Mimi, Toutou and Fifi, An African Adventure
12th June 2018
The remarkable story of a little-known British naval expedition during World War I was the subject of this talk by club member, Alan Grant. At the outbreak of war in 1914, Germany held territory in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), and had designs on adjacent lands held by Britain (Rhodesia) and Belgium (Congo). In order to achieve its aims, Germany would have to gain control of Lake Tanganyika (which formed the boundary between Congo and Tanganyika) and it was to counter this threat that the British devised a plan to transport two small warships all the way from England.
High-speed motor launches (40 feet in length) were chosen as being the most appropriate for the job. As Royal Navy vessels, these had to be given names, and those originally proposed by the eccentric leader of the expedition, Lieutenant Geoffrey Basil Spicer-Simson, were HMS Cat and HMS Dog. However, this choice of names was judged unacceptable by the Admiralty and so, not to be completely thwarted by the authorities, Spicer-Simson named them HMS Mimi and HMS Toutou (meaning ‘cat’ and ‘dog’ in French slang).
With the aid of contemporary photographs, Alan described how these boats were taken as cargo by sea to Cape Town; thence by rail to the end of the line beyond Elisabethville in Congo. From here they were loaded on to trailers and hauled overland for 146 miles by traction engines and oxen, eventually arriving on the shores of Lake Tanganyika some six months after leaving England.
Once afloat they went in pursuit of one of the German ships already on the lake and, after a fight, forced it to surrender. Now in British hands, it was renamed HMS Fifi and it joined forces with Mimi and Toutou to attack a second, larger German ship, Hedwig von Wissmann, which, in turn, was put out of action. With their mission accomplished, the crews of the British ships returned home and, with the defeat of Germany, Tanganyika became a British territory in 1922.
Ray Smith and Alan Grant