Lion of Africa: The Man Who Told Hitler to F*** Himself

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, also known as the Lion of Africa, was one of Germany's most prestigious and well-respected generals both during and after World War I.

Jun 18, 2022By Turner Collins, BA History

military general paul lettow vorbeck with weapon


With the outbreak of the First World War, the colonial territories of the warring empires were just as much a part of the conflict as their European counterparts, though far from the trenches and mud. Hopelessly outnumbered and out-gunned, the Imperial German Schutztruppe (Protection Force) of East Africa had a single ace up their sleeve: the leadership of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, a man soon to be known as the Lion of Africa, who waged perhaps the most effective guerrilla campaign of the early 20th century and who held the respect of friend, foe, and even the colonial soldiers under his command. Returning from the war a hero, he would be remembered as one of the most well-respected commanders of the era, so popular and influential that even during the reign of the Nazis, he was able to insult Hitler to his face, refuse any positions offered by the regime, and survive their reign of terror with his popularity and honor intact.


Before the Lion of Africa: The Cub of Prussia

Soldiers from the various nations involved in putting down the Boxer Rebellion, via Modern War Institute


Born in 1870 into minor Prussian nobility, Lettow-Vorbeck found himself enrolled first in boarding schools, then into the cadet corps before being commissioned into the Imperial German Army. It was almost unheard of for Prussian noblemen to not at some point serve, and most would make it their life’s work, just as Lettow-Vorbeck’s father had done. His first assignment overseas was to China during the Boxer Rebellion as part of the international alliance that had been dispatched to put down the rebels. He would remain there for only a year, and while Lettow-Vorbeck was fond of Chinese history and culture, he found a great distaste in fighting guerrillas; ironic considering it is this exact kind of warfare that he would become famous for. Later he would again find himself fighting guerrillas in Namibia during the Herero Wars.


During Lettow-Vorbeck’s time in Africa, however, he would have the opportunity to appreciate the benefit of an irregular style of warfare, learning about bush craft and survival in Africa from a captured guerrilla leader. In the leadup to the First World War, Lettow-Vorbeck would find himself posted at several points throughout the German Empire, including Kassel in northern Germany, Wilhelmshaven, and finally German East Africa just three months before the opening of hostilities.


The Great War in Africa

German Askari on parade, via CNN


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With the outbreak of war in 1914, it was immediately clear that the chances for a German victory in Africa were slim to none. The largest concentration of Schutztruppe, made up of European volunteers and enlisted African Askari, was in East Africa and consisted of around 2,700 soldiers. Facing them at the outbreak of war was a mix of British, Belgian, and Portuguese colonial soldiers, all made up of a majority of African enlisted soldiers with smaller amounts of Europeans, totaling somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 men. While the Schutztruppe were better trained than the Entente counterparts, all parties faced similar issues. None of the armies were trained in open warfare. Most were using heavily outdated or even obsolete equipment, having been intended as a counter-insurgent or security force for their colonial occupiers.


Worse still for Germany was the issue of re-supply and reinforcements. As hostilities commenced, a naval blockade was almost immediately established around Germany, making any attempts to re-supply from Europe impossible. During the entirety of the war, only two merchant ships were able to make it to the German colonies, while further arms and manpower came from the scuttled SMS Königsberg. The scuttled craft’s guns were stripped from the ship and repurposed for land use – to great effect as the heaviest artillery pieces in use on the continent for the entirety of the war. The Entente powers, on the other hand, would have no such issues. At its height, the Schutztruppe consisted of roughly 18,000 soldiers and 12,000 local mercenaries, compared to a total of roughly 250,000 Entente soldiers, with both sides having even more porters, who were essential to warfare in Africa.


The Lion of Africa

British soldiers fighting Lettow-Vorbeck’s troops, 1916, via National Army Museum, London


Despite the outbreak of war, the colonial governments made several attempts to avoid any actual fighting. Most had been the subject of frequent insurrections and upheaval and were thus entirely unprepared for conflict. Past treaties enacted in the late 1800s stated that in the event of a European war overseas, colonies would be considered neutral and not brought into the conflict, though neither the Entente nor German central governments seemed interested in honoring this pact. Despite this, the African colonial governments of both England and Germany tried to keep the peace; this would ultimately prove futile.


Expecting an invasion by the much more numerous British forces, Lettow-Vorbeck decided to take the initiative, ordering his forces to launch raids into neighboring British-held regions. From the onset, it was clear to Lettow-Vorbeck that he likely couldn’t win outright. He instead decided to do his utmost to draw the maximum amount of Entente supply into the region and away from Europe as possible, giving a better opportunity for victory in the attrition war in Europe.


Mobilized sooner and better prepared, the Germans were ready for the first major British attack into German East Africa, which took the form of a two-pronged attack by sea and land where Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces were outnumbered 9:1 and 3:1, respectively. Despite this massive difference in manpower, the German Schutztruppe emerged ultimately victorious on both fronts, crushing the invasion attempt and acquiring large amounts of modern weapons in the process, suffering few losses themselves.


One of the 10.5cm guns taken from the SMS Königsberg, c. 1916, via German Colonial Uniforms


Not long after this victory, the German cruiser SMS Königsberg was scuttled, its guns re-purposed for land use, giving a boost in both firepower and morale to the Schutztruppe soldiers. In early 1916, the British forces received large amounts of reinforcements and, along with the Belgians, began a series of offensives into the north of German East Africa with the aim of removing Lettow-Vorbeck from the field. While the German forces were unable to stop the Entente’s advance, they were able to evade capture and avoid a decisive loss while inflicting heavy casualties, such as at the Battle of Mahiwa. From then on, Lettow-Vorbeck engaged in a guerrilla war much the way that he’d once hated so much in both China and against the indigenous African populations. Fleeing towards the south, the Schutztruppe found themselves low on both ammunition and food.


Despite their dire straits, the Askari remained fiercly loyal to their commander, holding their commander in great regard due to his fluency in Swahili and his good treatment of colonial soldiers. He promoted soldiers many to officer roles and considered all men of equal competence and value regardless of the color of their skin. It would seem, however, that Lettow-Vorbeck held the well-being of his men higher than anything else; this was clear given that he would instruct the Schutztruppe to take any food or supplies they required from the surrounding populations as needed, which is argued to have led to a series of famines in the wake of the conflict.


Askari soldiers in combat, via Africa Research Institute


To continue fighting, Lettow-Vorbeck and the remaining Schutztruppe went south into Portuguese East Africa (modern-day Mozambique) in late 1917. They conducted a number of raids, capturing towns and forts in order to resupply their ammunition, food, and medical supplies. As before, considering that not only were these lands not part of the German colonies, none of the German Askari felt any connection to the lands, and it was therefore easy to continue a policy of extortion and, at times, even to scorch the earth with little concern for the civilians left behind.


After some nine months in Portuguese territory, the Schutztruppe invaded Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), which was the only instance in the entire war that British territory was taken by any members of the Central Powers. Hostilities would ultimately end three days after the official signing of the Armistice on November 14th. After capturing the town of Kasama, Lettow-Vorbeck was informed of the end of the war and, agreeing to a ceasefire, marched his troops north before eventually arriving back in Dar es Salaam with the remainder of his force, consisting only of 155 Germans, 1,168 Askaris, and roughly 3,500 native porters. For them, the war was finally over.


Life in Postwar Germany

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, the Lion of Africa, via Prabook


Before departing from Africa, Lettow-Vorbeck attempted to ensure the early release of his Askari soldiers, who remained intensely loyal to him throughout the war. Even when it became clear that he was to leave for Europe, the Askari said that they would follow him anywhere that they might go and, in the future, if needed, their sons would fight for him if asked. Upon returning to Germany, Lettow-Vorbeck and the European Schutztruppe who came with him were greeted as heroes, paraded through Berlin, and past the Brandenburg Gate, which had been decorated for their return. His status as the only German commander to successfully invade British territory and his continued evasion of a much larger Entente force made him a superstar overnight. His service continued until 1920 when his involvement in putting down the communist strike during the January uprising led to a loss of his commission.


During most of the 1920s, Lettow-Vorbeck lived a rather simple life in the private sector, often meeting with his former British adversaries and even becoming friends with many English officers. Entering politics in 1928, Lettow-Vorbeck tended to side with right-leaning conservative parties, though he notably left the German National People’s Party as it moved farther to the right.


Politically, Lettow-Vorbeck represented old Prussian ideals and strongly disliked both Hitler and his Nazi party. Once the Nazi party came into power, it was initially in their interest to have the still-famous Lion of Africa on their side. Hitler would personally offer him an ambassadorship to the royal court of England in 1935, to which Lettow-Vorbeck not only turned him down but did so with explicitly offensive language; anecdotal stories from those close to him claimed that he even told Hitler to “Go f*ck himself,” while others say his actual words were even worse. Even with his defiance, the Nazi party could not do much against such a universally loved and famous icon. He was even given the rank of General, though he was never asked back into military service.


The Lion of Africa’s End

Ruins left in the wake of World War II, via New York Times


Like many other Germans, Lettow-Vorbeck suffered great economic hardship following the Second World War. After spending years in poverty, he was helped to his feet by the very officers he’d once fought against in Africa. In 1953, he returned to Africa for the last time, visiting the former German colonial capital of Dar es Salaam. Here, he was at long last reunited with the surviving members of the German Askaris, and was welcomed by the British colonial government with full military honors. Some of the sons of his Askari soldiers would even move on to become members of the government in the newly independent Tanzania. Finally, in 1964, just shy of his 94th birthday, the great General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck passed away.


Remembered and respected by both friend and foe, it would be difficult to find a more renowned and well-regarded German officer. While his hands were far from clean, the Lion of Africa’s accomplishments and respect for his men, regardless of the color of their skin, forever cemented his place as one of Germany’s most well-remembered military minds.

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By Turner CollinsBA HistoryTurner has always had a passion for history and a love of sharing this with others. Having worked with a number of museums on his native Vancouver Island he hopes that his interest proves infectious with others. Having completed his BA in History in 2021 he looks forwards to continuing with his academic learning in pursuit of a MA. When possible he loves to travel, seeking to gather as many new experiences as possible wherever he can.