Schedules matter in time of war, as any warrior knows, so Poppycock owes the world an apology for losing the plot and arriving late with this. Fact is, I started back on 15 June and then embarked on a fairly long and complex voyage over land and sea that kept the logistics department far too occupied to bother about writing. Unforgivable, obviously, but also oddly appropriate, because on 15 June 1915 a small group of British servicemen set out on a very long, very complex journey that would end with them arriving rather late on the scene at one of the First World War’s more bizarre battlefields.
I refer to what was known as the Naval Africa Expedition, a British military adventure, part Boys’ Own and part bonkers, that attracted plenty of straight-faced public attention in its aftermath and provided indirect inspiration for one of Hollywood’s classic movies, but is largely forgotten today. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
This is a story about Lake Tanganyika, Africa’s second largest lake. The Lake stretches 675km from north to south, but is only between 15 and 50km wide. In 1914, the Belgian Congo and German East Africa faced each other across this narrow strip of water, although a small portion of the southwestern shore belonged to British Northern Rhodesia. When war broke out in Europe, two armed German boats took control of the lake, sinking the only Belgian ship big enough to carry armament on 22 August and dispatching the Lake’s two small British boats later in the year. Map, please…
The German boats and their guns – towed on a raft at a snail-like two knots – were now able to raid the western shoreline, threaten Allied trade and dominate relations with local tribes. By way of cementing control a much bigger German ship, the 1200-ton Goetzen, was dismantled and taken to Kigoma for reconstruction – a rugged enterprise involving 5,000 crates and a very difficult overland journey from Dar-Es-Salaam. The Goetzen was eventually launched on 9 June 1915, and later equipped with bigger guns from the cruiser Königsberg, which had been hunted down by British naval forces in the nearby Rufugi Delta. By that time Allied countermeasures were underway – but still a long way from making any difference.
Belgian authorities in the Congo had been demanding all sorts of military assistance since August 1914, but all a hard-pressed home government eventually managed was an old torpedo boat, without torpedoes, and a plan (eventually abandoned) to build a new, 800-ton ship at the Lake. The British Admiralty agreed to lend the Belgians four Short seaplanes, but they didn’t arrive near the Lake until the end of 1915. Meanwhile, in April 1915, a veteran hunter and ivory poacher named John Lee arrived in London from South Africa and pitched a plan to the Admiralty that would, he claimed, shorten the already vexing battle for German East Africa. According to details worked out in advance by Lee, transporting two modern, armed motorboats to the Lake would outclass the slow, old German vessels and quickly restore control to the Allies.
The British Admiralty, which possessed no accurate charts for the region, jumped at the challenge, citing the Navy’s duty to ‘fight the enemy wherever there is water to float a ship’, and assembled a volunteer force for the purpose. Three officers and 24 ratings were put under the command of the Navy’s oldest lieutenant commander, Geoffrey Spicer-Simson. Lee (now commissioned as a lieutenant) went ahead with a small advance party to prepare the route, and the rest of the group waited for the boats before leaving London aboard the liner Llanstephen Castle, bound for Cape Town, on 15 June. The boats had meanwhile been named Mimi and Toutou by Spicer-Simson, after the Admiralty had vetoed his original choice of Cat and Dog. If that looks like a sign of eccentricity to come, it was.
The 6,000-mile trip to Cape Town ended on 2 July, and a 2,600-mile railway journey saw the expedition arrive at Port Elizabeth, in the Belgian Congo, on 26 July. The hardest part of the odyssey – a 150-mile trek across mountainous country and 140 rivers or gorges, cutting through jungle much of the way – brought the boats to the town of Sankisia by the end of September, after which it was 15 miles by light railway to Bukama, another 400 miles floating down the Lualaba River to Kabalo and a final 175 miles by rail to the little Belgian Port of Lukuga, on the western shore of Lake Tanganikya. Spicer-Simson, already proving a paragon of energy, didn’t like the tactical position he found at Lukuga and built his own harbour facilities a little down the coast, finally getting the boats afloat on the Lake two days before Christmas.
Mimi and Toutou went into action on Boxing Day 1915, attacking and capturing one German boat, which was renamed Fifi and added to Spicer-Simson’s strength. Communications around the Lake were sketchy at the time, to say the least, and the second small German craft didn’t come looking for its mate until 16 February, when it was chased, disabled and scuttled after a twelve-hour fight.
At this point Spicer-Simson knew nothing of the Goetzen‘s size or relatively huge armament, and the captain of the Goetzen still thought shore batteries were responsible for any damage suffered by the smaller boats. Next day, when the Goetzen came looking, both sides had their eyes opened. Spicer-Simson took one look at the Goetzen‘s armament, decided he needed a bigger ship, and suspended operations while he toured British East Africa in a vain for search of one. Captain Zimmer of the Goetzen discovered he had a new enemy on the Lake, but was almost immediately required to donate his guns to German land forces in East Africa and devote his energies to troop transport. With British forces keeping a low profile and unaware that the Goetzen‘s guns were now dummies, military stalemate set in until June.
By now, eccentricity was getting the better of Spicer-Simson, and he’d come over a bit Heart of Darkness. Wearing a grass skirt and showing off his impressive array of tattoos to awestruck local tribespeople, he became well known around the Lake and set himself up as form of deity-cum-magistrate, a policy that may have helped wean several tribes away from pro-German activities but certainly bewildered his subordinates.
Increasingly frustrated by lack of action, Spicer-Simson eventually took his flotilla south to aid Rhodesian forces in the siege of German-held Bismarckburg. The town fell on 8 June, but Spicer-Simson infuriated the Rhodesians by refusing to intervene and prevent the garrison from escaping. A few days later, after the aforementioned Belgian seaplanes had attacked the Goetzen to very limited effect, an emotional Spicer-Simson suddenly invalided himself home. His timing was good. A British offensive in German East Africa took the main Dar-Es-Salaam railway in mid-July, cutting off supplies to the Goetzen, which obeyed orders to scuttle on 27 July, an act that brought fighting on Lake Tanganyika to an end.
It wasn’t quite the end for Spicer-Simson, who returned to Britain with tales of heroic derring-do that were largely fiction but were lapped up by the popular press and earned him a spell in the spotlight as a war hero. The Royal Navy was careful not to burst the propaganda bubble, interviewed the rest of the party (all of whom returned alive), awarded everyone involved medals, promoted Spicer-Simson to Commander… and never gave him another active command.