World War One decorations remain the best buys for medal collectors as an investment - and a Distinguished Service Order group from an especially remarkable and under-told story of courage during the Great War is auctioning at Warwick & Warwick, today (August 11).
The WWI Distinguished Service Order group of medals was originally awarded to Commander G B Spicer-Simson, RN. After being born in Hobart in 1876 and joining the Royal Navy in 1889, Spicer-Simson was in command of the HMS Niger, a gunboat converted to a minesweeper, at the start of WW1.
After the Niger was torpedoed and sunk by a U-12 in 1914 he served ashore for a period. That is, until he was given the task to lead the now-famous Lake Tanganyika Naval Expedition - a mission to deprive the Germans of their command in the region, then enforced by three armed vessels.
Spicer-Simson was to command two boats which outclassed the two German vessels, and a small Expeditionary Force. The boats - the "Mimi" and the "Toutou" - arrived at Cape Town in late June. By December 23, they were launched onto the lake and, three days later, battle commenced.
Fascinatingly, it is speculated that the German's actually knew of the arrival of Spicer-Simpson and his mini-fleet - but didn't believe it could happen, as the prospect of transporting two boats to their region seemed like such a harebrained exercise.
Indeed, getting the boats to Lake Tanganyika required that they be taken 2,300 miles by train into the Belgian Congo; then over 150 miles by haulage on atrocious roads and at altitudes ranging from 2,000 to 6,000 feet; followed by another journey on trucks via the region's railways.
According to Spicer-Simson's records, men cheerfully worked under trying conditions, extreme heat and heavy rain. Under his command, they readily gave up their drinking water for use in the engine's traction engines, and maintained their resolve and determination despite the discomforts of thirst and being unable to wash.
Finally, the boats were floated 300 miles down the Lualaba River, on lighters for much of the journey and partway under their own power. It was then on December 26, at 9am, that Spicer-Simson had his encounter with the first German gunboat, the 30-40 ton "Kingani".
Sighting her from seven miles away, both Mimi and Toutou set out to attack her from astern, with Mimi opening fire with a high explosive shell from her three-pounder Hotchkiss. After more shots killed the Kingani's two gunners and its captain, the crew of the semi-sunken vessel surrendered.
Under Spice-Simson's command, the two ships' skilful manoeuvrings also came into play when confronting the next German gunboats, the 400-500 tons Graf von Gotzen, in February the following year.
This time, however, they were armed with the HMS Fifi, formerly the captured Kingani, repaired and armed with a 12-pounder gun. Once again, Mimi and Toutou attacked from the astern, destroying the gunboat's engines until the German crew eventually abandoned ship as she sank.
All except two Europeans and three natives killed during the conflict were taken about the Fifi and Mimi. Afterwards, Spice-Simson's fleet never faced the third gunboat, which was scuttled by its crew in a Kigoma harbour after being bombed by a Belgian aeroplane.
Their victory put an end to German supremacy in the Lake, which had for years been recognised as an established fact. The win also cost the German army dearly in terms of materials, while also doing much to enhance British prestige in the region.
Unsurprisingly there followed a list of decorations, with Spicer Simson being awarded the DSO and special promotion to Commander. There were also three DSCs and 12 DSMs awarded to Expedition members.
Boasting an incredible provenance, Commander G B Spicer-Simson's medals will be among the historic lots on offer to collectors and investors in tomorrow's auction, which will be held in Warwickshire, UK.
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