THE LANDUNGSKORPS SMS "HABICHT" IN SOUTH-WEST AFRICA: THE SAILORS CLEAR THE SWAKOP


When the Herero War started on January 12, 1904, the Kanonenboot SMS “Habicht” (i.e., the gunboat His Majesty’s Ship “Hawk”) was docked in Capetown, South Africa to conduct annual ship overhaul. The first news of the war reached the ship via telegraph from Swakopmund that very day. 


In German South-West Africa, the field force available for immediate action was high in quality, but pitiful in size: the approximately 90 Schutztruppen of the 2nd Feldkompagnie. And it would take weeks for reinforcements to arrive from Germany. On January 14, the SMS “Habicht” received orders from Berlin to proceed to South-West Africa. The “Habicht” arrived at Swakopmund on January 18, and the sailors from the gunboat were organized as a scratch landing force (Landungskorps or “Landing Corps”, i.e., naval landing party).  


The approximately 50 men of the Landungskorps SMS “Habicht” were well equipped. Each sailor was armed with a rifle and bayonet, 120 cartridges, a Tropenhelm (i.e., a tropical sun helmet), and other equipment (see Landungskorps, pg. 2). The sailors had heavy weapon support as well, consisting of one Feldkanone C/731, one Revolverkanone2, and a machine gun.  


The Landungskorps was accompanied by a mounted reconnaissance group of 18 veteran Schutztruppen. Thirteen of these Schutztruppen 'took the point', i.e., served as a mounted advance guard. There were also railroad troops and native African police and wagon drivers3. The Landungskorps SMS “Habicht” thus operated as part of a reinforced combined arms group, with all elements under sailor command. The total force size was 5 officers, 1 doctor, and 158 men.


The combat infantry of the force consisted of 84 troops organized into three Züge (i.e., three platoons). Each Zug was 29 strong: 1 officer or NCO and 28 men (see Landungskorps, pg. 29). The majority of the infantry were sailors, and thus the infantry as a whole will be referred to as "sailors" in the discussions below4


The Landungskorps SMS "Habicht" was initially tasked with clearing the colony's rail line (the Hereros had . However, the Schutztruppen had already accomplished that mission by the time the Landungskorps combined arms group had been organized and was ready to deploy. The Landungskorps was then given a new task: clearing the crucial line of communication through the dry Swakop Riverbed, which connected several settlements over scores of kilometers. 


The Landungskorps fought two battles while clearing the Swakop: Liewenberg on February 16, 1904 and Groß-Barmen on February 19, 1904. 


NOTE: The detailed descriptions below of these two battles are derived from Landungskorps, pp. 20-26. To the best of my knowledge, the accounts below are the first such detailed descriptions available in English.

In what follows, the names "The South Height" and "The Main Line"5 are phrases of my own invention to succinctly describe these two Herero tactical positions. - Roy Jones, May 26, 2014.


ASSAULT AT LIEWENBERG: THE SOUTH HEIGHT

Rumors had strongly indicated that Zacharias Zeraua, commander of the Otjimbingue Hereros, and a detachment of his troops were located somewhere near Liewenberg on the Swakop Valley. In addition to being a prominent and capable leader in his own right, Zacharias was the son of the late Christian Wilhelm Zeraua. Christian Wilhelm Zeraua - previous leader of the Otjimbingue Hereros - played a central role in the equipping of all the Herero groups with firearms in the 1850s. Christian Wilhelm was senior to Samuel Maharero and thus could have assumed supreme leadership of all the Hereros, but he declined the mantle when it became available in 1863. He died in 18766.


In the case of his son Zacharias, the choice of the Liewenberg location was inspired: it provided both maximum benefits to the Hereros and also maximum threat to the Germans. There was plentiful water and pasture. There were escape routes available in multiple directions. And it was close enough to Otjimbingue (a mere 28 km east) to allow Zacharias to exert an influence over events there, and to launch a surprise attack against it if he so chose.


If Zacharias Zeraua was at Liewenberg (and he was), the Germans were determined to neutralize him. The mounted Schutztruppe group would take the lead. They would ride along the Swakop Valley heading east, surprise Zeraua, and then outflank his position, blocking any retreat to the south. The Landungskorps infantry would then polish him off.


As it turned out, it was the Hereros who did the surprising. Shortly after 5 in the morning on February 16th, while slowly moving along the valley, the Schutztruppen were unexpectedly greeted by heavy Herero rifle fire from a height on the south shore of the Swakop. The German response clearly indicates that either: (a) this was a premature encounter with the Hereros, (b) given their plan to block a southern retreat, the Germans expected all Herero forces to be north of the Swakop. 


Regardless of the reason, the mounted men made no attempt to outflank to the south as was originally planned. Realizing that they were outgunned, the Schutztruppen made the wise choice to pull back 600 meters and send a message to the Groß (the main body) informing them of the situation. While awaiting the arrival of the Groß, the Schutztruppen engaged in a delaying action via a long-range firefight with concealed Hereros on the South Height. 


After half an hour, 2 ½ Züge of predominantly sailor infantry, a machine gun, and the Landungskorps commander Kapitänleutnant Gygas arrived. What did not arrive was the artillery. The limber shaft of the C/73 Feldkanone had broken under the stress of the efforts to push the gun forward, while the Revolverkanone was unable to keep pace with the infantry in the broken rough terrain.


The Hereros' main fortified line (where the bulk of their forces and presumably Zacharias Zeraua as well were located) lie north of the Swakop, in two well-developed positions of nearly impregnable rock. The height south of the Swakop, however, dominated the entire battlefield; thus the South Height would have to be taken first.


Kapitänleutnant Gygas deployed 2 of his Züge facing eastwards towards the South Height. ½ of a Zug (a Halbzug or “Half Zug”) was deployed facing north towards the Herero Main Line, to secure the Germans' flank against a threat from that direction. 


After a further half hour of shooting, Kapitänleutnant Gygas ordered the two eastward-facing Züge to take the South Height by storm.


Charging uphill with no cover worth mentioning and no artillery support, against a concealed enemy fighting behind boulder fortifications, seemed reckless if not hopeless. 


But the sailors made up in morale and enthusiasm for what they lacked in cover and fire support. Their reckless charge quickly brought them to the top of the Height, where they discovered the Hereros had already abandoned the position; apparently, the sailor’s assault had caused the Herero stand-and-fight morale to break. The sailors of the Landungskorps SMS “Habicht” had seized the South Height.


ASSAULT AT LIEWENBERG: THE MAIN LINE

Without a pause, in fact literally without waiting to catch their breath, the sailors turned 90 degrees to port, and charged north: first downhill, then across the Swakop River Valley, and then uphill directly against the Herero Main Line north of the Swakop. This final uphill charge by exhausted men against concealed troops in fortified positions did not end well for the sailors.


The correct decision at this point would have been to wait for the artillery to arrive; however, sailor enthusiasm overrode tactical common sense. 


As the sailors charged they opened fire, but their shots were completely unaimed. The Landungskorps official history blames this on exhaustion from the downhill, then uphill, charge across the Swakop. However, since the sailors were not specialized infantry  (unlike Marines, or Schutztruppen), training may have also played a role. 


Regardless, the Hereros easily repulsed the Landungskorps’ initial assault against the Main Line. Realizing that his men were essentially out in the open (they were on a gradual slope with light bush which provided no cover), Kapitänleutnant Gygas ordered his troops to pull back 500 meters from the Herero line to a covered, protected position. 


The Hereros had developed the existing boulders into virtually impregnable boulder fieldworks on the two main hills north of the Swakop. It was obvious that, unlike the South Height,  the Main Line could not be taken without artillery support: sailor élan alone would not be sufficient. It was also obvious that another frontal assault was ill-advised. 


The machine gun had been unable to climb the steep slope of the South Height, and thus was unable to direct fire against the elevated Main Line position north of the Swakop. It played no further role in the battle (in fact, it didn’t seem to have played a significant role in the fight for the South Height either).


In the meanwhile, back with the artillery, Oberfeuerwerksmaat Grabow and others used a fallen piece of timber to repair the broken limber shaft of the C/73 field gun. Under the command of Oberleutnant Kuhn, the C/73 Feldkanone and the Revolverkanone arrived around 10:30 AM on a hillock facing the left (i.e., west) flank of the Herero Main line. 


Oberleutnant Kuhn and Kapitänleutnant Gygas then switched places (for reasons that are unclear): Gygas moved to the left-flank hillock to take command of the artillery, while Kuhn moved to the middle of the infantry firing line to take command there. 


The wagon park, escorted by a ½ Zug “Bedeckung” or Covering force, now arrived and took a protected position in dead ground behind the artillery on the hill. With the wagons secure, the ½ Zug “Bedeckung” force was free to join the battle.


The German disposition at this point was as follows: the two Züge that had assaulted the South Height and then attacked the Main Line were deployed in a thin, crescent-shaped firing line 500 meters from the Main Line7. The artillery and the ½ Zug "Bedeckung" force of infantry was deployed on a hill facing the left flank of the Main Line (from the Hereros' perspective, this would actually be their right flank). 


As the artillery provided suppressive fire support, the two Züge of the firing line moved slowly forward until they were within 100 meters of the Herero Main Line.


At approximately noon the ½ Zug “Bedeckung” force, supported by artillery and by schnellfeuer (i.e., rapid fire) from the two Züge in the firing line, attacked the Main Line from the left. The Hereros offered tough resistance in their fortified positions, but were eventually tossed out. Zacharias Zeraua and his approximately 150-man Herero force withdrew to the southeast.


The Herero withdrawal was a precipitous rather than an orderly one, as evidenced by the significant quantity of rifles, munitions, and other supplies that the Hereros left behind. Had Zacharias Zeraua been able to execute a planned withdrawal at a time of his own choosing, his troops obviously would not have left behind weapons and ammunition.


As for the Germans, the mountains into which the Hereros withdrew were impassable to wagons. And a pursuit by foot troops in rugged terrain with no logistical support would have been insane. 


After sailor patrols confirmed that no Herero forces remained in the surrounding area, and with pursuit not an option, Kapitänleutnant Gygas decided to continue his eastward advance as rapidly as possible to Okahandja, to support the garrison there by blocking the paths to the north. 



AMBUSH AT GROß-BARMEN

Three days after Liewenberg, on February 19th, the Hereros of the Otjimbingue Detachment and the sailors of the SMS "Habicht" once again battled on the Swakop. And this time, at Groß-Barmen,the situation for the Landungskorps  was far more perilous.


Approximately 200 Hereros of the Otjimbingue Detachment were waiting in ambush along the Swakop River for the sailors from  the SMS “Habicht”.  The Hereros had set up their boulder fighting positions in the hills dominating a narrow defile, a few kilometers short of a place called Groß-Barmen. 


The Landungskorps was traveling along the top of a ridge in the middle of the defile. As the Germans and their wagons unknowingly approached the ambush point they came under heavy fire from concealed Herero troops using smokeless powder. 


The Hereros' ambush plan: target the men of the Treiberpersonal unit8 and the beasts of the ox-teams for quick destruction, thus immobilizing the column’s vehicles.


The wagon drivers were the first to feel the fury of accurate Herero firepower. The Treiberpersonal were shot down to the last man; the wagons and their oxen were now stationary targets for heavy Herero fire . 


Kapitänleutnant Gygas reacted quickly and calmly in the middle of this crisis. First, cover for the wagons had to be secured. He thus ordered a group of sailors to occupy a protected slope that was located forward left of the column, oriented in the direction of Groß-Barmen.  Next, the Germans had to get those wagons moving. To accomplish this task, he assigned Oberleutnant Kuhn command of a Halbzug of sailors.


However, all available manpower was deployed on the firing line, dueling with the Hereros.  Thus the men of the Halbzug had to be removed from the line in the middle of the noise and confusion of a firefight! Successfully extracting the men was difficult enough; doing so without disrupting the German defensive cordon was even more impressive. Once the Halbzug was withdrawn, however, manhandling the wagons forward behind the cover of the slope was accomplished quickly. Those men that could be spared were ordered back to the line.


While the threat to the wagons was being resolved, an even greater crisis for the Germans (or opportunity for the Hereros, depending on one’s perspective) had emerged. With the other wagons being moved out of the Hereros' arc of fire, the Sanitätskarre or Sanitation Carriage – located at the rear of the column - was the only target vehicle left. And the carriage contained more than just the column’s medical supplies. Concealed within its folds were 20,000 rifle cartridges! The loss of that one vehicle could doom the entire Landungskorps task force.


The Hereros targeted the ox-team of the Sanitätskarre, with devastating effect. They killed four of the oxen; the carriage was too heavy for the remaining beasts to pull. The precious Sanitätskarre was now immobilized!


The Landungskorps' rearguard Zug had been located behind and below the Sanitätskarre, on the lower slopes of the ridge. It was now ordered to the summit of the ridge to help defend the carriage. The Zug fanned out into a firing line, facing the right. 


Before the rearguard Zug ascended, the Hereros had been concentrating their fire against the artillery for some time. The artillery now supported the Zug by bombarding the right-flank hills. After 45 minutes the Hereros were sufficiently suppressed for the Zug to advance to the right closer to the hills. The suppression also allowed the Revolverkanone to move forward and deploy itself  right into the midst of the Zug firing line. With the Revolverkanone (and its supporting, protective infantry) in position, the Germans could start rescuing the carriage 


With the Revolverkanone supporting the sailors by delivering close-in suppressive fire against the right-flank hills, the Landungskorps men began yoking and harnessing the mules of the C/73 Feldkanone to the Sanitätskarre. After 15 minutes the carriage was ready to move. The dead oxen were cleared out of the way and the carriage moved at a trot under heavy Herero fire to the protection of the forward slope. 


Meanwhile the entire sailor firing line had moved forward,  right up to the lower slopes of the Herero-held right-flank hills. Now that the carriage was safe, it was time to assault the Hereros' positions. 


After delivering a brief bit of suppressive schnellfeuer, the sailor infantry assaulted the hills. As the sailors stormed the summit, they discovered that the Hereros had already withdrawn.  In fact, the Hereros had withdrawn not just from the stormed hill, but from all surrounding hills left and right. Apparently, with all the German wagons and the Sanitätskarre safely behind cover, the Hereros had decided that their main mission of vehicle immoblization was no longer possible. Therefore, remaining in place to face eager sailors would not have been a wise tactical move.


While the Landungskorps men had won, they were in no position to exploit their victory. They had insufficient strength. Also, they were too widely spread out for effective, centralized command and control. In fact, they were in such a poor position that they were unable to scour the surrounding area for intelligence about the presence or absence of Herero forces, as they had been able to do after taking the Main Line at Liewenberg.


Groß-Barmen was a masterful Herero ambush. It showed how accurate  Herero rifle fire could be under the right ambush conditions. It also showed how effective a well-thought out targeting strategy (concentrating intensely on the vehicles) could be.


Had the wagon park at Liewenberg been out in the open (instead of immediately moving behind the cover of the artillery hill), the Hereros might have pursued the same targeting strategy at Liewenberg as they did at Groß-Barmen. 


Groß-Barmen was certainly a German victory, but it was a close one. The perilous state of the wagons and carriage during the battle shows that. Groß-Barmen sits alongside Owikokorero (an overwhelming Herero victory in April) as the most outstanding, well-executed Herero ambushes of the war.


With their victory at Groß-Barmen, the sailors and their supporting troops had cleared the Swakop. As they advanced eastward along the dry riverbed the Landungskorps would encounter no more significant Herero opposition.


However, the Otjimbingue Hereros were nothing if not resilient. Within a few weeks in early March the Otjimbingue Detachment would return to threaten the Swakop. The task of fighting them would fall on the shoulders of newly arrived Schutztruppen from Germany, under the command of a lieutenant named Rosenberg, at a place called Klein-Barmen.



1.   The Feldkanone C/73 was one of a pair of 88mm Schutztruppe field cannon from the German colony of Camerun (Cameroon in English). The guns had been shipped to South-West Africa in response to the emergency there (see Landungskorps, pp. 7 and 16). One cannon accompagnied the Landungskorps in the field; the other was used to garrison a settlement. These Camerun Schutztruppe cannon were of a larger caliber than the 78.5mm C/73's used by the South-West African Schutztruppen.

It should be noted that by this time (i.e., January 1904) the C/73 was regarded as obsolete and had been completely replaced in the German homeland by the C/96. 


2.   The Revolverkanone (Revolver cannon) was a shipboard, Gatling-gun type cannon.  It fired 37mm high-explosive shells at a rate of 30 to 40 rounds per minute. Five Revolverkanonen were removed from the SMS "Habicht" to support the sailors on land (see Landungskorps, pg. 13). One of them accompagnied the Landungskorps into the field while the remaining four stayed behind as garrison weapons for settlements (Landungskorps, pg. 16). 


3.   The breakdown of troops (from Landungskorps, pp. 16 and 29) was as follows 

Sailors from the SMS "Habicht":   2 Officers, 51 Men
Eisenbahnschutztruppen (railroad protection troops):   2 Officers, 55 Men
Schutztruppen:   1 Officer, 17 Men
Kriegsfreiwilliger (volunteer):   1 Man
Polizeisoldaten and Treibern (police soldiers
& wagon drivers):   34 Men
Arzt (doctor):   1 Doctor


Total Force Size:  5 Officers, 158 Men, 1 Doctor. 

The officers, the doctor, and 124 of the men were German (the sailors, the railroad troops, the Schutztruppen, the volunteer) and 34 of the men were African (the police and the wagon drivers).  


4.   Sailor and non-sailor infantry were not organized into separate Züge. Thus the use of the word "sailors" as a generic term for these predominantly sailor platoons, operating under the command of naval officers and NCO's, seems appropriate. 


5.   The Landungskorps official history refers to this as the Hereros' Hauptstellung (or main position). See Landungskorps, pp. 20-21


6.   For biographical information on Christian Wilhelm Zeraua, see www.klausdierks.com, "Namibia Biographies" section.


7.   The Halbzug that had secured the Germans' north flank during the assault on the South Height was now facing to the south, to deal with any threats from that direction, and was 400 meters from the Main Line. As was the case with the fight for the South Height, this Halbzug played an important passive role by securing a German flank but played no active role in the assault on the Main Line. 

This Halbzug (which had a strength of 1/2 of a Zug) should not be confused with the 1/2 Zug "Bedeckung" force - while both units were of the same size, the "Bedeckung" force played a decisive role in the assault on the Main Line.     


8.   The Treiberpersonal unit consisted of African wagon drivers (Treibern). Wagon drivers, in this context, did not sit in wagons; instead, they walked alongside the oxen of a wagon and guided or "drove" the animals. 


SOURCES

Die Tätigkeit des Landungskorps S.M.S. "Habicht" während des Herero‑Aufstandes in Süd‑West‑Afrika, Januar/Februar 1904 Auf Grund amtlichen Materials bearbeitet im Admiralstab der Marine; Berlin, Ernst Siegfried Mittler und Sohn, 1905; (hereafter, Landungskorps)



 

 

 




Copyright  Dr. Roy S. Jones, Jr,  2006-2017