A Strange Braggart’s Incompetent Naval Career in the Heart of Africa
Geoffrey Spicer-Simson was a legend in his own mind
The self-proclaimed hero of a little-known episode of World War I was equal parts H. Rider Haggard, Fitzcarraldo and Monty Python. A superannuated Royal Navy commander who fought an absurd naval campaign on a lake in the middle of Africa.
English author Giles Foden recounted the bizarre story of Lt. Cmdr. Geoffrey Spicer-Simson in his 2006 nonfiction book Mimi and Toutou’s Big Adventure.
After hostilities began in August 1914 the European combatants quickly expanded the conflict into their remote colonies. Africa became a battlefield pitting Belgian and British troops against the Germans.
In 1914 Belgium controlled the mountains and vast forests of the Congo and ruled them with a heart of darkness. Britain claimed a gigantic swath of territory stretching for South Africa to Egypt and aimed to create a “Cape-to-Cairo” railway.
Seeking its own place in the sun, Germany governed a huge chunk of East Africa and augmented the unique riches of the region with a cotton empire that rivalled the American South.
Separating the Belgian Congo from German East Africa, Lake Tanganiyka stretched more than 400 miles from what is now Zimbabwe nearly to Kenya. A mile deep and vast enough to experience tides, Tanganiyka is the world’s second largest freshwater lake.
The Belgians planned to use their 90-ton steamer Alexandre de Commun to carry the war across the lake to the German colony, but within days of the war’s start the German gunboat Hedwig von Wissman shelled and damaged her, leaving Germany in control of the vast inland sea.
John Lee, a British big-game hunter who’d fought in South Africa during the Boer War, noted the German success. He made his way to London where he informed the British Admiralty of Germany’s conquest of Lake Tanganikya.
Lee proposed that the Royal Navy place armed motorboats on the lake to challenge the German gunboats.
Success would keep a great section of Africa in Allied hands. It only remained to get motor boats to the middle of the continent.
Because their onsite construction might be detected by the Germans, Lee wanted complete vessels shipped to South Africa. From there railways, tractors and gangs of native laborers would transport the boats thousands of miles into the interior, over plains and mountain ranges.
Impressed with Lee’s extraordinary but well-thought-out plan, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Henry Jackson sought an officer to command the Naval Africa Expedition. Nearly all the Royal Navy’s officers we at sea or in service already.
No modesty, tact or luck
The man London chose to lead the Naval Africa Expedition lacked modesty, tact and luck. The oldest lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy had twice been beached for incompetence—once from ramming a liberty boat with his destroyer and again for allowing a German warship to sink a coastal defense vessel under his command as he watched from shore while dining with his wife.
To his failings as a naval officer, Geoffrey Spicer-Simson added braggadocio and condescension. During the voyage from Britain to South Africa he regaled fellow passengers with preposterous accounts of his derring-do in Africa and the Far East.
He didn’t merely shoot a rhino in the Gold Coast—where no rhinos were—but received accolades from other hunters for its huge size, he claimed.
He took the astronomer-royal of Cape Town to task for his ignorance of the stars in front of the liner’s astonished crew.
He threatened to take command of the ship—he hadn’t the authority—when the captain ordered “no smoking” around the motorboats’ gasoline engines.
The Naval Africa Expedition set off on its journey along John Lee’s carefully surveyed and prepared route and after enormous effort arrived at the tiny Belgian port of Luguka on Lake Tanganiyka in October 1915. Dr. H. M Henschal, formerly of the School of Tropical Medicine, kept the crew in good health despite the Navy’s failure to send him off with adequate medical supplies.
Lt. Wainwright, a Rhodesian colonist and former locomotive engineer, kept the steam tractors going under difficult conditions. At one point he refilled the boilers with help from 150 local women carrying water pots on their heads.
The Expedition with its pocket warships struggled and sweated across absurd obstacles on its long journey. Wainwright supervised bridge-building, improvised boat cranes and oversaw the tractors’ retrieval from swamps.
Spicer-Simson oversaw his beard, which he repeatedly grew then had shaved by his manservant.
Upon arrival in the Belgian Congo Spicer-Simson rewarded John Lee for his hard work and planning by dismissing him for dereliction and drunkenness, which were fraudulent charges. When the men and their boats arrived at the tiny port of Lukugua on Lake Tanganiyka, he established relations with the local Belgian authorities by insulting them.
In this hearty atmosphere the Naval Africa Expedition prepared its warships for battle.
‘Cat,’ ‘Dog’ and ‘Fifi’
The two motorboats HMS Mimi and HMS Toutou were the smallest commissioned vessels in the Royal Navy. Spicer-Simosn wanted them named Cat and Dog but chose the French equivalents of Meow and Woof-Woof when his bosses indignantly denied his first choices.
Forty feet long, eight feet in beam, Mimi and Toutou drove their mahogany hulls through the water with 100-horsepower gasoline engines. Three-inch guns mounted forward of their cockpits provided firepower and a great deal of weight, which made the boats tricky to pilot.
German naval commander Frigattenkapitan Gustav Zimmer sent the gunboat Kigani to Lukuga for reconnaissance. His native allies, the Ba-Holo-Holo, a group living on both shores of the lake, delivered less and less intelligence. Spicer-Simson’s increasing eccentricities encouraged their shift in loyalty.
The British officer took to wearing a skirt—not a kilt but a skirt—with his khakis and bared his arms and shoulders to reveal his extensive and colorful tattoos, including snakes, butterflies and other lurid designs. The tattoos mightily impressed the Ba-Holo-Holo.
His behavior further perplexed and offended his subordinates and hosts. The Belgians began calling him “commandant de la jupe”—the skirted major—to which Spicer-Simson objected that he should be addressed as “mon colonel.”
When the Kigani finally approached Lukuga to give battle on Dec. 26, 1915, Spicer-Simson simply pocketed the note alerting him to the warship’s approach and continued with the Sunday morning service. Only when finished did he order his attack.
After a vigorous stern chase the Mimi and Toutou rounded on the Kigani and stopped her flight with two hits on her upperworks. The nine-fingered Scots soldier—not a sailor—at the helm of Mimi ended the engagement by ramming the German gunboat with the wooden motorboat, severely damaging Mimi’s bow and throwing Spicer-Simson to the deck.
After placing a prize crew in charge of the captured gunboat the victorious commander returned to shore and a hero’s welcome, wearing a ring he’d taken off the dead German skipper’s finger.
Although dazed and unsmiling, perhaps stunned by actually accomplishing something heroic, Spicer-Simson soon returned to form, telling everyone he personally had fired the shots that crippled the Kigani. He hadn’t.
Once refitted and refloated the Kigani became HMS Fifi (!) and joined Spicer-Simson’s tiny flotilla. His command still had work to do—the gunboat Hedwig von Wissman still prowled the lake and the Allies remained unaware of a much larger German warship, Graf Von Gotzen.
Lord Belly Cloth
In the meantime Geoffrey Spicer-Simson, now promoted to full commander, became “Bwana Chifunga-tumbo,” or Lord Belly Cloth, to the Ba-Holo-Holo. The tribespeople enjoyed Spicer-Simson’s bath rituals involving a canvas tub, a smoking jacket and a stool set with a glass of vermouth.
When Hedwig Von Wissman appeared near Lukuga Lord Belly Cloth returned to his naval duties and commanded the British attack with customary elan and incompetence. Even as the gas-powered Mimi roared ahead of the steam-powered Fifi Spicer-Simson frantically signaled and screamed at Wainwright to remain in formation.
Wainwright’s drive gave Mimi the first hits scored on the Hedwig Von Wissman, whose front-mounted big guns couldn’t bear on the pursuing British.
Spicer-Simson ordered his crew to keep shelling the German warship even though out of range. The recoil of Fifi’s big gun nearly stopped the captured gunboat dead in the water. By the time the Fifi got close enough she had only three shells left.
A lucky hit on the Hedwig Von Wissman’s engine room wrecked the ship and the German crew abandoned the sinking vessel. Spicer-Simson stopped to retrieve a floating locker before rescuing survivors. The locker contained the first German naval flag recovered by the British during World War I.
The sinking of the Hedwig von Wissman and the capture of its crew elevated Spicer-Simson to god-like status among the Ba-Holo-Holo and in his own mind.
The tribespeople made clay effigies of the eccentric Englishman. The Admiralty transmitted its congratulations via wireless. The vice-admiral’s flag Spicer-Simson had equipped himself with upon arriving at Lukuga seemed merely just.
The Germans also mastered the art of dragging ships into the middle of Africa. The 1,500-ton Graf Von Gotzen, built in Germany then disassembled, shipped to Dar Es Salaam and carried by railway to Lake Tangaiyka entirely without the Allies’ knowledge, threatened to reclaim the lake for the Kaiser.
When the Graf Von Gotzen appeared off Lukuga Wainwright ran to Spicer-Simson for orders. His commander studied the approaching warship with his binoculars, said nothing and returned to his tent. A flabbergasted Wainwright signaled the crews to stand down.
Korvettenkapitan Job Odebrecht, late of the sunken Hedwig Von Wissman and now a POW, looked Henschal straight in the eye, said nothing and returned to his quarters. Lord Belly Cloth apparently had no need of further glory.
Mimi, Toutou and Fifi never engaged Graf Von Gotzen. Their commander left the lake battleground for months on a trip to the other side of the continent. Spicer-Simson wanted a British ironclad stationed at the mouth of the Congo River. It too was eventually hauled across Africa to Lake Tanganiyka … but by then the fight was over.
The final campaign involved taking the German bases at both ends of the great lake. While Belgian forces struck Kigoma to the north the Naval Africa Expedition supported the attack on Bismarcksburg to the south. A column of Rhodesian infantry led by Lt. Col. Murray assaulted the Beau Geste-style castle with vigor but met no resistance.
Spicer-Simson’s unwillingness to engage the fort from sea allowed the garrison to slip away aboard native dhows. When the Rhodesians entered the fort they found the German guns were mostly wooden fakes.
Murray was furious with Spicer-Simson and their meeting left the naval officer shell-shocked. He retired to bed and left Wainwright and his other subordinates manage the Expedition for the rest of its stay.
The man who had briefly been a god of sorts and a Nelson of Africa returned to the dingy office he left once the Admiralty got better information on his true performance in the field. He never held a naval command again.
But even into the 1930s, Geoffrey Spicer-Simson retained his popular reputation as hero, even as the battles of Lake Taganiyka faded into obscurity and the clay effigies of Lord Belly Cloth crumbled in the bush.