The Attack on Namutoni Fort

An Episode from the Herero/Nama War in German South-West Africa 1904-07

Namutoni fort was a small Schutztruppe (1) station on the eastern edge of the Etosha Pan, a salt lake at the very northernmost point of German South-West Africa.

At 11.30 am on 28 January 1904, Gefreiter d.R. (2) Karl Hartmann was in the lower room of one of the towers of the fort feeding his dog with leftovers from a rich dinner held the evening before in honour of Kaiser Wilhelm II's birthday. He happened to glance up and there, through a firing slit in the wall, he saw the ostrich plumes of hundreds of Ovambo warriors charging towards the fort. He immediately shouted the alarm to the station commander, Unteroffizier (3) Fritz Grossmann, and his other five comrades, Sanit. Sergeant (4) Bruno Lassmann, Gefreiter Richard Lemke, Gefreiter Albert Lier, Unteroffizier d.R. Jakob Basendowski, and Gefreiter d.R. Franz Becker. Hartmann, Basendowski and Becker were local farmers and members of the Schutztruppe Reserve, who had sought shelter in the fort, together with their cattle, after a warning from the military post at Grootfontein, 130 kilometres away, that trouble was brewing. As the 23-year-old Hartmann dashed to his post, he may well have been asking himself how this tiny unit of seven men had come to be involved in such a perilous undertaking, miles from anywhere, in the middle of a vast, sandy plain that led to nowhere except the barren Kalahari Basin.

In the scramble for Africa in the nineteenth century, Germany had been a late starter in establishing a place in the sun. One of the few places left 'unclaimed' was the Great Namib Desert in South-West Africa. There is an old saying that the Namib is not the end of the world but you can certainly see it from there. In 1889 Hauptmann Curt von Frangois and 25 German soldiers, disguised as a group of explorers, landed from a British freighter, the Clan Gordon, at the British port of Walvis Bay and travelled through the interior to Windhoek, which name they changed to Windhuk and where they began to build a fort, the Alte Feste, on the highest point. In 1897, as more troops arrived from the Fatherland and the Germans occupied more and more territory, the Schutztruppe established a frontier post at Namutoni to control the spread of cattle plague (rinderpest) by inoculation, to supervise trade with the local tribe, the Ovambo, and to prevent the smuggling of firearms, ammunition and liquor. The garrison complement was set at a noncommissioned officer, a medical orderly and two Schutztruppe troopers, housed in reed huts. The post was situated next to a large limestone basin, fed by a strongly flowing spring and surrounded by reeds. Malaria was rife: it was an oppressively hot, unhealthy and desolate spot.

By 1903 a military fort had been completed on the site, under the direction of Dr Paul Jodtka, Chief Medical Officer of the German colonial forces. It was a rectangular building, approximately 120 paces from the spring and measuring 10 by 24 metres. The walls were built of sun-baked bricks on a quarry-stone foundation, with crenellated towers at the eastern and western ends. Inside the building were six rooms, separated by a central corridor (5). A wooden ladder gave access to the corrugated iron roof.

Ovamboland was not occupied by the German colonial forces at this time nor was it subject to German administration. The Ovambo chiefs remained independent and there were generally friendly relations between the two sides. However, as German influence in the colony further south increased and the German demands for land became exorbitant, first the Herero in 1904, and then the Nama in 1905, revolted. At the outbreak of the Herero rebellion on 11 January 1904, the Ovambo remained quiet except for the hereditary chief of the eastern Ndonga, Nehale lya Mpingana, who at the instigation of the Herero sent 350-400 men under Captain Shute (or Shivute) to attack Namutoni fort.

At 7.00 am on 28 January, three Ovambo messengers turned up at the fort to announce that Shute, Great Captain of Chief Nehale of the Ndonga tribe of the Ovambo people, was on a hunting trip along the southern edge of Etosha Pan and wished to pay a courtesy visit to the fort. The Germans were understandably suspicious, especially when Captain Shute himself arrived with a large 'hunting party' of 350-400 warriors, approximately three-quarters of whom were openly armed with rifles or muskets. They noted five men mounted on horses and 30 on riding oxen. Shortly afterwards 100-150 unarmed men appeared behind the reeds at the watering-hole. The main body of Ovambo rested some distance away from the fort while Shute and an interpreter approached the gate, saying that they wished to exchange one of their riding oxen for a sack of rice to feed 'Shute's hungry children'.(6) The Germans suspected a ruse and Grossmann politely declined an invitation from Shute to come out of the fort to pick the best ox. During the conversation, the Ovambo began to creep closer to the fort and the stone corral where the cattle were kept but they moved back when it became clear the Germans were not going to be enticed out of the fort.

For the next hour-and-a-half, an uneasy calm prevailed. The Germans used this time to strengthen their defences, bring out ammunition boxes and make ready rope-ladders, fashioned from ox-hide straps and yokes, in case they needed to get down quickly from the towers. Grossmann, an experienced NCO, decided to concentrate his small force, one of whom was sick, in the two towers, three men in one and the remaining four in the other. He had ample supplies of water, food, explosives and ammunition in the towers (1,100 rounds for the Model 7.9 mm Model 1888 Mauser rifles and 427 rounds for the 11 mm Model 1871 rifles - not the latest provision as most of the Schutztruppe were equipped with the Model 1898 rifle).

Suddenly, at 11.30 am, the Ovambo rushed the fort without warning. The defenders, hearing Hartmann's cries of alarm and shouts from the sentries on the towers, ran to their posts, one trooper removing the last loaves of bread from the oven as his Hottentot servant shouted, 'Mister, the Ovambo have taken up their guns!' The two of them just had time to reach the top of the tower before the Ovambo swarmed about the fort. From the tower they saw that nine Herero employed by the Germans as servants and cattle-herders had failed to reach the fort in time and were being cut down by the Ovambo. As the attackers got near the fort, the Germans opened fire with their magazine rifles, causing devastating casualties.

The charge took place in a disciplined manner. An assegai-bearer led a mass of riflemen who covered attacking spearmen with rifle-fire. The Ovambo were, however, unable to make much progress against the ferocious German fire. Bullets from their obsolete single-shot Martini-Henry rifles and antique muskets, issued from Nechale's armoury, pitted the walls of the towers but only one of the German defenders was wounded. Nevertheless the Ovambo attacks were sustained, their morale being boosted by a potion they had drunk. Chief Nehale had appointed a special war official, Amupande-wa Shiponeni, who had taken milk from the cattle kept at the fort, without this being noticed by the Herero cattle-herders who looked after the cattle for the Germans. The stolen milk was kept in calabashes and distributed as a magic potion to the Chief's warriors to give them strength, confidence and protection in the forthcoming attack.

At one point a group of Ovambo broke into the storeroom at the bottom of the western tower, the position of which had probably been given away by former Ovambo servants. While some plundered the stores, others piled crates on top of each other in order to reach the beam supporting the roof or fired randomly through the roof at the defenders above. The Germans at the top of the tower were in a perilous position until the defenders on the eastern tower noticed their plight and started firing at the door of the storeroom and the space in front of the windows. As the bullets tore through the door, the Ovambo retreated from the storeroom, with only a stock of tobacco to show for their pains. Meanwhile the unarmed Ovambo contingent had come out of the reeds and had driven off the cattle and the horses in the kraal. So desperate were the garrison at this stage that they began to prepare explosives to blow up themselves and as many enemy as possible, should this have to be done as a measure of last resort.

But there was no further attack, although desultory firing continued until 3.30 pm, when the main body of Ovambo withdrew out of range into the bush on the northern side of the fort. It was clear that the magic potion was not all that it was claimed to be and the Ovambo sought a parley. Through an interpreter, they expressed curiosity about the flags flying from one of the towers and it was explained that this was to celebrate the Kaiser's birthday. Grossmann bluffed the Ovambo by saying that many German troops were on their way from the nearby post of Tsumeb on this special day and would be at the fort very soon. The Ovambo withdrew further to consider this warning, skirmishers firing occasional shots at the fort.

As dusk fell, the Germans were able to slip away to the south, the wounded man being supported by his comrades. There is no record of what happened to Hartmann's Hottentot servant. Fourteen hours later, as the sun rose, the seven men reached the farmhouse of Becker and Basendowski at Sandhup, where they met a German patrol under Veterinary Surgeon Horauf, and later safely reached the German base at Tsumeb, 75 miles from Namutoni. At dawn on 29 January the Ovambo entered the empty fort, looted it, and then destroyed everything they didn't want. Around the fort they found many bodies of the warriors that had died in the attacks the previous day. One source puts the Ovambo dead at 1508. Another (9) says the Germans counted 108 dead in and around the fort. The official figures on the commemorative tablet near the fort put the Ovambo losses at 68 dead, 40 missing and 20 wounded.

The Ovambo

The Ovambo or Ambo are a people of Bantu origin consisting of several tribal groupings in southern Angola and northern Namibia (10). They are related to the Kavango people to the east. The Ovambo were traditionally cattle-herders and small-scale farmers, their principal crops being millet, maize, beans, pumpkins, watermelons and groundnuts. In the nineteenth century their economy was based on the production of cattle, ivory, slaves, copper and iron ore. The Ovambo who attacked Namutoni fort were from the Ndonga sub-group. Their King/Chief (ohambo), Kambonde, resisted an appeal from the Herero further south to join the rebellion against the Germans but his more aggressive brother, Nehale lya Mpingana, who was the de facto ruler of eastern Ondonga (11), decided to test the mettle of the European invaders by an attack on Namutoni fort.

Despite being up against modern magazine rifles and strong fortifications, the Ovambo kept to traditional tactics, as indicated below. The one concession was that Shute assigned some men with Martini-Henry rifles to provide covering fire for those with spears.

1. In keeping with long tradition and custom, Chief Nehale did not leave his tribal area. He appointed an experienced headman, Captain Shute, to represent him and lead the army as omuiliki wita. As such, Shute was armed with only a bow and arrow and a large knobkerrie. He carried a war-whistle made from a duiker horn to signal an attack and carried an ember from the Chief's holy fire, which he used to ignite a fire that had to be kept burning all the time that the warriors were away from their kraals.

2. An onganga (witchdoctor) explained the omens and the will of the spirits; and in this particular case prepared a magic potion from the milk of the Germans' cattle, in order to protect the warriors against bullets.

3. A levee en masse was called up from eastern Ondonga.

4. Spies were used to establish the strength of the garrison and the location of the cattle and stores and to collect any other useful information.

5. The main objective was not to kill the enemy but to split off and drive away his cattle; and a quarter of the Ovambo force was specifically assigned to this task.

6. The attack was carried out largely by a 'commando' of several hundred dismounted warriors led by a few men on horses or riding oxen. Because of the horse sickness spread by the tsetse fly, it was impossible to keep large numbers of horses in the region.

7. Captured booty was taken away for distribution by the Chief, with the efforts of spies and outstanding fighters being traditionally recognised, although in practice most went to the Chief's favourites.

8. Ruses were tried to expedite the objective of liberating cattle and stores.

The Aftermath

The firearms from the court armoury were taken away by the Ovambo after the battle and hidden. On 29 November 1904 a machine-gun unit of 30 Schutztruppe and marines, commanded by Marine Lieutenant Wossidlow, arrived at Namutoni. They found a heap of rubble and the skulls and bones of the unburied Ovambo dead. The black, white and red flag of the Imperial Navy was hoisted from a cypress tree and remained there until the marines returned to Germany in February 1905. Wossidlow handed over command to Lieutenant Fiirst, who shortly afterwards was replaced by First Lieutenant Count Wilhelm von Saurma-Jeltsch, under whose direction the fort was rebuilt. After the shock of the casualties at Namutoni, there were no more Ovambo raids into German-occupied territory.

In 1906 the Imperial German Government rejected a proposal to send a military expedition to punish Chief Nehale for his destruction of the fort; and instead sought through the mediation of Finnish missionaries to get Nehale to agree to a voluntary atonement. He neither agreed nor disagreed and continued to procrastinate until he died at the beginning of 1908. The German presence lasted until August 1915 when South African troops under Major Pritchard took over Ovamboland. After the surrender of the Germans, General Botha sent a message to the South African garrison at Namutoni regretting he would have to keep them there for a while. The reply came back from the fort commander: ‘I have captured 10,000 bottles of rum. My men have as much wild beast flesh as they can eat. We are content'. (12)

After the Herero war was over, Karl Hartmann lived for 40 years in a lonely farm not far from Namutoni. A man of great courage and strength, he was attacked on one occasion by a wounded leopard. He fought the animal with his bare hands until the leopard crept away exhausted and then he staggered home to dress his wounds. On another occasion, in January 1946, at the age of 65, he caught up with a lion he had shot and wounded several hours before. The lion charged Hartmann and for once the old defender of Namutoni fort missed a shot. He tried to fight off the lion but by then it was hopeless. He died under the lion's claws. (13)

On 15 February 1950 the restored Namutoni fort was declared a national monument and now forms part of a rest camp for tourists, surrounded by graceful Malakani palms and standing proud against the baking ochre earth and the deep blue African sky like an artist's impression of a Beau Geste type fort. Following independence from South Africa in 1990, the then Chief of the Ovambo presented some of the firearms used in the battle to the museum at Namutoni fort, where they are now displayed next to examples of German Mauser rifles. A diorama in the museum in 15 mm scale, made by Mr N. Grunow of the Swakopmund Museum and based on a plan of the fort in the Windhoek archives, gives a good impression of the battle. The seven defenders are shown in white summer uniforms with peaked caps.

The Ovambo attack was a minor incident in a terrible war (14) that has currently led to unresolved claims of genocide against the German government by the Herero people. It is estimated that as many as 80% of the Herero died during the war, many from starvation as they were driven into the desert. Despite this, the Namibian government, perhaps conscious of current economic aid from Germany of $14 million a year, tolerates reminders of its colonial past. An old bronze plaque from German times at the main gate of Namutoni fort records the names of the 'seven brave German men who repulsed the attack victoriously'; and in recognition of its military past, sunrise and sunset are heralded by a bugle call from the watch tower in the northeastern corner. A short distance from the camp a modern plaque commemorates the many equally brave Ovambo who fell in the battle.

In retrospect, Namutoni, although a minor incident, can be seen as crucial to the development of the Ovambo people. Convinced of the need to avoid further clashes with the Germans, the Ovambo did not suffer the horrendous casualties inflicted on the Herero and Nama; and today their numbers, 44% of the total population of Namibia, give them significant national influence compared with the Herero and the Nama. Sam Nujoma, the founding president of Namibia, is himself an Ovambo, as is his successor, Hifikepunye Pohamba.


1. The German Colonial Corps (Schutztruppe literally means 'Protection Troop')¬The defenders of the fort probably came from the Second Field Company of the Schutztruppe Field Force, based at Omaruru.

2. Corporal of the Reserve.

3. Sergeant.

4. Medical Orderly.

5. Andeas Vogt, Von Tsaobis bis Namutoni, Klaus Hess Verlag, Gottingen-Windhoek, 2002, page 277.

6. Dr N Mossolow, The History of Namutoni, John Meinert (Pty) Ltd, Windhoek, 1971, page 44.

7. Ibid.

8. Lawrence G. Green, Lords of the Last Frontier, Cape Times Ltd, South Africa, 1952, page 135. Contains some interesting information on Hartmann.

9. Jon M. Bridgman, The Revolt of the Hereros, University of California Press Ltd, Berkeley, 1981, page 84. This is not a reliable account: the author mistakenly lists only five defenders.

10. C.H.L. Hahn, The Native Tribes of South-West Africa, Frank Cass & Co Ltd, 1966.

11. Patricia Hayes, A History of the Ovambo of Namibia 1880-1935, University of Cambridge, Ph.D thesis, 1992 (British Library reference D062451 DSC).

12. Green, page 137.

13. Green, pages 135-6.

14. Edwin Herbert, Small Wars and Skirmishes, Foundry Books, 2003, pages 117-29, gives a general account of the war. Figures 166 and 167 depict Ovambo warriors.

 Reproduced from ‘Soldiers of the Queen' issue 123, December 2005

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