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Sideshow on the lake

During the night of 9 February 1916, two men were sitting on opposing shores of Lake Tanganyika.

14 December 2009

12:00 AM

14 December 2009

12:00 AM

A Matter of Time Alex Capus

Haus, pp.252, 12.99,

During the night of 9 February 1916, two men were sitting on opposing shores of Lake Tanganyika. The longest lake in the world, it at that time divided German East Africa from the Belgian Congo. One of the men was Herr Kapitänleutnant Gustav von Zimmer, the other was an eccentric British navy officer, Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simpson. The following morning, Zimmer would launch the Graf von Götzen, a large vessel which floats to this day on the waters of the lake.

Spicer-Simson takes a starring role in my narrative non-fiction book, Mimi and Toutou Go Forth (2004). The history of the two British motor launches, Mimi and Toutou, and their vainglorious, skirt-wearing, tattooed commander — who brought them from the Thames to Africa, tugging them by steam engine through the bush to the lakeshore — is extraordinary enough. Now Alex Capus has added another layer to this strange episode in a sideshow of the first world war, with a wonderful fictionalised account of what the Germans did while Spicer pranced about in his skirt.

The bizarre battle for Lake Tanganyika and the wider East African campaign has produced interesting fiction. C. S. Forester’s The African Queen (1935), later made into the classic film by John Huston, was the first strike. In 1968, Wilbur Smith’s Shout at the Devil dramatised another, related naval encounter on the east coast of what would later become Tanzania. This involved the Konigsberg, a German cruiser lying hidden in the Rufiji Delta. In 1982 William Boyd published An Ice-Cream War, which covered the whole campaign. At a tangent to Boyd’s plot lies an episode fully dramatised in Smith’s most recent novel, Assegai (2008), involving a Zeppelin mission from Europe to East Africa.

The Zeppelin turned back over Sudan, but the Götzen played an active role in the war, albeit by sleight of hand. It was built in Meyer’s shipyard in Papenburg in northern Germany during 1913. This is where we first encounter shipwright Anton Rüter, the hero of Capus’s novel, and his colleagues, Tellmann and Wendt. The trio are selected to go with the Götzen to Africa. They first disassemble the completed ship into labelled crates then remake it, like Meccano, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. It was an operation of which the British and Belgians remained in ignorance for some time, though they were well aware of the Hermann von Wissman, the small rustbucket that was Spicer’s quarry.

In Capus’s version, beautifully rendered in John Brownjohn’s translation, Rüter’s early life in Africa is like an idyll. He works on the ship in the day, then retires to Wendt’s ‘beer garden’. There with his colleagues he consumes litres of millet beer and eats delicious stews prepared by an African woman, Samblakira. To the disapproval of Rüter and Tellmann, she is soon sharing the zebra-skin bed in Wendt’s hut; but the living is easy and soon they will be back in Papenburg, won’t they? What goes on tour, stays on tour.

When war comes, everything changes. Spicer’s speedy little boats sink the Hermann von Wissman. Soon it’s a shell-shocked Ruter who is being comforted by Samblakira. Big guns from the Königsberg arrive to be fixed onto the Götzen, only to be snatched away by beleaguered German landtroops. Zimmer has a mock gun, made of the trunk of a coconut palm, attached instead. It is this which convinces Spicer, watching the Götzen pass by in the early hours of 10 February, that he dare not attack with his launches.

But the tide of war is turning. By July, the Germans have effectively lost. Zimmer and Rüter decide to scupper the Götzen. Hoping to raise her later, they first grease the engines to protect them.

The Götzen was salvaged by order of Winston Churchill in 1924. It returned to service in 1927 as a ferry under the new name MV Liemba. It has been operating almost non-stop since, and during August 2002 carried me, rather sweaty, as I researched Mimi and Toutou Go Forth. I don’t know when Alex Capus boarded it to do his research for this magnificent novel.

Giles Foden is a former deputy literary editor of the Guardian. His Mimi and Toutou Go Forth: The Bizarre Battle for Lake Tanganiyka is published by Penguin at £9.99.

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