high tide, and began his run north to Zanzibar. Just before dawn, Konigsberg fired two huge salvos from her 16-inch guns into the stationary HMS Pegasus. She capsized at her moorings.

Konigsberg returned to the delta and moored at Salele, where the engineering staff began to carry out large scale repairs to the warship’s failing engines and boilers. Looff fortified the ship’s position, including dismounting the 47mm guns and mounting them on shore emplacements, along with troops and observers, to guard the approaches. Attempts were also made to camouflage the ship from aerial observation. During October 1914, reinforcements arrived in the form of HMS Weymouth and HMS Dartmouth. The Konigsberg was effectively trapped in the delta. Conditions for the crew became deplorable, with many succumbing to malaria and the ravages of malnutrition. Between October 1914 and May 1915, the British employed various attempts to sink the ship or at least, prevent her escape. These included employing a block-ship (a ship deliberately sunk to block a channel or waterway), airborne reconnaissance to seek out her actual position, and deploying long range salvos from HMS Goliath. All attempts failed, but in May 1915, two shallow draft monitors, HMS Mersey and HMS Severn arrived at Rufiji.

After removing all non-essential items and adding additional armour , the two ships ran the gauntlet into the delta. Aided by four land-based planes, which assisted in spotting the fall of their shells, the two monitors engaged in a long-range duel with Konigsberg. Mersey was damaged on the first day, but the two ships returned again on July 11. Their 6-inch guns finally knocked out Konigsberg’s armament and at 13:30, Looff gave his final orders. With fires raging below deck, the wounded commander ordered the magazines flooded. With charges rigged and still under fire from the British, the charges detonated and Konigsberg settled into the river just after 14:00.

It is interesting to note that the popular 1968 novel “Shout at the Devil” by Wilbur Smith and a subsequent 1976 film were loosely based on the events that took place in the Rufiji delta.

In the aftermath of the dramatic battle, the crew buried 33 of the remaining 188 crew members. The armament and all useful equipment were removed from the ship over the coming months. The remaining crew members went into the service of Lettow-Vorbeck as land based troops. Konigsberg’s 4 inch guns were removed and placed on carriages, playing a prominent role for the rest of the war.

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About the Author

About Garth Jerome (garthj)

South African born Garth hails from Ontario, Canada. His key modelling interests are heavily converted 54mm plastic and metal figures, along with 1/35 scale World War 2 armour, softskins and artillery and has been modelling since the age of 10. Garth is the Chief Veterinary Technologist at the Toron...


Interesting article. However, I believe the Konigsberg actually had 6-inch guns, not 16 inch.
OCT 26, 2012 - 08:04 AM
SMS Konigsberg,launched in 1905 actually had 4.1" guns
NOV 13, 2012 - 05:55 AM
Nicely done little dio. Check the riflt sling - comin' out of his hand a bit. I like this. Ironmike
NOV 13, 2012 - 06:18 AM