What is the real story behind The African Queen?

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1. A passenger ferry with a past

Today the MV Liemba is a passenger ferry that chugs back and forth across Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania, the longest lake in Africa. But at the start of World War One the vessel was known as the Graf von Goetzen. It was a mighty gunboat that dominated this vast inland sea.

As war raged in Europe and new fronts opened across the world, east Africa became a battleground. Surrounding the colony of German East Africa, British and Belgian forces determined to end the Goetzen’s dominance.

The daring mission that followed, and the boat it set out to destroy, would later inspire the book and film The African Queen.

2. Controlling central Africa

In 1915 Germany controlled Lake Tanganyika, and all it took was three gunboats.

The Germans were the only European power able to transport boats to the lake, as they had a direct rail route running from the coastal port of Dar es Salaam. This presence on the lake gave German forces a powerful line of attack against their colonial neighbours.

Germany's three boats – the Graf von Goetzen, the Kingani and the Hedwig von Wissman – could transport 900 troops anywhere on the lakeshore. In 1914 and 1915 they used them to launch a number of raids against Belgian Congo and the British-ruled northern Rhodesia.

The boats also provided a useful means of defence. If the Allies tried to attack around the north or south of the lake, the Germans could cross the water and attack them from the rear.

With the lake safely under control, the Germans could also launch raids on British shipping in the Indian Ocean from Dar Es Salaam.

It was clear to Allied commanders that they needed to get British boats onto the lake.

In the words of the British Admiralty in London: "It is both the duty and the tradition of the Royal Navy to engage the enemy wherever there is water to float a ship."

3. From warship to African Queen

The British expedition to confront German forces on Lake Tanganyika would be so daring it would go on to inspire a Hollywood blockbuster.

4. The battle for Lake Tanganyika

The battle for Lake Tanganyika started in earnest in December 1915. Days after the British vessels, Mimi and Toutou, were launched on to the lake they set off in pursuit of the German gunboat Kingani as it passed near the Belgian Congo town of Lukuga.

The Kingani could only fire forwards so the small and nimble Mimi and Toutou were able to inflict damage while staying out of harm’s way. The Kingani was captured, with the loss of five German crewmen. It was repaired and renamed HMS Fifi.

Sinking Hedwig

In January 1916 the German naval commander on the lake, Captain Gustav Zimmer, sent the gunboat Hedwig to Lukuga to investigate the disappearance of the Kingani. HMS Fifi and HMS Mimi went after Hedwig and managed to sink the vessel, killing seven crew.

The next day the Graf von Goetzen appeared offshore, searching for the missing Hedwig. British commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simson forbade an attack judging that they didn’t have boats to rival the Goetzen. The Belgians had tried to destroy it through aerial bombing attacks, but failed. By May the British and Belgian forces had managed to push by land into German East Africa.

A watery end

Unknown to the Allies, the Goetzen was not as strong as she appeared. Most of her armaments had been taken off to be used by the German army and replaced with wooden dummies.

In July, Belgian forces took the German East African town of Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika, but the Goetzen had escaped. Refusing to let such a potent weapon fall into enemy hands, the German crew scuttled it. The battle for Lake Tanganyika was over.

5. The MV Liemba today

At the end of World War One, the Graf von Goetzen lay on the lake bed. But its story did not end there.

6. Retelling WW1 on film

The African Queen is one of many popular films inspired by World War One. Click below to see some other examples


It tells the story of a group of peaceful Hobbits thrust into a conflict full of death and destruction.

Battlefield horrors

An author inspired?

Writer JRR Tolkien fought in WW1 and experts believe his experiences coloured his vivid descriptions of destructive machines and terrifying battles.


A woman embarks on a desperate search for her missing soldier fiance after World War One.

Missing servicemen

Art imitates life

At the end of the war, there were more than 1.9 million combatants missing or presumed dead. Their loved ones would never discover their ultimate fate.


German, French and Scottish soldiers meet each other during a temporary truce in World War One.

Christmas Truce

A real life peace

There are many descriptions of an unofficial ceasefire on Christmas Day 1914, with soldiers from all sides fraternising in No Man's Land.