Originally named ‘cat’ and ‘dog’, Mimi and Toutou were two 12m long boats which played a key role in the African naval struggle in 1915.
Their journey began in Hampton, at the Hampton Launch Works on Platt’s Eyot, owned by Thorneycroft & Company, where they were built at the beginning of the First World War. The two ships were to be utilised in a scheme to create an African inland navy, and were destined for Lake Tanganyika, one of the African Great Lakes. Forty feet in length and travelling at up to 19 knots, it was hoped that the ships would be the fastest on the lake, and therefore provide a key resistance against the German Naval ship ‘Kingani’.
In June 1915, Mimi and Toutou found themselves aboard a liner set for Cape Town, in South Africa. Following 17 days at sea, they were then hoisted out of the steamer, loaded onto railway trucks and continued their journey overland to Elisabethville, in the North. In the village of Fungurume, the railway line ended. Mimi and Toutou were then driven overland through the African bush. The terrain was incredibly difficult at times, and the journey required the construction of more than 150 bridges across streams and gorges. A second railroad was eventually reached at Sankisia, and the two Hampton boats finally reached Lake Tanganyika on the 26th October 1915.
While final preparations were made, the ships were hidden in the nearby bush to ensure the element of surprise when the attack came. Launched in December, Mimi and Toutou experience their first action on Boxing Day, 26th December 1915. Geoffrey Spicer-Simson commanded Mimi, which took the lead in an unexpected chase of the German ship Kingani. Small and yet speedy, Mimi caught up with the Kingani in order to open fire. As a result of the surprise attack, the ship quickly surrendered.
Kingani was taken to port, repaired and renamed HMS Fifi. She was put into Allied service – which proved particularly useful as Toutou was later lost in a heavy storm. Mimi and Fifi were in action again in February 1916 against the German lake boat Hedwig von Wissmann.
Mimi and Toutou in total travelled an enormous 10,000 miles from Middlesex to the world’s longest freshwater lake in Africa. Their success in December, and Mimi’s success later February, earned Spicer-Simson the Distinguished Service Order; and ensured that German presence at Lake Tanganyika was sufficiently weakened. Their story is an incredible and unusual one – of determination and struggle through difficult lands in order to provide the Allies with a much needed success in the earlier part of the First World War.
Find out more about the expedition to Lake Tanganyika at The National Archives.