Tuesday, August 5, 2014

First World War Series- Part 2

The true story that inspired the “African Queen

Geoffrey Spicer-Simson joined the navy in 1890 as a cadet and had  advanced some way through the ranks, but a series of mishaps had stalled his career leaving him the oldest lieutenant commander in the navy. During an exercise to test the defenses of Portsmouth harbor, he had driven his ship onto the beach for which he had been court-martialed. Later, having made amends, he was at the helm of a Destroyer which he drove into a Liberty ship which had subsequently sunk, costing the life of one of the sailor’s aboard, and he was court-martialed a second time. 

At the outset of the First World War he had been in charge of a costal flotilla based out of Ramsgate. Safe in his home port Spicer-Simpson had been enjoying High Tea with his wife and some of her admiring friends at the local hotel and got to watch from the window of the pub as the Germans torpedoed his flagship, the HMS Niger, which sank in under twenty minutes and with her went any hopes he may have had for further advancement. One could argue that only a man with as little prospects as Spicer-Simpson would volunteer for an assignment with such seemingly little chance of success as this African adventure!

At the outset of the First World War the German Navy ruled the waves, at least on Lake Tanganyika they did! They had two steamers under military orders on the Lake as well as an assortment of smaller craft. On the 21 April 1915 an unusual visitor showed up at the Admiralty in London with a plan to do something about this state of affairs- his name was John Lee, an elephant hunter from Northern Rhodesia. He explained his plan to the Admiral, Sir Henry Jackson, who listened with growing interest. It was possible, said Lee, to transport two light craft overland, up the new railway line as far as the copper belt in Northern Rhodesia, and from there the boats could be dragged overland, to the headwaters of the Laulaba River. Once launched, they could make their way onto the Lake Tanganyika, and engage the German force thus taking them by surprise.  Sir Henry ratified the plan, largely on a matter of principle. “It is both the duty and the tradition of the Royal Navy to engage the enemy wherever there is water to float a ship,” as he noted in a memo and the task for the execution of this impossible endeavor would fall to one of the most colorful characters in Navel history- Geoffrey Spicer-Simson. 

Men, boats and material were procured and transported to Cape Town where they began the tedious rail journey North. They passed through Victoria Falls, crossing the Railway Bridge and forged onwards, eventually arriving on the copper belt, where Lee was waiting for them. He had two steam traction engine, some trucks and as an afterthought- a span of oxen that would prove to be vital in getting over the Mitumba Mountians that stood between the men and their destination. When the steam engine lost traction or where too heavy for the soft ground the Oxen would in-spanned and using block and tackle drag the 8 ton loads up impossibly steep inclines until they found themselves cresting the mountains and beginning their decent to the waiting river below.

The boats were launched and made their way  to the mouth of the river and there they prepared for action. On Boxing Day, 1815, the 45-ton Kingani steamed into view and the two launches dashed out to meet her and since the Kingani’s gun could only fire forward, the battle was to be a short one. With the capture of the Kingani, Spicer-Simson had added to his growing fleet but he still had to tackle the much larger and more heavily armed 60-ton Hedwig von Wissmann.


On 14 January he sized on the opportunity for further success when the Hedwig came looking for her sister ship only to lumber into the same ambush that had caused her disappearance. After a prolonged engagement she was eventually sunk and Spicer-Simson was delighted to have captured a large German naval ensign—the first to be captured intact in the whole War. It would seem that their task was done, so it was with considerable shock that the men discovered that there was yet another German ship on the Lake, called the Graf von Götzen and at 1,200 tons, she dwarfed Spicer-Simpson’s tiny launches by 150 times. Fortunately he had the common sense to ignore the Admiralty's orders to engage this behemoth, exercising a caution that bordered on cowardice, and once it became clear that the land battle for Tanganika was going to be lost, the Germans scuttled this vessel at the mouth of the Lukuga River, thereby saving the Admiralty considerable trouble. This vessel was later salvaged and after being refurbished continues, to this day, to act as a ferry service for the people living up and down the lake. Spicer-Simpson would be awarded the D.S.O and retired to Canada after the war but the story of his heroic deeds would become the basis for the book and movie The African Queen which was destine to become one of the classic tale of the African continent.

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