The Littlest Naval War: Britain’s Balls to the Wall Bid to End German Domination of a Single Lake
When we picture the First World War, we tend to think of the mud and slaughter of the trenches in the fields of Belgium and France. But this is only a very narrow view of the conflict, for true to its name the First World War was very much a world war, with combat taking place as far afield as the waters of the South Atlantic, the steppes of Russia, the deserts of Mesopotamia and Arabia, and the islands of the South Pacific. But perhaps the most far-flung and unusual theatre of the war was Southeast Africa, where German forces, though vastly outnumbered, fought a skillful and protracted guerrilla war in defence of the Kaiser’s African colonies. It was this conflict which saw one of the strangest naval engagements in history, in which a pair of British motorboats named Mimi and Toutou were hauled more than 200 kilometres overland to fight a German gunboat and win back control of a lake. This is the bizarre story of the battle for Lake Tanganyika.
Germany, which had only become a unified nation in 1871, was a relative latecomer to the colonialism game. However, following the 1884 Berlin Conference when the major European powers met to divide up Africa between them, she acquired with a respectable overseas Empire consisting of territory in what are now the nations of Cameroon, Guinea, Ghana, Togo, Namibia, Mozambique, and Tanzania; as well as Pacific islands in Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Micronesia, and Palau – and for more on what happened in Namibia – then German Southwest Africa – please check out our previous video Germany’s Forgotten Genocide: the Early Atrocity That Provided a Blueprint for the Nazis.
When the First World War broke out in August 1914, the Entente powers moved swiftly to capture Germany’s colonial possessions. Her African colonies were mainly taken by British and South African forces while her Pacific territories were taken by the Japanese – then members of the Entente. These possessions, lightly defended by small garrisons of colonial troops, all fell swiftly to the Entente forces – with one exception: German East Africa or Tanganyika, which encompassed parts of modern-day Tanzania, Rwanda, Mozambique, Kenya, and Burundi. Here, German general Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck [“fohn-lettov-fohrbeck”] along with only 3,000 German and 11,000 native African troops or Askaris led a masterful campaign of guerrilla warfare against Entente forces, using the terrain to his advantage and conducting hit-and-run attacks against British railways and encampments. Knowing that the East Africa campaign was merely a sideshow to the larger war, von Lettow-Vorbeck vowed to tie up as many enemy troops as possible in Africa, keeping them away from the more strategically-important Western Front. In this he was successful, as the Entente powers were forced to send some 300,000 British, Indian, South African, Belgian, and Portuguese troops to East Africa in an attempt hunt him down. Despite being chronically undermanned and short on supplies, for four years von Lettow-Vorbeck managed to evade and defeat far superior forces and even invade a part of Rhodesia, becoming the only German commander to capture British territory during the war. These exploits earned him the nickname “The Lion of Africa.”
With the land and sea routes into East Africa blocked by German ground and naval forces, Entente troops had only one remaining route of attack: crossing Lake Tanganyika. The second-largest of the African Great Lakes, lake Tanganyika stretches 676 kilometres north-south and at the time bordered German Tanganyika to the east, the Belgian Congo to the north and west, and Rhodesia to the south. However, British and Belgian troops stationed in these colonies dared not cross the lake into German territory due to a small but powerful flotilla of German gunboats. At the outbreak of war, Germany had two gunboats on the lake: the 60-ton Hedwig von Wissman [“Hew-vig Fohn Viss-mahn”] and the 45-ton Kingani, both heavily armed with 37 millimetre “pom-pom” automatic cannons. Within two months of war being declared, these ships had sunk all opposing British and Belgian vessels, giving Germany unchallenged dominance of the lake. In April 1915 Hedwig von Wissman and Kingani were joined by a third gunboat, the 1,600-ton Graf von Götzen [“Graff Fohn Goats-ehn”], which had been built in Germany before being disassembled, packed into 5,000 crates, and shipped to the Tanganyikan port of Dar-es-Salaam. From here the crates were shipped by rail to the lake port of Kigoma, where the ship was reassembled. In addition to bolstering German control of the lake, Graf von Götzen would carry and deposit up to 900 troops anywhere along the shoreline to conduct raids into British or Belgian territory.
The only ships the Entente could potentially field against the German flotilla were the Belgian barge Dix-Tonne [“Dee-tun”], the motorboat Netta, and the 1,500-ton steamer Baron Dhanis, which lay disassembled in the Congolese port of Lukuga. However, the Belgians dared not reassemble her for fear that she would be discovered and destroyed by the Germans before she could be launched. The 12-pounder guns provided by the British to the Baron Dhanis were thus installed as shore batteries to defend Lukunga.
Finding this situation unacceptable, on April 21, 1915, big-game hunter John R. Lee arrived at the British Admiralty in London to meet First Sea Lord Sir Henry Jackson. Lee, who had observed the German flotilla on Lake Tanganyika, had noted that the gunboats were relatively slow and that their heaviest armament was only capable of firing forward. He thus suggested that the Royal Navy deploy a force of small, fast motor launches armed with 3-pounder guns, which would be able to outrun, outmaneuver, and outgun the German gunboats. There was also a further advantage to using small launches. As there was no direct river or rail link to Lake Tanganyika from the cost, any vessel deployed on the lake would have to be dragged overland for a considerable distance. A vessel small enough to be transported in one piece could be launched immediately upon arrival, reducing the risk of it being discovered and destroyed while being assembled.
Despite the outlandish nature of the plan, Admiral Jackson approved it, stating:
“It is both the duty and the tradition of the Royal Navy to engage the enemy wherever there is water to float a ship.”
To head this quintessentially eccentric British mission, Admiral Jackson chose a quintessential British eccentric: Captain Geoffrey Basil Spicer-Simson. An irrepressible braggart, hothead, and independent spirit Simson never missed an opportunity to show off the elaborate tattoos he had acquired while serving in the Far East and whenever possible wore a khaki kilt in place of regular uniform trousers. Vessels under his command also had a nasty habit of coming to grief. While testing the defences of Portsmouth harbour in 1905 he had managed to run his patrol boat aground and later collided with another vessel, resulting in the death of a sailor. On November 11, 1914, while commanding the torpedo gunboat HMS Niger, he had stepped ashore to visit his wife at a nearby hotel only to watch as his ship was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat. Due to these various misadventures, Spicer-Simson was relegated by the Admiralty to a desk job transferring merchant marine sailors into the Navy. However, despite his shortcomings, Spicer-Simson had experience in Africa and was fluent in German and French, making him the ideal man for the Lake Tanganyika mission. Furthermore, the Admiralty saw little risk in sending a man they saw as a liability to a remote backwater like East Africa.
For the mission, Spicer-Simson chose a pair of 40-foot mahogany motorboats, which were fitted with Maxim machine guns and 3-pounder quick-firing cannon. Spicer-Simson initially suggested naming the vessels “cat” and “dog,” but this was rejected by the Admiralty. They did, however, approve the names Mimi and Toutou, French for “meow-meow” and “bow-wow.” Mimi and Toutou were tested in the Thames on June 8, 1915, and while both performed to expectations, one of the 3-pounder guns was found to be improperly bolted to the deck, sending both it and its gunner flying into the river when test-fired. The tests complete, on June 15 the motorboats were loaded aboard the steamer SS Llanstephen Castle and set off on their epic 16,000 kilometre journey to Lake Tanganyika.
After 17 days the Llanstephen Castle arrived at the South African port of Cape Town, where Mimi and Toutou were loaded onto railway flatcars and transported north by train to Elisabethville in the Belgian Congo. From here the boats were loaded onto special cradles and dragged by oxen and steam tractors through the dense bush and deep gorges of the Mitumba mountains to the railhead at Sankisia – a gruelling journey of 235 kilometres. From Sankisia the boats were taken 30 kilometres by rail to Bukama, then sailed down the Lualaba River and across Lake Kisale to Kabalo. The water in Lualaba was low, causing the boats to run aground 14 times over 20 kilometres – a feat Spicer-Simson quipped was“a record, I think, for His Majesty’s ships.” The flotilla reached Kabalo on October 22, and following a 280 kilometre rail journey finally arrived at Kalemie just south of Lukuga. Against all odds, the little boats had made it intact across nearly 3,000 kilometres of some of the most challenging terrain in the world.
But Spicer-Simson’s arrival had not gone unnoticed by the Germans. On the morning December 1, 1915, the gunboat Kingani, under the command of Lieutenant Job [“Yohb”] Rosenthal approached Kalemie to investigate enemy activity, only to be driven away by the shore batteries. Kingani returned later that evening, allowing Rosenthal to swim ashore and get a closer look at the harbour. There he discovered Mimi and Toutou and the slipways Spicer-Simson had constructed to launch them. Rosenthal tried to return to Kingani but was unable to find her in the dark, and with dawn approaching the gunboat departed without him. While waiting for Kingani to return, Rosenthal was spotted and captured by Belgian soldiers and was unable to report his discovery of the British motorboats.
The slipways at Kalemie were completed on December 22, and Mimi and Toutou launched two days later. This timing proved fortuitous, for on the morning of December 26 the Kingani, now under the command of one Sub-Lieutenant Junge [“yoong”], suddenly appeared outside Kalemie. Breaking off his morning prayers, Spicer-Simson ordered his men to their vessels, and before he could say “schiesse!” Lieutenant Junge suddenly found himself set upon by a pair of fast motorboats bearing the Royal Navy’s White Ensign. In a brief but furious battle, the motorboats ran rings around the Kingani and scored a direct hit on her forward gun, killing Lieutenant Junge and two petty officers. After barely 11 minutes the Kingani’s chief engineer struck the ship’s colours and surrendered her to the British. “Simson’s Circus,” as it had become known, had scored its first victory. Three German and eight African crewmen were taken prisoner, and the Kingani, continuing the theme of animal sounds, was rechristened HMS Fifi – French for “tweet tweet.” Fifi was the first German warship of the war to be transferred into British service, and for this accomplishment Spicer-Simson was promoted to the rank of Commander.
Despite the Kingani’s sudden disappearance, bad weather on the lake prevented the Germans from investigating until January 1916. In the meantime, Spicer-Simson bolstered his flotilla with the Belgian steamer Delcommune, which he renamed Vengeur or “Avenger.” In mid-January the Hedwig von Wissman, under the command of Lieutenant Job Odebrecht, scouted around Kalemie, but finding nothing turned around and returned to port. On February 8 she set out again, with orders to rendezvous with the Graf von Götzen the next day. Early that morning Spicer-Simson spotted the Hedwig and launched a flotilla consisting of Mimi, Fifi, the barge Dix-Tonne, and a motorized whaleboat to intercept her. While the Hedwig was faster than Fifi and Dix-Tonne, once again Mimi was able to steam circles around the German gunboat, while the longer range of her 3-pounder gun prevented the Hedwig from returning fire. Odebrecht circled his ship to dodge Mimi’s fire, allowing Spicer-Simson aboard Fifi to close in for the kill. However, at the last moment Fifi’s 12-pounder jammed, and Odebrecht took the opportunity to flee and rendezvous with the more heavily-armed Graf von Götzen. Spicer-Simson and his crew struggled for 20 minutes to clear the gun while the German gunboat steadily slipped away. But then, with its last two shells, Fifi scored a direct hit on the Hedwig’s hull, bursting her boiler and killing seven of her crew. With the ship now a burning wreck, Odebrecht ordered scuttling charges set and his men to abandon ship. The second German gunboat on Lake Tanganyika was now out of action. Only the formidable Graf von Götzen remained.
While his fleet of small boats had more than proved their mettle, Spicer-Simson decided he needed a bigger ship if he was to tangle with the Götzen. He found it in the form of the St. George, a steamboat belonging to the British consul in the Congolese capital of Leopoldville. Spicer-Simson he had the St. George dismantled, dragged to Lake Tanganyika, reassembled, and armed with the Belgian 12-pounder shore defence guns. By this time, however, the strategic situation in East Africa had changed. British and Belgian troops had begun advancing north towards the port of Bismarckburg, and Spicer-Simson’s flotilla was ordered north to support the advance. However, upon arriving at Bismarckburg Spicer-Simson found the port defended by a heavily-armed fortress and chose to withdraw his flotilla. Little did he know that the fortress guns were actually wooden dummies, the originals having been commandeered by General von Lettow-Vorbeck for use as mobile artillery. Spicer-Simson’s hesitance to engage allowed the fort’s garrison to escape under the cover of darkness, much to the annoyance of his superiors. Spicer-Simson also missed his chance to engage the Graf von Götzen, which was withdrawn from Bismarckburg and on July 26, 1916, scuttled at the bottom of Katabe Bay. She would later be salvaged in 1918 and still plies Lake Tanganyika to this day as the ferry MV Liemba.
By July 1916 British and Belgian forces had retaken control of Lake Tanganyika, though the East African campaign would drag on for a further two years. In fact, General von Lettow-Vorbeck would not surrender his forces until November 14, 1918 – three days after the Armistice had taken effect. He was one of few German commanders to remain undefeated in the field, and on his return to Germany was hailed as a national hero.
Geoffrey Spicer-Simson, however, would not be so lucky. Despite the ingenuity and determination he had shown in his bid to end German domination of Lake Tanganyika, his frequent quarrels with his Belgian allies led to his being reprimanded by the Admiralty, and he was never again given a naval command. He did, however, become Assistant Director of Naval Intelligence and served as a naval delegate and French translator at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. He was later elected as the first secretary-general of the International Hydrographic Organization in Monaco, in which role he served from 1921 to 1937. Geoffrey Spicer-Simson died on January 29, 1947 at the age of 71. Though he was never to attain the legendary status of General von Lettow-Vorbeck, Spicer-Simson’s unorthodox naval campaign on Lake Tanganyika was no less a military accomplishment than those of his great rival, a feat described by his Belgian allies as:
“A feat unique in British History. Rarely have officers and men of the Royal Navy worked in an environment so foreign, or met conditions of greater difficulty with more ultimate success.”
And if all of this seems just a bit familiar, the Battle of Lake Tanganyika served as the inspiration for the 1935 C.S. Forester novel and the classic 1951 film The African Queen starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.
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Wilson, Derek, Our History: the Strange Battle of Lake Tanganyika, The Times Colonist, January 9, 2016, https://www.timescolonist.com/islander/our-history-the-strange-battle-of-lake-tanganyika-1.2147580
Christy, Gabe, The Battle for Lake Tanganyika Was One of the Strangest Battles of World War One, War History Online, July 2, 2017, https://www.warhistoryonline.com/instant-articles/battle-lake-tanganyika-one-strangest-ww1.html
The Naval Africa Expedition and the Battle for Lake Tanganyika, Weapons and Warfare, August 8, 2015, https://weaponsandwarfare.com/2015/08/08/the-naval-africa-expedition-and-the-battle-for-lake-tanganyika/
Probably the Strangest Naval Battle of WWI, Naval Encyclopedia, https://naval-encyclopedia.com/battles/ww1/lake-tanganykas-naval-battles.php
Kirkpatrick, Tim, This German General Told Hitler Off in the Most Satisfying Way Ever, We Are the Mighty, January 28, 2019, https://www.wearethemighty.com/mighty-history/paul-lettow-vorbeck-hitler-wwi/
Who’s Who – Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, First World War, https://www.firstworldwar.com/bio/lettowvorbeck.htm
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