As we approach Armistice Day, it’s become something of a blog tradition for me to write some posts related to WW1. I thought this time to pick a little bit of an unusual subject and a little discussed arena in the war, East Africa.
Whilst the fighting of the war concentrated in Europe, it is often forgotten that WW1 was actually a World War and fighting took places almost everywhere, including Africa. The desire for an empire of her own was one of the motivations of Germany when it comes to WW1. Whilst the sun never set on the British Empire, the French also had their empire, Spain and Portugal had the remnants of theirs and even considerably smaller nations such as Belgium and the Netherlands had an empire.
Sadly for Germany and perhaps the rest of us, the lands that unified to become Germany only did so in 1871 and in brutal terms, the world had already been largely occupied. Nevertheless, Germany set about creating an empire of its own which Britain turned a blind eye to so long as it didn’t threaten vital interests. One if those interests was the British dream of connecting their territories by rail from Cape Town in the south to Alexandria in the north.
As late as 1898, France almost came to war with Britain in what became known as the Fashoda Incident before wisely changing policy.
WW1 however gave Germany the chance it was looking for, it already had an East African territory and it was now or never for Germany to gain some parity in the empire fronts.
Due to the climate and terrain, the waterways of East Africa (part of the great African Rift Valley) were incredibly important as it allowed comparatively easy and quick movement of goods and people. The most important water way was and still is Lake Tanganiyka.
The supremacy of the Royal Navy forces led to t he capture of many of the more isolated German colonies in Africa leaving the remaining German forces without supply depots. One of the most unusual naval engagements took place in Lake Tanganyika in East Africa where Germany was fighting British and Belgian forces.
The lake was home to two German warships that sunk the only Belgian vessel and British postal ship in 1914.The Germans made great use of the large lake by raiding Allied forces on all sides of it and when in 1915, news emerged that they were launching and new warship from their fortified port of Kigoma named the Graf Von Gotzen, the Admiralty decided something had to be done as it was the duty of the Royal Navy to fight anyway there was enough water for an enemy vessel to be floated!
The man chosen to lead this mission was Geoffrey Spicer-Simpson who had overseen a number of disasters despite rising through the ranks. He is memorably described by Giles Foden as “a man court-martialled for wrecking his own ships, an inveterate liar and a wearer of skirts”!
It is interesting that even in the time of this most awful war, there were still characters about like Geoffrey Spicer-Simpson who was a total eccentric with until then, a less than glorious military record but who did have the advantage of speaking fluent French and German.
Two 40 foot long boats named Mimi and Toutou (Spicer-Simpson’a original plan to name them cat and dog was rejected by the Admiralty and so he picked these names which mean ‘Miaow’ and ‘Bow-wow” in French) were sent to Cape Town where along with a small force were transported northwards by railway. They were then towed 146 miles by teams of Oxen and steam engines until they found navigable waterways.
On December 26th 1915, the British captured the German ship Kingani and after burying its dead crew, repaired it and enlisted it to their force as HMS Fifi which Spicer-Simpson declared was French for ‘tweet-tweet’. Shortly afterwards HMS Fifi sank the German vessel Hedwig.
It wasn’t until July 26th 1916 when after being attacked from the air that the Gotzen was taken out of action, its crew filling her with concrete and scuttling her. Amazingly, the British re-floated her after the war and the Gotzen still sails upon Lake Tanganyika under her assumed name of Liemba.
The events of WW1 in and around Lake Tanganyika went on to inspire Naval author C.S. Forester who is more famous for his Hornblower series to write The African Queen which in 1951 was adapted into a classic movie of the same name.
For a look at the infamous Battle of Jutland and also the early German bombardments on the east coast of England then check out this post. Or you might enjoy the incredible true story of Job Maseko, the African man who sank a Nazi ship whilst a prisoner of war.
If you enjoyed this post then you might want to check out my WW1 history book Lest We Forget, published by Endeavour Press of London.
Lest We Forget is available in Kindle and Paperback formats in all good on-line outlets and literary stores too. The Kindle version is published by Endeavour Press of London, one of the world’s leading digital publishers. The paperback version is available too for those folk like me who prefer an excellent book and the paperback includes a number of maps and archive photos as well as some personal photos of my family members who like millions of others, fought for our freedom only never to return home.
You can order Lest We Forget: A Concise Companion to the First World War from Amazon.com in Kindle for $4.58and paperback for $9.99 and Amazon.co.uk in Kindle for £2.99 and paperback for £6.99 and other Amazons around the world.