SMS Königsberg’s gun

Apart from nature I am also interested in African history so this is the first post that I dwell on the issue to tell you about an interesting series of somehow related events that took place in East, Central and Southern Africa during World War I (WWI). I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I did searching for information and writing it.

We spent last week in Pretoria, having a break from Zimbabwe, and doing some needed shopping. While there I took the opportunity to visit the Union Buildings not to meet the President of South Africa but to check on a piece of artillery that I once read it was there. Luckily, after checking the various guns placed there, I found it and it prompted me to write this post.

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Wrong gun. One of the guns at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

Let’s go back in time to the 1900’s, most precisely 1906 when the SMS Königsberg was launched and became the lead ship of her class of light cruisers in the German Navy. It was named after the capital of the then East Prussia and it was armed with a main battery of ten 10.5-centimeter (4.1 in) as well as other smaller guns.

In April 1914, the Königsberg was sent to German East Africa to take over patrol duties along the Indian Ocean coast. Its crew prepared for a tropical spell and many brought hunting guns to enjoy this activity that was common at the time. It arrived in Dar es Salaam on 5 June and its size and impressive appearance gained it the nickname Manowari na bomba tatu, or “the man of war with three pipes” among the local people.

The arrival to the area of the HMS Astraea, Hyacinth, and Pegasus of the British Navy (probably related with the deterioration of the situation in Europe) created concern in the Germans who, suspecting that the intentions of such unexpected visitors were to blockade the Königsberg in the German East African capital, on 31 July 1914 it went out to sea as soon as it could. The Königsberg, being a faster vessel left the three slower British ships behind until it broke contact and continued to Aden where news of the start of WWI reached it.

Ordered to attack British merchant ships, the cruiser remained in the Indian Ocean and sunk the SS City of Winchester, a merchant ship and only civilian casualty. Coal availability soon became the Achilles’ heel of the cruiser but somehow it got enough of it to enable it to seek refuge into the Rufiji River delta, recently surveyed by the Germans, as its engines were in need of an overhaul.

Aware of the presence of HMS Pegasus in the area, the Königsberg left its hiding place in a sortie and surprised and sunk the Pegasus on 20 September 1914 in what is known as the Battle of Zanzibar. After this event both the Königsberg and its loyal supply ship the Somali entered the delta of the Rufiji River to wait for the needed repairs that were to be carried out in Dar es Salaam.

While the two German ships were camouflaged inside the delta, following the Pegasus defeat, three more British cruisers; HMS Chatham, Dartmouth, and Weymouth arrived to the area and located the Königsberg and the Somali. However, not knowing the way into the delta, they were unable to steam into the river to attack them so they decided to set up a blockade. The battle of the Rufiji River had started!

The British attempted by air and sea to destroy the German ships but failed, as they could not get close enough for their guns to be accurate and the planes brought in were not able to cope with the heat. Seeking a safer position, the German ships moved further into the delta. However, the situation was deteriorating as the Germans were experiencing, apart from shortages of coal, scarcity of ammunition, food, and medical supplies. To the impossibility of escaping from this tropical prison, diseases such as malaria started affecting the crew so the moral fell to an all time low.

A short-lived hope was brought about by a plan to re-supply the Königsberg through the arrival of a German merchant ship loaded with supplies and pretending to be Danish in the hope to get through the British blockade. As the freighter approached East Africa, Königsberg prepared to come out fighting to meet it. Sadly for the Germans, the ruse was discovered and the “Danish” ship forced aground. Although still safe from their enemies, the Königsberg and the Somali were trapped!

To break the stalemate the resourceful British brought two monitors, the Mersey and Severn. These large gunboats of shallow draft were built before the start of WWI for the Brazilian Navy and taken over by the British at the onset of the war. As their intended use was the Amazon River, they were considered suitable to enter the Rufiji River and their voyage from the UK justified!

On 11 July 1915, the two monitors got close enough to severely damage the Königsberg, forcing her crew to scuttle it. The guns were removed and converted into field artillery pieces and coastal guns and, together with the ship’s crew, joined Lieutenant Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s guerrilla campaign in East Africa. One of these guns remained with the German Navy as it was mounted on the SS Graf von Goetzen in the German fleet in Lake Tanganyika.

Could that gun been the one seen at the Union Buildings at Pretoria? It may be but it is unlikely, as it is believed that it was taken to the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo). It is also believed that the gun at Pretoria is a hybrid of pieces coming from several different guns. Further, the plaque stating it to have been captured by South African forces at Kahe, East Africa on 21st March is also almost certainly inaccurate as the “Kahe gun” was blown up and severely damaged by the Germans before being captured.

The story of the Pretoria gun ends here. However there is a follow up that started with the mounting of the gun on the SS Graf von Goetzen, a participant in the Battle of Lake Tanganyika. However, this is the subject for the next post!

 

Note: The fate of the ten guns of the Königsberg have been thoroughly investigated and an outstanding report can be found @ http://s400910952.websitehome.co.uk/germancolonialuniforms/militaria/koenigsberggun.htm. I acknowledge this site for some of the information contained in this post.

 

 

 

 

 

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2 comments

  1. As usual well-written and fascinating to read. One of Wilbur Smith’s best includes relatively correct details of the Rufiji affair and made an amusing film with Roger Moore.

    All the best, Roger

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