How salvage from a World War I Naval Battle ended up at the Kenya Railway Museum

Written by | Features

If you have ever been to the Kenya Railways Museum, chances are you have walked right past an unassuming dining set. Unknown to many a viewer, that is the Wardroom Dining Set that was salvaged from a German warship that lost the Battle of the Rufiji Delta.

The naval battle was a game of patience as two badass captains with kickass battleships stared each other down for months, playing an intricate but deadly naval game of hide and seek, and shoot.

The captain's table and sideboard.  Image by Frederick Onyango for the Business Daily.
The captain’s table and sideboard.
Image by Frederick Onyango for the Business Daily.

At the Berlin Conference where the Congo treaty (1885) was signed, colonial powers had agreed that in case of a war between them, there would be no metropolitan war between the respective colonies. This armistice only delayed but did not prevent the inevitable naval, terrestrial, and aerial conflicts in East Africa.

When the Archduke of Austria was assassinated on 28 June 1914, German captain Max Looff set to make his battleship, the SMS Konigsberg as ready for war as possible. Every empty space was filled with coal and all wooden panels removed. In full knowledge of her capabilities, three British cruisers left Simonstown in South Africa for the port of Zanzibar to stalk her and await word of war.

The kickass Konigsberg German lightweight was one of four such spectacular warships built between 1905 and 1908. A testament of Germany’s naval prowess, the 115.3 m long lightweight cruisers were propelled by twin triple expansion engines capable of covering 23 knots-42.6 km/h. It’s ten high-velocity four-inch guns had a range of around 10 miles, and when mounted, weighed about 4000kg.

The war dance between the three ships –HMS Pegasus, Hyacinth, and Astraea– on one side, and the SMS Konigsberg on the other ended in when the German ship escaped. To get away from her numerically superior pursuers, Looff took advantage of a storm and ordered the ship at full speed for the rest of the night.

Her first prey after the declaration of war on August 4 was the unsuspecting British Freighter City of Winchester. The British merchant ship was carrying the Ceylon tea harvest for the year and its loss was painful for the British. Her coal situation worsening, Konigsberg moved towards Ras Kafun where her supply ship, the 2500-ton SS Somalia, replenished her supplies. Engine troubles after leaving the coast of Somalia prevented Looff from going back to the European naval fronts and instead forced him to seek out the Rufiji River Delta. A survey crew found that some channels in the estuary were deep enough to handle the German warship. The idea was to hide her there while her engine parts were transported to Dar es Salaam for repair.

After an uneventful stay at the mouth of the river, word reached Looff of the presence of a British ship, the HMS Pegasus, at Zanzibar. The German chose to attack despite the ships engine trouble and, due to his superior firepower, defeated the Pegasus, and sank her. By the time her captain, John Inges, raised the white flag, 38 crew members had been killed, 55 wounded and the ship was sinking. Looff promptly retreated to the Rufiji River Delta to finish repairs on his ship’s engine.

The dumbfounded British decided to pursue a more proactive strategy and deployed the HMS Chatham from the Red Sea with explicit orders to destroy the Konigsberg. She was joined by a cape squadron and together they formed a blockade that would last until mid-1915. The hunter had become the hunted, and patience would determine who won the next stage.

On November 30, the British managed to hit and sink the supply ship Somali. The Konigsberg was promptly moved further upriver and out of range, and camouflaged to match the surrounding forest. Attempts by the British to use aircraft to smoke out the Konigsberg failed because most of planes were built for reconnaissance and not warfare. Looff’s guns brought down at least one of those planes during the prolonged blockade. Two-thirds of his crew joined the ground forces because there was little chance the British warships, though powerful, could ever get that far upstream. It was now a game of patience, a little spurring, and not much else.

In the following months of planning and uneasy lull, the game turned psychological.

On New Year’s Day the H.M.S. Fox sent Looff a message, “We wish you a Happy New Year and hope to see you soon.”

Looff replied, “Thanks, same to you, if you wish to see me, I am always at home.”

By June 1815, Konigsberg had tied up twenty British ships and ten aircraft for eight continuous months. No one was willing to quit, and the impasse burned through thousands of tons of coal everyday. Without a direct supply line to the sea, the blocked battleship’s crew began to burn mangrove wood cut from the forest to maintain power.

Tired of waiting for Loof to simply surrender his ship, the British shipped in 6 in (150 mm) guns from England. The long-range guns were fitted to the ships, finally hitting the Konigsberg on 11 July 1915. The effort included two shallow-draught monitors, four land planes and several shore-based spotters. As the long-range warfare took a toll on his ship at around 1400 hrs, Loof ordered his crew to scuttle the ship with a torpedo. The German ship lost 33 members of its 221-strong crew.

After she sank in the mud, Looff wired Berlin “Konigsberg is destroyed but not conquered.” The crew salvaged the guns and 1, 500 rounds of ammunition and made for land. and other items such as the dining set at the Railway Museum. The guns later provided valuable services to Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces, the Shutzruppe, the highly successful German land army. The sinking of the German battleship made the British Navy the masters of the Indian Ocean.

Of General Vorbeck, Peter Baxter writes, “He danced from one region to the next, always slightly ahead, never run to ground, and never defeated.” The naval design of the guns meant that they were too heavy to provide the mobility necessary for this kind of terrestrial warfare. They abandoned all of them, managing to destroy some but not all; only three are still known to be intact are at Fort Jesus in Mombasa, in Jinja and in Pretoria.

The dining set was most likely salvaged as a victory souvenir by British divers after the ship had been destroyed. They also took many other times such as then top-secret communications between the ship and the naval central command in Germany.

The wreck of HMS Pegasus still lies at the bottom of the Zanzibar Harbor. It was salvaged for boilers, engines, and guns so all you are going to find is just the main frame and other parts of the hull.The site is a popular destination for divers. The caption behind one photo taken by a seaman on HMS Vengeance when it was hit by the Konigsberg gun at Bagamoyo reads “Captured by the ships company of HMS Vengeance who landed at “Bagamoyo” German East Africa after a warm reception on August 15th 1916 4am quite early and no breakfast.

The last photo of Kognisberg’s freeboard afloat was taken in 1965. The wreck, with its hull still intact, is still completely buried in the mud. Further downstream, the loyal supply ship, the SS Somali, is still visible.

[FEATURED IMAGE: The captain’s table and sideboard.
Image by Frederick Onyango for the Business Daily.]

Owaahh, 2013. 

One Story is good, 

till Another is told.

Last modified: May 7, 2015