The naval war on Lake Nyasa, August 1914

By Rob Morgan

There’s a school of thought (not one to which I subscribe) which insists that World War I was won at sea with long lines of battleships and battlecruisers slogging it out in the North Sea. But, in fact, many of the naval actions which took place, in Africa, Asia and the Middle East were small gunboat actions like the remarkable events on Lake Nyasa between British East Africa and German East Africa at the very outbreak of war in August 1914.

This splendid, and as a wargame most attractive, campaign was won decisively by the Royal Navy, and is described in a short article in History Today, July 2014 (Vol. 64, No.7) between pages 49 and 51,  where Janie Hampton writes “Victory on Lake Nyasa” on a naval war fought initially with a single gunboat on each side. The German Hermann von Wissmann and the British HMS Gwendoline were both lightly armed too! The two enemy ships actually trained together and conducted manoeuvres on the lake right up to the outbreak of hostilities!

A brief armed encounter on the waters gave way to what could be properly called a short and vigorous combined operations struggle, with very small forces each side, and no certainty of a victory for either. One attack was later found out to be opposed by a single European missionary and 20 Askaris, with a few tribesmen. This is readable and useful “small war” account, heartily recommended to land and naval wargamers alike. Hopefully, there will be many more of the small gunboat actions recorded in the pages of the magazine as the next four years of the war’s centennial unfold, and this is a good start in my opinion.

All that would really be needed to fight the naval war on Lake Nyasa is a decent atlas and a couple of model ships, providing a good map game with a small action later on. The Irregular Miniatures 1/300th Steam Gunboat perhaps, which is a hefty lump of metal; or the 1/600th Peter Pig CSS Maury; as a generic gunboat type, larger scale choice would be better as there’s then the opportunity to add small launches, and native craft, from the ERM dhows and sampans possibly. Or European craft from the Tumbling Dice range, the pre-WWII RAF pinnace might do nicely as an example of the armed auxiliaries acquired, one of which bore the name of SS Chauncy Maples, armed with two 4pdrs. Eventually the lake flotilla numbered three small gunboats, two auxiliary steamers a paddle steamer and a couple of sailing ships. The odd shore battery of a Maxim or 3pdr. could be added to shore station, maybe?

The option of squads of Askaris and King’s African Rifles raiding and landing all over the long shoreline is a bonus, and they were small actions not big attacks; but of course this doesn’t take away from the opening difficulties of two small warships hunting each other without modern equipment along a lake the size of Portugal.

One further optional rule in small boats or on the shore. Don’t upset the hippos, they can cause more damage than a 4pdr

10 out of 10!

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