On this day in 1918, a full two weeks after an armistice ended World War I in Europe, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck of Germany finally surrenders his forces in German East Africa.
A master of guerrilla warfare known for his brave and honorable conduct, Lettow-Vorbeck emerged from the First World War as the only undefeated military commander on either side of the conflict. From the beginning, the colonel knew the British navy’s dominance of the seas meant that few reinforcements would be sent from his homeland and, as a result, that the German war effort in its African colonies would have to be carried out on his own initiative.
In classic Prussian fashion, Lettow-Vorbeck organized his African soldiers—called askaris—into independent field companies and trained them in the skills of bush fighting. With successful raids against the British colonies of Kenya and Rhodesia, the confidence of Lettow-Vorbeck’s troops only continued to rise. Meanwhile, on the British side, consistently confused command and lack of cooperation between army and navy forces—as well as a decision not to divert any resources from the Western Front for the campaign in Africa—contributed to a string of failed amphibious expeditions along the coast of East Africa, from Uganda to the Zambezi River.
With a force that never exceeded 14,000–including 3,000 German and 11,000 askari troops–Lettow-Vorbeck managed to consistently defeat Allied forces (mostly British and South African) of 10 times that number. In November 1918, when World War I ended, Lettow-Vorbeck was alive and well, with 3,000 soldiers at his command. He chose to surrender at Mbaala, Zambia, on November 25, 1918, returning to Germany, where he was greeted as a national hero.
Immediately following the war, Lettow-Vorbeck joined the Freikorps, the military police force, helping to squelch the radical socialist Spartacist uprising in early 1919. The following year, however, he was forced to resign from the army after supporting the failed right-wing Kapp Putsch against the Weimar government. After publishing his memoirs, called My Reminiscences of East Africa, he returned to public life, serving as a deputy in the German Reichstag from May 1929 until July 1930. During the subsequent years, Lettow-Vorbeck unsuccessfully attempted to establish a conservative opposition to Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party. By the end of World War II, the former hero was living in poverty. In a testament to his greatness, a group of former South African and British officers led by his former nemesis, the South African leader Jan Smuts, arranged for a small pension to be paid him until his death, on March 9, 1964.
After the major raid on the 22nd/23rd, the RAF returned with a smaller force on the 23rd/24th. The target was successfully marked through cloud again but many of the bombers used the burning fires from the previous raid as their aiming point. The raid added substantially to the damage and probably killed around the same number of people – about 1,500. By the end of this raid around 175,000 Berliners had been bombed out of their home.
One notable feature of this raid was the interception of the German night fighter radio controller by substitute German-speaking transmissions from England. The real German controller became infuriated when false messages were sent to the Luftwaffe night fighters – sending them in the wrong direction or ordering them to land because of impending fog. The Germans attempted to get around this by bringing in a female controller – but a German-speaking woman was immediately used by the transmitter operating from England.
Twenty Lancasters were lost on this raid according to RAF records, which suggests that the German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels was accurate in his summary of the raid, written in his private diary a day later:
November 25, 1943
The [second] heavy attack equalled the first in intensity. Though at first we thought it might be weaker, this hope was not realized. The damage was quite as extensive as the night before. In character, too, it resembled its predecessor. It was mainly the inner city that was hit and also the working-class suburbs. Unfortunately only about twenty planes were shot down. Our fighters took a hand but arrived too late and meanwhile the anti-aircraft was forbidden to shoot.
The English therefore got away pretty cheaply with this attack. Conditions in the city are pretty hopeless. The air is filled with smoke and the smell of fires. The Wilhelmplatz and the Wilhelmstrasse present a gruesome picture. There was nothing to be done except to press everybody available into service and wait for rain, which came later in the day.
Gradually we are learning to accustom ourselves again to a primitive standard of living. In the morning in Goering Strasse there is no heat, no light, no water. One can neither shave nor wash. One must get up in the shelter by the light of a burning candle.
I got up at an ungodly hour with my head throbbing worse than ever before. All day long headaches pursue me. What of it? I simply must go to work. I drive straight to the office to wash and shave. I am very much hampered in my work. All telephone lines are down; I can reach the outside world only with the help of messengers. Most of the Reich ministries have been bombed out. Ministers and departmental heads can be found only with difficulty. That makes my work more difcult in some respects, but easier in others.
I had the various Gau [German local] authorities report to me in a conference about the general situation. Critical conflagrations are still raging in some sections of the city, but surface res have stopped.
Fire-fighting units have been summoned in large numbers from other cities as far away as Hamburg and Breslau. These are naturally a great help to us. Petzke has tried to organise food supplies, but it is extremely difficult because the streets have not yet been cleared and supply lorries can’t get into the destroyed areas. I must therefore do everything to get communications started again. The streets must be cleared before repairing the worst damage. For this, however, the manpower available is not sufficient.
The Wehrmacht must therefore help, not only with troops stationed in this defence area, but from others as well. The Wehrmacht supported my plans willingly and promised to furnish me in twenty-four hours with two-and-a-half divisions, or 50,000 men. These 50,000 men are to do nothing except clear the main traffic arteries of the Reich capital so that motorized transport may be resumed, and the most necessary articles of food and necessities conveyed into the bombed-out sections.
I have received detailed reports from various sections. It appears that even more bombs were dropped on the workers’ quarters, especially on Wedding, than in the government section, although this looks like a heap of rubble.
We must now face the problem of evacuation to emergency quarters. About 400,000 people in Berlin are without shelter. Some are lodged in municipal emergency quarters, others must spend their nights in underground tunnels. But I hope in two or three days to solve this problem too.
The first trains of homeless people left the city. But the Berliners have so far refused to make much use of them. Everybody wants to stay here to save the things most needed, and to await further developments. This morning no papers came out. I am doing everything possible to see that at least a few newspapers make their appearance on the streets. The papers with a circulation outside Berlin, especially, must resume publication because of the effect on foreign countries. The Deutscher Verlag remained unhurt, thank God, so that we can have most of the Berlin dailies printed there. Papers appearing twice daily must be reorganized on a once-a-day basis.
What the enemy press is writing about the raids on Berlin simply can’t be beaten for impudence. Their triumphant tone is enough to make one go mad. Accompanying their reports is an ultimatum to the German people to the effect that the end of the Reich capital will have come unless it offers to capitulate. Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin allegedly are to meet soon to launch this ultimatum.
The enemy now places his hopes chiefly on breaking down our morale. In an appeal to the Berliners I am calling their attention to what is at stake and what these days must prove. Not only the German people but all foreign countries are looking to developments in Berlin with bated breath. Some foreign newspapers have expressed undisguised approval of the Berliners’ morale during these exceedingly heavy air raids.