A light-hearted, whilst nevertheless touching story of World War I is that of the ship Liemba, which still sails the Lake Tanganyika today. This is despite her having travelled over a mountain, endured two sinkings and experienced a war, experiences that have left bumpy traces all over her hull. Her story is one of the most bizarre episodes of World War I. It talks of colonial madness, Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, and of an eccentric British hero commander. It is the story of the Liemba that was once the German boat Graf Goetzen –and which is the last gunboat of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II still actively sailing anywhere in the world.
Her story begins with a run for colonial Africa. Those who wanted to hold East Africa had to dominate the Lake Tanganyika. This lake, the longest in the world with its 670 kilometres, was the only way north or south in the region, and it still is today. However, shortly before World War I the German fleet consisted only of the small cutter Kingani and the steamer Hedwig von Wissmann. Therefore, the Emperor decreed that a new ship should be built in Germany, the separate pieces of which were to be carried by people on foot over the mountains to the lake. German mechanics thus created a 1200-ton puzzle made of steel, no part too large for the shoulders of a man. In Dar es Salaam the 5,000 cases were stowed on the Midland railway wagons. But the route did not yet run to Kigoma. To carry the last pieces of the ship to the lake, the Germans had therefore recruited hundreds of Africans that for three months dragged the parts of the Goetzen through the jungle. This enterprise was at first very successful. With the aid of the ship, the Germans had gained supremacy in the fight for the lake in the early stages of the World War I.
With the outbreak of the war, it became essential for the Allied forces to gain control over the lake. An eccentric naval officer, Geoffrey Spicer-Simson, was – literally despite of himself – selected as chief of the English forces. Spicer was by no way a recognised naval commander. He was instead described as “a man court-martialled for wrecking his own ships, an inveterate liar and a wearer of skirts”. He had reached the low rank of lieutenant-commander but had not progressed further owing to a number of mistakes and disasters, which left him in a small office in the Admiralty assigned to helping with the process of transferring merchant seamen into the navy. Like the hand-made cigarettes he commissioned, his personality was a particular mixture: one that involved as much cowardice as heroism, as much self-regard as self-belief.
His disasters read from a later reader’s point of view are quite entertaining: Spicer had always wanted to be a hero. After joining the training ship Britannia in 1890 as a cadet, he advanced some way through the ranks, serving in Gambia and China, where he made the first hydrographic survey of the Yangtse River. But a series of bumbling errors and catastrophic misjudgements had left him stuck low in the naval hierarchy, indeed the oldest lieutenant commander in the whole of the navy. To give some examples of his misfortunes one can cite for example that time during the Channel manoeuvres of 1905 when he suggested it would be a good idea for two destroyers to drag a line strung from one to the other in a periscope-hunting exercise – with which indeed he nearly sank a British submarine. Or there was the time when, in an exercise intended to test the defences of Portsmouth Harbour, he drove his ship onto a nearby beach and was court-martialled for it. He was also court-martialled for sinking a liberty boat in a collision in which a person was killed, after smashing his destroyer into it. The incident was largely reported in the local papers and confirmed Lieutenant Commander Spicer-Simson’s reputation for disaster.
In August 1914, at the start of the war, Spicer was however once again put in charge of a coastal flotilla consisting of two gunboats and six boarding tugs operating out of Ramsgate. He felt confident enough of the anchorage of his gunboats to come onshore and entertain his wife and some lady friends in a hotel. He could see HMS Niger, one of the ships in question, well enough from the window, could he not? Fate answered this question with a resounding Yes. Yes, from the window of the hotel bar Spicer could see Niger as the Germans torpedoed her. He could watch her sink, too, in just twenty minutes. And going down with her, he could see his hopes of advancement to the highest echelon of the navy disappear beneath the waves.
Nevertheless, his tendency to create disaster did not manifest itself during the Tanganyika adventure. The British brought under his command two armed motor boats, Mimi and Toutou, which came from England via the Belgian Congo to the lake by rail, road and river. These two boats mounted a surprise attack on the Germans in December 1915, capturing the gunboat Kingani and later sinking the Hedwig von Wissman, leaving the Goetzen as the only German vessel remaining on the lake. The Allies advanced towards Kigoma by land, and launched in June 1916 a bombing raid on German positions in and around Kigoma. It is not clear whether the Goetzen was hit (the Belgians claimed to have hit her but the Germans denied it), but German morale suffered and she was subsequently stripped of her gun –fitted onto her after the sinking of the Königsberg in the nearby delta –as it was needed elsewhere.
The battles on the lake had reached a stalemate by this stage, with both sides declining to mount attacks. However, on land the war was progressing, largely to the advantage of the Allies, who cut off the railway link in July 1916 and threatened to isolate Kigoma completely. This led the German naval commander on the lake, Gustav Zimmer, to abandon the town and head south. In order to avoid his ship falling into Allied hands, Zimmer ordered that the Goetzen be scuttled. The task was given to the three engineers from the Meyer Werft who had travelled with the dismantled ship to Lake Tanganyika in order to supervise its original assembly. The engineers decided however, on their own that they would try to enable a later salvage. They loaded the ship with sand and covered all engines with a thick layer of grease before sinking her carefully on 26 July off the mouth of the Malagarasi River. The Goetzen remained hence on the bottom of Lake Tanganyika until she was raised by the Belgians and towed to Kigoma, where she sank again at her moorings in a storm. In 1921 the British Navy salvaged her to aid transport around the lake in the new protectorate of Tanganyika. They found that the engines and boilers were still usable and the ship returned to service in May 1927 as a passenger and cargo ferry under the new title MV Liemba.
The exploits on Lake Tanganyika caught the public imagination, and were adapted by C. S. Forester for his book The African Queen, later made into the film The African Queen, featuring Humphrey Boggart and Katherine Hepburn. Today, the Liemba is a time machine that travels into the past of Africa. The villages along the coast have no roads or even tracks. There is only the Liemba. She comes every two weeks on a tour of Kigoma from Zambia and then returns. There has been talk of replacing replace her with a new ship and bringing the old one to Germany as a heritage relic. But for the moment she still sails on.