The Battle of Lake Tanganyka

In earlier posts I described the Historic background of this odd story and showed some pictures of the vessels under construction.  Last weekend I had the opportunity to preview the game at one of our local conventions, Guns of August.

This game was intended as a preview, with the scenario being designed as part of the Williamsburg Legati’s series of Wargaming commemeration of the World War One Centennial.

Hedwig on Lake

Hedwig Von Wissman steaming toward the Lukugarations of World War One’s centannial

The boats, with the exception of the Mimi and the Toutou were scratch built by myself.  The two British vessels are resin castings presently offered by Old Glory shipyards.  the figures are a mixture of Houston, Reverisco, Copplestone and Brigade games.  Oh and one crocodile cast by Mega Minatures.

The rules used were “Boilers and Breechloaders” published by The Virtual Armchair General.  Although intended for colonial period war gaming, they were not to difficult to push a few years to allow for this early war scenario.

Three players joined the fray which allowed each to captain two ships, with each player representing one of the three sides.

The scenario was based upon the historic events of the Battle of Lake Tanganyka, with one serious alteration to provide for a more balanced encounter.  Historically, the presence of the two British vessels was unknown to the Germans.  Because of this, the Kingani and then the Hedwig, each approached Lukuga separately, on dates far removed from one another.  this allowed the Allied forces to easily defeat the Germans one at a time.

Circumstances could certainly have been different however.  Just before the first encounter, one of the German officers had been landed at Lukuga, seeking intelligence on the whereabouts of the Alexandre Commune, a steam ship being hidden on the river by the Belgians.  Having missed his rendezvous with the Kingani, the officer was captured by the Belgians.  As there prisoner he discovered the presence of the newly arrived Mimi and Toutou.  Recognizing the danger to German interests on the Lake represented by those two motorboats, he sent a letter to his commanders asking for personal items to be forwarded to him.  Hidden on this letter written in invisible ink made from his own urine, he tried to warn his compatriots.  Unfortunately for the hun, this letter historically arrived to late.


the business ends of the Hedwig and Kingani

For the purpose of the game, this battle was run as a “what if” scenario, assuming that the letter having arrived earlier might have allowed for combined efforts.  It certainly would have removed the element of surprise.

the game began with the Germans steaming towards the Lukuga river at half speed, the allied vessels moving far slower to represent the fact that they had just went under way from their little port.

     Taking advantage of their superior speed, Mimi and Toutou raced forward, leaving their slower Belgian friends behind.  Much as happened historically  when Spicer-Simpson really did take the Kingani.DSC_0002

The Belgian river barge Dix-tonne was temporarily slowed by a bar at the mouth of the Lukuga, but soon manage to free herself.


Miimi, Toutou, and Dix-Tonne

The German vessels kept close to each other as they brought their guns to bear taking advantage of the longer range of Kingani’s six pounder.  The British vessels on the other hand attempted to use a wooded island to disguise a pincer attack, with the Mimi heading straight for the germans as the Toutou slipped unseen around to their rear.

Mimi quickly found herself taking a beating as she occupied the Kaiser’s crews.  She was about to try to beach herself on the shore of one of the little islands when a shell from the Hedwig’s  37mm hit her hard.  Infuriated by the damage and perhaps inspired from having already lost two previous commands Spicer raced the little boat directly towards the Kingani for what looked like an attempt to ram.  if this was his intention however, the ersatz Vice-Admiral was to be sorely disappointed.  A direct hit at close range from the Kingani all but sank the poor Mimi.  As water filler her broken hull the petrol engine drowned and German vessel gracefully slipped away.


Toutou making her way through the islands

The Mimi had not been sacrificed in vain however.  Her direct attack had allowed Toutou to get behind Kingani and soon her maxim cleared the Kingani’s deck.  By know the Belgians were in range and began to fire upon the German ships causing some damage.  Soon however, the unforgiving fire of the machine gun left both German ships with their crews annhilated and the vessels were captured.


Mimi and Toutous Grand Adventure

Williamsburg Legati plan on commemorating the 100 year anniversary of the Great War by sponsoring several games at the local conventions (Williamsburg Muster and Guns of August) as well as Historicon.  With this in mind a number of different scenarios representing the different fronts, different scales of miniatures, and different scales of conflict have been agreed upon.  One rather interesting conflict that has been chosen has been the little known Battle of Lake Tanganyika.

Germany’s wealthiest African possession at the beginning of World War One was German East Africa, but the war threatened the Hun’s hold on the place.  Surrounded by the colonies of her enemies, the Belgians, Brits, and Portuguese, German East Africa only had contact to the outside world through the Indian Ocean. Most of its Western border with Belgian Congo was marked by Lake Tanganyika. 

Lake Tanganyika is one of Africa’s great lakes.  It is the longest freshwater lake and the world, as well as the second deepest and second in volume of water. It empties through the Congo river system into the Atlantic.   Lake Tanganyika varies between 20-40 miles east to west and 420 miles long north to south. Naval superiority of the Lake was crucial.

At the War’s start only a handful of powered vessels could be found on the Lake.  These were small, mostly steam driven vessels engaged in various commercial activities.  Most of them were shipped in pieces from wherever they were built and reassembled upon arrival at the Lake.

The largest of these was the  Alexandre Delcommune.  In August of 1914 this 90 ton Belgian steamer founder herself uncomfortably birthed in the German held port of Kigoma.  Due to confusion regarding the neutrality of the Belgian Congo the Germans allowed her to leave on the 6th

AlexandreDelcommune                             Alexandre Delcommune

Worried by British Naval attacks at DaresSalaam and by a shortage of fuel, the Germans scuttled the  ship Moewe which had been ordered to raid commerce in that vicinity.  30 of her crewman under the command of  Captain Horn went to  Kigoma to destroy the Alexandre Delcommune.

Horn took a commercial vessel the Hedwig von Wissman armed her 4 37mm pom pom guns salvaged from the ill fated Moewe and began to patrol the Lake.Hedwig von Wissman

Hedwig von Wissman

Some debate remains over who fired the first shots on the Lake, but on August 22 the Hedwig fired upon the Delcommune damaging her boiler and stack and forcing her crew to ground her to prevent a complete loss.  Control of the Lake was now firmly in the hands of the Germans.

     Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck ordered the remaining  crew and the Moewe‘s former Captain Zimmer to take control of the the Lake region.  Zimmer made his headquarters at Kigomi do to its rail connections.  The German fleet now consisted of the Hedwig von Wissman, the steam launches of the Moewe, a few Schutztruppe and government boats brought from the harbour in Daressalam , including the petrolboat Peter, the motorboat Benz of the German East Africa Railway Company, and  most notably the 20 ton patrol boat Kingani.



The Hedwig and Kingani as well as a raft carrying the larger guns of the Meowe continue to sink any vessels they find that might be large enough to be armed against them.  they are also responsible for a number of raids attempting to finally destroy the Delcommune.  Finally several crates holding the parts of the Graf von Goetzen a small 1200 ton ship arrive.



The Force Publique Commandant of the region Commandant Goor calls for aircraft, submarines and torpedo boats to solve his crisis.  He receives the Netta.  Netta was a motor torpedo boat sent to Tanganyika without torpedos.



Britain also responds.  A professional hunter, African adventurer and poacher John Lee devises a scheme.  If two fast petrol boats can be acquired and fitted out with superior weapons, and transported in one piece through the Congo,  they can win back the Lake.  The idea is communicated to the Admiralty and after consulting with the Belgians, Admiral Sir Henry Jackson approve the plan with the words,  “It is both the duty and the tradition of the Royal Navy to engage the enemy wherever there is water to float a ship.”  Two forty foot long boats are acquired. Made byt Thorneycroft for the Greek Air Forceto serve as seaplane tenders.  Both are fitted with a 3 pounders and a Maxim machine gun aft.  Trials on the Thames proved that the 3 pounders were to much for the vessels and would break free or capsize the boats if not fired directly forward!

Mimi or TouTou                                          One of the two Thornycraft boats

The trip from the Thames to Albertville was so difficult and unlikely that neither the Belgian Allies or the Germans who learned of the attempt gave it much credence.  Remarkably however, carried by a number of different conveyances through many difficult circumstances the boats did after several month arrive.  The story of their travel is itself quite an adventure but to lengthy to describe here.  A very good account of it may be found in National Geographic Magazine written by a man named McGee who accompanied the expedition,  the boats arrive and are on the water by the 23rd of December 1915.

Some mention of the commanding officer of this unlikely “circus” must be made.  Lt. Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simson had so far had far less than a spectacular naval career.  An accident in a destroyer caused a collision with a launch that resulted in a death.  Another vessel under his command was torpedoed while its Commander was “entertaining Ladies” in a hotel.  At the time he was appointed to this expedition he was commanding a desk, responsible for transitioning Merchant Sailors into the Royal Navy.  He was by many accounts a lying and arrogant man and developed a penchant for wearing skirts.  Spicer-Simson attempted to christen the two motor launches Cat and Dog.  The Admiralty flatly refused so instead they were named Mimi and Tou-Tou.  Later their commander would admit that the names were simple French Slang for Meow and Bow-wow.


Spicer-Simson semaphoring from the foredeck of the Netta

As mentioned above, the Germans had heard of the intention of the British to bring these boats to Albertville, but they were more concerned with Belgian intentions to assemble the 700 ton Baron Dhanis.  After three failed attempts to get close enough to the new harbour at Albertville to investigate, they finally sent Lieutenant Rosenthal ashore to gain intelligence.  After failing to meet his rendezvous with the Hedwig he is taken prisoner by the Force Publique.

Rosenthal quickly learns of Mimi and Toutou and recognizes tha they are the greater threat than the only partially built Baron Dhanis.  The Belgians permit him to write to the German headquarters at Kigoma.  Rosenthal writes a secret message on the letter in urine to inform the Germans of the new threat, but the letter is not received and deciphered until far to late.

On December 26th, just three days after the British vessels arrive, the German patrolboat Kingani steams by to again investigate.  The Mimi and Toutou with the Netta as a tender race out to meet her. Realizing that the Kingani’s 6 pounder cannot fire to her rear, Spicer-Simpson orders the vessels to stay in her blind zone.  the Kingani‘s Captain Lt Junge is killed and all but two of her seven man crew are killed or wounded when she is forced to lower her colours. The Mimi takes her as a prize but not before accidentally ramming her.  She sinks in shallow water before being brought safely back to Albertville.

The Germans received intelligence from spies amongst the natives that Kingani was sunk by Belgian shore battery fire.  In February reports of increased Belgian naval activity and still not certain of the fate of the Kingani, Zimmer sent the Graf von Goetzon, the Hedwig von Wissman and an unkown small steam boat to investigate.    At Kungwestock on the German side of the lake the flotilla divided its courses.  the Hedwig was ordered to steam to the report site of the Kingani wreckage and would then reconnoiter with the Goetzen at Lukuga to destroy whatever threat the Belgians had there.

Unbeknownst to the Germans, the British had raised the Kingani, repaired her hole and moved her 6 pounder aft, and installed one of the 12 pounders serving as shore a battery forward. SpicerSimson renamed her the Fifi which he explained was french for tweet tweet!

On February 9 after failing to find the wreckage of the Kingani, the Hedwig was spotted by the allies.  Fifi and Mimi and a Belgian river barge called simply the Dix-tonne, began to pursue.  The Toutou was laid up having been damaged.  The Hedwig originally steamed directly at them, but then came about and started to run.



Hedwig was slightly faster than Fifi and began to pull away from her but much slower than Mimi.  The later very carefully stayed to the rear of Hedwig, avoiding her larger bow gun and staying out of ranger of her aft gun.  Hedwig kept tacking in hopes of getting her forward guns to bear and this action allowed the slower Fifi to catch up with the fight.  Putting her 12 pounder to work, harassing the fleeing German.  Down to her last few shells, Fifi scored a hit on Hedwig’s boiler stopping her in her tracks. Captain Odebrecht ordered her to be scuttled and the crew to abandon ship, who were then picked up by the British.
Lt Commander Spicer-Simson found a German ensign floating in the wreckage and by doing so is credited with capturing the first one of the war.

Upon learning of the loss of the Hedwig, Zimmer requested that the Kingani‘s sister ship Wami and the Adjutant be transferred to Lake Tanganyika.  This request was honoured, but neither of them would see action.  Fearing land action, Zimmer also reinforced the defenses at Kigoma which included removing all but one pom pom gun from the Goetzen .



Spicer-Simon proved unwilling to confront the larger Graf von Groetzen, and instead began to apply himself to supporting land actions. A stalemate began with Spicer-Simson refusing to enter into offensive actions and Zimmer unable to.  The Germans began to place more importance upon their land war and finally in July Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck ordered Zimmer to pull back from Kigoma.  Goetzen unable to retreat or defend herself was scuttled.  She would later be raised by the British and continues to ply her trade as the Liemba, the last reminder of the days of Spicer-Simpson’s circus.

Liemba                                                                       MV Liemba