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The true story of the African Queen

The true story of the African Queen

The true story of the African Queen

At the outset of the First World War the German Navy ruled the waves - at least on Lake Tanganyika! They had two steamers under military orders on the Lake as well as an assortment of smaller craft. On 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.

Lee 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 Copperbelt in Northern Rhodesia, and from there the boats could be dragged to the headwaters of the Lualaba River.

Once launched, they could make their way onto 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,” he noted in a memo. The task for the execution of this impossible endeavour would fall to one of the more colourful characters in naval 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 Copperbelt, where Lee was waiting for them. He had two steam traction engines, some trucks and, as an afterthought, a span of oxen that would prove to be vital in getting over the Mitumba Mountains that stood between the men and their destination. When the steam engines lost traction or were too heavy for the soft ground, the oxen would be inspanned and, using block-and-tackle, would drag the 8ton loads up impossibly steep inclines, until they found themselves cresting the mountains and beginning their descent to the waiting river below.

The boats were launched and made their way to the mouth of the river where they prepared for action. On Boxing Day, 1815, the 45ton Kingani steamed into view and the two launches dashed out to meet her. 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 60ton Hedwig von Wissmann.

On 14 January he seized the opportunity for further success when the Hedwig came looking for her sister ship, only to lumber into the same ambush that had caused the first 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. At 1,200tons, she dwarfed Spicer-Simson’s tiny launches 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.

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. It 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-Simson was awarded the DSO. He retired to Canada after the war and the story of his heroic deeds became the basis for the book and movie The African Queen, destined to become one of the classic tales of the African continent.

The ‘hero’ of the epic

Geoffrey Spicer-Simson had joined the navy in 1890 as a cadet and advanced some way through the ranks, but a series of mishaps stalled his career, leaving him the oldest lieutenant commander in the navy.

During an exercise to test the defences of Portsmouth harbour, he had driven his ship onto the beach, for which he was court-martialled. Later, having made amends, he was at the helm of a destroyer which he drove into a liberty ship which subsequently sank, costing the life of one of the sailors aboard, and he was court-martialled a second time.

At the outset of the First World War he was in charge of a coastal flotilla based out of Ramsgate. Safe in his home port, Spicer-Simson was enjoying high tea with his wife and some of her admiring friends at the local hotel when he got to watch from the window of the pub as the Germans torpedoed his flagship, the HMS Niger, which sank in under 20 minutes.

With her went any hopes he may have had for further career advancement, and one could argue that only a man with as few prospects as Spicer-Simson would volunteer for an assignment with seemingly such little chance of success as this African adventure!

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