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B.S.A.s in German East Africa

The extraordinary saga of the South African Motor Cyclist Corps and their 400 B.S.A.s in World War 1

By Ashley Blair

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.  Although a well-known publicity photograph, usually incorrectly labelled as one of the South African Motor Cycle Corps, shows a smiling soldier with a Model H, all of the known photos from East Africa show Model Ks without the enclosed chain drive.  The Model K had a cylinder capacity of 557cc, was rated at 4½ horse power and had a primary chain and belt final drive. The magneto was mounted in front of the engine in a position rather vulnerable to wet conditions, although the front mudguard did have a protective lower flap. The S.A.M.C.C. machines had leather gun buckets mounted on the forks for carrying rifles, Lewis guns or signalling equipment.

  B.S.A. Motor Bicycle as supplied to the British, French and Russian GovernmentsS.A.M.C.C. rider with full kit

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.

 B.S.A. being taken across a river in German East Africa Three soldiers on B.S.A.s at a crossroads. Photo: Ditsong National Museum of Military History, Pretoria

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