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Maktau, where British Empire fighter planes launched attacks on Germans

By Renson Mnyamwezi | Nov 12th 2018 | 4 min read
James Willson (right) the author of Gorillas of Tsavo with journalists at Sarova Taita Hills and Salt Lick Lodge where artifacts used during the First World War are kept. [Renson Mnyamwezi, Standard]

As Kenyans joined the world to commemorate the end of the First World War, many are not aware of the role a dusty town in Taita Taveta County played in the conflict.

Maktau, in Taveta sub-county, is believed to be a corruption of the military command "mark time" and was a garrison town held by the British when the Germans, then in charge of Tanganyika, tried to storm it.

The British established what is believed to be East Africa's first airstrip that was used by biplanes during the war.

The remote town situated along the Mwatate-Taveta road played a central role during the First World War, but has received little attention from successive governments.

During the war, Maktau was home to strategic military barracks for British soldiers. Other barracks were at Voi, Kariakor and Mackinnon township.

The first aeroplane in East Africa was assembled by the British in the town and took to the skies in support of the planned spring offensive against the forces defending German East Africa in Tanzania.

The history of the aviation industry in Africa probably started in Taita Taveta County. Records show that several test flights took off from Maktau, the oldest airstrip in East and Central Africa. It is located between Mwatate and Taveta towns. But there is little the town has to show for its rich history.

In his book Guerrillas of Tsavo, author James G Willson recorded that the first war aircraft was transported in crates on the Uganda railway from Mombasa to Voi and on along the then completed military line to Maktau to join the forces based there, arriving on September 10, 1914.

Two collapsible aviation spirit tanks, stores and spares were included in the inventory, according to records compiled by Willson.

The author detailed the actions and tribulations of a British Empire army at war with an enterprising, adventurous Germany enemy.

The book portrayed the actions of the Germany army, a force of just 15,000 African and European troops, who against all odds engaged a far superior empire and allied collective army of 300,000 troops from 21 countries.

While in British East Africa, they occupied an area in southeast Kenya - much of it in today’s Tsavo West National Park, Taveta and along the frontier to the Indian Ocean.

Reports said the small royal navy air service party of two pilots and 13 personnel found Maktau camp located just 60kms from the Anglo German border at Taveta and 18 kms from the nearest enemy fortified camp at Mbuyuni.

After several short test flights that started on October 1, 1914 and delays caused by the effect of the altitude on the aircraft engines and poor weather conditions, the first operational reconnaissance flight out of Maktau airfield took off around mid-day on October 12, 1914.

Other reports said flying from Maktau was hazardous at the best of times, often with heavy mist shrouding the area in the mornings and the increasing heat creating turbulence later in the day, making flying difficult for the light aircraft.

At Maktau, it was found that there was inadequate space in the confines of the protective perimeter of the military camp. This meant that the landing ground had to be levelled outside the camp bounds, with the hangers erected in the camp close by.

Early in November 1915, a third aircraft arrived together with a mobile workshop lorry to supplement flying operations which by now were hampered by a shortage of spares.

In the same month three other aircraft arrived bringing the total to six machines, a further 20 ratings with three more pilots on November 22.

Bomb, and rifle, and grenade attacks were carried out over enemy-occupied territory towards Taveta and Salaita Hill.

Various aircraft types found their way to the airfield to support the British-allied forces that had control of the air over German East Africa but were vulnerable to ground fire.

With no competition in the air the aircraft saw service during the First World War not only in East Africa but also in Mesopotamia and Palestine.

The community at Maktau said it was optimistic that the rehabilitation of the Mwatate-Taveta road would facilitate investment in the town.

Taita Taveta Governor Granton Samboja said his administration would seek to exploit the opportunity arising from the historical event.

 “Investors and sponsors will have an opportunity to display advertisements during the WW1 commemoration, which will be attended by residents, retired and serving armed forces personnel, local leaders, tourists and high-profile delegates,” he said.

Tourism activities

Sarova Taita Hills and Salt Lick Lodges General Manager Willy Mwadilo, who is also the chairperson of the Tsavo and Amboseli Hotel Keepers and Caterers Association, said the event would help boost tourism activities in the region, which is rich in flora and fauna.

The region is dotted with heritage landscapes, most of which are military features of the First World War.

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