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Geoffrey Spicer-Simson

Geoffrey Spicer-Simson
Geoffrey Spicer-Simson
Born (1876-01-15)15 January 1876
Hobart, Tasmania
Died 29 January 1947(1947-01-29) (aged 71)
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  Royal Navy
Years of service 1889 – 1921?
Rank Captain

World War I

Awards Distinguished Service Order
Order of the Crown (Belgium)

Commander Geoffrey Basil Spicer-Simson DSO (15 January 1876 – 29 January 1947) was a Royal Navy officer. He served in the Mediterranean, Pacific and Home Fleets. He is most famous for his role as leader of a naval expedition to Lake Tanganyika in 1915, where he commanded a small flotilla which defeated a superior German force during the Battle for Lake Tanganyika.


  • Early life 1
  • "Simson's Circus" 2
  • Battle for Lake Tanganyika 3
  • Eccentricities 4
  • Later life 5
  • Achievements 6
  • Further reading 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Early life

Geoffrey Basil Spicer Simson was born in Hobart, Tasmania, on 15 January 1876, one of five children. His father, Frederick Simson, had been in the merchant navy and was a dealer in gold sovereigns in India who eventually settled in Le Havre, France, at the age of thirty-one. There he met eighteen-year-old Dora Spicer, daughter of a visiting English clergyman, and on marrying changed his name to Spicer-Simson. In 1874 the Spicer-Simsons moved to Tasmania, where they had some family, and ran a sheep farm for five years. Though Geoffrey was born in Tasmania, he soon moved to France at his mother's wishes. He and his siblings were sent to schools in England. The eldest, Theodore Spicer-Simson, became a world famous medallion portrait artist,[1] moving between France and the United States. His youngest brother, Noel, eventually joined the British Army.

Geoffrey entered the Royal Navy in 1889 at the age of fourteen. He was appointed a midshipman on 14 June 1892. His naval career got off to a good start as he was advanced seven months in seniority for results that allowed him to pass out of Royal Naval College, Dartmouth.[2] However, he lost a month of this additional seniority for leaving his ship despite having his leave stopped in 1894.[2] He was promoted to acting sub-lieutenant on 19 February 1896,[2] and he was confirmed in the rank of sub-lieutenant on 20 January 1897, back-dated to the original acting promotion.[3] He was promoted to lieutenant on 30 September 1898.[4]

From that time he began to specialise in surveying,[2] and served on the North Borneo Boundary Commission in 1901, helping in the construction of several maps and the definition of boundaries. His most important position was in command of a destroyer, which he permitted to collide with a liberty boat, resulting in his being posted to dockside watch-keeping jobs.[5] He then went to China and made the first triangulated survey of the Yangtze River from 1905-1908. After China, he was posted to Africa, and from 1911-1914 was in command of a survey ship on the Gambia river. In 1902 he married Amy Elizabeth, daughter of Edmund and Phoebe Baynes-Reed of Victoria, British Columbia.

He returned to Britain from Africa just a few days before Britain officially joined World War I on 4 August 1914. He had a brief tour on a contraband control vessel, but two weeks after taking command one of his gunboats was torpedoed in broad daylight.[6] He was then given an office job in the Admiralty in the department in charge of transferring Merchant sailors to the War Navy.

"Simson's Circus"

In April 1915, the Admiralty learned that Germany was preparing to launch the Graf von Götzen onto Lake Tanganyika. The Götzen was much larger than any other vessel on the lake and would give German forces supremacy across its entire length. With control of the Lake, Germany could easily move troops and materials to support its efforts in and around German East Africa. To counter the Götzen, two small, fast and well armed motorboats would be sent from Britain.

Spicer-Simson had experience in Africa and was fluent in French and German, so the Admiralty overlooked his undistinguished record and selected him to lead the expedition.[1] His commanders saw nothing to lose in sending him to what was considered a sideshow to the events in Europe.[6]

The two motorboats, which Spicer-Simson named Mimi and Toutou, were loaded aboard the SS Llanstephen Castle on 15 June along with the expedition′s equipment and supplies. Two special trailers and cradles were also brought along to allow them to be transported by rail or overland.[7] The first leg of Mimi and Toutou′s 10,000 mi (16,000 km) journey was completed after 17 days at sea and their arrival at the Cape of Good Hope.

From Cape Town, they and the men of the expedition traveled north by railway through Bulawayo to Elisabethville, where they arrived on 26 July.[8] After traveling to the railhead at Fungurume, they were detrained and dragged 146 mi (235 km) through the bush by teams of oxen and steam tractors to the beginnings of the railway from Sankisia to Bukama. At Bukama, the boats and stores were unloaded and prepared for a voyage down the Lualaba River. The Lualaba was running low, and Mimi and Toutou had to be paddled fifty-six miles upstream, once running aground fourteen times in just twelve miles. They spent seventeen days on the Lualaba before reaching Kabalo. From there, the last 175 miles of the journey to Lake Tanganyika was completed by railroad. The expedition, known by that point as "Simson's Circus" for all it had been through, arrived at the Belgian lake port of Lukuga on 24 October 1915.[9]

Battle for Lake Tanganyika

Spicer-Simson (standing) on the deck of the Belgian vessel Netta.

Shortly after arriving on Lake Tanganyika, Spicer-Simson relocated his base just south of Lukuga at Kalemie, where he had been building a port better protected from the lake's storms. Mimi and Toutou were assembled and launched just before Christmas 1915. Early in the morning of 26 December, the armed German tug Kingani was spotted offshore. Spicer-Simson took Mimi and Toutou out on the lake and captured Kingani after a brief firefight that killed her commander and four of her crew. The Kingani was rechristened the HMS Fifi and brought under Spicer-Simson's command. As a result, on 3 January 1916, he was promoted from lieutenant commander to commander; the promotion backdated to 26 December 1915, the date of the capture.[2][10]

On 9 February 1916, the German lake boat Hedwig von Wissmann (sister vessel of the larger Hermann von Wissmann on Lake Nyasa) appeared off Lukuga to investigate the disappearance of the Kingani. After a thirty-mile chase, Spicer-Simson's flotilla sank the Hedwig von Wissmann.[11]

The capture of the Kingani and the sinking of the Hedwig greatly weakened German naval power on Lake Tanganyika. However, a survivor of the Kingani reported that the Götzen had recently been armed with a gun from the recently scuttled German cruiser Königsberg. The addition of a Königsberg gun gave the Götzen the ability to effectively fire on the Mimi, Toutou, and Fifi from well beyond their range. Though the Götzen couldn't be directly attacked, German supremacy on Lake Tanganyika had been broken.

For the action against the Hedwig, Spicer-Simson was awarded the Distinguished Service Order on 1 May 1916.[2] Over the course of the expedition, three of his officers were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, and twelve of his men were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.[12]

After its initial success, Spicer-Simson's command ended in controversy. He refused to send his ships to aid the British Colonial and Belgian Army force in the capture of Mpulungu in present-day Zambia. After falling ill and retreating to his private quarters, he was sent to England for medical and mental recovery.[6] He was also appointed a Commander of the Belgian Order of the Crown.[2]


Geoffrey Spicer-Simson (extreme left wearing kilt) just after the German ship Kingani had been captured.

Spicer-Simson was known for his idiosyncrasies. In Britain he had originally suggested that Mimi and Toutou be named Cat and Dog, but the names were rejected by the Admiralty.[13] After Mimi and Toutou were accepted as alternatives, he explained that these meant "Miaow" and "Bow-wow" in French.[14] While in command on Lake Tanganyika, Spicer-Simson often wore a khaki drill kilt, and he insisted that an Admiral's flag be flown outside his hut. He smoked monogrammed cigarettes and had a number of "macabre tattoos" acquired during his time in Asia.[15]

Later life

He was later Assistant Director of The International Hydrographic Bureau. He served in that role from 1921 to 1937.[12] His later years were spent in British Columbia. He gave a series of lectures on his command in Lake Tanganyika and helped write a National Geographic article on his transportation of the two boats through the jungles of the Congo. He died on 29 January 1947.


  • China Medal in 1900
  • Distinguished Service Order in 1915
  • The events of his flotilla at Lake Tanganyika inspired the novel and film The African Queen.
  • Subject of the BBC Radio drama Navy Man God, by Christopher Russell. First broadcast in 19 January 1985, and regularly repeated on digital BBC Radio 7 after being rediscovered.

Further reading

In 2004 Spicer-Simson's story was retold in a book by Giles Foden called Mimi and Toutou Go Forth: The Bizarre Battle for Lake Tanganyika. In 2007, Christopher Dow recounted the same story in a book titled Lord of the Loincloth; the same year, Swiss author Alex Capus published the novel "A Question Of Time"[16] which depicts Spicer-Simson as one of the multiple (anti-)heroes.


  1. ^ a b Paice, Edward "World War I The African Front". Pegasus Books, 2008, p.100
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h "RN Officer's Service Records—Simson, Geoffrey Basil Spicer". DocumentsOnline.  
  3. ^ The London Gazette: no. 26816. p. 411. 22 January 1897. Retrieved 19 August 2009.
  4. ^ The London Gazette: no. 27009. p. 5734. 30 September 1898. Retrieved 19 August 2009.
  5. ^ Military History, December 2001, "Naval Struggle in Darkest Africa"
  6. ^ a b c Military History, December 2001, "Naval Struggle in Darkest Africa
  7. ^ Foden. Mimi & Toutou Go Forth. p. 38. 
  8. ^ Foden. Mimi & Toutou Go Forth. p. 81. ,
  9. ^ Paice, Edward "World War I The African Front". Pegasus Books, 2008, p.112
  10. ^ The London Gazette: no. 29427. p. 181. 4 January 1916. Retrieved 19 August 2009.
  11. ^ Paice, Edward "World War I The African Front". Pegasus Books, 2008, p.149-150
  12. ^ a b Paice, Edward "World War I The African Front". Pegasus Books, 2008, p.234
  13. ^ Paice. Tip & Run: The Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa. p. 101. 
  14. ^ Kiester. An Incomplete History of World War I. 
  15. ^ Paice, Edward "World War I The African Front". Pegasus Books, 2008, p.147
  16. ^ Capus, Alex. A Question Of Time, London 2011, ISBN 978-1-907822-03-2. 
  • 'Who's who' (1943), London: A. and C. Black; Creagh, Sir O'Moore and Humphris, E.M. (1978), 'The Distinguished Service Order, 1886-1923', London: J. B. Hayward.
  • Shankland, Peter (1968), 'The phantom flotilla', London: Collins.
  • Military History, December 2001, "Naval Struggle in Darkest Africa"
  • Kevin Patience, 'Shipwrecks & Salvage on the East African Coast'
  • Moiteret, V.A, Captain USN "IHO 50 Years of Progress 1921-1971"
  • Paice, Edward (2008). Tip & Run: The Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa. Phoenix.  
  • Kiester, Edwin (2007). An Incomplete History of World War I. Murdoch Books.  

External links

  • The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 30182. pp. 7070–7072. 13 July 1917. Spicer-Simson's despatch on the progress of the expedition.
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