December 26, 1915 – Battle of Lake Tanganyika Begins

December 26, 1915 – Battle of Lake Tanganyika Begins

While the battle fleets of Great Britain and Germany rested in harbor, a battle raged in the lakes of Central Africa.  The Germans, despite their tenuous position in Africa, possessed Lake Tanganyika, the continent’s largest lake and the second largest freshwater lake in the world.  With three ships, the Germans controlled the lake on the border between German East Africa and the Belgian Congo, using their ships to raid across the border and prevent the Belgians from assembling their own ships. 

Two of the Kaiser’s ships were the 45-ton Kingani and the 60-ton Hedwig von Wissman, small steamboats turned into auxiliary warships.  Their sister ship the Graf Goetzen outweighed them both, though only a re-purposed cargo ship, dominated the lake with two large guns and five Hotchkiss light revolver cannons.  The Belgians were unable to assemble their own ships to stop the Germans, lest they be destroyed before they took to the water.

What the Germans had not accounted for was the expedition of Geoffrey Spicer-Simson.  An aging, eccentric lieutenant-commander, passed over for years, had been appointed to command two small motor launches brought overland from South Africa through thousands of miles of jungle.  Reaching the lake in October, Spicer-Simson launched his two boats, christened the Mimi and the Toutou.

The commander of the Kingani, Sub-Lieutenant Junge, was ordered to investigate the disappearance, days earlier, of his commanding officer, Job Rosenthal, who had  been apprehended by the British while spying on their preparations. Spicer-Simson, immersed in his morning prayers, spotted the enemy boat offshore at 6:00 AM on Boxing Day.  As of yet, Junge and all the other Germans were unaware of the Mimi and the Toutou, save Rosenthal. 

The Germans’ Iron Cross ensign flapped in the breeze as Kingani steamed forward, expertly stoked by Fundi, the African boy working the steamship’s engines.  A goat on deck, which had become a mascot of sorts, bleated happily.

Spicer-Simson ended his prayer, in front of his crew, when an African boy ran p with a message from Goor, the Belgian commandant.  Goor informed his British guest, but he hardly needed to do so: the British crew stood up in surprise as the Kingani appeared in the distance.  “Amen.” echoed the men impatiently, as Spicer-Simson, clad in skirt, excitedly shouted orders.  “Man the launches for immediate action!”

The British waited to launch their two boats til the Germans had passed.  Raising their white ensigns, they sped off in pursuit.  A crowd of Belgians and native tribesmen gathered onshore to watch the spectacle.  Over the goat’s bleats, Junge heard the sound of two more engines.  Turning around, he saw in horror two unknown boats speeding right at him.  “The English are here!” he shouted, panicking, into the engine room. Though the German screw steamer outsized Spicer-Simson’s little commands, they certainly outgunned it, loaded to the brim as they were with cannons and Maxim machine guns.  The stokers doubled their speed to outrun the British launches.

Spicer-Simson, standing gallantly upright in Mimi as his skirt blew over his knobbly knees, watched Junge panicking through his binoculars.  Suddenly, a shell from the German steamer splashed into the water beside him.  German sailors with rifles added to the din and the lead flying through the air. Spicer shouted at Waterhouse, the sailor manning the gun, but the Donegal crewman couldn’t understand a word, given Spicer’s habit of speaking with a cigarette-holder jammed between his teeth (a feature he must have imagined looked quite dashing).

Guessing what he had to do, Waterhouse fired a shell, missing as the boat rocked wildly.  A second round was better aimed, and soon flames were licking on board Kingani.  Junge lay dead next to the main gun, his leg entirely severed.  A third shell passed straight through the steamship, another two mangled German sailors fell dead.  One of the Germans pitifully waved a handkerchief in surrender.  Spicer’s boat slammed into the side at full speed. Getting up, laughing, he accepted the German ship’s surrender.

The British boats returned to shore with their prize (the Kingani would be renamed by Spicer, typically, the HMS Fifi).  Belgian officers onshore kissed and embraced the embarrassed British crews, while an askari band made a racket with trumpets and drums.  The band played that evening during a funeral for the dead Germans, their bodies wrapped head to toe in white canvas.  Fundi, who had survived, joined the British and stood to attention at the funeral of his former comrades.  Spicer read the sermon: “Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery.  He cometh up, and is cut down like a flower, he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay…”  Following the short ceremony, the British sailors enthusiastically set upon the Kingani to take personal souvenirs.  Spicer posted a guard on the German corpses that night, worried that might be eaten by the Belgian askaris, who, as he dramatically claimed, “still retain their anthropophagous habits.”

Pictured - A German sailor loads the main gun on the Graf Goetzen. The ship’s main guns were taken from the sunken SMS Königsberg, so were some of the sailors.

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