Queens of the Lake I

German gun crew manning Graf Goetzen′s 10.5 cm SK L/40 naval gun

Hedwig is sunk

Odebrecht spotted the approaching vessels, but continued to advance. He initially mistook them for Belgian craft, but the white ensigns revealed that they were British. He continued toward the shore until making a sharp turn to port at 09:30, either attempting to lure them toward Götzen, or having been fooled by an optical illusion into thinking the approaching vessels were larger than he had first thought. The pursuing vessels chased Hedwig, with Fifi opening fire with her bow-mounted 12-pounder. The recoil stopped her dead in her tracks; Odebrecht used this situation to pull away. Hedwig could do 9 knots (17 km/h; 10 mph) to Fifi′s 8 knots (15 km/h; 9.2 mph), but as Fifi fell behind, Mimi sped past, firing on the retreating German vessel with her three-pounder gun. The shots missed, but Hedwig′s stern guns did not have the range of Mimi′s weapon, and Odebrecht was forced to come about and try to hit her with his bow-mounted six-pounder. The two circled for a time, unable to score hits, until Fifi closed. Spicer-Simson, commanding aboard Fifi, was down to three shells on his 12-pounder, and risked being outclassed if Hedwig could bring her own six-pounder to bear. At this moment, a shell jammed in Fifi′s gun, and in the 20 minutes that it took to clear it, Hedwig again pulled away, searching for Götzen. With her second to last shot, Fifi fired again. The shell hit Hedwig′s hull, causing flooding, while moments later her last shell hit the engine room, bursting the boiler and killing five African sailors and two Germans. As fires began to spread through the stricken craft Odebrecht gave the order to abandon ship, and set explosive charges to destroy the sinking vessel. (Three of the dead were the engineer and two native stokers in the boiler room; the others were a warrant officer and three natives). Of the remaining ships company, a European stoker and native seaman were slightly wounded when two of the ships boats were hit by shells; Twelve Europeans, including the captain, and eight natives were captured by the British. Besides the 20 survivors the British also captured a large German naval ensign, the first to be taken in the war.


If anyone thought that the sinking of the Konigsberg ended naval operations in German East Africa, they were gravely mistaken. Four hundred miles inland from the coast was Lake Tanganyika, the longest lake in the world, measuring 400 miles from north to south and 47 miles across at its narrowest point. The lake provided a natural boundary between German territory, the Belgian Congo (Zaire) to the west and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) to the south. The Germans enjoyed complete control of the lake because since 1914 they had fitted out three armed steamers whereas the British and Belgians had none. Since the disastrous landing at Tanga there had been no further attempts to invade the German colony and any attempt to do so from the west or south was, for the moment, out of the question because the enemy would promptly threaten the Allied rear with an amphibious landing wherever he chose.

An indefinite stalemate on the lake seemed quite probable until, in April 1915, a big game hunter named John Lee requested and was granted an interview with Admiral Sir Henry Jackson, the First Sea Lord. Lee was familiar with every aspect of central Africa and he was seriously concerned that Lettow-Vorbeck’s raiding activities might provoke tribal uprisings in Rhodesia and the Congo. He knew that the German flotilla on the lake presented Allied commanders with a serious headache, but he was able to offer a solution to the problem. This involved shipping out an armed motor boat that could sink the enemy’s warships. It was almost certainly in Jackson’s mind to have Lee politely shown the door, but the latter forestalled him by unrolling a detailed map of the Congo.

First, Lee’s finger traced a railway line 175 miles long joining Kabalo with Lukuga on the western shore of the lake. Of course, getting the motor boat to Kabalo would involve shipping it by rail from South Africa to the Congo, then a difficult overland journey that would require the assistance of steam traction engines, teams of oxen and hundreds of native labourers. Lee confirmed that he had travelled the entire route and believed that it offered a real possibility of getting at the Germans. Jackson was sufficiently interested to take the opinions of the War and Colonial Offices, both of whom confirmed Lee’s view. No better idea of dealing with the enemy on Lake Tanganyika had been forthcoming and Jackson, now converted to it, decided to carry it through with the purchase of two petrol-driven mahogany motor boats, capable of 15 knots. These were each fitted with a 3-pounder gun on the foredeck and a Maxim machine gun aft.

John Lee, given the rank of lieutenant commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, was permitted to accompany the expedition as its Second-in-Command. The problem now was to find a suitable officer to command it. Of those officers of appropriate rank available, none wished to become involved in an apparently suicidal venture which, at best, would turn out to be nothing more than a fool’s errand – with one exception. His name was Geoffrey Basil Spicer-Simson and he was the oldest lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy, claiming, with some justice, that he had been repeatedly passed over for promotion. His early service took place aboard China gunboats and he had carried out a survey of the Gambia River in West Africa, but his career was marred not only by the ramming and sinking of a liberty boat but also by a very unfortunate manner. He was autocratic, overbearing, unpredictable, opinionated, knowledgeable on every subject under the sun, eccentric and vain, none of which increased his popularity. Nor did the fact that his trunk and limbs were tattooed with snakes, nor his use of a cigarette holder, which was considered to be a trifle effeminate in a naval officer. On the outbreak of war he was appointed commander of the Downs Boarding Flotilla, consisting of two elderly torpedo gunboats, the precursors of the modern destroyer, and six armed tugs. This phase of his career ended a fortnight later when, having ordered the gunboat Niger to anchor east of the Deal Bank Buoy, he disappeared to entertain some ladies in a hotel. Unfortunately, a prowling U – boat took advantage of the stationary target to torpedo and sink it. In the circumstances it was no surprise that the Admiralty should decide that he would be better employed manning a desk in its Personnel Department. Equally, it accepted with pleasure his offer to command the Lake Tanganyika expedition, believing that the risk of losing Lieutenant Commander Spicer-Simson was probably justified. He immediately enraged Their Lordships by announcing that he would call his motor boats Dog and Cat and was ordered to choose other names. In the event, they went to war as Mimi and Toutou. After carrying out trials on the Thames the expedition, consisting of four officers and twenty-four ratings, sailed for Cape Town from Tilbury aboard the Union Castle Line’s Llanstephan Castle on 11 June 1915. Also aboard, for quite different reasons, was the Astronomer Royal, who was forced to sit in openmouthed astonishment while Spicer-Simson lectured him on the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere.

At Cape Town the boats were lifted on to railway flats and the party began an apparently endless journey by train on 2 July. Some 2,700 miles later they reached Fungurume in the Congo, where they found Lee waiting for them. He had left England some time ahead of them to make arrangements for the next and most difficult phase of the journey through 120 miles of bush. The boats would be carried on trailers made from the fore carriages of ox wagons, which were capable of the hardest usage. Some 50 tons of supplies had to be loaded into wagons that were hauled by over forty oxen. Large numbers of natives were hired as drivers, cooks and general labourers. Not least, a quantity of tools had to be assembled as Lee knew that in places the track ahead would need strengthening and widening while bridges and culverts needed strengthening to cope with the weight that would be imposed on them. On 14 August the railway delivered two steam traction engines. These were checked over and four days later the column set off. Hard physical work, heat, insects, dust and water shortage made the journey anything but pleasant. Once again, it was Lee’s foresight that kept the expedition moving. Without water for their boilers the traction engines could not be used, so he recruited large numbers of native women to carry pots on their heads from the nearest water source, which could be as far as 8 miles away. Six weeks after leaving Fungurume the column reached Sankisia having negotiated bush, forest and a mountain range.

At Sankisia the boats and supplies were transferred to the flats of a narrow gauge railway. The line only ran to Bukama on the Lualaba River, just 15 miles distant, where everything had to be off-loaded again. The sense of anti-climax must have been enormous and probably generated a shortness of temper. Whatever, Spicer-Simson had a row with Lee, without whom he would not have got this far, and gracelessly sent him packing.

However, the worst of the journey lay behind the expedition. From Bukama its route took it 200 miles along the river to Kabalo, from whence a railway ran the last 175 miles to Lukuga on the western shore of Lake Tanganyika. The principal difficulty lay in the fact that at this time of year there was little depth of water in the river. However, Jack Tar has always been a man of considerable ingenuity and the two motor boats were floated by lashing empty casks to their keels, thereby increasing their buoyancy. Even so, there were places where the water was so shallow that the boats had to be manhandled. Simultaneously, the supplies were loaded into canoes and anything else that would float and propelled downstream by teams of native paddlers. At Kabalo trans-shipment was completed for the last time and on 28 October the expedition’s train steamed into Lukuga.

Naturally the Belgians were delighted by the expedition’s arrival. Many of them had received no news from home for well over a year and were grateful for anything that the sailors could tell them. They were more than a little startled by Spicer-Simson’s version of shirtsleeve order in which his shorts were replaced by a skirt, while the natives were deeply awed by the tattooed snakes on his thighs and forearms.

Regarding the German flotilla on the lake, the Belgians were able to supply much useful information. The largest was the Graf von Gotzen, named after the former governor of the colony. She was said to be armed with at least one 4.1-inch and two smaller guns salvaged from the wreck of the Konigsberg, but her maximum speed was limited to six knots. The Hedwig von Wissmann could reach ten knots but was much smaller, mounting two 6-pounder guns forward and one 37mm Hotchkiss aft. The smallest of the three was the Kingani, capable of seven knots but armed with only a single 37mm Hotchkiss forward. The flotilla was based at Kigoma on the opposite shore of the lake, to the north. It was under the command of Lieutenant Commander Gustav von Zimmer who, thanks to Central African gossip, had been informed of the expedition’s approach. His view was that such an undertaking was physically impossible and that the rumours were preposterous and should be ignored.


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