The Battle for Lake Tanganyika was a series of naval engagements during the First World War between the naval elements of Germany, Britain and Belgium between the end of 1915 and the beginning of 1916, for control of the Lake.
Germany’s most valuable colony in Africa, German East Africa, was surrounded by British, Belgian and Portuguese possessions, with the Indian Ocean, their only access, to the east. Almost the entire western border with the Belgian Congo was defined by Lake Tanganyika, 20-40 miles wide and 420 miles long running north to south. If Germany was to hold on to its colony it had to control Lake Tanganyika, as whoever controlled the Lake controlled the border. Control of the Lake would enable the Germans to conduct raids at any point, transport troops by ship quickly to any part of the Lake, and interdict any similar act by its enemies.
In order to do this, Germany needed armed vessels, of which she had none at the outbreak of WW1. Prior to this, the only powered vessels on Lake Tanganyika were a number of small, steam driven boats used for transport and commerce, and all except the smallest ones had been transported, from their respective countries, to the lake in crates and assembled there.
Lake vessels at the outbreak of war
In addition to many small craft, motor boats, dhows etc., the following vessels were those capable of being armed.
Hedwig von Wissman – 60 ton passenger boat.
Kingani – 45 ton.
Graf von Goetzen – 1200 tons, under construction.
Good News – owned by the London Missionary Society. The first steamship on Lake Tanganyika, launched in 1885.
Cecil Rhodes – owned by the British African Lakes Corporation, launched in 1900.
[Note: Both these vessels were laid up with their engines removed, but were capable of being brought back into service and armed.]
Alexandre Delcommune – 90 tons.
Dix-Tonne – A powered river barge.
Baron Dhanis – 700 tons, awaiting construction, the only ship large enough to challenge the Goetzen.
When WW1 started on 4 August 1914, the largest working vessel on the Lake, the 90 ton Belgian steamer Alexandre Delcommune, was berthed in the German harbour of Kigoma. On 6 August she was allowed to leave because the German authorities were unsure of the state of neutrality of the Belgian Congo.
When the Royal Navy attacked Dar-es-Salaam on 8-9 August 1914, the Germans scuttled the armed survey ship Moewe, but not before removing everything useful including her guns. Her 130 crew were sent to Lake Tanganyika, arriving in Kigoma on 12 August, and her Captain Zimmer became Commander of the Lake region.
The Moewe’s 3.7cm revolver (or pompom) guns were used to arm the Hedwig von Wissman and the Kingani together with some of her crew to man them, The Moewe’s two 8.8cm guns were too heavy to mount on the steamers, so a raft was constructed to carry them. This raft was unpowered so became a towed monitor with the Hedwig von Wissman as its tug. This greatly increased her firepower but at the cost of speed, as she could now manage only 2 knots in calm water.
[Note: The armament of the German steamers on the lake changed several times during the war as the guns became needed elsewhere and others became available. As a result, there is confusion with regard to the guns they carried in each of the engagements.]
With their newly armed boats, the Germans lost no time in establishing their dominance of the Lake. Their aim was to eliminate any vessel of any nation capable of being armed. On 22 August 1914, the Hedwig von Wissman attacked the Belgian steamer Alexandre Delcommune, putting her out of action. (She was later repaired and re-entered service as the Vengeur) This gave the Germans control of the lake, with their position strengthened further when they sank the British Good News on 18 November and the Cecil Rhodes the day after.
The Germans now had the only two working steamers on the Lake and, with their guns, were undisputed masters. They used this naval power to conduct surprise raids and attacks on Belgian and British territories. They also conducted regular patrols, keeping an eye on the Belgian harbours to ensure that there was no developing threat to their dominance.
A third German ship, the Graf von Goetzen, was under construction at Kigoma. This was in comparison a monster at 1200 tons. It was originally built in Papenburg in 1913, and when completed, it was taken apart, packed into some 5,000 wooden crates and, accompanied by three shipwrights, shipped to Dar-es-Salaam. From there it was transported on the incomplete railway westwards as far as it went, then carried by porters and carts the rest of the way to Kigoma on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika, taking another three months to complete the journey. At Kigoma it was assembled and finally launched on 9 June 1915, and later armed with guns salvaged from the Koenigsberg.
The Belgian Commandant Goor, rather overreacting, requested aircraft, a submarine and torpedo boats. He was sent the Netta, and old torpedo boat but no torpedoes. The requests for aircraft were passed on to the British Admiralty, who gave them four aircraft, Short 827s no. 3093, 3094, 3095 and 8219. These were sent out in December 1915, arriving in May 1916. A naval air station was constructed for them on Lake Tungwe, close to Lake Tanganyika.
The Belgians had started construction on a large steamer, the 700 ton Baron Dhanis at Lukuga, which would be considerably larger than either the Kingani or the Hedwig von Wissman. The British, eager to see her completed, had sent two twelve-pounder guns with which to arm her. But now the Germans controlled the lake, construction was halted for fear she would destroyed before she could be launched. The Belgians used the British guns instead as shore batteries with which to defend Lukuga.
In April 1915, a scheme was proposed to regain control of the Lake for the British by a professional hunter and ivory poacher called John Lee, who had travelled from South Africa to submit his idea to the Admiralty. Lee was an old Africa hand, having been a scout in the Boer War. Lee pointed out that, although the Germans had only two armed vessels on the Lake, it was two more than the Royal Navy had, and if they could be eliminated, it would enable the land forces to move more freely, alter the balance of power in the region, and make defeat of the Germans more probable.
His proposal was to send out from England two motor-boats of a speed and armament which would outclass those of the German vessels. Lee, knowing the region very well, had thoroughly worked out his plan beforehand, including the route to be taken overland and the means required to achieve it.
After consulting with the Belgians, Admiral Sir Henry Jackson, with the comment “It is both the duty and the tradition of the Royal Navy to engage the enemy wherever there is water to float a ship.”, approved the plan, and two suitable boats were found. They were forty foot Thorneycroft twin engine motor boats, originally destined as seaplane tenders for the Greek Air Force. They were both fitted with a 3 pounder Hotchiss gun on the foredeck and a Maxim in the stern. The former could only be fired ahead otherwise the recoil would capsize the boat.
Lee was enrolled into the RNVR as a Lieutenant. A further four officers and twenty four ratings volunteered for the party, now officially called The Naval Africa Expedition. An advance detachment under Lee was sent ahead to prepare the route.
The rest of the Expedition with its two boats, under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simson, R.N., departed London aboard the Llanstephen Castle on 15 June 1915 for the 6,000 mile voyage to Cape Town. The total length of its journey from Britain to Lake Tanganyika would be over 9,000 miles, taking five months.
Arriving on 2 July at Cape Town, the two boats, which Spicer-Simson had named Mimi and Toutou, were taken 2,300 miles by railway to the rail-head at Fungurume, north of Elizabethville in the Belgian Congo, arriving on 26 July.
The next stage, 150 miles overland to Sankisia, was the most difficult through country varying in altitude from 2,000 to 6,000 feet over the Mitumba Mountains. Lee’s advance party had been preparing the way. A track needed to be cut through the bush and many bridges needed to be built to cross the 140 rivers and gorges in their way, and a large number of native helpers and oxen were recruited. In addition to the boats and their special trailers, there were fifty tons of supplies to transport. To help them haul the boats on their trailers, Lee had arranged for two traction engines from Southern Rhodesia 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 miles each day, the journey took over a month. They eventually arrived at Sankisia on 28 September.
From Sankisia they were taken by narrow gauge railway 15 miles to Bukama, from where they were floated 400 miles down the Lualaba River to Kabalo under their own power for part of the journey, and for the rest of the way on lighters, arriving on 22 October. Because it was the dry season, the water level was low and barrels had to be lashed under the boats to reduce their draught. The final stage of the journey was 175 miles by rail from Kabalo to the small Belgian harbour of Lukuga on the western shore of Lake Tanganyika.
Spicer-Simson decided the Belgian harbour, at the mouth of the river Lukuga, was in an unsuitable position, and started to built another one a little distance away. By 23 December 1915, the boats had been readied and successfully launched on the Lake. Three days later they were in action.
The first action took place on 26 December. At 09.00, while the Expedition members were attending divine service, the German gunboat Kingani was seen about seven miles from Lukuga steaming south west, and reported to Spicer-Simson who, waiting until the service was over, ordered Mimi and Toutou to give chase. Waiting until the Kingani had passed them, they attacked from the northwest followed by the Belgian armed motor boat Netta to pick up any casualties. The Kingani continued on her way and probably mistook the two motor boats for Belgian vessels. It was not until they were close enough to see their white ensigns and guns did the Kingani realise the danger and turned away 90 degrees to port, then another 90 degrees to the north east to bring her forward gun to bear.
With her superior speed, Mimi soon had the Kingani within her range. Spicer-Simson had noted earlier that the Kingani had no aft gun, and devised tactics to take advantage of this. So Mimi attacked from astern, and when within range, fired her 3-pounder Hotchkiss. Toutou came within range soon after and attacked Kingani from the port quarter. Kingani could engage Toutou but not Mimi who stayed astern. They took it in turns to spot the fall of shot for each other. The Kingani was only able to bring her superior gun to bear by tacking from side to side, but was unable to hit either of them due to their speed and manoeuvrability.
Eventually, the end to this one sided engagement came when a shot hit the Kingani’s gun-shield, killing the two men at the gun and the Captain. After a few more shots the remainder of the crew surrendered, and the damaged Kingani was towed into harbour in a sinking condition. From the first shot, the action had lasted just eleven minutes.
Kingani was soon repaired and renamed Fifi. Her 6-pounder forward gun was moved aft, and one of the 12-pounder guns intended for the Baron Dhanis was mounted forward. With this latest addition to the British flotilla, its firepower was substantially increased.
Although the Hedwig von Wissman was spotted a few days later, apparently looking for the Kingani, she was not attacked as Toutou had been damaged in a collision with the Kingani. The disappearance of the Kingani was not seriously investigated by the Germans until 8 February 1916, when Zimmer, sailing in the Goetzen, ordered the Hedwig to find out what had happened to her.
The next day she was seen from the lakeside off Lukuga, following a similar course to the Kingani. Fifi and Mimi were launched, and started the pursuit. (Toutou had been damaged again.) Captain Odebrecht in the Hedwig, seeing the two boats, initially turned to engage them, then thinking better of it, turned about and attempted to outrun them. Fifi could only manage 7 knots to the Hedwig’s 8 knots, and so was falling behind and unable to close the range. Mimi being faster quickly closed to within range, but beyond the range of the Hedwig’s aft gun, and opened fire.
The Hedwig could not outrun Mimi but could outgun her if the forward gun could be brought to bear. But Mimi kept astern of her and out of range of her aft gun, causing Hedwig to keep tacking from side to side, and sometimes coming about in order to fire her heavier forward gun, but Mimi, thanks to her superior speed, was able to avoid all her shots. All these manoeuvrings delayed Hedwig until Fifi could catch up.
This running fight lasted for three hours during which the Fifi, thanks to Mimi continually snapping at Hedwig’s heels, eventually closed the range and opened fire with her 12 pounder. The initial shots missed, but the Fifi kept firing until she obtained a hit on Hedwig’s hull causing some flooding. Down to her last few shells, Fifi obtained a hit in Hedwig’s boiler bringing her to a standstill, and starting fires which soon spread. Captain Odebrecht ordered her to be scuttled and the crew to abandon ship, who were then picked up by the British boats.
A flag locker seen amongst the floating debris was retrieved and found to contain a German Naval Ensign, the first one captured in WW1.
After the disappearance of the Kingani, the German Commander Zimmer had requested that her sister ship the Wami be sent to him from Rufiji to replace her. After the loss of the Hedwig, the 250 ton Adjutant was dismantled and sent from Dar-as-Salaam by train to Zimmer at Kigoma. It was hoped that these two vessels would restore German supremacy on the Lake, but in the end neither saw action.
The day after Hedwig’s destruction, because she had not kept the rendezvous with Zimmer in the Goetzen, Zimmer went to find out what had happened to her. (It was assumed she had succumbed to shore defences.) When Spicer-Simson saw the Goetzen armed with a 10.5cm bow gun (from the Koenigsberg), an 8.8cm gun aft, and a midship 3.7cm gun, and being twenty times the size of Fifi, he realised he could not attack it with his puny forces with any chance of success or survival, and needed something much larger.
Spicer-Simson, despaired of the Belgians ever finishing the 700 ton Baron Dhanis, the only hope of a vessel large enough to challenge the Goetzen. So at the end of February 1916 he set out to search for a boat large enough, returning on 12 May. In Leopoldville, he had found a lake steamer, the St.George, belonging to the British Consul. It was smaller than the Goetzen at 110ft long, capable of 15 knots, but was unsuccessful in requisitioning it.
About the same time, the Goetzen’s guns were removed, as they were needed for the German land forces, and replaced by wooden dummies, leaving her with only a single Pompom with which to defend herself, and was used afterwards mainly to transport troops. A stalemate now developed with the Goetzen unable to conduct offensive operations and Spicer-Simson, unaware the guns were now dummies, unwilling to attack such a large ship with such superior armament.
On 12 June, the Belgians, in their new Short 827s, attacked the Goetzen with bombs obtaining one hit causing only light damage. By this time, the majority of action was taking place on land around the Lake and wasn’t going well for the Germans, with advances being made by both the Belgians and British. Thus, with the naval stalemate, events on land overtook events on the Lake.
When, in mid-July, the railway to Dar-es-Salaam was captured, cutting Kigoma off, Zimmer was ordered to withdraw from the Lake. The Goetzen, armed only with a single Pompom, being unable to defend herself effectively and too valuable to fall into enemy hands, was scuttled after her machinery had been thoroughly greased. (Probably with a view to raising her should the German position improve.) The Belgians attacked and occupied Kigoma on 27 July 1916.
With the Goetzen gone, the naval battle for the Lake was over.
The Belgians publicly credited Spicer-Simson with “A feat unique in British History. . . Rarely have officers and men of the Royal Navy worked in an environment so foreign, or met conditions of greater difficulty with more ultimate success”, and King Albert made him a Commander of the Order of the Crown, and later awarded him the Belgian Croix de Guerre.
A contemporary writer wrote, “No single achievement during WW1 was distinguished by more bizarre features than the successfully executed undertaking of twenty eight daring men who transported a ‘ready-made’ navy overland through the wilds of Africa to destroy an enemy flotilla on Lake Tanganyika.”
All the officers on the Expedition and half of the ratings received awards.
Distinguished Service Order and Special Promotion to Commander.
Commander G. B. Spicer Simson, R.N.
Distinguished Service Cross.
Lieutenant A. E. Wainwright, R.N.V.R.
Lieutenant Arthur Dudley, R.N.V.R.
Surgeon H. McC. Hanschell, R.N.
Distinguished Service Medal.
Actg. Chief Petty Officer W. Waterhouse, R.N.
Petty Officer 1st Class D. J. Murphy, R.N.
Petty Officer D. Flynn, R.N.
Petty Officer William Sims, R.N.
Petty Officer Mechanic Chas. Ernest Cobb, R.N.A.S.
Petty Officer Mechanic Donald McLean Graham, R.N.A.S.
Engine Room Artificer 1st Class H. Berry, R.N.R.
Engine Room Artificer 1st Class J. S. Lament, R.N.R.
Signalman George Sydney Tasker, R.N.V.R.
Able Seaman Herbert Wm. Marsh, R.N.
Able Seaman J. Brien, R.N.R.
Seaman G. Behenna, R.N.R.
With the objective of the Expedition achieved (the destruction of the Hedwig von Wissman), it was now employed in shore bombardment and transporting troops, and Spicer-Simson’s relations with the Belgians began to deteriorate. A new Belgian Commander had been appointed who outranked him, and Spicer-Simson was not going to relinquish control of his flotilla of gunboats to him. He refused to attack the Goetzen or the port and fortress at Kigoma; perhaps recalling Belgian tardiness in completing the Baron Dhanis, which would have made the attack more feasible. It was only later, when Kigoma had been captured, that the Goetzen and the fort guns were found to be dummies.
In early June 1916 he transferred the flotilla to Kituta in Northern Rhodesia. His behaviour also became more erratic, resulting in him being recalled due to his mental exhaustion, and possibly depression after learning his younger brother Noel had been killed in France.
The Belgians finally launched the Baron Dhanis in November 1916, a year too late to play any part in the action.
At the end of WW1, the Treaty of Versailles stripped Germany of all its colonies as part of the reparations it had to pay. German East Africa was divided, very unequally, between Belgium who got Ruanda-Urundi, Portugal got a small bit in the southeast, and Britain got the all the rest, the lion’s share renaming it “Tanganyika”.
After Britain took control of Tanganyika, they raised the Goetzen in 1924, re-launched it in 1927 and renamed it Liemba, which is the local name for the Lake. The Liemba is still there working as a commercial and passenger boat today, nearly one hundred years later.
The story of the battle for the Lake became public knowledge when, on 20 May 1916, it was featured in the London Illustrated News (Volume 148, No 4022), and on the front page of the Daily Mirror on 22 May 1916. The National Geographic Magazine featured the journey to the Lake in its October 1922 edition in an article written by Frank Magee, one of the expedition members.
It is generally believed that the novelist, C.S. Forester, used the story as the basis for his 1935 novel “The African Queen.