Chapter no 5 – ‌‌‌‌‌The Beginning of the War‌

Going Solo

Breakfast in Dar es Salaam never varied. It was always a delicious ripe pawpaw picked that morning in the garden by the cook, on to which was squeezed the juice of a whole fresh lime. Just about every white man and woman in Tanganyika had pawpaw and lime juice for breakfast, and I believe those old colonials knew what was good for them. It is the healthiest and most refreshing breakfast I know.

On a morning towards the end of August 1939, I was breakfasting on my pawpaw and thinking a great deal, like everyone else, about the war that we all knew was very soon going to break out with Germany. Mdisho was moving around the room and pretending to be busy.

‘Did you know there is going to be a war before very long?’ I asked him. ‘A war?’ he cried, perking up immediately. ‘A real war, bwana?’

‘An enormous war,’ I said.

Mdisho’s face was now alight with excitement. He was of the Mwanumwezi tribe and there wasn’t a Mwanumwezi anywhere who did not have fighting in his blood. For hundreds of years they had been the greatest warriors in East Africa, conquering all before them, including the Masai, and even now the mere mention of war caused such dreams of glory in Mdisho’s mind that he could hardly stand it.

‘I still have my father’s weapons in my hut!’ he cried. ‘I shall get the spear out and start sharpening it immediately! Who are we going to fight, bwana?’

‘The Germani,’ I said.

‘Good,’ he said. ‘There are plenty of Germani around here for us to kill.’

Mdisho was right about there being plenty of them. Only twenty-five years ago, before the First World War, Tanganyika had been German East Africa.

But in 1919 after the Armistice, Germany had been forced to hand the territory over to the British, who renamed it Tanganyika. Many Germans had stayed on and the country was still full of them. They owned diamond mines and gold mines. They grew sisal and cotton and tea and ground-nuts. The owner of the soda-water bottling-plant in Dar es Salaam was a German and so

was Willy Hink, the watchmaker. In fact the Germans greatly outnumbered all the other Europeans in Tanganyika put together, and when war broke out, as we now knew it must, they could present a dangerous and difficult problem to the authorities.

‘When is this enormous war going to begin?’ Mdisho asked me.

‘They say quite soon,’ I told him, ‘because over in Europe, which is ten times as far away as from here to Kilimanjaro, the Germans have a leader called Bwana Hitler who wishes to conquer the world. The Germans think this Bwana Hitler is a wonderful fellow. But he is actually a raving mad maniac. As soon as the war begins, the Germani will try to kill us all, and then, of course, we shall have to try to kill them before they can kill us.’

Mdisho, being a true child of his tribe, understood the principle of war very well. ‘Why don’t we strike first?’ he said, excitedly. ‘Why don’t we take them by surprise, these Germani out here, bwana? Why don’t we kill all of them before the war begins? That is always the best way, bwana. My ancestors always used to strike first.’

‘I am afraid we have very strict rules about war,’ I said. ‘With us, nobody is allowed to kill anyone until the whistle blows and the game is officially started.’

‘But that is ridiculous, bwana!’ he cried. ‘In a war there are no rules!

Winning is all that counts!’

Mdisho was only nineteen years old. He had been born and brought up 700 miles inland from Dar es Salaam, near a place called Kigoma, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, and both his parents had died before he was twelve years old. He had then been taken into the household of a kindly District Officer in Kigoma and given the job of assistant shambaboy or gardener. From there he had graduated into the household as a house-boy and had charmed everybody by his good manners and gentle bearing. When the District Officer had been moved back to the Secretariat in Dar es Salaam, the family had taken Mdisho with them. A year or so later, the DO had been transferred to Egypt and poor Mdisho was suddenly without a job or a home, but he did have in his possession one very valuable document, a splendid reference from his former employer. That was when I was lucky enough to find him and take him on. I made him my personal ‘boy’ and soon the two of us had formed a friendship that I found rather marvellous.

Mdisho could neither read nor write, and it was impossible for him to

imagine that the world extended much beyond the shores of the African continent. But he was undoubtedly intelligent and quick to learn, and I had begun to teach him how to read. Every weekday, as soon as I got home from the office, we would have three-quarters of an hour of reading. He learnt fast,

and although we were still on single words, we would soon be progressing to short sentences. I insisted on teaching him how to read and write not only Swahili words but also their English equivalents, so that he would learn a little basic English at the same time. He loved his lessons and it was touching to see him already seated at the table in the dining-room with his exercise book open in front of him when I came home in the evenings.

Mdisho was about six feet tall, superbly built, with a rather scrunched-up flat-nosed face and the most beautiful pure white absolutely even teeth I had ever seen.

‘It is most important to obey the rules of war,’ I told him. ‘No Germani can be killed until war has been properly declared. And even then the enemy must be given the chance to surrender before you kill him.’

‘How will we know when war is declared?’ Mdisho asked me.

‘They will tell us on the wireless from England,’ I said. ‘We shall all know within a few seconds.’

‘And then the fun will begin!’ he cried, clapping his hands. ‘Oh bwana, I can hardly wait for that time to come!’

‘If you want to fight, you must become a soldier first,’ I told him. ‘You will have to join the Kenya Regiment and become an askari.’ An askari was a soldier in the King’s African Rifles, the KAR.

‘The askaris have guns and I don’t know how to use a gun,’ he said. ‘They will teach you,’ I said. ‘You might enjoy it.’

‘That would be a very serious step for me to take, bwana,’ he said. ‘I shall have to give it a great deal of thought.’

A few days after that, things started hotting up in Dar es Salaam. War was clearly imminent, and elaborate plans were made to round up the hundreds of Germans in Dar es Salaam and upcountry as soon as war was declared. There were not a lot of young Englishmen in Dar, perhaps fifteen or twenty at the most and all of us were ordered to leave our jobs and to become, by some magic process, temporary army officers. I was given a red armband and a platoon of askaris to command, but never having been a soldier in my life, except at school, I felt rather at a loss with twenty-five highly trained troops with rifles and one machine-gun in my charge.

Dar es Salaam Sunday, no date

Dear Mama,

Last week I finally succumbed to Malaria and went to bed on Wednesday night with the most terrific head and a temp of 103º. Next day it was 104º and on Friday 105º.

They’ve got some marvellous new stuff called Atebrin which they straightway inject into your bottom in vast quantities which suddenly brings the temperature down; then they give you an injection of 15 or 20 grams of quinine and by that time you haven’t got any bottom left at all – one side’s just Atebrin and the other’s quinine.

I suppose that by the time you get this letter war will either be declared or it’ll be off, but at the moment things, even here, are humming a bit. We’re all temporary army officers, with batons, belts & all sorts of secret instructions. If we go out of the house we’ve got to leave word where we’ve gone to so that we can be called at a moment’s notice. We know exactly where to go if anything happens but everything’s very secret, and as I’m not sure whether our letters are being censored or not I’m not going to tell you any more. But if war breaks out it’ll be our job to round up all the Germans here, and after that things ought to be pretty quiet …

I was summoned to the army barracks in Dar es Salaam where a British Captain in the KAR gave me my orders. He was seated at a wooden table with his hat on in a swelteringly hot tin hut, and he had a little clipped brown moustache that kept jumping about when he spoke.

‘As soon as war is declared,’ he said, ‘all male Germans must be rounded up at the point of a gun and put into the prison camp. The prison camp is ready, and the Germans know it is ready, so many of them will try to escape from the country before we can catch them. The nearest neutral territory is Portuguese East Africa, and there is only one road running there from Dar es Salaam, the coast road going south. Do you know it?’

Dar es Salaam Friday 15 Sept

Dear Mama,

I’m very sorry I haven’t written to you for such ages but you can guess that things have been humming a bit here. Now all the Germans in the Territory, and it’s a pretty big place in which to try to catch them, have been safely put inside an internment camp. And we army officers were the people who had to collect them. The moment that war broke out at about 1.15 p.m. on Sunday the alarm was given on a series of telephones and certain key men dashed round and collected their squads, & proceeded to the police lines to be armed and to receive orders. At the time, I was actually out guarding the road going down the South Coast to Kilwa and Lindi with native troops (Askaris) and a blockade across the road. All I heard was a grim voice down the field telephone which said, ‘War has been declared – standby – arrest all Germans attempting to leave or enter the town.’ Then the fun started. I better not say any more or the censor might hold up the letter …

I told him I knew it very well.

‘Down that road’, the Captain said, ‘every German in Dar es Salaam will try to run the moment war is declared. It will be your duty to stop them and

round them up and bring them back to the prison camp.’ ‘Who, me?’ I cried, aghast.

‘You and your platoon,’ he said. ‘We can’t spare any more men. We’ve got the entire country to cover. Make sure you take up a sensible defensive position and deploy your troops under good cover. Some of those Germans may try to shoot their way out.’

‘You mean’, I said, ‘that just me and my platoon are going to try to stop every German in Dar?’

‘Those are your orders,’ he said.

‘But there must be hundreds of them.’ ‘There are,’ he said, smirking a bit.

‘What happens if they do have guns and put up a fight?’ I asked.

‘Mow them down,’ the Captain said. ‘You’ve got a machine-gun, haven’t you? One machine-gun can defeat 500 men with rifles.’

I was getting nervous. I didn’t want to be the person who gave the order to mow down 500 civilians out there on the dusty coast road that led to Portuguese East Africa. ‘What happens if they’ve got their women and children with them?’ I asked.

‘You’ll have to use your discretion,’ the Captain said, evading the issue. ‘But … but,’ I stammered, ‘that road is the most important escape route in

the whole country. Don’t you think that you or some other regular officer should be doing this job?’

‘We’ve all got our hands full,’ the Captain said.

I tried once more. ‘I am really not trained for this sort of thing,’ I said. ‘I’m just a chap who works for Shell.’

‘Rubbish!’ he barked. ‘Off you go now! And don’t let us down!’ So off I went.

I found a telephone and called Mdisho at the house to tell him not to expect me back until he saw me.

‘I know where you are going, bwana!’ he shouted down the phone. ‘You are going after the Germani! Am I right?’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘we’ll see.’

‘Let me come with you, bwana!’ he cried. ‘Oh, please let me come with you!’

‘I’m afraid that’s not possible this time, Mdisho,’ I said. ‘You’ll just have to stay and look after the house.’

‘Be careful, bwana,’ he said. ‘You will be careful they do not kill you.’

I went out into the barrack square where my platoon was waiting for me. The askaris looked very smart in their khaki shorts and shirts, and they were lined up at attention beside two open trucks with their rifles at their sides. As

soon as I arrived, the Sergeant saluted me and told the men to get into the trucks. I sat in the cabin of the front truck between the driver and the Sergeant, and we drove through the town towards the coast road that would lead eventually to Mozambique in Portuguese East Africa. In the second truck the askaris had a huge reel of telephone cable which they were going to lay along our route so that I could keep in touch with headquarters and be told the moment war was declared. There were no radios for that sort of thing out there.

‘How much cable have you got?’ I asked the Sergeant. ‘How far along the road can we go?’

‘Only about three miles, bwana,’ he answered, grinning.

Just outside Dar es Salaam we stopped by a small hut and two signallers jumped out and unlocked the door and connected up our telephone cable to a plug inside. Then we drove on and the signallers fed the telephone cable out on to the grass verge as we went slowly forward. The road ran right along the edge of the Indian Ocean, and the water out there was calm and clear and pale green. I could see the sandy bottom under the water for a long way out and on the little strip of sand between us and the water there grew those everlasting coconut palms waving their tops high up against the hot blue sky. It was a very beautiful sight and a little breeze was blowing from the sea into the cabin of our truck.

After a couple of miles, we came to a place where the road sloped steeply uphill and curved inland and went right through some very thick jungle. ‘What about over there in the trees?’ I asked the Sergeant.

‘It is a good place,’ he said, so we stopped where the road entered the jungle and we climbed out of the trucks.

‘Leave the trucks outside blocking the road,’ I said to the Sergeant, ‘and see that each man takes up a concealed position on the edge of the forest. The machine-gun and all the rifles must be able to cover the road just beyond the blockade.’

When all this had been done, I took the Sergeant aside and had a little talk with him in Swahili. ‘Look, Sergeant,’ I said, ‘I am sure you realize that I am not a soldier.’

‘I realize that, bwana,’ he said politely.

‘So if you see me doing something silly, please tell me.’ ‘Yes, bwana,’ he said.

‘Are you happy with our positions?’ I asked him. ‘I think everything is fine, bwana,’ he said.

So we hung around through the afternoon waiting for the field telephone to ring. I sat on the ground in a shady place near the phone and smoked my pipe.

I remember I was wearing a khaki shirt, khaki shorts, khaki stockings and brown shoes, and I had a khaki topee on my head. That was the regular civilian way of dressing out there and very comfortable it was. But I myself was far from comfortable in my mind. I was twenty-three and I had not yet been trained to kill anyone. I wasn’t absolutely sure that I could bring myself to give the order to open fire on a bunch of German civilians in cold blood should the necessity arise. I was feeling altogether very uncomfortable in my skin.

Darkness came and still the telephone did not ring.

There was a 44-gallon drum of drinking water in one of the trucks and everyone helped himself. Then the Sergeant made a fire out of sticks and began cooking supper for his men. He was making rice in an enormous pot, and while the rice was boiling he took from the truck a great stem of bananas and started snapping them off the stem one by one and peeling them and slicing them up and dropping the slices into the pot of rice. When the food was ready, each askari produced his own tin plate and spoon and the Sergeant dished out large portions with a ladle. Up to then I hadn’t thought about my own food and I certainly had not brought anything with me. Watching the men eat made me hungry. ‘Do you think I could have a little of that, please?’ I said to the Sergeant.

‘Yes, bwana,’ he said. ‘Have you got a plate?’

‘No,’ I said. So he found me a tin plate and a spoon and gave me a huge helping. It was absolutely delicious. The rice was unhusked and brown and the grains did not stick together. The slices of banana were hot and sweet and in some way they oiled the rice, as butter would. It was the best rice dish I had ever tasted and I ate it all and felt good and forgot about the Germans. ‘Wonderful,’ I said to the Sergeant. ‘You are a fine cook.’

‘Whenever we are out of the barracks,’ he said, ‘I must feed my men. It is something you have to learn when you become a Sergeant.’

‘It was truly magnificent,’ I said. ‘You should open a restaurant and become rich.’

All around us in the forest the frogs were croaking incessantly. African frogs have an unusually loud rasping croak and however far away from you they are, the sound always seems to be coming from somewhere near your feet. The croaking of frogs is the night music of the East African coast. The actual croak is made only by the bullfrog and he does it by blowing out his dewlap and letting it go with a burp. This is his mating call and when the female hears it she hops smartly over to the side of her prospective mate. But when she arrives a curious thing happens and it is not quite what you are thinking. The bullfrog does not turn and greet the female. Far from it. He

ignores her totally and continues to sit there singing his song to the stars while the female waits patiently beside him. She waits and she waits and she waits. The male sings and he sings and he sings, often for several hours, and what has actually happened is this. The bullfrog has fallen so much in love with the sound of his own voice that he has completely forgotten why he started croaking in the first place. We know that he started because he was feeling sexy. But now he has become mesmerized by the lovely music he is making so that for him nothing else exists, not even the panting female at his side.

There comes a time, though, when she loses all patience and starts nudging him hard with a foreleg, and only then does the bullfrog come out of his trance and turn to embrace her.

Ah well. The bullfrog, I told myself as I sat there in the dark forest, is not after all so very different from a lot of human males that I could think of.

I borrowed an army blanket from the Sergeant and settled down for the night beside the telephone. I thought briefly about snakes and wondered how many there were gliding about on the floor of the forest. Probably thousands. But the askaris were chancing it so why shouldn’t I?

The phone did not ring in the night and at dawn the Sergeant built his fire again and cooked us some more rice and bananas. It didn’t taste so good early in the morning.

Shortly after eleven o’clock the tinkle of the field telephone made everybody jump. The voice on the other end said to me, ‘Great Britain has declared war on Germany. You are now on full alert.’ Then he rang off. I told the Sergeant to get all his men into their positions.

For an hour or so nothing happened. The askaris waited behind their guns and I waited out in the open beside the two trucks that were blocking the road.

Then, suddenly, away in the distance I saw a cloud of dust. A little later, I could make out the first car, then close behind it a second and a third and a fourth. All the Germans in Dar must have made arrangements to assemble and travel together in convoy as soon as war was declared, for now I could see a line of cars, each about twenty yards behind the one in front, stretching for half a mile down the road. There were trucks piled high with baggage. There were ordinary saloons with pieces of furniture strapped on their roofs. There were vans and there were station-wagons. I called the Sergeant out of the forest. ‘Here they come,’ I said, ‘and there’s plenty of them. I want you to stay out of sight with the men. I shall remain here and meet the Germans. If I raise two arms above my head, like this, the machine-gun and all the rifles are to fire one burst over the heads of these people. Not at them, you understand, but over their heads.’

‘Yes, bwana, one burst over their heads.’

‘If there is violence towards me and they try to force their way through, then you will be in charge and must do whatever you think right.’

‘Yes, bwana,’ the Sergeant said, relishing the possibility. He returned to the forest. I stood out on the road waiting for the leader of the convoy to reach me. The lead car was a large Chevrolet station-wagon driven by a man who had two more men beside him in the front seat. The rest of the car was filled with baggage. I put one hand up for him to stop, which he did. I felt like a traffic cop as I strolled over to the driver’s window.

‘I am afraid you cannot go any further,’ I said. ‘You and all the others must turn around and go back to Dar es Salaam. One of my trucks will lead you.

The other will bring up the rear of the convoy.’

‘Vot sort of bull is this?’ the man shouted with a heavy German accent. He was middle-aged with a thick neck and he was almost bald. ‘Move those trucks off the road! Vi are going through!’

‘I’m afraid not,’ I said. ‘You are now prisoners of war.’

The bald man got slowly out of the car. He was very angry and his movements were full of menace. The two men with him also got out. The bald man turned and signalled with his arm to the fifty odd cars that were lined up behind him, and immediately a man, and sometimes two, got out of each car and came walking towards us. There were women and children in many of the cars as well, but they stayed where they were.

I didn’t at all like the way things were shaping up. What was I going to do, I asked myself, if they refused to go back and tried to barge their way through? I knew there and then that I could never quite bring myself to give the order for the machine-gun to mow them all down. It would be an appalling massacre. I stood there and said nothing.

In a few minutes a crowd of not less than seventy Germans were standing in a half-circle behind the bald man, who was clearly their leader.

The bald man turned away from me and addressed his countrymen. ‘OK,’ he said. ‘Let’s get these two trucks off the road and move on.’

‘Hold it!’ I said, trying to sound twice my age. ‘I have orders to stop you at all costs. If you try to go on, we shall shoot.’

‘Who vill shoot?’ asked the bald man contemptuously. He drew a revolver from the back pocket of his khaki trousers and I saw that it was one of those long-barrelled Lugers. Immediately, at least half of the seventy or so men standing around him produced identical weapons. The bald man pointed his Luger at my chest.

I had seen this sort of thing done a thousand times in the cinema, but it was a very different thing in real life. I was properly frightened. I did my best not to show it. Then I raised both arms above my head. The bald man smiled. He

thought it was a gesture of surrender.

Crack! Crack! Crack! All the guns behind me including the machine-gun opened up and bullets went whistling over our heads. The Germans jumped. They quite literally jumped. Even the bald man jumped. And so did I.

I lowered my hands. ‘There is no way you can get through,’ I said. ‘The first man who tries to go on from here will be shot. If all of you try, then all of you will be shot. Those are my orders. I have enough fire-power in there to stop a regiment.’

There was absolute silence. The bald man lowered his Luger and suddenly his whole attitude changed. He gave me an ugly forced smile and said softly, ‘Vy do you not let us through?’

‘Because we are at war with Germany,’ I said, ‘and you are all of German nationality, therefore you are the enemy.’

‘Vi are civilians,’ he said.

‘Maybe you are,’ I said. ‘But as soon as you get to Portuguese East, you’ll find your way back to the Fatherland and become soldiers. You are not going through.’

Suddenly he grabbed my arm and put his Luger to my chest. Then he raised his voice and screamed to my invisible troops in Swahili, ‘If you try to stop us I am going to shoot your officer!’

What came next happened very suddenly. There was the crack of a single rifle shot fired from the wood and the bald man who was holding me took the bullet right through his face. It was a horrible sight. The Luger dropped on to the road and the bald man fell dead beside it.

All of us were shaken up, but I managed to pull myself together enough to say, ‘Come on, let us not have any more killings. Turn your vehicles round and follow our lead truck back to town. You will be well treated and the women and children will be allowed to go home.’

The crowd of men turned and walked sullenly back towards their cars. ‘Sergeant!’ I shouted and the Sergeant came out of the forest at the double.

‘Put the dead man in one of the trucks and take it to the head of the convoy,’ I said to him. ‘You go with the front truck and lead them all to the prison camp. I shall bring up the rear in the second truck.’

‘Very well, bwana,’ the Sergeant said.

And that was how we captured the German civilians in Dar es Salaam when the war broke out.


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