The rare East Africa Commissioner of Police for Tanganyika New Years Honours 1946 King’s Police Medal for Distinguished Service, Great War German East Africa and Nyasaland operations group awarded to William B. Bithrey, Colonial Police Service and Commissioner of Police for Tanganyika at the time of the Second World War. Formerly a Sergeant with the Rhodesian Native Regiment. he saw active service as a European N.C.O. with this unit on operations in German East Africa and Nyasaland between 18th April and 19th September 1918, as one of a small number of European and white officer’s and Non Commissioned Officers serving with this regiment. Having then joined the Colonial Police Service in 1920, by 1926 he was a Superintendent of Police in the Nyasaland Protectorate, and having transferred to the Tanganyika Police, was Commissioner of Police from circa 1939 to 1945.
Group of 4: King’s Police Medal for Distinguished Service, GVI 1st type bust; (WILLIAM B. BITHREY. COMM. TANGANYIKA POLICE.); British War Medal and Victory Medal; (1678 3-SJT. W.B. BITHREY. RHODESIA N. REGT.); Coronation Medal 1937. Mounted swing style as worn.
Condition: Good Very Fine.
Sold together with the recipient’s group of miniature medals representing the Great War and the 1937 Coronation, and four examples of the recipient’s tunic medal ribbon bars.
William Barratt Bithrey was born in late 1888 in Plymouth, Hampshire, the son of Edward Hadden Bithrey, and his wife Ellen. As of 1911 the family were living in Upwey, Dorset, where his father ran a grocery and provisions store, at which time William was assisting in his fathers business.
Bithrey then appears to have made his own way, and travelled to Southern Rhodesia, and switched his middle name from Barrett to Barry. With the Great War he enlisted into the Rhodesian forces and saw service as a 3rd Sergeant (No.1678) with the Rhodesian Native Regiment, and was then present on active service in German East Africa and Nyasaland between 18th April and 19th September 1918, as one of a small number of European and white officer’s and Non Commissioned Officers serving with this regiment.
By late 1915, British forces in the border areas of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, on German East Africa's south-western flank, were severely stretched. Disease was a constant curse, decimating the ranks. Francis Drummond Chaplin, the British South Africa Company administrator in Southern Rhodesia, offered to provide the British with a column of between 500 and 1,000 askaris, and Whitehall accepted this in March 1916; however, there was then disagreement regarding who would foot the bill for the organisation of this enterprise. After this was resolved in April 1916—the Company agreed to pay, conditional on reimbursement by the British Colonial Office—recruitment began in May.
Initial recruitment efforts principally targeted the Matabele, who made up about 20% of the colony's black population, because they enjoyed a popular reputation among whites for being great warriors; the unit was therefore originally called the "Matabele Regiment”. This was changed to the more inclusive “Rhodesia Native Regiment” (RNR) on 15 May 1916, as the ranks proved to be more diverse than expected, and included large numbers of Mashonas and other ethnicities. In particular, a disproportionately high number of volunteers came from the Kalanga tribe, a numerically diminutive community in the colony's south-west. The RNR was organised largely along linguistic and cultural lines, with companies and platoons of Matabele, Mashona, Wayao and others. White officers attached to the unit were often recruited because they knew an African language, or could give orders in Chilapalapa, a pidgin of English and several African tongues often referred to by whites of the time as "kitchen kaffir". The ranks' diversity sometimes led to confusion when messages or directives were not properly understood. It became common for black troopers accused of disobeying or ignoring commands to claim ignorance of the language in which they had been ordered.
Commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel A J Tomlinson, the RNR, comprising 426 askaris and about 30 white officers, left Salisbury in July 1916 for Beira. They continued on to Zomba in Nyasaland, where they were to receive further training closer to the field of operations. When they arrived, the local situation had shifted significantly, so the RNR instead went to New Langenberg, in German East Africa, just north of Lake Nyasa. At New Langenberg the regiment went through a short training course, and was issued with six machine guns. When the unit's training period ended in October 1916 it was divided; one company of RNR men went to Buhora, about 250 kilometres north-east, while the rest went 250 kilometres south to Weidhaven, on the north banks of Lake Nyasa, from where they moved 160 kilometres east to Songea, which they were ordered to "hold ... until reinforced". Apart from a company of men sent to patrol the road back to Weidhaven, the RNR proceeded to garrison Songea.
The Germans, who had left Songea only a few weeks before, sent two columns to retake it during early November 1916–250 askaris marched from Likuyu, and 180 more (with two machine guns) set off from Kitanda. The latter German column spotted the RNR company that was patrolling the road, and at Mabogoro attacked the advance guard, which was commanded by Sergeant (later Lieutenant) Frederick Charles Booth. The Rhodesians were caught by surprise, and many panicked, running about and firing randomly. Booth restored discipline and led the defence until reinforcements arrived. The Germans then retreated and continued towards Songea. During this contact, Booth advanced towards enemy fire to rescue a wounded scout who was lying in the open, and brought him back alive; for this and subsequent actions, Booth received the Victoria Cross in June 1917.
The German column from Kitanda reached Songea early in the morning on 12 November 1916, and unsuccessfully attempted a frontal assault on the well-entrenched Rhodesian positions. After the German column from Likuyu arrived in the afternoon, the Germans laid siege to Songea for 12 days before retreating towards Likuyu on the 24th. The Rhodesians were relieved the following day by a South African unit. The RNR then moved back to Litruchi, on the other side of Lake Nyasa, from where they sailed to the German East African town of Mwaya, where they were reunited with the RNR contingent that had gone to Buhora. This second column had ambushed a group of Germans, who were moving towards Northern Rhodesia with a naval gun salvaged from SMS Konigsberg (which had been sunk at Rufiji Delta about a year before); after pocketing the Germans, the Rhodesians captured both them and the naval gun.
In Southern Rhodesia, Company officials judged the RNR to have been a success so far, and so decided in January 1917 to raise a second battalion. The unit already in the field was at this time designated 1st Battalion, abbreviated to "1RNR", while the new formation was called 2nd Battalion, or "2RNR”. Recruitment was soon under way. Conscious of the difficulty that had been found in persuading rural Mashonas and Matabele to join the 1st Battalion in 1916, organisers for 2RNR principally targeted black men from other countries, in particular migrant workers from Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia; Nyasalanders eventually made up nearly half of the regiment. By the start of March, about 1,000 recruits were training in Salisbury. Meanwhile, 1RNR was instructed to guard the Igali Pass, near the border with Northern Rhodesia, to prevent a column of Germans from threatening the settlements of Abercorn and Fife. When the Germans slipped through, the Rhodesians were pulled back to a position between the two towns and instructed to defend either one as circumstances dictated. The Germans did not launch an attack, however, instead setting up camp in their own territory at Galula.
The Southern Rhodesian commanders planned to destroy the German column by taking advantage of the regional geography; the Germans had Lake Rukwa to their back, and the rivers Songwe and Saisi on their respective left (eastern) and right flanks, effectively hemming them in if they were attacked. The plan was that elements of 1RNR would hold the Saisi while a battalion of the King’s African Rifles (KAR) manned the Songwe; the rest of 1RNR would then push the Germans back towards the lake. But Tomlinson interpreted his orders as requiring immediate action, and attacked before the two flanking lines were in place on the rivers. The offensive had some successes at first, even though Tomlinson was outnumbered, but the 450 Germans, armed with three Königsberg field guns and 14 machine guns, soon withdrew to the higher ground at St Moritz Mission. The Germans counterattacked over the following week. Colonel R E Murray, who commanded a column of BSAP men about 10 kilometres away, did not assist Tomlinson, and 1RNR took great losses while repulsing the attack: 58 RNR men were killed, and the Germans captured three Rhodesian machine guns. Tomlinson was blamed by most for the debacle, but he insisted for years afterwards that he had only been following orders from Murray to hold his ground. He expressed incredulity at Murray's failure to reinforce him. An enquiry into the matter was avoided when Tomlinson was wounded and invalided home soon after the battle.
On 5 April 1917, 1RNR crossed the Songwe River into German East Africa and advanced south-east towards Kitanda. It moved up the winding Lupa River, crossing it at each turn, for 53 days, and by mid-June was 30 kilometres north of its target. When it was then ordered to backtrack north to Rungwe, it covered the 420 kilometres in 16 days. Several scholars highlight the distances marched by the RNR, and comment that their physical endurance must have been remarkable, particularly given the speed at which they moved. "One can only marvel at the hardiness and fortitude of these men who matter-of-factly marched distances unthinkable to modern Western soldiers", the historian Alexandre Binda writes. McLaughlin contrasts the RNR's black troopers with the white soldiers of the 2nd Rhodesia Regiment, commenting that the former proved far more resilient to tropical diseases (though not immune), and amazed white observers by not just adapting to the difficult East African conditions, but often marching 50 kilometres in a day. In June 1917, Sergeant Rita (or Lita), a black non-commissioned officer later described by Tomlinson as "a splendid soldier”, received the highest award ever given to an RNR askari, the Distinguished Conduct Medal, "for conspicuous gallantry in action on many occasions. His example and influence with his men is incalculable".
The 1st Battalion harassed the constantly moving German flying columns during August and September 1917. Two Military Medsals were won by RNR soldiers during this time: Sergeant Northcote rescued a wounded askari under German fire in late August, and a few days later Corporal Suga, himself lightly injured, dragged his wounded commanding officer Lieutenant Booth out of the open and into cover. The 2nd Battalion, comprising Major Jackson at the head of 585 askaris and 75 whites, left Salisbury on 16 September 1917, and joined the front on 16 October, when it arrived at Mbewa on the north-eastern shore of Lake Nyasa, intending to ultimately merge with 1RNR. After 1RNR spent two months garrisoning Wiedhaven and 2RNR underwent further training, the two forces joined on 28 January 1918 (becoming known as the 2nd Rhodesia Native Regiment), and immediately made their way south in pursuit of Lettow-Vorbeck's Germans, who were by now down to an effective strength of less than 2,000, and moving through Portuguese Mozambique.
In late May 1918, the two-year service contracts signed by the original 500 RNR volunteers expired, and the majority of those who had not already been discharged—just under 400 men—went home. While passing through Umtali on their way to Salisbury, the soldiers encountered the RNR's original commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Tomlinson, whom they promptly mobbed, excitedly chanting nkosi, nkosi (which roughly means "chief" in Sindebele). In the capital, the RNR men were met at the railway station by thousands of people, including a number of prominent government, military and religious figures. Chaplin, the territorial administrator, gave a speech in which he applauded the troops for "upholding the good name of Rhodesia" and for having played "no insignificant part in depriving the Germans of their power in Africa”.
In Mozambique, the RNR encountered Lettow-Vorbeck's supply column near Mtarika on 22 May 1918. It wiped it out (capturing two German officers, two German askaris, 34 Portuguese askaris and 252 carriers), but as the supply column had been marching between the main German column and its rearguard, Lettow-Vorbeck was then able to attack the RNR from both sides. The contact lasted until darkness fell, and the RNR held its position. Lettow-Vorbeck then moved further south, with the RNR following. This pursuit continued for the rest of the war, with Lettow-Vorbeck avoiding contacts so far as was possible and constantly resupplying his men by briefly occupying isolated towns. The RNR chased the German column for over 3,600 kilometres around Mozambique and the eastern districts of Northern Rhodesia, but never caught up with him. After Lettow-Vorbeck formally surrendered at Abercorn on 25 November 1918, the RNR returned to Salisbury, where the men were discharged during 1919. The regiment existed on paper for two more years before it was formally disbanded in February 1921.
After the war Bithrey settled in the Nyasaland Protectorate and joined the Colonial Police Service on 10th December 1920, and by mid 1926 was a Superintendent of Police. Bithrey was then promoted to Commissioner of Police for Tanganyika in East Africa circa 1939, and for his services on his retirement was awarded the King’s Police Medal for Distinguished Service, the award being announced in the New Years Honours List as published in the London Gazette for 1st January 1946.
Bithrey returned to England and settled in Wentworth, near Dorchester, but died in London on 28th October 1950. He was the co-author of the book ‘An Introduction to Chinyanja’ in 1925, this being a work coveting the native Nyanja language, and also features in the rather questionable book ‘Voices of Preachers in Protest: The Ministry of Two Malawian Prophets’, by one Joseph Chaphadzika Chakanza, in which Bithrey is noted as having lent assistance to one of the so-called prophets, Gudu, who had just been released from gaol in Zomba Central Prison in June 1939, and was required by the Governor of Nyasaland to be on good behaviour, or risk expulsion to a far off land.