The Battle of Lake Tanganyika, how the war on the lake was won…Part 1

Admiral Sir Henry Jackson, in charge of Royal Naval operations against Germany’s overseas empire during the early part of WWI, sat in his Admiralty House office pondering with interest an appointment with an African hunter that had been pending for some time. Sir Henry had been informed that John Lee had arrived in London a day or two earlier and was  en-route to the Admiralty with an intriguing proposal to unlock the balance of naval power in Africa.

The date of Lee’s appointment at Admiralty House was April 21 1915. Naval operations in Africa up until that point had been concentrated in support of Allied land forces engaged in removing German colonial interests stretching down the west coast of Africa from Togoland and Cameroon to German South West Africa. The latter operation was in fact still underway. South African Prime Minister General Louis Botha, and his aide-de-camp, Colonel Jan Smuts, were at that moment in the midst of a brilliantly executed campaign that was effectively  and methodically overwhelming the German garrison in the territory.

The largest plum in the German African pudding, however, was the substantial territory of German East Africa, corresponding broadly to the modern states of Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. While the three preceding  Allied campaigns had been arduous, they had also been relatively simple. German East Africa, however, promised to be a much more challenging. East Africa was arguably the jewel in the German imperial crown, and was strategically poised to offer deep-water ports for aggressive German surface and U-boat activity against British shipping in the Indian Ocean.  It was inevitable, therefore, that it would need to be neutralized, and inevitable that the Germans would put up a stiff fight to defend it.

Until that point a weak colonial garrison in Kenya was all that effectively stood between Nairobi and the Kaiser. An Allied amphibious landing mounted against the German port of Tanga had been driven back by an ostensibly inferior German force, inflicting an early and catastrophic moral defeat on the British. This inspired the Germans to throw everything into a renewed and aggressive campaign against the British in East Africa, a fact extremely disturbing to strategic planners at home, and a matter of grave concern to the British settler communities across the region.

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Sir Henry was gratified to be informed by his private secretary at the appointed hour that John R. Lee had arrived precisely on time. This was the sort of thing that a senior naval commander liked. A minute or two later a tall, lean and sunburned man was shown into Sir Henry’s spacious office, where the unsmiling Admiral greeted him with a firm handshake before offering him a seat.

Lee was certainly not the usual fare for the orthodox and venerable halls of the Admiralty. He was causally, although neatly turned out, aged somewhere in his forties, and a little too relaxed, Sir Henry thought, in the exalted company of an imperial officer. He was a rough rider, a trailblazer, one of those imperial sons of Africa that popped up now and again in civilization after some lengthy adventure abroad, promoting a book,  a lecture tour or suchlike, after which he would invariably seek to influence events in the colonies.

Lee, however, as Sir Henry had already been informed,  was known to be very familiar with the country west of the Great Lakes. This was somewhat terra incognita for the War Office, by then beginning to contemplate the practical realities of a campaign in the region. Moreover it was one of the most remote and intriguing of all the varied naval theaters of the Great War, all of which which tended to make this visit both interesting and important.

Cigarettes and a light were exchanged before each man sat back and took a moment to weigh up the other. A few trivial words followed, but only a few. Neither man had much interest in formality. The nation was at war, and war clearly was the matter at hand.

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Germany and Britain were both members of that club of European imperial powers owning overseas territories in Africa. Both had met at the Berlin Conference of 1884/5 to establish the ground-rules of what would later be termed The Scramble for Africa. It was here that many of the fundamental provisions for the partition of the continent were agreed; one among them being that the territories of Central and East Africa contained within a broad zone known as the Conventional Basin would remain neutral in the event of a European war. Initially the local governments of both British and German East Africa had attempted to be true to this, refusing to openly sanction any hostilities between the two territories. However the strategic value of each to the other could not be overlooked, and eventually the military men won the day.

The first substantive action had been the British amphibious attack, which was followed immediately by the German seizure of the British settlement of Taveta in the region of Kilimanjaro, and then a series of German guerrilla raids staged against the strategic Uganda Railway that ran from the British port of Mombasa to the east shore of Lake Victoria.

The principal operations in Africa through 1914 and 1915 remained the strategically important South West Africa campaign commanded by Smuts and Botha. In the order of things, matters in East Africa would only be settled only once  South West Africa had been neutralized, and South African troops could be pulled away from South West Africa and concentrated further north. Thus, throughout the first quarter of The War, the German Schutztruppe held the balance of power under the inspired leadership of one of the great soldiers of the time,Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.

Colonel Paul Von Lettow Vorbeck was an interesting character. Read more about this great military tactician and unlikely African hero elsewhere in this blog.

Part of this balance of power was control of the Great Lakes that formed one of the most dramatic and strategically important features of the East African Landscape. Geographically, the great divide of the African continent remains the Great Rift Valley. This line of geological fault runs from the Levantine to the Cape, and is characterized by a vast landscape of volcanoes and lakes that effectively partition the continent longitudinally from north to south. Among the handful of lakes that mark the valley is the 400 mile long Lake Tanganyika. The strategic value of this  particular inland waterway would be obvious to anyone with the opportunity to peruse a map of the region. Sir Henry, however, had not done so, and indeed he had no charts of the lake at hand at all. Thus, from somewhere in the vast Admiralty house, a general map of the continent was secured in order that Lee could make the point that, with Belgium, a key ally, occupying the west shore, and Germany the east shore, the key to unlocking German East Africa for the Allies was control of the Lake.

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Bearing in mind that Sir Henry had at the tips of his fingers the enormous power of the Royal Navy, arguably the single greatest force on the globe at that time, it is surprising that Lee’s preoccupation with the affairs of a German naval presence on Lake Tanganyika, comprising at that time two known gunboats and possibly a larger steamer of  1000 tons, held any part of the First Lord’s attention at all. However it did, and a for a number of important reasons. Not least of these was British prestige. Two boats might be all the Germans had, but that was two boats more than the British had, and that simply would not do. No less important was the fact that Lee was right. With an earnest push against German East Africa planned, control of this vital inland sea would precipitate control of the German railway system, and indeed hegemony over virtually the entire territory.

The German compliment of ships on the lake consisted at that time of the Hedwig von Wissman, a 60-ton steam launch that was rather top-heavy in appearance, and relatively lightly armed, and the Kingani, similarly configured but weighing in at 40-tons. Lee was one of few Englishmen who had actually seen these two boats in the fortified German port of Kigoma,  and on other occasions patrolling the lake. He had also heard, but could not confirm, the arrival at Kigoma  in 5000 crates of a third vessel, the Graf von Goetzen, purported to weigh 1000 tones,  to measure 220 feet long and to displace 1,575 tons. The vessel was, moreover, armed with a 4.1 inch gun salvaged from the recently sunken SMS Königsberg. A vessel of this size, if it was true, was more or less a ship, which, once assembled and launched on the lake, would firmly consolidate German naval domination.

Thus it became perfectly clear to Sir Henry, as indeed it had been prior to his meeting with Lee, that the course of a regional branch of the Great War could certainly be altered by capturing the initiative of the lake, not to mention the confirmation of British naval prestige. However the conundrum what precisely how this could be achieved. And as Sir Henry sat back in his chair and pondered his guest, he presumed quite rightly that Lee had a plan.

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Lee did indeed have a solution in mind, one that was both grandiose and quixotic, and that should by rights have seen him leaving the Admiralty after a parting snifter of cognac, with the best wishes of the First Lord, but not much else.

The fundamental problem lay in the fact that any vessel effectively deployed on the lake would need to be portaged in, either in part or in whole. Any effort to build a vessel in situ on the Belgian shore would have simply invited a German attack. For the Germans the assembly of a sectioned ship in port was obviously less of a problem thanks to the central railway system that run from the port of Dar es Salaam to Kigoma, but for the British the only access to the lake lay on the western shore, owned by the Belgians, who seemed at the time rather supine in the face of German belligerence. The southern finger of Lake Tanganyika lay in British Northern Rhodesia, but this was deemed too far from the German port of Kigoma to be of much use, leaving the only option an overland penetration to the mid-quarter of the lake on the opposite shore to Kigoma.

Lee therefore proposed a direct approach. His claim was to have carefully surveyed the territory west of the lake  between the border of Northern Rhodesia and the Congo River, and although challenging, he believed that a feasible route existed to carry overland the necessary naval ordinance to redress the situation on the lake. His plan involved transporting two gunboats from London to the Cape by sea, and from there by rail to Elizabethville in the Katanga Province , before manhandling them by a combination of beast and steam tractor power through a largely trackless wilderness of several hundred miles to the lake shore.

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Sir Henry had no clear idea what the practicalities of such a scheme might involve, but he was nonetheless intrigued. This, after all, was the age of British imperial predominance. Robert Falcon Scott had recently died in Antarctica attempting to be the first man to the South Pole by the simple power of British courage and human steel. Nothing was impossible for an Englishman of grit and gumption, and moreover, no power in the world had the right to occupy a body of water without challenge from the Royal Navy. This was the stuff of Imperial legends. It was the substance of Alfred Austin’s poetry, or Rider Haggard’s prose. It was Allan Quartermain, Biggles and the Charge of the Light Brigade. This was what made Britain great!

The plan was promptly approved and Lee was sent forth with instructions to locate suitable craft and get matters moving. In the meanwhile Sir Henry announced to the British public that: ‘It is both the duty and the tradition of the Royal Navy to engage the enemy wherever there is water to float a ship.’[i]

Indeed! Certain practicalities of protocol nonetheless remained to be established. No naval expedition could go forth under the command of a non-naval officer, so Lee was given the honorary rank of Lt. Commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and placed second in command to a regular naval officer who remained to be identified. Bearing in mind that the nation was at war, and that all naval commanders of substance were occupied with vital commands across the spectrum of war, this was not going to be an easy appointment to make.

In the meanwhile, the expedition was named the Naval Africa Expedition, and under the tutelage of the appropriately named Admiral Sir David Gamble, efforts to locate suitable boats and other practical requirements of the Expedition were set in motion. Several recommendations made by Lee regarding officers were approved, including a handful of men from the 25th Royal Fusiliers, the regiment in which Frederick Selous was currently serving, were commissioned into the navy and assigned, while weapons and equipment were sourced from various agencies and assembled.

Frederick Courtney Selous was one of the great imperial sons of Africa. He was in the small club of men like John Lee himself, and it is surprising that he was not to be found among the volunteers for the Naval Africa Expedition. Read more about Selous elsewhere in this blog.

Lee then set off in search of boats for the expedition. He quickly located a pair of launches that had previously been under construction for the Greek Air Force by Thornycroft of Twickenham, but that had been sequestered by the Royal Navy before they could be consigned. Both were 40ft motor launches with 8ft beams and toughly constructed of mahogany planking. Each was equipped with a 100 h.p. motor that drove twin screws purporting to propel the craft through the water at a respectable 19-knots.

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Then came the matter of finding a naval commander for the expedition, and it was here that things began to go a little awry. There was a marked reluctance on the part of the Admiralty to appoint a serving commander to the expedition for obvious reasons, and since all the best men were in one way or another in service, it left a limited pool of talent to select from.

Bearing in mind that this would likely be an extraordinary and extremely demanding mission, it was thought initially that an officer of the Royal Marines, a branch of the Royal Navy, would be best suited to the job. Gamble made his first approach, therefore, to a Major in the Intelligence Division of the Corps, who glanced briefly at the proposal and declared the mission impossible. However, seated at a desk opposite, and following the conversation with interest, was a certain Lt. Commander Geoffrey B. Spicer-Simpson. At the moment that the major’s rejection of the appointment was confirmed, Spicer-Simpson raised a hand and volunteered.

For a moment Gamble was taken aback, but in the absence of any viable alternative, and in view of the fact that Spicer-Simpson was available, and moreover with the ready approval of Sir Henry Jackson, who no doubt placed his confidence more in Lee himself than any honorary naval appointment, Spicer-Simpson was offered the position.

Any naval commander in the midst of a global war who was without a command could only be construed as unfit for service, and arguably this was the case with Spicer-Simpson. However, it could also have been the case that he was simply an unorthodox man within one of the most orthodox institutions in the world. If this was the case, then being known to be unorthodox would have qualified him perfectly for a commission such as this.

Spicer-Simpson’s Wikipedia page offers a hint into what might have been his status within the Royal Navy at that time. ‘Despite the loss of several ships under his command the Admiralty saw nothing to lose sending him to what was considered a sideshow to the events in Europe.[ii]

In fact, up until that point, Spicier-Simpson had enjoyed an interesting if blighted career. He appears to leap from the pages of history as a blunt, abrasive, unintelligent but braggartly character, with such a host of dislikeable characteristics that the overall sense of incompetence he portrayed could hardly be anything but the invention of his enemies. However the facts seem to confirm an ugly truth.

Physically Spicer-Simpson was a bold, well-built and aggressive man, if also occasionally ebullient and companionable. He had been noted also on occaisons as being aggressively condescending to his juniors, and to others such as women in general, waiting staff  in particular and  to other sundry service personal. He was also liable to be bluff and somewhat over-familiar to his superiors, which was a familiarity seldom appreciated or forgotten in the services. However the damage done to his career had tended to be in the matter of damage done to naval property, which was always an unforgivable transgression against Her Majesty, and one that that few men were able to surmount once it had taken place.

In Spicer-Simpson’s case this had happened not just once, but twice, hence the fact that he idly occupied a paperless desk in a backroom of the Admiralty, searching for a commission in the midst of a war.

Born in Hobart, Tasmania in January 1876, Spicer-Simpson was one of five children born of a British gold-sovereign dealer and the daughter of an English clergyman. He enlisted in the Royal Navy at the age of 14, and initially showed considerable promise, rising rapidly through the ranks, being promoted to acting sub-lieutenant in February 1896, and moving into surveying as a specialization, serving on the North Borneo Boundary Commission in 1901.

He served in the Royal Navy with a well aired determination to succeed to greatness with a sense  almost of manifest destiny. Promotion to a command position, however, was very slow in coming, and possibly this was because, despite his belief in his own value, that he absolutely failed to endear himself either to his shipmates or his superiors. When at last he was appointed to the coveted position of captain of a destroyer, he allowed it to collide with a liberty ship that sank as a result, claiming a life. The inquiry ended in his  court marshal and prompt deployment to dockside on watch-keeping duties where he languished for some time. Between 1905 and 1908 the monotony of this was relieved by a posting to China where he made the first triangulated survey of the Yangtze River. From there, by way of a reprieve, he was posted to the Gambia in West Africa  to command a survey ship. At the outbreak of war, with naval officers in short supply, he served a brief tour on board a contraband vessel before being favored once again with promotion to Senior Naval Officer of the Downs Boarding Flotilla, an appointment that placed him in command of two gunboats and six boarding tugs operating out of Ramsgate.

It seemed that at last Spicer-Simpson’s flagging career had taken a turn for the better. However bad luck and ill judgment stepped in  once again, and while, according to certain more popular sources, the Captain was ashore entertaining some ladies at a local hotel, one of his gunboats was torpedoed in broad daylight while at anchor. From here the dejected ex-commander was given a desk job in the Admiralty where he was put in charge of the transfer of merchant seamen to the Royal Navy.

It was thus that Spicer-Simpson, while pondering a bleak future, happened to overhear David Gamble in conversation with a Royal Marine intelligence officer, and took a step into notoriety that would salvage his career and build for him a reputation that would stand him among the greatest of the eccentric warriors of Empire that Britain seemed to have so many of.

Battle of Lake Tanganyika 1

Battle of Lake Tanganyika 2

Battle of Lake Tanganyika 3

Battle of Lake Tanganyika 4


[ii] Wikipedia Foundation