Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Overland to War - by Boat

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Overland to War - by Boat

Article excerpt


Mimi and Toutou Go Forth: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika by Giles Foden (Michael Joseph, [pounds sterling]16.99)

ONE of the great advantages of empire, from a literary point of view, is the vast cast of improbable characters it threw up, an assembly of unusual men and women who played short-lived cameo roles across the seven continents.

Some climbed mountains, others hacked through jungles, trudged across deserts, raced for the Poles and fought wars in far-off places.

Each played a part, however small, in the uniquely British experience of empire. The eccentric Englishman abroad has become a wellworn staple of a certain genre of writing, but he remains an entertaining phenomenon.

Geoffrey Spicer-Simpson, an erratic but ambitious naval officer born in 1876 and repeatedly passed over for promotion, was an exemplar of the type.

Through a series of unlikely circumstances he found himself in charge of the Naval Africa Expedition of 1915, a typically British mission to transport two launches by land from South Africa to Lake Tanganyika where they were to engage and destroy a more powerful German fleet.

As always, there were strategic imperatives. Control of the lake, the longest in the world, would allow Belgian forces from the Congo and British troops from Kenya and Northern Rhodesia to drive the Germans out of German East Africa.

As Sir Henry Jackson, the new First Sea Lord, put it, in terms one can no longer imagine a British defence minister using: "It is both the duty and tradition of the Royal Navy to engage the enemy wherever there is water to float a ship."

Cue a predictably hair-raising adventure in which Spicer's 28-man team struggled to haul the diminutive launches Mimi and Toutou across rough terrain, beset by a range of difficulties ranging from scorpions and the tsetse fly to mountains over 6,000 feet high and the leader's lack of leadership.

Eventually, they got there (as they always do), only to discover that their problems were only just beginning (as they always are). …

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