The subject of this book will need little by way of explanation to recommend it to interested readers. First, it concerns the First World War in Africa as it was fought between the respective British and German colonies in the west and east of the continent. While the focus of the Great War was on the Western Front, these ‘sideshow’ campaigns have an irresistible allure for students of the period due to the exotic nature of their terrain and circumstances. Second, the book was written by the commander of a distinctive and unusual unit, No 1 Squadron of the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division. The activities of early armoured car squadrons, which saw good service in those theatres where fluidity of manoeuvre was still possible, has remained of particular interest to military history students of the period in part because many of the vehicles were the magnificent Rolls-Royce armoured cars which have become iconic. This is an invaluable first hand account by an eyewitness—connected to those who directed pivotal events—who was in a position to understand the broader picture. Recommended in every way.
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In the event, he was attacked very heavily on the morning of April 26th. On the previous night Skinner himself proceeded with a squadron of the Imperial Light Horse to reconnoitre the road towards Ebony, at which there was known to be a strong German post with guns. The force left in camp consisted of the 2nd Transvaal Scottish, 2nd Kimberley Regiment, and three out of the four sections of my own armoured car squadron, a total of some 900 rifles. Skinner’s reconnaissance followed the northern side of the railway, until near Ebony his advance guard reported a strong body of the enemy with guns, moving in the opposite direction, parallel with the railway to the south.<br>
The meeting was an entire surprise to Skinner and his party, and the Germans apparently never knew until long afterwards what a chance someone had missed. So sudden was the encounter that some of the Imperial Light Horsemen stumbled so close to the enemy that a German officer, mistaking them in the dark for his own people, peremptorily ordered them to keep in line!<br>
Some think that Skinner ought to have attacked then. Possibly an attack might have succeeded. There would have been this in favour of such a course, that it would obviously have taken the enemy completely by surprise. However, he decided otherwise, and the force returned hurriedly to Trekkopjes to await attack there.<br>
The 1st Rhodesian Regiment, about 450 strong, was at Arandis, some ten miles below Trekkopjes. They were ordered up, and arrived after the attack had begun in time to occupy the high ground on the right of the camp. Guns were wired for to Swakopmund, but these, in the shape of two 4-inch and two 12-pr. naval guns, did not arrive until late in the day, after the enemy had withdrawn.<br>
The ball opened at about 6 o’clock in the morning, when an enemy detachment blew up the line about a mile in advance of the camp. It appeared afterwards that the German explosion party had been detailed to cut the railway behind us, in order to prevent guns and reinforcements from coming up, but in the dark they mistook the landmarks, and so brought quite a sporting effort to nought. Shortly after the explosion on the line the German guns opened on the camp. There were two batteries of them, and they made exceedingly good practice, the ranging being well-nigh perfect and few of their shells failing to burst.<br>
For a considerable time they devoted their attention quite harmlessly to shelling the few tents that had been left standing, ignoring almost altogether the trenches and the Rhodesian position on the ridge. By this time we had five of our armoured cars out at distances up to half a mile in front of the fire trenches. Two others were posted in support of the infantry at the point on the railway where the trenches occupied by the Scottish and the Kimberleys joined. The other two were in reserve with the transport, which was formed up ready to move in case of a retirement.<br>
Towards 8 o’clock the enemy apparently felt satisfied that his guns had sufficiently prepared the way for an infantry attack, and this was accordingly launched. His obvious intent was to cross the line and occupy the ridge held by the Rhodesians, which would have enabled him to enfilade the whole of our line of trenches. His advance towards the line, however, brought him under the fire of the machine-guns of the five cars which were out in front. The direction of attack was bent more towards our front by this fire, which caused a good many casualties in the German ranks.<br>
The enemy was not to be denied, however, and again essayed to cross the line a few hundred yards lower down. Once more the fire from the cars deflected him from his line, and he bent outwards again, to make a third and then a fourth attempt to cross nearer to the camp. Both attempts were checked and defeated by the cars. The effect of the fourth and last repulse from the railway itself was to bring the enemy well across the line of our trenches and thus expose him to the full front of fire of the infantry, who then got the chance for which they had been waiting all the morning. The cover, however, was so good that it is doubtful whether the Germans suffered much from the infantry fire at this stage of the action.<br>
Apparently not liking the cars, which were a complete surprise—they had been reported by an aeroplane observer who had been over the camp two days before as “water-carts”—the enemy abandoned his attempt to cross the railway and decided on a frontal attack on the trenches. This was launched towards 10 o’clock, after a heavy artillery preparation, which did very little harm. One battery concentrated on the cars, but although they were hit repeatedly by shrapnel only one was damaged at all seriously. Even this was put right on the next day, so the amount of damage we sustained was by no means commensurate with the enemy’s expenditure of ammunition and effort.<br>
The infantry attack was pushed with considerable resolution, many of the Germans getting to within fifty yards of the trenches, but the fire of our own infantry and that of the two supporting cars was more than they could face, and by 10.30 a.m. it was clear that the attack had failed. A counter-attack was ordered, but could make little headway without artillery support in face of the German guns, which came into action to cover the retirement. At 11.30 it was all over, and the enemy withdrew in very leisurely fashion towards Karub.<br>
It had been a very severe action while it lasted, and at one time it looked very much as though the enemy’s attack must succeed. Thanks to the steadiness of the untried South African regiments, who bore without the slightest wavering a heavy artillery fire to which we had no means of reply, and to the unexpected presence of the armoured cars with their heavy volume of machine-gun fire, it did not succeed; but it was a near thing. The enemy outnumbered us, according to one estimate, by 50 per cent., and had the support of two very well served batteries; so, taking into consideration the position we had to defend, and the means at our disposal, we had reason to congratulate ourselves on the result.