The battle of lake Tanganyika

While in Pretoria searching for the SMS Königsberg’s gun I saw an entry from Guadalupe, a Facebook friend, narrating her enriching experience of a few years back on board of the MV Liemba in lake Tanganyika. This inspired me to add a second part to the story of the gun of the Königsberg that actually includes the use of another one in the Battle of Lake Tanganyika. I hope you enjoy it.

In 1914 East Africa was the gem in the German imperial crown. It was strategically positioned to offer deep-water ports for the German Navy actions against British shipping in the Indian Ocean. It also enabled Germany to control the Great Lakes of the East African Great Rift Valley that splits the continent from north to south. The 644 km long lake Tanganyika had a particular strategic value as Germany and the Allies (Britain and Belgium) shared its shores.

The Germans controlled the lake with the aid of two small ships: the Kingani and the Hedwig von Wissman, although Belgium and Britain also had some ships as well. The following, in addition to other small craft, motorboats and dhows, was the composition of the respective vessels capable of carrying guns at the lake at the outbreak of WWI:

Germany: Hedwig von Wissman (60 ton passenger boat), Kingani (45 ton), (Graf von Goetzen, 1200 ton, under construction, launched on 9 February 1915).

Britain: Good News (The first steamship on Lake Tanganyika, launched in 1885), Cecil Rhodes (launched in 1900). Both these vessels were laid up with their engines removed, but were capable of being brought back into service and armed.

Belgium: Alexandre Delcommune (90 ton), Dix-Tonne (a powered river barge), Baron Dhanis (700 ton, awaiting construction).

Aware of the influence that controlling the lake would have on land operations taking place in the region, John R. Lee, a private game hunter conceived an idea that was, to put it mildly, mad to those that did not know the region as well as he did. Surprisingly, he managed to convince the British Admiralty and the idea became a plan! The Admiralty at the time was too concerned with the war in Europe to get too analytical of a minor episode that would take place in the “heart of darkness”!

The outlandish idea involved attacking the German ships in the lake with faster, smaller and therefore more maneuverable vessels. Lee found two wooden 12-metre motor launches equipped with a 100 HP motor each that could propel the boats through the water at a good 19 knots (about 35 km per hour) that were selected for the mission.

The launches had to be transported from London to the Cape by sea, by rail from the latter, through Elizabethville (today’s Lubumbashi), to Fungurume, the end of the rail line. From then on, it would be through broken terrain where there were no roads. The plan was to go through this last part of the journey through a combination of man, oxen and steam tractor power as well as a few km on a narrow gauge railway. The last leg would be travelled by river and then to the lake! The justification for this almost lunatic itinerary was that other possible routes were either too difficult to keep secret or too obvious and therefore vulnerable to a German attack!

Not being part of the Navy, Lee was hurriedly given a Navy position so that he could be part of it. Despite this, he could not be put in charge of the operation so the Admiralty needed to find an operation leader from within its ranks. The Admiralty did not wish to appoint a serving Commander as these were badly needed for the naval war closer to home so the search was difficult as suitable candidates were very few.

In view of the difficulties to be encountered during the expedition, efforts were made to find an officer of the Royal Marines, a selected branch of the Royal Navy. It is reported that the Officer selected examined the proposal and declared it as a “mission impossible” and refused to accept it! Lt. Commander Geoffrey B. Spicer-Simpson, dealing with Navy administrative matters was seated close to the place of the meeting and overheard the discussion. As soon as the meeting ended, he volunteered and he was accepted immediately and perhaps rather hastily as his service record was far from good.

At the start of his military career he had been responsible for his destroyer colliding and sinking a Liberty cargo ship and, later on, when given a second opportunity to show his worth, one of his gunboats was torpedoed in broad daylight while at anchor under his gaze while he entertained certain ladies on shore!

With the appointment of a Commander, the Naval Africa Expedition was born!

Soon Lee was sent to Africa to prepare the ground while Spicer-Simpson dealt with the organizing in Britain. The latter had a complex personality and, as many British commanders before him, he was an eccentric character. He was a bold, well-built and aggressive man but also enthusiastic and friendly. He was an unorthodox man and this would have qualified him entirely for an assignment such as this. He also had a tendency to be a loudmouth and wasted no time, after Lee’s departure, to start promoting the expedition as his own idea!

Still in London the weirdness of Spicer-Simpson started to show when it came to choose the names of the launches. He proposed “Cat” and “Dog” but the Admiralty rejected them with some trepidation. Unfazed, he put forward “Mimi’ and “Toutou”[1] and, amazingly, these were acceptable provided that “HMS”[2] was put in front of their names as it was customary in the Royal Navy!

Spicer-Simson departed London with a selected group of naval personnel (28 in total participated in the expedition) aboard the Llanstephen Castle on 15 June 1915 and arrived at Cape Town on 2 July, after a voyage of 9,700 km. From there, as planned, the launches were taken 3,700 km by railway to the rail-head at Fungurume (south of the then Belgian Congo), north of Elizabethville (present day Lubumbashi) in the Belgian Congo. The expedition arrived there on 26 July.

The difficulties really started at Fungurume. This was the stretch of the route that Lee had worked on for several months. The 240 km overland to Sankisia, was the most difficult through terrain ranging in altitude from 600 to 1,800 metres over the Mitumba Mountains. Lee had cut a track through the bush that crossed 140 rivers and gorges, building over 100 bridges! He had also arranged for two steam traction engines from Southern Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe) to meet them at the Fungurume rail head. They were to haul the boats on their trailers for this part of the route. Managing only a few kilometres each day, the journey took over a month. Although the usefulness of the steam engines is questionable, they created a strong impression on the local inhabitants!

They eventually arrived at Sankisia on 28 September and from there they did 28 km by narrow gauge railway to Bukama. From there they took the launches down the Lualaba river for 740 km. The launches navigated using their own power for part of the route but the rest was done by placing them on lighters (platforms for shallow water). Finally, the expedition arrived to the small Belgian harbour of Lukuga on the western shore of Lake Tanganyika.

As it was true for all the great European expeditions in Africa, the burden of achieving what appeared as impossible fell on the nameless Africans rather than on the hyped Europeans! Not only the Africans carried a load of 27 kg on their heads but also hundreds of others eased the way ahead and provided much of the sheer brute force that was required to pull the launches. They did this chanting as the moved, finding a different rhythm for the various different activities performed!

Spicer-Simson had taken complete control of the expedition from Elizabethville where he had sacked Lee as soon as they met in a bar accusing him of insulting the Belgian while drunk, and generally revealing details of the Expedition to the public. Lee was ordered to return to Cape Town to await disciplinary action and, sadly, the brain behind the expedition, disappeared from the history books!

A new difficulty, however, lurked at the lake. Unknown to the British, the Germans, also aware of the critical importance of lake Tanganyika, were significantly more battle ready than had been previously thought. At Kigoma, they were busy assembling a new ship! The Goetzen was designed and built to serve as a passenger and cargo ferry in conjunction with the Ostafrikanische Eisenbahngesellschaft (East African Railway Company). It was then disassembled and shipped in 5,000 boxes to Dar es Salaam in German East Africa and taken from there by train to Kigoma.

Spicer-Simson had a good dose of luck. The absence of rain during the entire overland expedition was a very fortunate event and not the only one during the campaign. The fact that the skies opened up the moment Spicer-Simson set his feet in the lake was considered as a miracle to the supersticious local population even if the Europeans considered it a coincidence! His figure grew in stature and his eccentricity and actions greatly contributed to this.

Spicer-Simpson had his body covered in esoteric tattoos that he displayed often by walking about shirtless and wearing a skirt! The latter created a lot of speculation on whether it was a kilt, a kikoi[3] or a sarong. However, Spicer-Simpson himself – totally unconcerned- explained that his wife made various skirts for him, and that he found them very practical for tropical conditions. From then on the Belgians knew him as “Le Commandant á la Jupe” (The Skirt Commander).[4]

Soon after arriving, Spicer-Simson decided that the harbour at Lukuga was in an unsuitable position and built another one some distance away. By 23 December 1915, the boats had been launched on the Lake and soon afterwards kitted and ready for action. They were armed with a respectable little 3-pounder mounted forward on each, and a machine-gun mounted aft. Fully kitted the Mimi and Toutou averaged only 13 knots, less than the 19 that had been estimated, but yet far faster than the German steamboats, and therefore retaining a good tactical advantage.

On Christmas Eve all was declared shipshape and ready. They need not wait as the following day there was information that the Kingani was close and that it had slipped within range of the coastal battery once or twice trying to detect what was taking place on the enemy shore.

The first action of the Battle of Lake Tanganyika indeed took place on 26 December. At 09.00 hours while the Expedition members were at Mass, the Kingani was spotted about 13 kilometres from Lukuga steaming towards the southwest. Spicer-Simson calmly waited for the religious service to end and the Kingani to pass before ordering his flotilla to give chase as they knew that the Germans’ only gun was at the fore. With their superior speed, Mimi and Toutou attacked from the stern and port respectively until they managed to disable the Kingani killing its Captain and a few of the crew. The Kingani surrendered after eleven minutes and it was towed into the British harbour where it was repaired and fitted with a 12-pounder gun on her fore. No losses were experienced on the British launches but the latter structures suffered from the gun’s vibrations and needed repairs. The episode was followed with great excitement by thousands of lakeshore local inhabitants and Spicer-Simson’s image started to grow!

Later, the expedition received a message from the King that said: “His Majesty the King desires to express his appreciation of the wonderful work carried out by his most remote expedition.” Spicer-Simpson’s ego was boosted.

The Kingani was renamed “Fifi”, surely another of Spicer-Simson’s initiatives! With this latest addition to the British flotilla, its firepower was substantially increased. At the same time, the SMS Graf von Goetzen (Goetzen for short) was launched on 5 February 1915, armed with one of the 10.5 cm Königsberg guns. The latter would give the Germans a great advantage in firepower against British and Belgian forces.

Only on 8 February 1916 the Germans started looking for the missing Kingani and the German Commander -on board of the brand new Goetzen- ordered the Hedwig von Wissman to find out what had happened to her. So, the following day she was seen from the lakeside off Lukuga, following a similar course to the Kingani.

Mimi and Fifi were launched (Toutou was being repaired at the time). Although the Hedwig could outrun the Fifi, Mimi closed in and opened fire, avoiding the superior fire power of the German boat while allowing Fifi to catch up and, after about three hours, a shot of Fifi’s 12 pounder gun hit the boiler of the Hedwig and stopped it. The crew had no other option than scuttling it and surrender.

The day after Hedwig’s destruction the Goetzen went looking for it and when Spicer-Simpson saw it armed with the 10.5 cm bow gun from the Königsberg and being twenty times the size of Fifi, he realised that he could not attack it with his undersized forces with any chance of success or survival. So, at the end of February he went looking for a larger ship that could match the Goetzen.

He failed and returned to the lake crestfallen and sure that the domination of the lake still hanged in the balance despite his earlier successes. The final chapter in this saga -if there is still need for one- was that, unknown to Spicer-Simpson, the guns of the Goetzen had been removed as they were needed by the German ground forces.[5] So the ship was only armed with dummy wooden guns, with only a small working gun.

A stalemate now developed with the Goetzen armed with wooden guns and Spicer-Simpson, unaware of this, unwilling to attack a much larger and better-armed foe. The Belgians attacked the Goetzen by air but with no serious damage was done. While this took place the Allies were gradually winning the war on land and by July 1916 they threatened to isolate Kigoma leading the Germans to abandon the town.

The task of scuttling the Goetzen was given to the same engineers who had assembled it two years earlier. They decided, on their own, that they would try to facilitate a later salvage so they covered all engines with a thick layer of grease. They then filled it with sand and sunk it carefully on 26 July, in a depth of 20 metres near Katabe Bay.

With the Goetzen gone, the naval battle for the Lake was over and Spicer-Simpson and his small expedition became war heroes and medals and promotions were granted.

If, as my friend Guadalupe, you happen to travel across lake Tanganyika and spend time having a good look at the structure of the MV Liemba, you may discover German words written on its steel work. It is even possible that you may even spot the word Goetzen (Götzen) among the writing.

The MV Liemba is no other than SMS Graf von Goetzen that was refloated by the British and it is still transporting people and cargo up and down the lake. It transported Lord Baden-Powell’s widow from Northern Rhodesia (today Zambia) after his death on 7 January 1941 and more recently, in May 2015, it was hired by the United Nations to evacuate 50,000 refugees fleeing from Burundi.

The Goetzen/Liemba is the last floating ship of the German Navy of WWI and I am sure that its long life had something to do with two things: the impressive sight of the Königsberg gun that deterred the British from attacking it and the careful way the German engineers sunk her in 1916!

References consulted

Foden, G. (2005). Mimi and Toutou Go Forth: The Bizarre Battle Of Lake Tanganyika. Penguin, 256 p.


Magee, F. (1922). Transporting a navy through the jungles of Africa in war time. National Geographic Magazine 62, 331-362.

Shankland, P. The Phantom Flotilla. Mayflower, 127p.


[1] The names mean Meow and Fido in Parisian slang.

[2] Her Majesty’s Ship.

[3] A Swahili word for a piece of cotton cloth with coloured bands, worn wrapped around the body as a sarong in the Malay Archipelago.

[4] I could not help remembering a great read by Mary Russell “The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt: Women Travellers and Their World”.

[5] The Königsberg gun taken from the Graf von Goetzen continued serving the German Army during its campaign against the allied forces until September 1916 when, at Korogwe, it was captured and later displayed in the Belgian Congo (today D.R. Congo).