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South-West Africa Campaign
Part of African theatre of World War I
Südwestafrika 1915.jpg
The South-West Africa Campaign in 1915.
DateSeptember 1914-July 1915
LocationSouth Africa, Namibia
Result British and South African victory
South-West Africa annexed to the Union of South Africa until 1990

 British Empire

  •  United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
  •  Union of South Africa


  • Portugal Portuguese Angola

German Empire German Empire

South African Republic South African Republic
Commanders and leaders

Union of South Africa Jan Smuts
Union of South Africa Louis Botha
Portugal Alves Roçadas

Portugal Pereira d'Eça
German Empire Victor Franke
67,000 of the UDF (Union Defence Force)
1,600 of the Portuguese Forces in southern Angola
3,000 Schutztruppe plus some 7,000 German militiamen and settlers; 500-600 Boer commandos
Casualties and losses
113 1,131

The South-West Africa Campaign was the conquest and occupation of German South West Africa, now called Namibia, by forces from the Union of South Africa acting on behalf of the British Imperial Government at the beginning of the First World War.


The outbreak of hostilities in Europe in August 1914 had been anticipated and government officials of South Africa were aware of the significance of their common border with the German colony. Prime Minister Louis Botha informed London that South Africa could defend itself and that the Imperial Garrison might depart for France; when the British government asked Botha whether his forces would invade German South-West Africa, the reply was that they could and would.

South African troops were mobilised along the border between the two countries under the command of General Henry Lukin and Lt Col Manie Maritz early in September 1914. Shortly afterward another force occupied the port of Lüderitz.

Boer Revolt

There was considerable sympathy among the Boer population of South Africa for the German cause. Only twelve years had passed since the end of the Second Boer War, in which Germany had offered the two tiny Boer republics moral support against the armed might of the world-straddling British Empire. Lieutenant-Colonel Manie Maritz, heading commando forces on the border of German South-West Africa, declared that

the former South African Republic and Orange Free State as well as the Cape Province and Natal are proclaimed free from British control and independent, and every [all] White inhabitant[s] of the mentioned areas, of whatever nationality, are hereby called upon to take their weapons in their hands and realise the long-cherished ideal of a Free and Independent South Africa.

—Manie Maritz.[1]

Maritz and several other high-ranking officers rapidly gathered forces with a total of about 12,000 rebels in the Transvaal and Orange Free State, ready to fight for the cause in what became known as the Boer Revolt (also sometimes referred to as the Maritz Rebellion).

The government declared martial law on 14 October 1914, and forces loyal to the government under the command of Generals Louis Botha and Jan Smuts proceeded to destroy the rebellion. Maritz was defeated on 24 October and took refuge with the Germans; the rebellion was effectively suppressed by early February 1915. The leading Boer rebels received terms of imprisonment of six and seven years and heavy fines; however, two years later they were released from prison, as Botha recognised the value of reconciliation.

Combat between German and South African forces

South African gun in desert sand

A first attempt to invade German South-West Africa from the south failed at the Battle of Sandfontein, close to the border with the Cape Colony, where on 25 September 1914 the German fusiliers inflicted a serious defeat on the British troops, although the survivors were left free to return to British territory.[citation needed]

To disrupt South African plans to invade South West Africa the Germans launched a pre-emptive invasion of their own. The Battle of Kakamas, between South African and German forces, took place over the fords at Kakamas, on 4 February 1915. It was a skirmish for control of two river fords over the Orange River between contingents of the a German invasion force and South African armed forces. The South Africans succeeded in preventing the Germans gaining control of the fords and crossing the river.

By February 1915, with the home front secure, the South Africans were ready to begin the complete occupation of the German territory. Botha in his military capacity as a senior and experienced military commander took command of the invasion. He split his command in two with Smuts commanding the southern forces while he took direct command of the northern forces.[2]

Botha arrived at the coastal German colonial town of Swakopmund, on 11 February to take direct command on the northern contingent, and continued to build up his invasion force at Walfish Bay (or Walvis Bay)—a South African enclave about halfway along the coast of German South West Africa (see the map). By March he was ready to invade. Advancing from Swakopmund along the Swakop valley with its railway line, his forces took Otjimbingwe, Karibib, Friedrichsfelde, Wilhelmsthal, and Okahandja and entered the colony's capital Windhuk on 5 May 1915.[3]

British soldiers after capturing a German flag during the South-West Africa Campaign

The Germans then offered terms under which they would surrender, but they were rejected by Botha and the war continued.[2] On 12 May Botha declared martial law and, having effectively cut the colony in half, divided his forces into four contingents under Coen Brits, Lukin, Manie Botha and Myburgh. Brits went north to Otjiwarongo, Outjo and Etosha Pan which cut off German forces in the interior from the coastal regions of Kunene and Kaokoveld. The other three columns fanned out into the north-east. Lukin went along the railway line running from Swakopmund to Tsumeb. The other two columns advanced on Lukin's right flank, Myburgh to Otavi junction, and Manie Botha to Tsumeb and the line's terminus. The men who commanded these columns, having gained their military experience fighting in Boer commandos, moved very rapidly.[3] The German forces in the north-west made a stand at Otavi on 1 July, but were beaten and surrendered at Khorab on 9 July 1915.[4]

While events were unfolding in the north, Smuts landed with another South African force at the South West Africa colony's naval base at Luderitzbucht (now called Angra Pequena). Having secured the town Smuts advanced inland, capturing Keetmanshoop on 20 May. Here he met up with two other columns that had advanced over the border from South Africa, one from the coastal town of Port Nolloth and the other from Kimberly.

Smuts advanced north along the railway line to Berseba and after two days fighting captured Gibeon on 26 May.[2][5] The Germans in the south were forced to retreat northwards towards their capital and into the waiting arms of Botha's forces. Within two weeks the German forces in the south, faced with certain destruction, surrendered.[3]

Combat between German and Portuguese forces

Portuguese troops embarking for southern Angola.

Before an official declaration of war between Germany and Portugal (March 1916), German and Portuguese troops clashed several times on the border between German South West Africa and Portuguese Angola. The Germans won most of these clashes and were able to occupy the Humbe region in southern Angola until Portuguese control was restored a few days before the successful South Africa South-West Africa Campaign defeated them.


After defeating the German force in South-West Africa during World War I South Africa initially occupied the colony and then administered it as a League of Nations mandate territory from 1919. Although the South African government desired to incorporate South-West Africa into its territory, it never officially did so, although it was administered as the de facto 'fifth province', with the white minority having representation in the whites-only Parliament of South Africa, as well as electing their own local administration the SWA Legislative Assembly. The South African government also appointed the SWA administrator, who had extensive powers.

Following the League's supersession by the United Nations in 1946, South Africa refused to surrender its earlier mandate, but the U.N. General Assembly subsequently revoked it, and in 1971 the International Court of Justice issued an "advisory opinion" declaring South Africa's continued administration to be illegal.[6]

After many unsuccessful attempts by the UN to persuade South Africa to agree to the implementation of UN Resolution 435, which had been adopted by the UN Security Council in 1978 as the internationally agreed decolonisation plan for Namibia, transition to independence finally started in 1988 under the tripartite diplomatic agreement between South Africa, Angola and Cuba, with the USSR and the USA as observers, under which South Africa agreed to withdraw and demobilise its forces in Namibia, and Cuba agreed to pull back its troops in southern Angola sent to support the MPLA in its war for control of Angola with UNITA. A combined UN civilian and peace-keeping force under Finnish diplomat Martti Ahtisaari supervised the military withdrawals, return of SWAPO exiles and the holding of Namibia's first-ever one-person one-vote election for a constituent assembly in October 1989. This was won by SWAPO although it did not gain the two-thirds majority it had hoped for; the South African-backed Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA) became the official opposition.


  1. Bunting, Brian (1964). The Rise of the South African Reich. Penguin Books. pp. 332. ISBN 0904759741. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Tucker & Wood 1996, p. 654.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Crafford 2005, p. 102.
  4. Patterson, Hamish. "First Allied Victory: The South African campaign in German South-West Africa, 1914-1915". Military History Journal Volume 13 Number 2. The South African Military History Society. Retrieved 10 May 2013. 
  5. Burg & Purcell 2004, p. 59.
  6. "Namibian War of Independence 1966–1988". Armed Conflict Events Database. Retrieved February 2012. 


  • Burg, David F.; Purcell, L. Edward (2004). Almanac of World War I (illustrated ed.). University Press of Kentucky. p. 59. ISBN 978-0-8131-9087-7. 
  • Crafford, F. S. (2005) [1943]. Jan Smuts: A Biography (reprint ed.). Kessinger Publishing. p. 102. ISBN 978-1-4179-9290-4. 
  • Tucker, Spencer; Wood, Laura Matysek (1996). Tucker, Spencer; Wood, Laura Matysek; Murphy, Justin D.. eds. The European powers in the First World War: an encyclopedia (illustrated ed.). Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0-8153-0399-2. 

Further reading

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