(1915)

February 9, 1916 - Battle for Lake Tanganyika: Mimi and Fifi Capture Hedwig von Wissman

Pictured - Spicer-Simson at the helm, his skirt silhouetted, and enjoying a long awaited moment of triumph.

It had been over a month since the dramatic first round of the Battle for Lake Tanganyika between Geoffrey Spicer-Simson’s Anglo-Belgian flotilla and the Germans in December 1915.  Round one went to Spicer-Simson’s weird little force, spearheaded by his two armed motorboats, Mimi and Toutou, the ships which had been enterprisingly dragged to Lake Tanganyika overland from South Africa in a months-long expedition. In December, when the two little boats were launched, they had managed to capture the 45-ton German ship Kingani, which had since been commissioned into the British force and renamed the Fifi, after the French onomatopoeia for a bird’s chirps, Tweet-tweet  (the name had been suggested by the wife of a Belgian officer who owned pet bird; it went along with the theme of Spicer-Simson’s other two boats, Mimi and Toutou, which meant “Meow-meow” and “Bow-wow”, respectively. The Royal Navy was not amused.)

The capture of Kingani left two German ships on the lake: the 60-ton Hedwig von Wissman, which like Kingani was a fishing steamer turned into a warship by the addition of some six and twelve-pounder guns, and the looming Graf von Goetzen, a re-purposed cargo ship which dominated Lake Tanganyika with two huge guns taken from the sunken cruiser Konigsberg, and a battery of pom-pom guns.  These ships had been able to blow any Belgian ship out of the water before the arrival of Mimi and Toutou in December.  The two British motor launches, though dwarfed by their enemies, were faster, and fairly heavily-armed themselves, mounting 3-pounder cannons and Maxim guns.  The Fifi had been repaired too, meaning it could take part in the fight.  The Germans, however, did not know about the appearance of these ships, and figured the disappearance of Kingani had been due to Belgian shore guns.

January storm season kept the ships off the lake for a month after the Kingani’s capture, but when they lifted in February, the Germans deployed Hedwig von Wissman to investigate the Belgian side of the lake for the traces of its missing sister-ship.  The Allies spotted her early in the morning on February 9 and set out to intercept.  Toutou was grounded for repairs, but Spicer-Simson set off with his other ships - Mimi, the captured Fifi, and the Belgian boat Dix-Tonne.

The German captain, Odebrecht, spotted the approaching force, and was surprised to see the white naval jack of the Royal Navy flying above it.  He turned hard to port and the shore, hoping reach the safety provided by Graf von Gotzen.  Mimi and Fifi (Meow-meow and Tweet-tweet) were hot in pursuit.  Fifi fired her twelve-pounder gun, the recoil of which completely halted her in the water.  The shot missed, but Mimi sped past and outran Hedwig von Wissman, firing on its stern with her 3-pounder.  Hedwig von Wissman’s stern guns did not have the range to return fire, so the two ships began to circle one another, trying to get their guns into range. 

Spicer-Simson, his skirt blowing in the wind (for he always wore a skirt, one of his many eccentricities), was captaining Fifi, but he was running out of ammo, just three shots left, and one of them jammed in the twelve-pounder gun, requiring twenty minutes to clear.  Hedwig was pulling away to safety on the other shore.  The jam cleared, Spicer-Simson fired his second to last shot - a hit!  The shell slammed into Hedwig’s engine room, killing two German officers and five African sailors, and bursting the boiler.  Fire spread throughout the stricken ship, and Odebrecht gave the order to scuttle it.  Spicer took twenty Germans and native sailors prisoner, as well as the first captured German naval ensign of World War One.  For Spicer-Simson, the Royal Navy’s oldest Lieutenant-Commander and a consummate career failure, it was a well-deserved triumph.

Canadian sniper Alex McCrae, serial number 118087. He was part of the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles and fought in Ypres 1915-1916 and Ghent in 1916.

His inscription has been in darkness for a hundred years. He like hundreds of other young Canadian and British soldiers wrote messages to the future hoping that someone, someday would know that they once lived. This underground site was very close to some of the most violent fighting on the Somme. Many of these young men lost their lives in battle not long after they wrote their names.

Because of the unimaginable destructive power of the high tech weaponry of WWI, many of those who died would virtually disappear from the earth without a trace, their bodies blown into nothing more than small, unrecognizable pieces of flesh and bone.

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