Mimi and Toutou Go Forth: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika by Giles Foden Michael Joseph £16.99, 320 pages

As his mock-heroic title suggests, Giles Foden’s fourth book serves up a small slice of military adventuring made comical by the arrogance and eccentricity of the expedition’s leader.

The bizarre battle of the subtitle was a naval engagement in miniature during the first world war in which a couple of tiny motorboats were sent overland to end the German dominance of Lake Tanganyika, which shared borders with the Belgian Congo and Northern Rhodesia.

John Lee, a big-game hunter familiar with that region, brought the lake’s strategic advantages to the attention of the British Admiralty, which then cast around (increasingly desperately) for an officer to command a clandestine mission to secure the lake for the Allies.

The Navy’s only spare officer, Geoffrey Basil Spicer-Simson, was “at best peculiar, at worst downright dangerous”. Born in Tasmania in 1876, he entered the Royal Navy at the age of 14. By the time war was declared, his vainglorious boasting had caused most other officers to give him a wide berth.

A long career of misjudgments had left him high and dry as the Navy’s oldest lieutenant commander. During manoeuvres in the Channel, he had dragged a line between two destroyers that nearly sank a submarine. When testing Portsmouth Harbour’s defences he managed to drive his ship on to the beach - for which he was court-martialled.

Another court-martial came from smashing his destroyer into a Liberty boat, and sinking it. He commanded HMS Niger in 1914, which he could clearly see from the Ramsgate hotel where he was entertaining his wife - even as the Germans torpedoed it.

The Tanganyika expedition required two mahogany motorboats, mounted with heavy artillery, to be shipped to South Africa, freighted north by rail and then hauled by steam traction over mountains towards the lake. “Mimi” and “Toutou”, as Spicer-Simson whimsically named them (”miaow” and “woof-woof” in French), would then surprise and sink the substantially bigger but slower German vessels Kingani and Hedwig.

This escapade confirmed Spicer-Simson as “the Navy’s most quixotic character since the days of the privateers”. Quixotic is le mot juste; beneath the colourful quirks of his behaviour and dress was a man consumed by self-aggrandisement and fantasy. After the remarkable portage over swamp and escarpment (for which Spicer-Simson stole full credit from his talented engineer) the company settled the boats in a harbour at Albertville.

Spicer-Simson immediately promoted himself to vice-admiral and took to wearing skirts designed by his wife to be less chafing than trousers in the tropical climate. His fondness for showing off the tattoos that covered his torso, the public ritual of bath and toilet and his pose of smoking monogrammed cigarettes from a holder, soon attracted the adulation of the ferocious local tribe, the Holo-holo, who began producing fetish statues of the “Navyman God”.

Spicer-Simson’s effete and capricious manner is the flamboyant centrepiece of this exotic military side-show, but I am curious as to why Foden has branched out from event-inspired fiction into historical narrative. His last novel, Zanzibar, was a serviceable but rather bland thriller wrapped around al-Qaeda’s bombing of the US Embassy in Dar es Salaam in 1998.

His second novel, Ladysmith, was based on the dramatic siege of that town in the Boer war, while his applauded debut, The Last King of Scotland, convincingly imagined the psychological distress of its narrator who was strong-armed into being Idi Amin’s personal physician. Spicer-Simson has none of the Ugandan dictator’s menace but a similar belief in his own gigantic lies.

The tone of Mimi and Toutou is quite different to Foden’s previous work. An annoying portentousness is tacked on to incidents as inauspicious as a choppy sea, or a spat between Spicer-Simson and an officer. Significant information is similarly flagged, as though the writer were winking heavily at the reader behind Spicer-Simson’s back.

C.S. Forester used this adventure for his 1935 tale The African Queen. Foden is evidently attracted by the episode’s Boy’s Own appeal, and his unfolding of Spicer-Simson’s splendidly chaotic sortie in simple prose feels more as though it was written for boys than for adults. Undoubtedly both readerships could enjoy Mimi and Toutou, but it is a shame the author chose not to fictionalise the absurd cut of Spicer-Simson’s character and so flesh out his fascinating buffoonery.

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