In the first year of World War One the German forces in the colony of East Africa quickly managed to achieve supremacy over the waters of Lake Tanganyika. They managed this simply by getting there first with the most amount of force. At the start of the war there were only five vessels on the lake capable of being armed. The Germans owned two, Belgium and Great Britain the other three. The German steamer Hedwig von Wissmann was armed with four (or three, sources differ) 37mm Hotchkiss Revolver Cannons. With this armament she damaged the Belgian steamer, and sunk the two British steamers. With this dominance of the lake the Germans were able to launch raids into allied controlled territories.
With this situation a plan was hatched in April 1915. It was floated by an ex Boer scout, and big game poacher called John Lee. He approached the Admiralty suggesting that two motor launches be dispatched to the lake to beat the German vessels. At this point Admiral Sir Henry Jackson said "It is both the duty and the tradition of the Royal Navy to engage the enemy wherever there is water to float a ship.", and the plan was approved. Two 40ft launches, each armed with a 3 pounder gun and a machine gun were brought. The launches could reach a speed of 19 knots and were powered by a pair of 100 hp engines. The large gun on the foredeck had one slight flaw, the massive recoil meant that they could only be fired more or less directly ahead. If fired to the side the ship's frame wouldn't be able to take the strain and disastrous results would follow.
In Parisian slang those words translated to "Meow" and "Fido", so the original character of the names was carried through.
The boats and men of the Naval Africa Expedition now had to get to Lake Tanganyika, a landlocked freshwater lake in deepest Africa. The first leg of the journey was on board the SS Llanstephen Castle from London to Cape Town. Then by train to the Belgian village of Fungurume, where the line stopped. From there the two launches would be dragged by two steam tractors through 100 miles of the Mitumba mountains, and dense brush to the village of Sankisia and another rail head. A place you'd not take a tank, let alone a pair of boats! This line only lasted for 15 miles. The next 500 miles were done by floating the boats down narrow streams, in the middle of the dry season. This meant that the streams were almost gone, and the launches had too large a draught. They had to be lashed to barrels to give them enough buoyancy. After this another 175 miles by train followed with the exhausted expedition reaching Lake Tanganyika on October 26th, only to find the situation had changed.
Part two, and the battle between the Royal Navy and the Germans will be next week.
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