THE SOUTH AFRICAN MOTOR CYCLE CORPS
The campaign in German East Africa during the Great War has always been regarded as a mere side show compared to the tumultuous and bloody events in Europe. But it was the East African campaign that inspired C.S. Forester’s novel The African Queen and Wilbur Smith’s Shout at the Devil. It was the theatre where aircraft were first used as spotters in naval warfare and where the entire crew of the German cruiser Königsberg were each awarded the Iron Cross. It was also where General von Lettow-Vorbeck used a bicycle to travel through the bush to visit his troops. Two gunboats were carried 3,000 miles into the war zone at Lake Tanganyika overland from Cape Town by railway and then dragged in turn by traction engines and hundreds of ‘porters. Germany even dispatched a Zeppelin with supplies for their beleaguered East African soldiers.
It was into this conflict that the South African Motor Cyclist Corps was sent in 1916 with 400 B.S.A. motorcycles. The S.A.M.C.C. machines had leather gun buckets mounted on the forks for carrying rifles, Lewis guns or signalling equipment.
The South African Motor Cyclist Corps was formed in January 1916 under the command of Colonel James Fairweather. He was an Anglo Boer war veteran who had been awarded the D.S.O for “very good service at Patriots Klip, Cape Colony on 15th December 1901” and Mentioned in Dispatches twice. He had also seen recent service in German West Africa where he was again Mentioned in Dispatches. The Corps was made up mainly of railway men, possibly because of their familiarity with things mechanical, who were paid five shillings and six pence per day. The Corps hat badge with a winged wheel reflected the men’s origin as it was very similar to the badge used by Railway units.
The Corps was formed into eight platoons, plus a Headquarters Section. Each platoon had its own motor mechanic and there were also mechanics and signallers in the Headquarters Section. In February 1916, while the Corps was still in training at Potchefstroom, 50 of the most promising men were chosen to go early to East Africa as dispatch riders. They were told that they were likely to go into action very soon after landing so while the ship was still at sea their machines were brought up out of the hold and set up on deck.
The remainder of the Corps sailed from Durban for East Africa early in April 1916 on the S.S. Huntsgreen. Captain Duncan McMillan, Adjutant and former Engineering Professor at Cape Town University, gave lectures on motor cycles during the voyage. Smallpox broke out on board and after they landed the Corps was taken by train into quarantine near Voi. They were kept isolated for three weeks and during this time the cyclists* heard their first lions. The initial ride was to Moshi, over 100 miles away, with the last part being ridden in darkness. As compensation, the cyclists saw the splendour of Mount Kilimanjaro by moonlight. The next ride was to Kondoa-Irirangi along a very rough road that was in turn sandy and deeply rutted by motor lorries. The machines sank in the sand down to the B.S.A.’s footboards. Several river crossings had to be negotiated by manhandling the motorcycles. Each B.S.A. was carried on two poles by four men.
– BSA’s in German East Africa by Ashley Blair *
With no success against the Germans in the East Africa Campaign, the British re-assessed the position and, in February 1916, General Jan Smuts of South Africa took over command of the British Empire troops. Additional equipment was dispatched from England. The South African Motor Cycle Corps, also referred to as The South African Motor Cyclist Corps, was formed as a result.
General Smuts had his eye on capturing German territory to trade with Portugal for South African expansion, so he invaded German East Africa from the north and entered Dar-es-Salaam on 3rd September. Nevertheless, despite capturing territory, he had little impact against German troops.
The South African troops suffered badly from malaria and by 1917 were replaced by British black regiments of the West African Frontier Force and the King’s African Rifles. Smuts was recalled to London in January 1917 to hand over his command. Smuts had declared victory with his occupation of the German East African capital, so the War Office in London was confused when Allied shipping and troops continued to be bogged down in the East African war.
HENRY E MILLER
Private, SAMCC (South African Motor Cycle Corps)
– British War Medal
I don’t have a WW1 BSA motorcycle as used by the SAMCC. But I do own some medals awarded to two different members of the South African Motor Cycle Corps, which you can see above and below.
ALFRED J.C LEON
Private, SAMCC (South African Motor Cycle Corps)
– British War Medal
– Allied Victory Medal (bilingual)
Alfred Leon was born in East London, Cape Colony in 1897.
The outbreak of the Great War on 4 August 1914 ignited a flame of patriotism in the hearts of many but it wasn’t until early 1918 that Leon was to answer the call to arms.
On 21 February 1918 he underwent a Preliminary Medical Examination at East London by Captain (Dr.) Bruce–Bays of the SAMCC and was declared Fit for service. Physically he was described as having dark brown hair, brown eyes and a brown complexion. He was 20 years of age and stood 5 feet 7 inches tall. By way of distinctive marks he had a heart shaped tattoo on the lower third of his forearm.
A week later on 1 March 1918 Leon signed a Provisional Enrolment Form at East London as a Learner with the Nyasaland part of the Mechanical Transport section of the S.A.S.C. A note on the margin of the form states that the Parental Consent form had been filed in the offices of the 3rd Military District, East London.
From here it was to Roberts Heights where he attested on 8 March 1918 with the South African Motor Cycle Corps, South African Expeditionary Force for service in German East Africa as a Private (Cyclist), number CM 812 and on a pay scale of 5/6 per day.
Alfred Leon, on his Attestation forms, stated that he was employed by the General Post office as a Clerk. His next of kin was his mother, Mrs. Jessie Leon and his address was 11 Mark Lane, East London.
After a brief period of training he left Robert Heights, travelling overland for Beira (Portuguese East Africa) en route to Nyasaland on 14 April 1918.
On 18th April, 1918, the SAMCC had reached Regona in Portuguese East Africa and attempts were made to protect the Revuma River crossing. At this site they encountered the German forces and fought each other for three days. The SAMCC and Allied forces held off the Germans, forcing Von Lettow-Vorbeck on 28th August, 1918, to withdraw from his positions, leaving a handful of sharpshooters to cover his retreating forces.
From Regona, the motorcyclists then drove to Malagatera, followed by Lake Amaramba and then Ndoka. From this position Lieut. Webb and Colonel Baxton patrolled the Lugenda River. But these patrols in search of the Germans were in vain: further along the Revuma River locals informed them that the Germans had already managed to cross the river.
Unsuccessful in their quest to cut off the German forces, the SAMCC returned to Namweras at the end of September 1918.
On 12th November, 1918, two riders left Fife to attempt to meet Von Lettow Vorbeck near the Kasama Transmission Station and advise him of the armistice signed in Europe. Despite arriving at the German camp under a white flag they were immediately taken prisoner. Lieut. Webb and a few motorcyclists joined up with Lieut. Campbell and together they headed to Kasama. At Lion Head they made contact via telephone with Colonel Hawkins of the Kings African Rifles and explained their predicament. Hawkins then contacted Von Lettow Vorbeck and explained the full implications of the armistice to him. The Germans then headed back to Abercorn.
A section of the SAMCC that had been operating in North Eastern Rhodesia joined the rest of the corps at Zomba. Acting on demobilisation orders from Brigadier General Hawthorn, DSO at Zomba, the SAMCC headed for the Union via Chindi, Beira and Southern Rhodesia.
During the two years on active service over a thousand personnel had joined or enlisted with the corps. The climatic conditions had taken a terrible toll on its members: of the original personnel only fifteen were still on active service at the end of January 1919. Thirty-four officers and other ranks were killed or died on service in the German East African campaign.
Despite the active role and outstanding service rendered by the SAMCC in battles with the Germans at Kondoa Irangi, Kidete, Iranga District, Tandala and Regone, no battle honours were conferred on the Corps. On arrival at Roberts Heights in Pretoria, the SAMCC was immediately disbanded.
On 8th January, 1919, Leon left Zomba for Limbe and the south, leaving Limbe, in turn, for the Union on 10th January, 1919.
On arrival at Roberts Heights on 18th January, 1919, he was admitted to No. 4 General Hospital with Influenza.
A ‘Medical Report on an Invalid’ completed at Roberts Heights in respect of Leon on 6 March 1919 stated that the cause of hidden disability was Malaria contracted in Central Africa in April, 1918. In the ‘Statement of Case’ it was recorded: ‘Had malaria – some 13 attacks. Treated in hospital at Roberts Heights. 18the January, 1919, to discharge. Had no leave. Last attack of malaria 6th January, 1919. Boarded from Sec. 7 No. 4 Gen. Hospital.’
Leon was found to be ‘Clinically Fit’ and awarded 30 days leave.
Having been discharged from hospital on 10th March, 1919, Leon was granted the thirty days leave the following day.
On 8th May, 1919, he was discharged from the army at Roberts Heights, on demobilisation.
Leon’s ‘Proceedings on Discharge’ form rate his Military Conduct as ‘Very Good.’ He was credited with one year and sixty five days service and returned to East London to resume employment with the Post Office.
He was awarded the British War Medal and the Allied Victory Medal, which were posted to him on 6th June 1922. These are the items seen here.
* With thanks to Ashley Blair, President of New Zealand BSA Motorcycle Owners’ Club – http://www.bsa.org.nz/index.php/stories/b-s-a-in-german-east-africa?showall=&limitstart=
In my introduction to this page I’ve quoted from Ashley’s article on the SAMCC, and used one of the photos from his website. Please click on the link above to read the rest of the story.