Review: Blockade and Jungle by Christen P Christensen

Blockade and Jungle (1941, reprint 2003) by Christen P Christensen is the fictionalised story of Nis Kock who served on the German blockade runner the Kronborg which managed to get through to German East Africa in April 1915.

At the very first Great War in Africa Association Conference in 2012, Bjarne S. Bendtsen (Danish Literature lecturer) presented a paper entitled: ‘Danes’ at war in East Africa: The case of the blockade runner SS Kronborg. In his abstract he noted,

There are at least two memoirs published in Danish about Kronborg’s voyage and the crew’s participation in Lettow-Vorbeck’s safaris: Nis Kock’s Sønderjyder vender hjem fra Østafrika (1938) and Anker Nissen’s Sønderjylland Afrika tur retur (1962), and a fictionalized version of Kock’s experiences: the author Christen P. Christensen’s Sønderjyder forsvarer Østafrika 1914-18 (1937).

The fact that Blockade and Jungle is a fictional account should not detract from its usefulness, particularly in view of its having been based on Nis Kock’s account and translated into English. As with all fictional (and I would suggest factual too) accounts, details should be checked before being taken as ‘true’. Through telling the story of Nis Kock, we discover yet another ‘forgotten’ micro-nation which saw action in the East Africa campaign of 1914-1918. The crew of the Kronberg were mainly Danish, although in 1914 the territory was occupied by Germany, again as Bjarne explains:

The 1864 war between Denmark and Prussia/Austria, which led to Denmark’s cession of Schleswig and Holstein to Prussia, meant that about 30,000 ‘Danes’ had to fight in the German army in the world war 50 years later. Among these ‘Danish’ conscripts, a handful were picked for an adventurous voyage with a supply ship, cunningly turned into the fake Danish SS Kronborg, bringing supplies to Lettow-Vorbeck’s troops in East Africa and to the German cruiser SMS Königsberg, blockaded by British men of war in the Rufiji river delta in Tanganyika.

According to Christensen, who used Nis Kock’s account to write Blockade and Jungle, there were 50 South Jutlanders who fought in German East Africa and another 30 South Jutlanders who formed the crew of the SS Kronborg. Christensen takes us through the recruitment of the men providing some insight into how the German military administration system worked, the precision planning of getting a ship through the British blockade in the North Sea and life of board a blockade runner.

Once in East Africa, the ship came under attack from the British cruiser Hyacinth and was sunk, although the crew ensured they’d be able to recover most of the equipment on board. Harry Fecitt gives an overview of the blockade runner’s arrival (as well as that of a later blockade runner, the Marie) while Hans-Martin Somer, a Research Scientist gives an account of the blockade runner in his History of Manza Bay.

Nis Kock played an instrumental role in the salvage operation and as there is no longer work for the men on the ocean, they join the land forces – Kock becoming an ammunitions’ expert. Here again, we get some lovely descriptions and insight into how the Germans managed their logistics and how carriers were used (by some). Mention is made that Nis Kock and 450 bearers cleared Morogoro of all ammunition in one day (p140). In addition to this, we get a glimpse into how the German forces were able to use the variety of weapons and ammunition they had to conduct the war and the challenges these posed (p133), including those rescued from the Konigsberg.

The account ends with Kock being one of those who had to remain behind at Nambindinga in November 1917 when Lettow-Vorbeck trimmed his force to take only the strongest into Portuguese East Africa. Instead of the expected sense of relief at no longer being involved in this trying conflict, the reader is presented with a sense of loss, rejection and guilt at not being able to continue to do one’s duty. This is an aspect I particularly valued in reading the book – perceptions and assumptions being challenged. Christensen takes things a little further with a Postscript noting that Kock was sent to Sidi Bish in Egypt before returning to Denmark in 1919. The final words again provide a contrast to how we, in the English speaking world have come to see the arrival of the GEA forces back home:

When, later on, they went to Berlin to get their papers put in order, their welcome has hardly cordial: “Communists and Warmongers!” yelled the “Imperialists” at these men who had fought in East Africa to defend Germany’s last colony.

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