Book ID 816
Foden, Giles Mimi and Toutou Go Forth: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika, 2004
Extract Date: Tuesday September 21, 2004
The African Queen is renowned as one of the toughest and craziest shoots in cinematic history. But it was nothing compared to the first world war British naval escapade which lay behind the film, as Giles Foden's new book reveals
At one point in John Huston's 1951 film The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, Bogie gets covered in flies. A crude special effect (the insects are plastered on the lens), it is nevertheless one of the links between the film and the true story behind it: a British navy campaign on Lake Tanganyika in 1915 which saw 28 men haul two motorboats with the unlikely names of Mimi and Toutou through the wilds of the Congo.
At the start of the first world war, German warships controlled Lake Tanganyika. The British had no ships there. This mattered: it was the longest lake in the world, and of great strategic importance. The Admiralty ordered the 28 men, mostly volunteers, to take control of it. They were a strange bunch - one was addicted to Worcester sauce (as an aperitif), another was a former racing driver - but the strangest of all of them was their skirt-wearing, tattoo-covered commander, Geoffrey Spicer-Simson.
In The African Queen, which was based on a novel by CS Forester, published in 1935, Bogart and Hepburn are en route to sink a German battleship on a fictionalised central African lake, when the insects strike. In real life, Spicer-Simson was witness to a great eruption of flies on the surface of Lake Tanganyika. He and his men saw a series of sky-tall funnels wheeling across the waves. They rose hundreds of feet in crooked stems, then spread out at the top, mounting in eddies as they joined the clouds.
Typically, Spicer-Simson maintained that the swarming masses were water-spouts until the evidence they were insects could be gainsaid no longer. In fact, they were the famous kungu flies of central Africa that Livingstone had noted on his travels. Both a local delicacy (baked in a loaf) and a death trap to fishermen (sweeping up their boats in tornados or suffocating them), the flies' eggs had risen from the lakebed, nearly a mile below.
Hatching as the navy men watched, the kungu whirled across the lake; or, their short lives over, fell dead on the surface of the water - just as they would do 36 years later when Huston, his cameraman Jack Cardiff and still photographer Arthur Lemon tried to keep the rackety show of The African Queen shoot afloat, 400 miles to the north on Lake Albert.
According to Lemon: "We lived on an old paddle-steamer called the Lugard II, which had been art directed to look like a German gunboat - the one that eventually gets blown up in the film... Each evening, as the sun went down, lake flies would hatch out and swarm everywhere. Everything on the boat had to be shut up tight. They only survived 30 minutes or so and then died and fell back on to the surface of the water. Great for the Nile perch who would swim along like vacuum cleaners and scoop them up for dinner. Some of these fish were huge."
Huston was a difficult man to work for. Clint Eastwood's 1990 fictional film about the shoot, White Hunter, Black Heart, gives a good idea of his macho posturing. But compared to Spicer-Simson, he was an easygoing milksop. Vainglorious and vindictive, Spicer (as he was known) took every opportunity to show off the tattoos of snakes and butterflies that covered his thighs, arms and torso. Nor did he ever lose the chance to browbeat his men, barracking them with bogus tales of his own bravery in various parts of the world.
Spicer had always wanted to be a hero. He would have settled for admiral. But a series of catastrophic errors had left him the oldest lieutenant commander in the navy, which he had joined at the age of 14. By the start of the war he had already lost three ships through stupid mishaps. He was given a desk job to keep him out of trouble. Such was the state of Spicer's fortunes when, on April 21 1915, a big-game hunter called John Lee arrived in London with an appointment to see Admiral Sir Henry Jackson. Lee had great experience of Lake Tanganyika. He also had a scheme to bring it under British control.
Lee explained to the admiral that the Germans had two steamers under military orders on Lake Tanganyika: the 60-tonne Hedwig and the 45-tonne Kingani. Lee's plan to attack the German vessels was simple in conception but difficult in practice: if two fast British motor boats could be sent to South Africa, then by rail to the Belgian Congo and dragged to the lake, they could sink or disable the slower Hedwig and Kingani. Sir Henry agreed to the plan.
There was much discussion as to who was to lead the Naval Africa Expedition, as it was named, but in the end it was a case of needs must. The navy was in turmoil. First Sea Lord Winston Churchill had just been sacked because of the Gallipoli debacle, which had left the service short of officers. There weren't many options.
So when Spicer volunteered, he was given the appointment, despite still being in disgrace. His fortunes were about to change. Within a year he would be being worshipped as a deity by an African tribe. Within two years his name would be plastered over British newspapers.
The liner carrying the Naval Africa Expedition arrived safely in Cape Town, South Africa, on July 2 1915. The two motor boats, HMS Mimi and HMS Toutou (as Spicer had whimsically christened them after the navy had rejected his first-choice names, Cat and Dog) were put on goods trucks in a railway siding, ready for travel.
On August 5, nearly two months after they had set out from England, Spicer's crew reached Fungurume, deep in the Belgian Congo. It was just a few sheds in the jungle, with piles of steel railway track and wooden sleepers lying about.
To the right and the left of them was rough bush; in front lay the forbidding Mitumba mountains, which they would have to cross. Mimi and Toutou were lifted off the train on to special trailers. Two enormous steam-traction engines would drag them up the escarpment: a team of 1,400 Africans had begun clearing a road.
By August 18, the ox-teams that were supposed to supplement the pulling power of the road locomotives had not yet arrived, but Spicer was impatient to get going. He gave the order to proceed. Belching smoke, the locomotives tugged their eight-tonne burdens up the track. The steam whistles of the engines blew and the African labourers chanted as Mimi was towed towards the first bridge. Within seconds of the first tractor coming on to it, it collapsed. Mimi and the loco had to be hauled out of the gulch below.
They had almost reached the first camping point, having covered six miles, when disaster struck again. Mimi's locomotive slipped off the edge of the track and began to fall away, the earthwork sliding, unable to carry the engine's weight. Stuck at an angle, the tractor had to be disconnected from Mimi again and pulled by the other engine till upright once more.
The oxen arrived but the days that followed were much the same, one accident following another under the penetrating sun. The struggle continued as, mile by mile, they crept towards the top of the Mitumbas. Every hour threatened the arrival of the rains, which would make their ascent impossible: neither wheels nor hooves would be able to cope with deep mud.
Hauled in this manner, 50 yards at a time, Mimi and Toutou finally reached the mountain-top. There, 6,400ft above sea level, they came to rest on a pleasant meadow-plateau. Crossing the 20-mile plateau was easy enough, except that a great many lions surrounded the camp at night. On September 12 they reached the other side and saw, far below them, the Lualaba or Upper Congo river, on which they would make the second part of their epic journey.
The river passage was 350 miles long. They kept hitting obstructions and were bitten by tsetse flies along the way. The men shot off their rifles at hippos and crocs. The boats often had to be towed by dug-out canoes or hauled over sandbanks by teams of African labourers. Sometimes they were loaded on Belgian steamers, like that in which Joseph Conrad had travelled up the river 25 years previously, on the trip that inspired his novella, Heart of Darkness; some of The African Queen was also filmed on the Lualaba.
Through heavy rain, Spicer saw Lake Tanganyika for the first time on October 27, more than four months since he had set out from London. Watched by Holo-Holo tribesmen, the expedition set up camp on the lakeshore. At last, Mimi and Toutou's great journey was over. Now they had to prepare for battle.
One morning soon after they arrived, a German boat was spotted on the horizon of the lake. In truth, this small paddle-steamer didn't look much of a challenge. But still, she was twice as long as Mimi or Toutou. Squinting through his field glasses, the expedition's medic, Dr Hanschell, noted that the gun of the ship, the Kingani, was trained on them, where they had lined up on cliffs above the lake. He looked around to ask Spicer what he thought, but the commander was nowhere to be seen.
At breakfast a day or two later someone told the doctor that he had seen the commander wearing a skirt. Hanschell assumed they were pulling his leg. But at that moment Spicer appeared, framed in the doorway. He was indeed wearing a skirt. It was made of lightweight khaki and came down to his knees. Spicer sat down at the breakfast table; nobody knew what to say.
"I designed it myself," Spicer announced eventually. "My wife makes 'em for me. Very practical for the hot weather."
On Boxing Day 1915, after a fierce battle on the lake, Mimi and Toutou captured the Kingani, killing its captain and two others. Once the boats came onshore, Spicer was mobbed by the thousands of Holo-Holo who had watched the action from the cliffs. They threw themselves prostrate before him or tried to touch his clothes, as if they wanted to worship him. Fighting them off, he went over to inspect the prize, stepping over the German corpses on the deck.
"Twelve hits out of 13 shells," he announced. "That's a pretty good show." And then, quite casually, Spicer bent over the captain's twisted body and calmly removed the dead man's signet ring. Over the next few days the Kingani was mended. Spicer renamed the ship HMS Fifi, which he thought went rather well with Mimi and Toutou.
With the Kingani captured, the expeditionaries turned their attention to the bigger Hedwig, sinking it on February 9 1916. With that Spicer thought his work was done. He had even managed to capture a German naval flag, the first of the whole war. And now the Holo-Holo began to worship him in earnest, bowing down before him and making his effigy in clay. Part of the reason for this was that they venerated a snake god: his tattoos tapped into the mythology. Mainly it was because he had defeated the Germans.
But he hadn't. Not long after, a much larger German ship, the Graf von Götzen, appeared on the horizon. At 1,200 tonnes, it was 20 times the size of the Hedwig. It seemed to make a mockery of Spicer's toy navy, and its appearance came around the same time as news that his younger brother had been killed on the Western Front. Spicer went to pieces and was invalided home.
The irony was, the Götzen was carrying only wooden decoy guns. Its real ones, being needed by German land troops, had been removed. Spicer could have taken it with Mimi and Toutou after all. For the rest of his life - he moved to Monte Carlo after the war, then to Canada, where he died in 1947 - he kept quiet about the Götzen, bragging noisily about the other ships instead.
The Götzen was eventually scuttled by its German captain in July 1916 after being bombed by Belgian aeroplanes. Its latter fate is perhaps the strangest part of the whole tale. In 1921 Churchill, back in the job of First Lord of the Admiralty, ordered the Götzen refloated. On Monday May 16 1927, she sailed again - rechristened the Liemba, the name given to Lake Tanganyika in Livingstone's time. She is still sailing up and down the lake to this day.
· Extracted from Mimi and Toutou Go Forth: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika by Giles Foden, to be published by Michael Joseph on September 30 at £16.99.
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