The Battle of Lake Tanganyika, how the war on the lake was won…Part 2

Fungurume, lying some 100 miles further up the line from the Katanganese capital of Elizabethville (Lubumbashi), was the final railhead of the great Cape to Cairo rail project, a concept that had been the visionary quest of Cecil John Rhodes, master empire builder, and one of the greatest Sons of England.

Despite these august credentials, the end of the line, which Furungume truly was, was a miserable place. It happened also to be the epicenter of the regional copper industry, one of the richest mining regions on the continent at that time, and a magnet for phenomenal European capital investment. It was copper, however, and not gold, so it lacked the smash-and-grab style that characteristic the Witwatersrand in South Africa, a character that is still very much part of Johannesburg life today. There were no copper ‘barons’ languishing in situ, no lavish urban developments, no ferment of political expansion. Just a few tool sheds, a railway yard and a workshop, all clad in the ubiquitous corrugated iron of African colonization, and broiling under an unrelenting tropical sun. All that appeared to remain of the great imperial vision of a through route from Cape to Cairo that had so captivated Cecil Rhodes was an overgrown pile of steel rails and a small mountain of rotting hardwood sleepers.

Cecil John Rhodes was one of the principal characters the Imperial African drama. Read more about Rhodes here.

It was to Fungurume, on a hot, dry day in August 1915, that the advance party of the Naval Africa Expedition arrived to begin its titanic task of manhandling the two gunboats, stowed in cradles, and mounted on two pieces of South African rolling stock, the last leg of the route to the shores of Lake Tanganyika. The expedition had by then traveled 2,000 miles from Cape Town, and some 8,000 miles from London, but without doubt the most critical phase of the journey, just a little under 200 miles, lay ahead.

* * * * *

Prior to that point the Expedition had been split into two parts. John Lee, along with a petty officer by the name Frank Magee, an engaging former journalist, or half-scallywag Fleet Street adventurer as the expedition doctor, Dr. Hanchell, described him, who would immortalize the project in an October 1922 edition of National Geographic Magazine, left Britain for Central Africa in order to prepare the ground for the Expedition along the most difficult part of its route.

Very little, apart from Magee’s article of 1922, has ever been written about this little side adventure into the Heart of Darkness. It was in the nature of men like Lee to do what needed to be done. However, to set about blazing a trail through what was still largely unmapped and unexplored territory, and deal with considerable natural obstacles on the way, was a phenomenal undertaking, even with the logistical weight of the Empire behind him.

The landscape that Lee and Magee had to work through was not untypical of the wider region. South of the vast and impenetrable bloc of lowland rain forest known as the Congo Basin, the sister ecology to the forests of the Amazon Basin, and north of the South African highveld, lies a broad swathe of what is known as Miombo Woodland. This is arguably one of Africa’s most beautiful landscapes, made up mainly of varieties of Brachystegia, a handsome, feather-leaved and pod bearing tree that grows to a medium size and is often umbrella-topped in the signature African pattern. What is most appealing about Miombo woodland to a traveler, however, is that it is usually open, with park-like grasslands either loosely clad by trees or punctuated by pockets of woodland. Thus, initially at least, the two men would have been confronted by no more than the need to clear away, by means of a large native labor force, inconvenient undergrowth and the occasional tree from the path before them, a path that would have itself required very little surveying.

The principal obstacle, however, lay in the form of the southern finger of the Mitumba Mountains. This is a series of broken highlands and mountains that form a feature of the western Rift Valley, rising to two significant peaks, Mount Kahuzi at 10,800ft, and Mount Biéga at 9,100ft. Confronting the Naval Africa Expedition, however, would be a long, narrow ridge reaching a height of some 6,000ft and forming a plateau on either side of a sharply sloping series of ridges and gullies, heavily wooded, and with light soils underfoot that only sparsely covered deep beds of hard volcanic rock. Beyond this lies one of Africa’s most impenetrable and difficult regions of wetland, featuring several shallow but significant lakes, among them Lakes Kabwe, Kabele, Mulenda and Upempa. This is, again, a most sublimely beautiful landscape, preserved primarily because of its difficulty, and one of few instances in David Livingstone’s journals when the dour Scotsman was transported to loft prose by the magnificence of raw nature. It was this combination of mountain and marsh, however, that would present to Lee and Magee a most epic challenge. In true style, however, in his 1922 National Geographic article, Magee had simply this to say:

‘…..going ahead of the main body to select a route across the African bush from the point where the boats would be taken off the train. It was important that a route be as free as possible from hills, gorges etc, yet close to water, should be chosen, as our boats were to be taken over this trail intact, each drawn by a [steam] traction engine. Great difficulty was experienced in finding a suitable route over which to make our road, owing to the hilly nature of the country, as well as long stretches of marshland, and breeding ground of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. But at last a route was selected and thousands of natives were recruited from adjacent villages to set to work under white supervision literally to carve a passage through the bush.’

Stirring stuff – and while this was underway in the relative obscurity of the Belgian Congo, in London the main body of the Expedition was preparing itself for its own long journey south from London to the Cape.

* * * * *

By then very much at the center of things was Captain George Spicer-Simpson. Thoroughly divested of any self doubt, and satisfied that his manifest destiny was to be finally realized, Spicer-Simpson was soaring in a miasma of self-aggrandizement. As Scott of the Antarctic had so recently and dramatically proved, confirmed soon afterwards by his understudy Ernest Shackleton, the surest route to fame and advancement in the pre-1920s was an expedition, even if failure and death should be the result, and no better theater for an expedition was there on the globe than Africa.

With Lee out of the way Spicer-Simpson was finally able to begin assuming moral ownership of the Expedition. It ceased to be Lee’s venture and quickly became his own. He even attempted to insinuate that, prior to any preliminary work in Africa, he had himself been thinking along very similar lines.

In the meanwhile, some of the Captains eccentricities also began to make an early appearance. Pondering the naming of the two gunboats, his first suggestion was Cat and Dog, an idea that found no favor, although surprisingly his second suggestion, Mimi and Tou-tou, apparently meaning Miaow and Bow-bow in French, did, and were approved by the Admiralty with just the simple the addition of RMS. The Captain also revealed an early lack of seriousness, a tendency first revealed through a reported conversation between the expedition’s doctor, the long suffering Dr. Hanschell, and his wife. Naturally secrecy had been sworn by all assigned to the expedition, and the when Hanschell apologized to his wife for being unable to tell her precisely what was afoot, she laughed: ‘Oh didn’t he tell you dear, you’re going to Lake Tanganyika via Rhodesia and the Congo River. Amy Spicer-Simpson telephoned me this afternoon and we had a long talk about it.’[1]

Needless to say the Germans in East Africa were also quickly alerted to the fact that something was afoot. Whether this came about as a consequence of Spicer-Simpson talking to all and sundry in London, as seems likely, or John Lee doing likewise in the bars and bordellos of Katanga, as he was later accused, or simply the fact that over a thousand tribesmen from the surrounding villages carving a road through the bush towards the lake was difficult to conceal, it is hard to say. In the meanwhile the Expedition – fully manned, armed and supplied – paraded at St. Pancras Railways Station in London before boarding a train for Tilbury docks, and the waiting Llanstephen Castle bound for Cape Town. The arrival of a military expedition, incidentally, enraged the civilian passengers, all jittery in the extreme a mere month after the sinking of the Lusinatina by German U-boats, at the loss of over a 1000 civilian lives. Most were convinced that a military detachment on board would increase the chances of a similar attack on the llanstephen during its journey south.

* * * * *

It is worth pointing out here that in mid-June 1915, as embarkation on the Llanstephen Castle was underway, the military situation in East Africa was in rapid evolution. Perhaps the most important event taking place was the final chapter in the Battle of the Rufiji, or the sinking of the SMS Königsberg in the Rufigi delta south of the main German East Africa Port of Dar es Salaam. The history and background to this saga will be dealt with elsewhere, but for the time being it is important only to point out that this was the culmination of one of the most fascinating chapters of The War in East Africa, ongoing since October 1914, and a potent affirmation of the ultimate effectiveness of the British Naval Blockade of the Indian Ocean coast, and a general tilting in favor of the Allies of the general tide of war in East Africa.

A second occurrence in June of that year was of perhaps even more profound importance to the Africa Naval Expedition, and this was the introduction into the German naval fleet on Lake Tanganyika of the Graf von Götzen. Despite the fact that German Commandant-in-Chief in the colony, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, had more or less recognized by then that the long term German position in East Africa was untenable, and that ultimately his strategy would be to tie up large numbers of Allied troops in Africa, trusting that the overall direction of the war would be decided in Europe, the introduction of the Graf von Götzen to the lake significantly fortified both German morale and her armed strength in the region. It is also a point worth noting that the Graf von Götzen would soon be armed with naval guns salvaged from the SMS Königsberg, which, more or less as the Naval Africa Expedition was nosing south towards the equator aboard the Llanstephen Castle, were en-route to Lake Tanganyika by rail along the superbly functional German Central Railway known as the Mittellandbahn.

How Spicer-Simpson might have responded to this news, had he known, it is difficult to say. En-route to the region, armed with nothing more than a pair of diminutive gunboats, he might at least have had some second thoughts. However, at that moment he had a great deal else to occupy his mind, making optimum use of the opportunity on board ship to crow about his accomplishments and generally diminish as much as possible the role of anyone else in what had been achieved thus far.

* * * * *

A few examples of Spicer-Simpson’s growing bombast have been recorded in Giles Foden’s light treatment of the subject in his book Mimi and Toutou’s Big Adventure. Foden records an incident where, upon crossing the equator for the first time, Spicer-Simpson overheard a passenger explaining the placement of the stars in the southern hemisphere to Dr. Hanschell and a second member of the Expedition, ‘Tubby’ Eastwood. Spicer-Simpson came alongside and corrected the speaker, who in turn disagreed, upon which Spicer-Simpson made the rather elaborate retort that, being a Navigating Officer, he should know. After a thoughtful moment the speaker simply spun on his heels and walked away.

That was the Astronomer Royal of Cape Town.’ The Doctor informed his Captain as gently as he could.

Is that so?’ Spicer-Simpson replied derisively. ‘He’s make a damned bad Navigating Officer!’[2]

And so it continued. A combination of outrageous stories of personal daring and achievement, easily contradicted by anyone who knew, which in fact frequently occured, constant efforts to diminish the authority of the Llanstephen’s Captain as well as ongoing insinuations to undermine the character of Lee, at that moment hard at work preparing the ground, all served to render Spicer-Simpson deeply unpopular among his men and among those forced to endure him around the ship’ bar or in the dining room. No one was sorry to see the back of him in Cape Town as the Expedition disembarked, except, of course, the expedition members, who could look forward to many weeks and months of similar posturing and affectation.

In Cape Town, meanwhile, never an unhappy introduction to Africa, the Mimi and Toutou where unloaded and secured on railway wagons in preparation for the journey north. Spicer-Simpson and his Aide-de-Camp, Sub-Lieutenant Tryer, performed the necessary social liaison about town, and no doubt leaving in their wake as they did many shaking heads and dire prognosis, before the Expedition entrained and set off northwards towards an encounter with the waiting Germans.

* * * * *

In the first week of July the Expedition arrived in Southern Rhodesia after a comfortable and uneventful journey north through South Africa and Bechuanaland. Southern Rhodesia in the early part of the century was a superbly pleasant if somewhat sleepy colonial backwater, where an extra generation had been squeezed out of the genteel Victorian period. A small but influential white population was led by a private British South Africa Company Administration, and populated by a good many of what was known locally as the British ‘Honorable and Military.’ Among these was Commandant-General of the local military formation, General Edwards, who received a visit from Spicer-Simpson with the by then customary circumspection. He listened politely as his guest launched into an unexpected and quite scurrilous attack on the character of John Lee, at that moment concluding preparations to receive the Expedition after months of tremendous labor.

This, it would seem, was a Machiavellian aspect to Spicer-Simpson’s character that had been slowly revealing itself through a growing animosity displayed against the progenitor of the Expedition, John Lee. The reasons behind this were obvious. Spicer-Simpson had for some time been making plain to all who would listen that the Naval Africa Expedition was under his command, both morally and legally, and that Lee was little more than a colonial adventurer engaged in the grubby preparatory work for which he was both suited and qualified. It would be under the direction of a legitimate RN Officer such as Spicer-Simpson himself that matters would precede, and although not articulated in so many words, it was clear to all the Lee had to go if Spicer-Simpson was to rise forth to greet his destiny unhampered by any need to share the glory.

General Edwards sucked on the stem of his pipe and took it all in without comment. He later mused around the bar of the Salisbury Club to other notable citizens of Salisbury that no good would come of the affair if Spicer-Simpson remained in command. The Captain, in the meanwhile, boarded a train and continued north, pausing briefly at Victoria Falls before embarking on the long final leg through Northern Rhodesia and into the Belgian Congo, where the first stop would be Elizabethville, or Lubumbashi as it is known today.

* * * * *

Elizabethville, established as a settlement just five years earlier, lay at the extreme edge of the developed Copperbelt of Northern Rhodesia, and was in every respects a frontier town only nominally French in character. Here the railway line served the burgeoning mining industry, as did a handful of bars and brothels, a section of mining and railway workshops and a single down-at-heel hotel.

It was to here that Lee and Magee emerged out of the bush after a few days, hearing that the vanguard of the Expedition had arrived, and brimming with news and information about the way ahead. The account given by Magee in his National Geographic Article, written four years after the event, illustrates very well the amazing undertaking that the two men had disposed of in a few short months. In total 146 miles of road had been pushed forward through the bush, more-or-less by hand, ‘…making, as it progressed, an unavoidable climb over a plateau 6,000 feet above sea level.’ In achieving this, as Magee continues, ‘…where slopes were too steep they were level down. Bridges, constructed from timber growing on the spot, were thrown across river beds. Giants trees, when blocking our path, were uprooted with dynamite. Rocks and boulders were treated in a similar manner. Our single biggest problem was a dried up gorge, 40-yards wide and about 20-yards deep. This we completely filled with tree trunks. Thousands of trees were cleared out of the way.’

And so the account continues. Magee describes an adventure of such enormous proportions that it is hard to imagine the objective was simply the portage of two modest gunboats to the shores of a lake. Both Lee and Magee might justly have expected the gratitude of the Empire for such selfless and self-sacrificing service, however both, who might then be expected to be fast friends after such a bonding experience, were due for a profound shock.

Spicer-Simpson sat patiently through the detailed discourse Lee delivered, including maps and comprehensive drawings and directions. He waited until all the survey maps and labor contracts had been handed over before he calmly announced to Lee that he had been accused of insulting the Belgian while drunk, and generally revealing details of the Expedition to all and sundry. He was therefore ordered to return to Cape Town to await disciplinary action.

It is easy to imagine in the relative cool of a tropical winter, under creaking sheets of corrugated iron, with empty glasses and beer bottles between them, how Lee would have received this news. A long silence, it seems, ensued, as Lee no doubt digested the implications, realizing instantly what lay behind the accusations, and recognizing also that protest would be futile. Magee protested on his behalf, however, pointing out that no other possible conclusion existed for the Germans to reach once news was confirmed that a road north from Fungurume to Lake Tanganyika was under construction. Others of the Expedition agreed. Both Hanschell and Eastwood made the point that most people in Cape Town either knew or could guess where the Expedition was destined, so how could the same assumption have been lost on the Germans?

Despite this support offered to Lee, and the obvious fact that penalizing him at this juncture would plunge an already low opinion of the Captain amongst the crew to new depths, Spicer-Simpson held firm, and Lee silently collected his wages from the Expeditions Paymaster and left. No record of any punitive action against him exists, and indeed no record at all of the life of John Lee in the aftermath of his dismissal has been found to shed light of what became of him. He simply slipped beneath the surface of history, never to re-appear.

Thus the Expedition, under a dark and brooding cloud, moved off towards Fungurume and the railhead, and the launching point for the last and most challenging phase of the journey. Here the two gunboats were detrained and prepared in cradles and on custom made carriages for the start of the overland phase. With Lee gone it now fell to Frank Magee to guide the expedition along the recently constructed route. Labor was assembled, oxen marshaled and the two steam tractors checked over and repaired. In the distance, brooding and silent in the fresh and dry atmosphere of winter, the Mitumba Mountains marked a barrier between the open country of the south and the marshes, wetlands and rivers of the north. The Naval Africa Expedition truly had begun, and each man felt the keen sense that he was stepping forward into history, and indeed they all were.

Battle of Lake Tanganyika 1

Battle of Lake Tanganyika 2

Battle of Lake Tanganyika 3

Battle of Lake Tanganyika 4