At the height of the First World War, as armies of thousands fought with each other on European soil, a much more unusual battle was waged in eastern Africa, where Belgian and German colonial territories were separated by the second largest body of water on the continent: Lake Tanganyika.
An English big-game hunter living in the region came up with a plan to take out the German warships that patrolled the lake, and command of the mission was given to Geoffrey Spicer-Simson, a disgraced British career officer whose boorish incompetence had earned him the dubious distinction of being the oldest lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy.
Spicer led a motley crew of 28 daring young men and two 40-foot gunboats named Mimi and Toutou, on a 9,000 mile trek from England to the Cape, and then through the wilds of Central Africa, to destroy a German enemy flotilla in Lake Tanganyika.
Like the obsessed Fitzcarraldo in Werner Herzog’s movie, Spicer and company (whose ranks boasted a pet monkey named Josephine) dragged the pieces of the Mimi and the Toutou (the two gunboats) over some fearsome terrain – “…like swamps which actually move about”, Spicer wrote.
Despite a lack of tactical skills (even his semaphore signals were indecipherable), Spicer managed to sink a German ship, then immediately spiralled into a funk, reverting to relative obscurity until re-emerging, highly disguised, as Charlie Allnut.
This true story formed the basis for Hollywood’s famous blockbuster “African Queen” with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.
A CineNova Production for National Geographic Television