The battle of Lake Tanganyika

An earlier post in this blog featured the short military campaign in the German protectorate of Togoland, which marked the first surrender of German troops in WW1, during the same month in which the war started. The war in Africa featured one of the more unusual actions seen during WW1 – the only naval battle fought on a lake, rather than on the open sea.

The lake in question is Lake Tanganyika, which at 12,700 square miles, is the second largest lake in Africa, after Lake Victoria. Its 4,700 foot depth makes it the deepest lake in Africa, and the second deepest in the world, after Lake Baikal in Russia. At the time of the war, Lake Tanganyika was flanked on the eastern coast by German East Africa, and on the western coast by Belgian Congo, with a sliver of land on the southwest corner touching Northern Rhodesia (Zambia).

The Germans had two gunboats on the lake, the 100-ton Hedwig von Wissman and the 45-ton Kingani. A third ship, the 800-ton Graf von Gotzen, was under construction, and would be launched in June of 1915.

On the 22nd of August the Hedwig von Wissman attacked the unarmed Belgian steamer Alexandre del Commune, which was then beached by her crew. The Germans then sent a landing party, which exploded charges in her hold, turning here into an unusable wreck.

To make sure that there was no chance of the British attempting to control the lake, the Germans towed away and sank the Cecil Rhodes, and old steamer lying without engines on a beach at Kasakalawe Bay on the southern end of the lake. Nearby was the wreck of the Good News, which had been used on the lake from the mid-1880’s, until it was abandoned. For good measure the Germans shot up the rusty hull, turning it into total scrap.

The stage is set for the first of several unusual characters to make their mark on the battle for the lake. The first one is an Englishman, John R Lee, who was a big game hunter and prospector. Lee was in the lake region when the war started, and having gained the trust and respect of the local tribes, discovered that the Ba-HoloHolo tribe in Belgian Congo had German sympathies, which could have a major impact on who controlled the lake. Lee realised that something needs to be done, and returned to England, where he met with Henry Jackson, the first Sea Lord, in April 1915, to outline his solution.
Lee’s solution was for the British to have their own gunboat on the lake. Getting such a boat from England to Lake Tanganyika would require a long and complicated transport route:

England to Cape Town by ship – 6,100 miles

Cape Town to Elizabethville (Lumbashi) by rail – 1,800 miles

Elizabethville to Fungurume by rail – 142 miles

Fungurume to Sankisia by oxen, African porters and traction engines – 120 miles

Sankisia to Bukama by rail – 15 miles

Bukama to Kabalo by the Lualaba River

Kabalo to Lukuga (Kalemie) by rail – 175 miles

The overland route of Mimi and Toutou
The overland route of Mimi and Toutou

Surprisingly the Admiralty agreed with Lee’s plan, and suggested that two motorboats be sent instead of one. Lee went to look for suitable vessels, and came across two launches that had been built for the Greek Army, but had been commandeered by the Royal Navy before they could be delivered. They were forty foot long, built of mahogany and were powered by a 100 hp engine, which gave them a top speed of nineteen knots.

While Lee was the “brains” of the operation, convention required that a regular naval officer be the official commander. Finding such an officer was a problem, as nearly every serving officer was already at sea. Our second unsual character now enters the story. When a potential candidate at the Intelligence Division declined, an officer at a nearby desk, Geoffrey B Spicer-Simson, volunteered his services, which were accepted. Spicer-Simson’s career had taken a bad turn when a gunboat under his command was torpodoed in broad daylight at Ramsgate, while Spicer-Simson was ashore “entertaining” a lady at a hotel. He was consigned to a desk job, until Lee’s mission came before him. Spicer-Simson had previous experience in Africa, and spoke French, which would be a great help in cooperation with the Belgian authorities. As commander, Spicer-Simson wanted to name the boats “Dog” and “Cat”, but was overruled by the Admiralty. Instead he named them “Mimi” and “Toutou”, which stood for “meeow” and “bow-wow”.

mimi (1)

Eventually the expedition was ready for departure, and left England on the 15th of June 1915 on the “Llanstephan Castle”, a passenger liner bound for South Africa. Lee was already in Africa, making the plans for the ardous overland transport of the two boats. To assist him, Spicer-Simson had appointed to the expedition Sub-Lieutenant Douglas Edward Hope, who had served with local police forces in Africa, as well as taking part in the Boer War. Hope did not “assist” Lee at all – instead upon reaching Elizabethville he sent a flurry of telegrams stating that Lee and his assistant (Frank Magee) had been picked up drunk by the Belgian police, disclosing the purpose of the expedition, and insulting the Belgian authorities. Unaware of this, Lee had cabled Spicer-Simson in mid-July to say that he had found a practicable route, and had improved it to make the transport of the boats easier, through blowing up boulders and building up firewood dumps for the traction engines. Spicer-Simson responded not by thanking Lee, but stating that Hope should be promoted to Lieutenant and replace Lee as the advance party, effectively sacking Lee from his job.

When Lee and Magee came out of the bush and reported to Spicer-Simson at Elizabethville on the 26th of July, Spicer-Simson informed Lee of the charges raised by Hope against him, and ordered him back to Cape Town to await further orders from the Admiralty, while promoting Magee to the position of Warrant Officer.

Eventually the expedition reached Fungurume, at the end of the railway, at the beginning of August, followed by the traction engines in mid-August. These were large vehicles with big wheels and a canopy that covered the driver and the engine, as well as having a trailer to carry the wood required for the boiler.
The first engine nearly collapsed the first of 150-odd bridges that needed to be built to cross rivers and other waterflows, and then one engine tumbled down an embankment, and had to be righted. Thirty miles from Fungurume, the specially constructed trailers hauling “Mimi” and “Toutou” collapsed. The wood trailers of the engines were modified to take the boats, but the delays meant that the rainy season was approaching, with the possibility of the expedition sinking into the mud.


The expedition got started again in early September, and with the added assistance of eight pairs of oxen, six miles were travelled. By this stage the expedition had added Lieutenant Arthur Dudley, who was appointed as executive officer to Spicer-Simson, and who would play a key role in the battle on the lake.

Eventually on the 28th of September, the expedition reached Sankisia, and then travelled on a narrow-gauge railway to Bukama, on the east bank of the Lualaba river. Spicer-Simson was informed that the steamer that was going to transport them down the river had not arrived, due to the river being at its lowest level in six years. It was decided to float the boats down the river to Musanga. Empty petrol tins were added to the underside of each boat to increase buoyancy, and on the 6th of October they started downstream, pulled by barges rowed and pulled by Africans.

The boats safely reached Musanga, and boarded a steamer, which reached Kabalo on the 22nd of October, ready for the final rail trip to Lake Tanganyika.

At this point Lieutenant Hope joined the expedition, but his stay was brief. He disregarded orders, and Spicer-Simson discharged him accusing him of drunkenness and insulting Belgians – the same charges that Hope had levelled against Lee and Magee! The expedition eventually reached Lukuga, which proved that Lee’s original plan was sound. As well as actually reaching Lukuga, the other achievement was the lack of sickness and even deaths of expedition members, due mainly to the excellent work of Dr HM Hanschell, the expedition’s surgeon. The boats were hidden until they were ready to be launched.

Spicer-Simson was one grade higher in rank than the senior Belgian officer at Lukuga, Commandant (Major) Stinghlamber, and this lead to a dispute as to who was in charge. Spicer-Simson once gain trotted out his stories, but what really drew attention to himself was when the started wearing a skirt in his hut. It was a not a sarong or a klit, but a proper skirt, which Spicer-Simson had made by his wife. He also rolled up his sleeves, which along with the skirt showed off the elaborate tattoos covering his arms and legs. The Belgians disparagingly referred to him as “Le commandat a la jupe” – “The commander in the skirt”.

By this stage the Germans were of the existence of the two boats, and made several reconnaisance trips with the “Hedwig von Wissmann and “Kingani” to find out the details of the boats. Lieutenant Rosenthal, captain of the “Kingani”, swam ashore and discovered the boats, but was then captured when he realised that the “Kingani” had travelled back home. This would have been an ideal opportunity to find out about the strength and plans of the German forces, but due to the dispute between Spicer-Simson and Stinghlamber, Rosenthal was released by the Belgians before Spicer-Simson could question him.

By late December “Toutou” and “Mimi” were slid out of their hiding places and prepared – 3-pounder guns were fitted, petrol tanks were filled and the engines tested. On Christmas Day a test run for both boats was done, and the guns were fired. The tests were done just in the nick of time, for at 7.15 am on the 26th of December, Belgian lookouts reported that an enemy vessel was twenty miles away on the lake and approaching. Instead of immediately going to sea, Spicer-Simson decided to hold the Sunday church service, and only at the end of the service did he order the boats to be manned and launched. Spicer-Simson commanded the “Mimi” while Dudley commanded the “Toutou”. Everyone, British, Belgians and Africans alike, watched anxiously as the two boats went out for the battle of Lake Tanganyika.

The enemy vessel approaching was the “Kingani”, and it continued to move sedately along the coast, unaware that there were two ships intent on sinking her. Spicer-Simson placed “Mimi” to block the retreat of “Kingani” to her home base at Kigoma on the eastern side of the lake, and ordered Dudley to attack on the port side, while he attacked from the starboard side.

The Kingani spotted the two English boats and opened fire with its 6-pounder gun at “Mimi”, but luckily for the English boat it missed. Eventually the two English boats were able to get within 2,000 yards of Kingani and started to return fire. However, the close range allowed the crew of the Kingani to rake the English ships with rifle and machine gun fire. By continually zigzagging, the “Mimi” and “Toutou” were able to put off the fire, while they continued to fire at the “Kingani”.

The fight was soon ended, as the Kingani’s foredeck exploded in flames from a direct hit, and a white flag was waved. The skipper of the Mimi, an ex-Army lance corporal who had never been to see before, headed straight towards the Kingani and rammed it amidships. Spicer-Simson was sent sprawling across the deck, while the Belgian officers watching on land couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

With her bow badly damaged, Mimi returned to shore, and was beached. While Mimi fled the scene, Dudley had come alongside the Kingani in the Toutou, taken off two survivors, put a prize crew aboard and ordered a petty officer to try and get the Kingani back to shore. This was difficult, due to the Kingani listing after having a hole blown in the port side of the hull. What made it even more difficult, was that there was blood and various body parts from the three Germans who had been killed in the engagement – the Captain and two sailors – spread around the ship. The petty officer beached the ship, and then promptly fainted.


Eleven crew members of the Kingani – three Germans and eight Africans survived, and were assembled on shore after the Kingani was beached. They had heard of the English plan to transport the boats overland, but thought that it would be impossible to achieve. The German dead were given a military funeral, while the eleven who survived were marched away to a Belgian prison.

Spicer-Simson took as booty the ring of the dead captain, while a couple of his crew members took blood from the captain, and stored it in small bottles, along with pieces of the captain’s finger as well.

Spicer-Simson was promoted to substantive commander, while Dudley was promoted to full lieutenant. Spicer-Simson had already made quite an impact on the local Africans, due to his tattoos and behaviour, and his role in the battle turned him into a deity, with many Africans kneeling, clapping their hands or throwing themselves on the ground when he went by. He was given the name “Bwana Chifunga-tumbo”- “Lord-Belly Cloth”

A short time after the battle, the Kingani was re-floated, patched up and put in running order. A 12-pounder gun was mounted on the bow, while a 3-pounder was mounted on the stern, and the ship was renamed the “Fifi”, becoming the first German warship to serve as a Royal Navy ship.

This would be the highlight of Spicer-Simson’s service in Africa. He returned to England and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, but when the Admiralty learned how he failed to destroy boats at Bismarckburg in Northern Rhodesia, allowing German forces to escape, his operational career was at an end. In a great irony, he returned to the same desk job he was doing before he went to Africa. While Spicer-Simson bathed in the public spotlight, no recognition or awards were given to John R Lee, the originator of the expedition.