German South West Africa


The colony of German South West Africa (modern Namibia) was founded in 1883 by Adolf Lüderitz and was recognised as a German Protectorate in 1884. Its borders were fixed by the addition of the Caprivi Strip in 1890.

The first capital at Otjimbingwe was changed in 1891 to Windhuk (or Windhoek). Its mostly arid farming land had attracted 13,000 German settlers by 1910, the recent discovery of diamonds adding to the potential of the colony.

The history of German South West Africa was marred by three major rebellions and the harsh way in which they were crushed.

After Germany's defeat in the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 stripped Germany of all her colonies and overseas possessions. German South West Africa was awarded to the Dominion of South Africa.


Map of German South West Africa 1911
Picture from Brockhaus Kleines Konversations-Lexikon / WikiCommons

Campaigns in German South West Africa

Campaigns into the Interior
As German expeditions gradually ventured further into the colony mapped out as theirs by agreement with the other European powers they encountered armed resistance on several occasions. The Ovambo people in the North of German South West Africa remained largely unconquered by the Germans throughout the colonial period. These small campaigns were usually fought by company sized (or smaller) units of the Schutztruppe sometimes with assistance from African auxiliary troops from rival tribes.

The First Nama Rebellion 1893-94
The first major resistance to German rule in South West Africa was by the Nama people (also called "Hottentot" by the Boers and Germans after the clicking sounds made in the Nama language which sounded like stuttering to European ears. The rebellions are therefore often called the Hottentot Rebellions). In 1893 they rose under their new tribal leader Hendrik Witbooi. The Nama (and also the Herero) of South West Africa were not primitive warriors armed with spears but after contact with Boers and other Europeans they often wore European style clothes, were armed with firearms and fought using Boer style guerrilla tactics. The rebellion had initial success but was eventually defeated by the reinforced Schutztruppe under the newly appointed Major Theodor Leutwein at the Battle of Naukluft in April 1894. Under terms of the peace treaty, the Witbooi Nama became allies of the Germans and fought alongside them on several occasions thenceforth.
Recommended External Link - See "The Colonial Wars of Imperial Germany" at Savage and Soldier

The Herero Rebellion 1904-07
The Herero people of the Central and Northern parts of the colony had been relatively peaceful and cooperative with the Germans but increasing numbers of German settlers and their attitude towards the Herero changed all this. The once proud Herero had become labourers on German farms and were now abused by the Germans. Reports of rape and murder became common. German plans to disarm the Herero finally caused them to rise up in rebellion in January 1904 under their chief, Samuel Maherero, in what was to become Germany's largest and most notorious colonial war. The Herero murdered about 120 German settlers (but spared women and children, missionaries and non-Germans) and even threatened to capture Windhoek. The Schutztruppe were caught off guard, being mostly deployed in the South of the colony fighting the Bondelswartz at the time, but eventually managed to restore some order but not to defeat the Herero. Major von Leutwein was then replaced as commander by the more ruthless General Lothar von Trotha and the Schutztruppe were reinforced up to a strength of over 19,000 by volunteers from Germany. This new force cornered and defeated the Herero at the Battle of Waterburg in August 1904. The Herero were then pursued into the desert and left to die of thirst. Von Trotha issued orders that no quarter be given to any returning Herero man, woman or child. Although the orders were later rescinded, it is estimated that up to 65,000  (80% of the total Herero population) died in the following years. Maherero and a small band of his followers managed to escape into British Bechuanaland where they were granted asylum.
Recommended External Link - Namibia-1on1 - The Herero-Uprising

The Second Nama Rebellion 1905-08
The Nama people of the Southern part of the colony were sworn enemies of the Herero and initially assisted the Germans in fighting the rebellious Herero under the terms of their treaty of 1894 with the Germans. But in 1905 when German intentions to disarm them too became known they once again rebelled against German rule under Hendrik Witbooi. Despite being heavily outnumbered, their guerrilla warfare pinned down large numbers of Schutztruppe but inevitably they were also defeated and a bloody retribution was taken. It is estimated that up to 10,000 (50% of the total Nama population) died in the rebellion and its aftermath.

When news of the slaughter and starvation of the Herero and Nama reached Berlin it caused outrage. Von Trotha was withdrawn to Germany and German colonial rule became slightly less harsh under newly appointed civilian governors.

The First World War in German South West Africa
The initial intended South African invasion of German territory was delayed by an internal Boer insurrection against the South African Dominion Government (the "Maritz Rebellion"), destruction of South African railway and communication lines by German troops and an early German victory over South African forces at Sandfontien in September 1914. The outnumbered Germans under Oberstleutnant von Heydebreck (who was killed in an accidental explosion during the campaign) and later Oberstleutnant Franke, were however forced to gradually withdraw to the Northern interior of the country, fighting several actions along the way. Here they tried to call a truce based on a partition of the country but were forced by allied refusal, to fight on until faced with an invasion of over 50,000 mainly South African troops under General Botha. The Schutztruppe finally surrendered at Khorab on July 9th 1915, although some small groups remained on the loose and evaded South African authorities until as late as 1919.
Recommended External Link- See "The War in Africa" and "GSWA History" at The Kaiser's Cross

Forces in German South West Africa

The very first German troops sent to South West Africa in May 1888 were the "Truppe des Reichs-Kommissars" led by Leutnant Ulrich von Quitzow and consisted of two officers and 5 NCOs who commanded twenty African soldiers (from the Baster and Nama peoples) to protect the first Imperial Commissioner, Dr. Heinrich Göring (father of the later infamous Hermann Göring). The unit was gradually expanded over the following years to a strength of about 700 German troops by 1897. Their name was officially changed to the Kaiserliche Schutztruppe by an imperial order in 1895. Unlike the Schutztruppe of German East Africa and Cameroon, which relied on large numbers of Africans for the ranks and file, the Schutztruppe of German South West Africa consisted entirely of German troops, employed as elite mounted infantry. All the officers and NCOs and most of the other ranks had previous experience in the regular German army and had usually volunteered for overseas service. During the Herero Rebellion the Schutztruppe were vastly expanded under General Lothar von Trotha by the addition of almost 15,000 new troops from Germany. Once peace was restored most of these troops returned home. The 1914 peacetime strength of the South West African Schutztruppe was approximately 90 German Officers with 1,800 German other ranks formed into 9 mounted infantry companies ("Feldkompagnien"), the 7th of which was camel mounted and 3 artillery batteries.

The German South West African Police force ("Landespolizei") was initially formed in 1905, although due to the rebellions in the colony did not become a fully functioning police force until 1907. Prior to then the Schutztruppe had conducted police duties. While the Polizeitruppe in the other colonies were essentially paramilitary units, consisting of locally recruited police soldiers officered by Germans and often dealing with local rebellions, the Landespolizei of German South West Africa was almost exclusively made up of German policemen and concentrated on standard police duties. The 1914 peacetime strength of the German South West African Landespolizei was approximately 7 German Police Officers and 500 German other ranks, with 50 African auxiliaries. On the outbreak of the First World War the majority of the police force were incorporated fully into the Schutztruppe (and issued Schutztruppe uniforms), only a small number remained on police duty.
Highly Recommended Reading - "Unter dem Kreuz des Südens" by S Schepp
Recommended External Link -
Namibian Police History 

German South West Africa had no permanent naval establishment, but the imperial navy did serve in South West Africa as reinforcements during rebellions. The SMS Habicht was patrolling off the coast of South West Africa when the Herero Rebellion broke out. The landing party were the first reinforcements to reach the colony. These sailors remained in action throughout the rebellion. In addition the navy provided medical staff and artillery to support the Schutztruppe during the Herero Rebellion. When the First World War broke out SMS Eber was patrolling German South West African waters. Having no natural cover from Entente warships along the coastline of South West Africa (unlike the SMS Königsberg in East Africa), it sailed to Brazil where it was scuttled in 1917.

German South West Africa also had its own non-military ships, separate from the Imperial navy. These vessels came under the control of the colonial governors and were officered by Germans with locally recruited crews. They were not intended for military use although they could be used to ferry supplies and troops in times of war.
Recommend External Link - Axis History Forum Discussion on the Nachtigal

Marine Infantry
The German Marine Infantry- the Seebataillone were deployed in South West Africa during the Herero Rebellion, arriving long before Schutztruppe reinforcements could be mustered in Germany.
In January 1904 two companies each from the I. and II. Seebataillone were formed into a Marine Expedition Corps under the command of Major Glassenap for service in German South West Africa at the time of the Herero Rebellion. Once in Africa the four companies were divided amongst Schutztruppe formations. They saw action and suffered casualties in various actions against the Herero, although they also suffered heavily from disease and the harsh climate. They returned to Germany in March 1905.
Recommended External Link - Marine Infanterie

German Reservists and Volunteers
German civilians living in German South West Africa were liable to call up in times of rebellion and war. Reservists were called up during the Herero Rebellion and many German civilians and farmers also volunteered to fight during the rebellion. During the First World War reservists added three companies and two artillery batteries to the size of the Schutztruppe. A Landwehr and Landsturm were also formed for garrison duties. Many of those called up or volunteering had former military training and most being used to life on the Veld were excellent shots and good horsemen. Unlike the other colonies where uniforms were often in short supply and reservists were often left to provide whatever uniforms they could themselves, the Schutztruppe of South West Africa had sufficient stocks so that their reservists were issued standard Schutztruppe uniforms.

South African Free Corps
Many Boers in South West Africa volunteered to fight with the Germans during the First World War, forming the company strength South African Free Corps (known as the
Südafrikanischen Freiwilligen-Korps” or simply "Freikorps" in German or "Vrijkorps" in Dutch/Afrikaans). Later a Free Artillery Battery was added. The Free Corps fought several actions against South African forces, but were disbanded in early 1915.

African Auxiliaries
Due to the dreadful state of relations between the German occupiers and the main Namibian tribes no regular African Schutztruppe units were raised in South West Africa. At various times several temporary auxiliary units were formed from African soldiers.

The two main South West African tribes, the Herero and the Nama were bitter enemies. In the 1890's Herero auxiliaries fought alongside the Germans against the Nama. After their defeat in 1894, the Witbooi Nama then sided with the Germans and fought alongside them in several small campaigns and later against the Herero in 1904-05. The Rehobot-Basters also supplied troops to serve under he Germans during the Herero Rebellion. This policy of employing tribal auxiliaries led to the unfortunate side effect of having both the major warlike tribes becoming familiar with German weaponry and tactics. After the final defeat of the Herero and Nama Rebellions by 1908, the tribes were disarmed and all African units serving the Schutztruppe were disbanded.

Armed Africans did however occasionally still serve in the Landespolizei. In August 1909 a small armed African unit (15 men) was recruited to serve in the Landespolizei in the area of the Caprivi Strip.

When the First World War broke out more African units were recruited for second line duties such as garrisoning the Northern outposts and guarding Prisoners of War, thus freeing up German troops for frontline service. The Rehobot-Basters formed a company strength unit and a half-company of mounted Berseba Nama was also recruited. Another under-size company was formed from former Cameroon Schutztruppe soldiers who had been exiled to South West Africa in 1910 after a mutiny. The "Kamerun Kompanie" were promised their freedom to return home in return for service. These wartime African units saw no frontline action and were all disbanded before the end of the campaign in South West Africa (the Baster Company after a mutiny amongst them due to being posted to guard South African POWs outside their initially agreed service area). Some of those disbanded men then served as drivers, labourers or police auxiliaries. The Kamerun Kompanie were finally returned home in 1917.
Recommended Reading- "Askari und Fitafita" by Thomas Morlang (see Book Reviews Page)

Many Africans also served the Schutztruppe as scouts, guides and servants ("Bambusen"). As mentioned above, the Landespolizei also employed African Auxiliaries. Unlike other German colonies in Africa, the deserts of South West Africa did not suit the use of large numbers of African porters to follow Schutztruppe units.

In the summer of 1914 three pilots arrived in South West Africa to form a new Schutztruppe air force. One was Leutnant Alexander von Scheele (an army pilot who was appointed to command the new Schutztruppe air force), the second was Willy Trück (a civilian Aviatik factory pilot), the third was an Austro-Hungarian, Paul Fiedler. They had two aeroplanes between them, an Aviatik and a Roland, both biplanes. Trück and Fiedler initially performed test flights on the aircraft under the supervision of von Scheele and it was reported that neither aircraft was particularly fit for flight in the the climate of South West Africa. Before the aeroplanes could be replaced however, war broke out and they were pressed into service. Von Scheele now took over the role of piloting the Aviatik from Trück, while Fiedler flew the Roland. Both pilots flew many sorties over South African lines during the campaign, gaining valuable information on enemy troop movements (Fiedler was also a keen and useful photographer) and dropping bombs on enemy positions. Both pilots were injured and both planes were damaged to various extents throughout the campaign by crashes and enemy gunfire often meaning their grounding for weeks at a time. The last mission was flown by von Scheele in May 1915. The Schutztruppe surrendered in July and both planes were destroyed before falling into enemy hands.


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