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The Great Hunters

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A hunt of a different kind  C J Pretorius 

In 1915 Pretorius was called to Durban to assist the Royal Navy in tracking a quarry to earth. As his commission unfolded itself, he found that it stretched all his abilities as a hunter and scout.   

For half a century I have hunted every type of big game; have known scores of native tribes, speaking their language living their lives; have trodden jungle paths not used before by civilized men but made by the animals of the forest through countless years. I have stalked the rhinoceros, the lion, the bushbuck, (1) shot hundreds of elephants and made friends with natives who had never seen a pale-face.

I have stalked men, too – men who were England’s enemies. And once it fell to my lot, at the request of the British Navy, to stalk a cruiser (2) – the famous Konigsberg.

This enemy warship had left a spectacular trail of disaster behind her as she ploughed those southern waters. She had sunk merchant vessels and transports and had ended by smashing up H.M.S. Pegasus, as well as two guard ships. Then she scurried for shelter, for her commander knew the British Navy would be out to get her.

The Admiralty had no definite information as to the whereabouts of the Konigsberg. They thought she was hiding somewhere on the east coast of Africa. It chanced that I had hunted there and was one of the very few white men who was familiar with the country and the natives.

Thus it was that – without knowing at the time the reason for it all – I was brought by urgent message, the mystery of which intensified as I was swept onward across the continent from Pretoria to Cape Town and Durban, and put aboard the battleship Goliath, on which Admiral King-Hall flew his flag. King-Hall was a charming man, slightly under six feet in height, red-complexioned, and possessing the bushiest eyebrows I had ever seen on a man. From the very first I instinctively liked him. He told me they thought the ship was up the Rufiji River, and their chief evidence seemed to be the loss of searchers that had already been sent out there. Two seaplanes had flown over the delta, and neither had returned. Two armed whalers had been dispatched to patrol the coast. One of these, armed with machine-guns and light cannon, had entered the river and had not come back. Finally the Navy had sent an ordinary boat filled with local natives, but this too had disappeared.

I suggested that, with a few natives, I should go scouting first of all to discover whether the Konigsberg were indeed there and then how circumstances could best be used to attack her.

I knew of a “two-by-four” island, named Koma, only a couple of miles from the river mouth, which would serve as an F.O.P. It was a hectic scramble getting from ship to shore at Koma. Not a soul was on the island; all the villagers had been cleared out. Why? This was the first support to our suspicions that the German ship was in the neighbourhood. The islanders might give them away, so the Germans had removed them; that was the logic of it.

Next night – dark, wet, thundery, and therefore friendly to spies – we pushed off in a canoe for the mainland. I knew a village near the coast - Kisiji – and I planned to adopt the forthright stratagem of knocking on the first door and capturing anyone who emerged. But in this I was frustrated. For there was no inhabitant left in Kisiji.

There was nothing for it but to penetrate farther inland, and we returned to our forward base until next night, when we crossed again, meaning to stay until next night, when we crossed again, meaning to stay until we had results. So this time we hid our dug-out among the mangrove-trees (3) where we landed. Not that “landed” seems quite the right description, for there is no ground visible at the edge of a mangrove swamp. These trees grow from the sea-bed up to the water’s surface, where they spread out so densely that one can scramble over the growth. We had a full mile of this unpleasant route to traverse from the edge of this sea forest to dry land. It was raining heavily; it was pitch dark, and I dared not light a torch.

We made a bee-line for the west, so that the next morning we should be among the native population, and there I decided I would stay until we had captured a man who could impart useful information. At about 3 a.m., after having traveled eight miles, we struck a big, wide road which had obviously been made since the outbreak of war, for I knew these parts well and remembered there had originally been only a native footpath there. Taking up our position in very dense bush beside the road, we lay down for the rest of the night.

In the morning I noticed that the road was used almost hourly during the day by German troops marching backward and forward between Dar-es-Salaam and the Rufiji River. The enemy was here of a surety. Eventually two local natives came along. I told my boys to stand ready, and as they came up I arrested them, took them into the bush about five hundred yards, and there questioned them.

I told them right from the start that in no circumstances could they be released for the duration of the war. “You will be prisoners, but you will be kept and well fed,” I said; “but at the first sign of treachery you will both be shot.”

Then I asked them for information concerning the German cruiser. They answered that it was in the Rufiji.

“We will go to the Konigsberg to-night,” I said, “and you must guide me to a high point as near the cruiser as possible, where we will remain for the rest of the darkness, so that when it gets light I shall be in a position to see the ship and the German forces.”

They replied that there was a small hill close by from which the Konigsberg would be visible; we could climb trees and sit in them until the day broke.

When daylight came the quest was finished. From a tree-top I had a bird’s-nest view of the cruiser, which lay moored not more than three hundred yards away. She was well camouflaged, smothered in trees on her deck, and her sides painted so that she seemed part of the surrounding jungle.

There were patrols about, and we had to be wary in returning. Not until dark did we reach the dug-out at the edge of the mangrove. Before daylight we were safe at Koma with our two prisoners. I found in an interview with the Admiral that the locating of the ship was but the preliminary part of my job. Weeks of scouting lay ahead. He wanted to know the range from the sea to where the Konigsberg lay, what guns she still possessed, whether her torpedoes were aboard, the rise and fall of the tide in the main channel and certain subsidiary streams. King-Hall was leaving nothing to chance; when he struck he meant to kill.

Next night, with one of the prisoners as guide, we dodged all German sentries, and before dawn had crept to the vantage-point from which, as soon as daylight came, I could look down on the Konigsberg. Through powerful glasses I could see the guns and the German sailors, brought so close, it seemed, that by stretching out an arm I could touch them. I counted eight 4.1 guns. (4) Now I had to discover whether the torpedoes were aboard.

I had a scheme which my personal acquaintance with the natives made possible of execution. A few miles inland lived a certain chief who, I thought, could lead me to the knowledge I wanted. The Germans had recruited native labour, and through the chief I might make contact with a boy working on the ship.

It had scarcely ceased raining all the time I had been engaged on this mission, and it was pelting as usual a few nights later as I sat in the bush outside a native village awaiting the return of my prisoner, whom I had sent to fetch the chief. I heard them approaching, and I am afraid the act I contemplated was a very unfriendly one. The moment the chief stood before me I collared him. When we knew what I wanted he replied excitedly that his own son was a stroker on the Konigsberg, and he said if one took a basket of chickens it was possible to visit a relative, who was a member of the crew. He offered to go to interview his son, and I said I would go with him.

For this purpose a disguise was necessary, and the chief provided me with an Arab outfit. I needed no colouring; twenty-five years of African sun had provided that.

The chief was to pose as my “boy”, and we had many rehearsals, especially as to what exactly he should ask his son, for it would not do for me to interrupt their talk with the Germans looking on.

Near the raider’s hiding-place one of the pickets stopped us. The slightest suspicion on their part, and our chances would be nil. Humbly I explained that my “boy” wished to see his son for a few minutes, at the same time offering the basket of chickens. The German went off and reported the matter to an officer.

A quarter of an hour later the boy arrived from the Konigsberg, sat down, and was interrogated by his father in accordance with my instructions.

“Where are the long bullets that swim in the water?” That was the chief question. The boy stated that the torpedoes had been removed from the cruiser and, he believed, placed in boats close to the mouth of the Rufiji River.

This was vital information for Admiral King-Hall, who, when I gave it to him, ordered all shipping to keep well out to sea when near the Rufiji. Meanwhile he instructed me to find a possible channel of approach to the Konigsberg.

And here began a series of investigations the monotomy of which was only bearable because of the results gradually obtained. I pushed a dug-out in and out of the score of channels, taking sounds with a long pole.

It was in the most northerly channel that I eventually found what we wanted. I came upon a solid reef running across the entire channel effectively blocking progress. I knew that the possibility of bringing over monitors (5) then being used on the Belgian coast had been considered, if they could be got within range. So I walked the distance between this reef and the German ship and found the range not too far for six-inch guns. And a monitor has a draft of only four feet. When I returned with the news the Admiral at once requested that two monitors should make the long trip from the English Channel to the coast of East Africa.

Then I was given a simply ghastly job. I was instructed to stick a marked pole in the sea a certain distance from the shore, and for a month – one month – make an hourly record of the rise and fall of the water with the ebb and flow of the tides.

I’ll say I was glad the day I placed the chart in the Admiral’s hands.

In due course monitors arrived – the Mersey and the Severn – and I was signaled to come aboard the flagship, where I received a good many instructions, the chief object of which seemed to be to try to lure the Konigsberg into the open. It looked very much as if a couple of dhows (6) I was to commandeer were to be lure! If that were the object it failed, for a storm got up and we lost each other, one dhow disappearing, the other, in which I was, being wrecked during darkness on one of the countless reefs that lie between Mafia and the mainland. The need for secret scouting was over. The fight was on. A whaler was to now be used as a decoy, and a few days later, running under sealed orders, Captain Wood and I opened an envelope the Admiral had given us as we put to sea. It was midnight, and we were instructed to come to anchor at daybreak at a spot marked on a chart. That spot was right in front of where I knew German batteries were fixed close to the shore, But we were not alone for long. Backed by an angry dawn. We began to count smoke smudges on the horizon – sixteen of them. I felt a new thrill at the thought of the naval action that was impending – the first I had ever witnessed.

The flagship came to anchor opposite us, and the Admiral signaled to me to come aboard. In the meantime the two monitors steamed past on our port, led by two mine-sweepers. I was watching their slow progress towards that position I had found for them, when right between us the sea seemed to burst and a tremendous column of water shot up into the air in front of the flagship, followed by a thunderous roar that filled the world. The Konigsberg had opened hostilities, and that single shell was quickly followed by others, while the land batteries also began to bombard us.

The two monitors held on their course without firing a shot. But our ship came to life. Orders were sung out to the men already at their stations, and our guns spoke. We fired in salvoes, all previous noises fading into insignificance as salvo (7) after salvo belched out.

It was terrific – to me – and I gaped in wonderment at the nonchalance of the English sailors. One group, not engaged in the firing, were calmly sitting on the deck mending their boots, and others were stitching canvas just as if nothing untoward was happening. They did not even trouble to watch the bombardment.

Although the officers were using field-glasses, I was able to point out to them a number of snipers placed high up in trees on platforms whom they had not observed. Once spotted, the snipers were wiped out immediately, platform and all.

The firing increased, and now it burst out from a new quarter in the very heart of the bush. The monitors were in action.

Two aeroplanes had appeared over the delta, and I was informed signals were being received from them.

“Fire again at the same mark.” This they kept sending over; it meant the monitors had found the target. They were using incendiary shells which burst into flame as they landed, and we soon saw a dense cloud of smoke rising, a hopeful sign that the Konigsberg had been hit, although we could not see her because all the firing was indirect, over the hills and bush. The fighting continued until about two o’clock. The Admiral finally gave the word for all the ships to raise anchor. We regained the open sea, and the firing ceased. It began to rain again, and there was a dense mist. For six days, since the mist lasted that long, we did not know what had happened to the enemy, save that he was mute.

At length the rain stopped, the mist cleared. Out of the murk the outline of the mainland emerged slowly. It was with mounting curiosity that our landing-party made for the river. Unmolested, we penetrated to where the enemy lay.

The great ship’s devastating career was ended. One would scarcely have known what she had been. For here, beside the bush-crowded edge of the small island against which she had been moored, lay little more than a vast disorder of tortured steel, made the more unlovely by broken bodies strewn at every angle.

It lies there in the Rufiji to this day. As on other hunting trips, on that memorable occasion we too made our kill.     

  • Notes   

  • Bush-buck. (Tragelaphus scriptus) An antelope standing about 0.91 metres at the shoulder. The male carries short twisted horns. The variety found in the Transvaal and Rhodesia was named after Gordon Cumming.
  • A cruiser. A warship built for high speed and great cruising radius. The Konigsberg would have been a ‘battle cruiser’ carrying the big guns of a dreadnought battleship but with less armour and capable of higher speeds.
  • Mangrove trees. A type of tropical vegetation forming dense thickets along tidal estuaries and on muddy coasts.
  • Eight 4.1 guns. These were ranked as very heavy armaments indeed.
  • Monitors. A type of warship (no longer used) carrying heavy guns, having little draft, and lying low in the water.
  • Dhows. Arab vessels used on the East Coast of Africa, generally with a single mast. Were employed extensively at one time for transporting slaves.
  • Salvo. A simultaneous discharge of many guns.