Magazine article The Spectator

Mission Highly Improbable

Magazine article The Spectator

Mission Highly Improbable

Article excerpt

Mission highly improbable MIMI AND TOUTOU Go FORTH: THE BIZARRE BATTLE OF LAKE TANGANYIKA by Giles Foden Michael Joseph, £16.99, pp. 319, ISBN 07718145550 £14.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

In June 1915, an ill-assorted group of 28 naval officers and ratings set out from London on one of the most unlikely missions of the first world war (or any war for that matter). Their task: to transport two gunboats more than 8,000 miles to the Belgian Congo in central Africa and, once there, to wrest control of the strategically vital Lake Tanganyika from the Germans. But for the eccentricities of their skirt-wearing, tattoo-covered commander, Geoffrey Spicer-Simson, they might have succeeded.

The mission was launched after a biggamehunter spotted armed German steamers on Lake Tanganyika. Their presence made it impossible for British troops in Northern Rhodesia to co-operate with their Belgian allies further north. With no suitable boats in Africa to combat them, it was decided to send two 40-foot motor launches - HMSs Mimi and Toutou - all the way from London. Wooden-hulled and armed with 3-pounder guns, they were far less powerful than the German steamers; their advantage was speed and manoeuvrability.

Why Spicer-Simson - a failed yet 'boastful and vainglorious' naval officer was given command of the mission is never adequately explained. Giles Foden suggests that either the First Sea Lord 'saw some streak of heroism in Spicer' or 'there was simply nobody else available'. A more likely reason is that no one at the Admiralty expected such a hare-brained mission to succeed. But if Spicer was expendable, so too were his subordinates: a 50-something navy pilot with dyed yellow hair, a monocle and a penchant for Worcestershire sauce; a chief engineer and former racing driver, who knew nothing about engines; and a bible-thumping, animal-loving paymaster. The ratings -mostly volunteers and reservists - were hardly more promising. Yet, incredibly, this rag-tag bunch got the boats safely to their destination.

The epic journey, by sea, railway, road and river, took six months. Of the land section, Foden writes:

With almost 150 homemade bridges to cross or build, and 146 miles of rough terrain to cover (including a climb of 6,000 feet over the Mitunibas), they had about eight weeks before the weather would break. …

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