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The Uncatchable Lizard

The German First World War commander Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck has been described as the 20th century’s greatest guerrilla leader for his undefeated campaign in East Africa. Is the legend justified? 

Colour print showing an Askari company marching under the German flag in German East Africa, 1913

Grainy black and white film of March 13th, 1964 shows ranks of sombre middle-aged men gathered in a cold Pronzdorf cemetery. Many are uniformed soldiers. Two elderly Africans walk behind the coffin, dignified in their fez caps. Kai-Uwe von Hassel, the then West German defence minister, reads a eulogy. It is the funeral of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, a First World War general who won the respect of Allied adversaries and was perhaps Germany’s last great military hero. Von Lettow’s exploits are still taught as case studies in US military colleges, where instructors present him as the 20th century’s greatest guerrilla leader.

Von Lettow achieved this status by becoming the only undefeated German commander of the First World War. After the Armistice he fought on with his mainly African force until he could be persuaded, two weeks later, that the war was over. He also led the only invasion of British territory during the war, raiding what is now Kenya and Malawi in 1914 and what is now Zambia in 1918. These feats won him the Iron Cross, first and second class, and a triumphal return to Berlin in 1919. Greeted by fervent crowds, he rode a black charger through the Brandenburg Gate, his East African bush hat turned up jauntily on one side.

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