The successful conclusion to the Battle of Lake Tanganyika

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Naval Africa Expedition

In researching this concluding chapter of the Mimi and Toutou saga, I waited until I was able to source a book written in the early 1960s by British author Peter Shankland, The Phantom Flotilla. This is an excellent book written largely from the verbal accounts of Doctor Hanchell, gathered during extensive interviews conducted by Shankland before the Doctor’s death sometime in the mid 1960s. Shankland’s version is naturally configured largely from the Doctor’s perspective, although a number of key archive resources also feature. What appears to emerge as a consequence is a far more forgiving view of the main protagonist in the story, Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simpson, than anything else I have read so far.

Doctor Hanchell did concede throughout that Spicer-Simpson was an ass – there seems to be no way to avoid that conclusion – but he also reflected that the Commander was an able and capable leader, imbibed with something that no amount of bombast or arrogance could corrupt – uncommonly good luck. This is an attribute that is common to all great leaders, from Alexander the Great through to Napoleon. General Jan Smuts and Colonel Paul von Lettow Vorbeck, both of whom would soon match wits on that very battlefield, were also gifted with extraordinary luck. Of course it is easy for an outsider to perceive successful decision making and tactical instinct as being luck, but when a commander’s luck runs out, which it inevitably does, the evidence of decline and fall tend quickly to follow.

Meanwhile, a much more thoughtful and comprehensive portrait of Spicer-Simpson is painted under Shankland’s brush, a man, who, after all, succeeded in mounting an audacious challenge against the African elements of weather, geography, local politics and war to drag his two quaintly named gunboats overland to Lake Tanganyika. This is refreshing, and very interesting, for Spicer-Simpson was nothing if not an interesting character. For the student of the East Africa Campaign, and of African Imperial history in general, I would recommend The Phantom Flottilla by Peter Shankland, which is still fairly easily available on the web.

Just as a quick note before I wrap up the tale of the Mimi and Toutou. There are a few errors of sequence and timing in the preceding chapters, that I have since discovered, but barring perhaps some unfair treatment of Spicer-Simpson, on the whole the story is factually correct.

The successful arrival of the Mimi and Toutou on the shores of Lake Tanganyika was without doubt a superb achievement, and a significant feat of leadership on the part of Spicer-Simpson, but it was only the beginning. Next would come the principal objective of the Naval Africa Expedition, which was simply put, as usual, by Frank Magee: ‘…it was to be our job to destroy the German fleet, and thus assist in making effective the activities of the land forces operating against the enemy on their own coast.’[1]

In fact, by then the focus of the East Africa Campaign had shifted from the coast, which was by then under a reasonably effective naval blockade, to the Kilimanjaro District, and more specifically the narrow littoral of wild but accessible country lying between the strategic British and German railway lines. These were, and remain, vital avenues of commerce and communication, particularly in war, each of which ran parallel to the other on opposing sides of the frontier, and with no more than 70 miles between them at their closest point. The Germans at that time still held the initiative, since general Smuts had yet to make landfall in East Africa, and while the newly arrived South African troops found their feet on the battlefield. Von Lettow-Vorbeck, however, had also by then more-or-less conceded that the war in Africa was unwinnable, and was preparing the ground for a guerrilla campaign.

In his mind this presupposed the loss of German control of the lakes at some point. Without control of Lake Tanganyika it was obvious that the British had very little chance of outmanoeuvring the Germans while they held the tactical advantage of rapid troop deployment to almost anywhere along the western frontier. Allied troops were amassing north and south of the main German concentrations in readiness for a massive movement inland, but before anything like this could take place it was necessary for the Naval Africa Expedition to gain control of the Lake.

As further testimony to Spicer-Simpson’s extraordinary good luck, not a drop of substantial rainfall had been recorded en route when it would have stalled the Expedition it its tracks, and yet almost at the moment he set foot on the shore of Lake Tanganyika a storm erupted around him. To the whites this might have seemed to be no more than a lucky coincidence, but to the blacks, tending to view such things in the light of superstition, Spicer-Simpson had a powerful juju. In fact, as unlikely as it might have seemed, a certain mythology had begun to build around Spicer-Simpson, even as, and perhaps thanks to the fact, that in the relative isolation the Congo his eccentricities were becoming more and more apparent. The most striking of these was his appearance in the lakeshore camp one day, not long after the arrival of the Expedition, wearing a skirt! This obviously provoked quite a lot of speculation among the ratings, with the Doctor at least, for Spicer-Simpson’s own sake, hoping that there might be a sensible explanation. Much discussion was prompted as to whether this was a kilt, or perhaps a kikoi or sarong. However it was neither. It was a skirt. There was little mistaking the fact, and indeed the Commander himself was quite happy to reinforce the point by explaining to all who cared to listen, with an apparent immunity to ridicule, that his wife made them up for him, and on the whole he found them quite practical for tropical conditions.

In the meanwhile, certain engineering preparations were required on the lake shore before the two gunboats could be launched. A safe harbour needed to be built, and work on this began almost immediately. Spicer-Simpson was gratified to be congratulated by the Admiralty, meanwhile, and celebrated the fact by stitching together the flag of a vice-Admiral, which was thereafter flown from the central flagpole of the British camp. This the resident Belgian officials regarded with some amusement. They were by then getting to know the Commander, and in common with just about everybody else, they gave due regard to his rank – now a self promoted Vice-Admiral – but besides that they offered him very little personal respect, particularly once he had opened his mouth and began talk. He was referred to, if not to his face, then at least within earshot, as Le Commandant á la Jupe. Jupe, meaning skirt, did not irritate Spicier-Simpson particularly, certainly not as much as being referred to merely as a Commandant. In response to this he waxed expansive on matters of rank within the Royal Navy, but on the whole remained a figure of ridicule among the Belgians and British alike.

However, his true test was yet to come. After a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing between the British and their hosts, and after much labour, the harbour was constructed, and on December 23, 1915, the two boats were launched. Sightings had already been recorded of the German gunboat the Kingani, that had slipped within range of the coastal battery once or twice, peering across the water as if trying to interpret what all the activity on the enemy shore was all about.

Meanwhile, the preparation and arming of the two gunboats went ahead, with a respectable little 3-pounder mounted forward on each, and a machine-gun mounted aft. Leaks were plugged and the gasoline engines engines inspected and started. After this a few test rounds were fired from the guns without mishap. With the weight of guns, ammunition and stores on board, however, the two launches averaged only 13-knots, less than had been hoped, but nonetheless still far faster than the German steamboats, and therefore retaining a good tactical edge. On Christmas Eve all was declared shipshape and ready.

Interestingly at this point, the local Baholo-holo natives, traditionally allied to the Germans, and the source of a steady stream of intelligence flowing east across the Lake, were made aware that something very different was afoot. The roar of the twin gasoline engines, powering the Mimi and Toutou, so different from the sedate ‘tuk-tuk’ of the sitimas (steamers), and with the two launches evidently extremely well armed, both hinted that the balance of power on the Lake had clearly begun to tilt in an unexpected direction. Spicer-Simpson himself continued to contribute much to this aura of Kismet with which the enterprise had come to be viewed by the natives. His eccentricities, galling to most of the whites, were deeply impressive to the blacks. His bombastic self confidence, the strange things he did – from gaggling and illiterate ship-to-shore semaphore, to public baths where his full body tattoos, draped across an ageing but once heroic build – all inspired inspired much awe among the credulous natives, who had begun quite openly to venerate him as a God. In due course a concerned catholic missionary reported to the Doctor that strange fetishes had begun to appear in the neighbourhood, fashioned in the Commander’s image, with his binoculars, the sceptre of his divinity, always represented.

Now the magnitude of these powers was to be amplified in battle. The two little gunboats, tethered in harbour like terriers, lapping backwards and forward against the swell, would not have to wait long to taste action. On Boxing Day, Sunday, December 26, the Kingani was sighted patrolling offshore. A message was promptly delivered to Spicer–Simpson who pondered the fact thoughtfully. With Drake-like calm he conducted the usual Sunday parade and church service before ordering Chief Petty Officer Waterhouse to dismiss the divisions and to man the launches for immediate action.

This is the stuff of classic British Imperial heroism. Here was shades of Horatio Nelson, Lawrence of Arabia and the Charge of the Light Brigade; and it was the interpretative eye of Doctor Hanchell that noticed it, and indeed took note of it, to later relate it to Peter Shankland. The Doctor maintained that from underneath all the insufferable banality and arrogance of the man, an authentic sea captain and leader of men would at sometime emerge. As the crews sped down towards the harbour, with shore details and ship’s crew each slipping into role, and as the surrounding hills and bluffs rapidly filled with cheering native spectators, Spicer-Simpson – wearing a skirt, smoking a monogrammed cigarette from a long jade holder, calm, indifferent, even a little avante garde in the role of a slightly soiled Son-of-England rising to claim his due laurel walked behind. He waited with breathtaking calm and patience for the Kingani to steam far enough south in order that the Mimi and Toutou could dash forward and effectivly drive a wedge between her and her safe harbour of Kigoma.

Spicer-Simpson had earlier observed that the Kingani’s main gun was mounted forward, and could not, therefore, be fireed astern. He ordered that the Toutou attack her port quarter and Mimi her starboard, remaining always to the rear. In this way the Kingani would be at the mercy of the speed and manoeuvrability of the two launches. The Commander himself captained the Mimi with CPO Waterhouse at the gun.

At precisely 10:15 a Belgian tug was launched and directed towards the advancing Kingani as a preliminary to the battle, shielding from view the Mimi and Toutou that roared into life 20-minutes later and set off to intercept the unsuspecting steamer. The two launches quickly overtook the Belgian tug, riding a high wake and pushing aggressively forward over the swell, at which point they were suddenly revealed to the observers on the deck of the Kingani. Captain Junge, momentarily perplexed at the sight of these two fast moving little craft, did not seem immediately to comprehend what was happening. The Kingani continued determinedly along its southward trajectory. However, the realisation eventually dawned, and when it did it was shocking. Manifestly the absurd but persistent rumours that had been circulating of the British dragging a pair of gunboats overland to Lake Tanganyika were true. The Germans had consistently dismissed the possibility, but to Captain Junge, poised on the deck of the Kingani with binoculars in hand, it had suddenly become all too real!

There was then little time to think or react. Junge promptly ordered the Kingani into a 90-degree lurch to port, while at the same time instructing the boiler furnace to be furiously stoked in order to try and gain a quicker head of steam. The situation, however, was hopeless, and he knew it. A brief and one sided naval battle in miniature was fought; with Junge cursing the forward facing guns of the Kingani and the petty machine-gun fire which was all he could offer in reply to the steady register of 3-pound shells. against his ship. The battle was watched with breathless silence, and a growing sense of victory, from the hills and the harbour lining the west shore. Then, suddenly, a massive explosion erupted on the foredeck of the Kingani. This immediately killed the Captain, among others, and brought to a rapid end the brief but dramatic engagement. The stricken Kingani steered momentarily out of control before she came to a stop and raised the white flag.

The action cost the lives of Captain Junge and two Petty Officers, with the remaining crew captured. The concluding comments of Doctor Hanchell, as reported by Peter Shankland, sum up very accurately the aftermath of the affair. Hanchell was actually relieved and extremely happy at the outcome, more so than anybody else. He had from the onset , as we have heard, armed himself with a much fairer view of Spicer-Simpson than the facts would seem to support. The Commander’s asinine behaviour throughout most of the journey had been leavened on occasions with flashes of brilliance, and indeed an overall success that could not have been achieved by a fool. This success could be attributed in part to the crew, but only in part. Spicer-Simpson had seamlessly executed the first phase of his mission, and had now, with a minimum of preamble, sunk the first enemy ship. It only surprised the Doctor that no-one seemed to recognise the fact that Spicer-Simpson was brilliant. And indeed, why should he not be an authentic Edwardian hero?

When the Doctor encountered Spicer-Simpson in the immediate aftermath of the battle, he found him in a state of disbelieving reverie, perhaps struggling to comprehend that a lifetime of bad luck, ignominy and perceived incompetence had finally come to end. As a Royal Navy Commander. he stood poised on the recognition that he had for so long craved. It must certainly have been a moment of life changing note for Spicer-Simpson. A little quiet, inner reflection was only right and proper at that moment, and the Doctor was pleased to observe it.

However, Spicer-Simpson, in classic form, snapped out of it very quickly. As the excited conversions among the men dissecting the battle reached him, he simply had to respond. His comments concerned the achievements of Waterhouse as gunner. He of course congratulated the CPO for landing the killing shots, but added that withan exceptional gunnery officer such as himself directing fire, it was hardly surprising. In fact in the confusion of battle no-one could say for sure which shot had killed the Kingani, but it mattered not. The Commander had been in command, and all kudos was reaped by him.

‘If only he could hold his tongue!’ he [Hanchell] thought bitterly – but Spicer never could. He went on talking about his [past] success as a gunnery officer, and only paused to bend down, take a ring that the dead captain was was wearing, and put it on his own finger.’[2]

Around him the open and frank congratulations offered by the men of the Expedition, and indeed the Belgians who had joined them, withered away, to be replaced by the familiar knowing looks and shaking heads of the past, as each man in turn found an excuse to leave.

The Kingani, meanwhile, was returned to the British base, beached and repaired. Shortly afterwards it was pressed into the service of His Majesty and renamed by Spicer-Simpson Fifi

His Majesty The King desires to express his appreciation of the wonderful work carried out by his most remote expedition

The Admiralty, of course, were much satisfied, and Spicer-Simpson was promoted on the spot from Lt. Commander to full Commander, with seniority from the date of the action. This was a great relief to him, relieving him of the unenviable record that he had held of being the oldest Lt. Commander in the RN. Spicer-Simpson now unquestionably outranked any local Belgian official, and rather than risk any possible friction, the Belgians officially handed over command of their flotilla, such as it was, to Spicer-Simpson. This must have been a moment of great satisfaction to him.

It was then was the turn of the 60-ton steamer, the Hedwig von Wissman, to appear cautiously on the horizon, creeping as close in as she dared, and probing for some clue to the fate of her sister ship, the Kingani. The British flotilla was then under repair, and nothing could be done. The foredecks of both had been damaged by the gun mountings ,and the Toutou had accidental rammed the Kingani in the heat of battle. However, as daylight broke on February 9, 1916, over a month since the sinking of the Kingani, word reached the British camp that an enemy vessel had been sighted. The British flotilla, minus the Toutou that was still under repair, and now technically the Anglo/Belgian Flotilla, sailed forth in pursuit. The Captain of the Hedwig von Wissman, initially suspecting the pursuing craft to be Belgian, continued to advance, but the moment he was able to discern the white ensign of the Royal Navy, he realised, as had Captain Junge before him, that he was in deep trouble.

The German vessel immediately turned and attempted an escape by pouring oil on their fires. Mimi, however, opened fire at about 3,800 yards, scoring several hits in the first few minutes. Behind Mimi, Fifi, now coloured British, and more heavily armed than she had been under the German flag, opened up at 7,500 yards, but was unable to register a hit. Closing the range to 5,600 yards, however, she was more successful, scoring approximately 40 hits out 60 live rounds fired. A high explosive shell penetrated the engine room, killing a native stoker and destroying the boiler. A second followed, causing similar damage to the engine. A third blew a substantial hole in the side of the ship, setting fire to the oil that was by then awash on the engine room floor.

In no time the Hedwig von Wissman was engulfed in flame and billowing plumes of dark black smoke. The German commander, Lt. Odebrecht, realizing that the ship was sinking, gave orders for it to be abandoned. Of three wooden tenders attached to the ship, two were launched, but were quickly hit, killing a white Warrant Officer and wounding several other crew members. The remainder took to the water. Eight black and 12 white crew members were later rescued from the water as the Hedwig von Wissman slipped hissing and billowing beneath the calm waters of the lake.

The following day the Graf Goetzen appeared off shore, steaming slowly past the British base in search of the missing Hedwig von Wissman. The expectation was, with the startling success of the flotilla in despatching the Kingani and the Hedwig von Wissman, that pursuit would be immediate, and similarly successful. Spicer-Simpson, however, appeared then to experience a sudden crisis of confidence. He believed that the Graf Goetzen was too much for his tiny flotilla, and resisted the temptation to attack. According to the Doctor, the Commander seemed to palpably wilt, and appeared to lose interest, taking to his bed for several days. He then left the base for an extended period, ostensibly searching for a ship to match the Graf Goetzen, but in truth, or in truth as far as the Doctor suspected it, feeling that his heroism had been achieved, that he was now what he always wanted to be, and was enjoying the laurels of his victory without any interest in upsetting his applecart.

This was possibly the case, but it hardly mattered, since by then General Jan Smuts had landed in East Africa, the Allies were pushing deep into the interior of German East Africa, and the Germans saw no point, bearing in mind that they fully expected to win the war in Europe, in sacrificing the Graf Goetzen to the bottom of the lake, or worse, to the British. The proud vessel was scuttled in the harbour at Kingoni, with her engines greased in readiness for re-floating at some future date, and all other smaller craft destroyed.

In the meanwhile, and as something of a postscript to the personal journey of Commander George Spicer Simpson, the flotilla was ordered to support a land operation thrusting northwards towards Bismarkburg from Northern Rhodesia. The support flotilla included the Mimi and Toutou, but upon arriving a few miles offshore of Bismarkburg, Spicer-Simpson was off-put by the sight of a battery of heavy guns lining the shore, and decided not to attack, returning to Kalemie under a cloud of some ignominy. These were in fact dummy guns, but in fairness the Commander would not have known this. Despite this, however, a certain fraying of his reputation was inevitable. Spicer-Simpson was perhaps more shrewd than many in his position. If his legacy was what he valued most, then he was wise to recognise that luck is finite, and to quit while the going was good.

By then it scarcely mattered. The outcome of the East Africa Campaign, although intensely difficult, was hardly in doubt. Spicer-Simpson returned soon afterwards to the Admiralty, and to his dreary desk in the intelligence department. He, however, had won his place in history, and deflected the terrible fate of anonymity and rejection. He received the Distinguished Service Order for his conduct of the Naval Africa Expedition, and while British and Commonwealth forces pursued the fleeing Germans across the expanse of East Africa, matters on the battlefield slowly reached their inevitable conclusion.

Battle of Lake Tanganyika 1

Battle of Lake Tanganyika 2

Battle of Lake Tanganyika 3

Battle of Lake Tanganyika 4


[1] Frank Magee, National Geographic, October 1922

[2] Shankland, Peter. The Phantom Flotilla. (Mayflower, UK, 1969) p127

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