George Behenna

(1887-1965) - ‘African Queen’ adventurer

Behenna, a Mevagissey fisherman, was a member of a secret Naval expedition (28 men and two gunboats) dispatched to Central Africa in 1916 to capture Lake Tanganyika from the Germans. In the following action, this small Naval Task Force succeeded in sinking a much larger German warship and successfully captured the Lake.

Credit: Mevagissey Museum

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George Behenna was a Mevagissey fisherman and Naval reservist.  Many Naval reservists joined up soon after war was declared, although recruitment for the army in Cornwall was slow.  Little did George know that he was soon to take part in one of the First World War’s most extraordinary battles.

Reports from a big game hunter of a German warship on Lake Tanganyika led to a British force being dispatched to sink her.  Led by Lieutenant Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simson, who had once been court-martialled for sinking his own ships, the expedition left Tilbury for Cape Town in June 1915.    Behenna, like the rest of the expedition, was issued with a camp bed and Jaeger sleeping bag, with Spicer-Simson having the sole tent. The plan was to take the gun boats ‘Mimi’ and ‘Toutou’ by train and land to the lake, a 2,500 mile journey through southern Africa. 

While travelling by train on the initial part of the journey, one of the main jobs for the seamen was to prevent sparks from the engine setting the tarpaulins covering the gun boats on fire.  The most difficult part of the journey began at Fungurume, 500 miles from the lake. First they had to cross the Mitumba Mountains (a  5900ft mountain range). This they achieved thanks to the skills of Wainwright, the expedition’s engineer, using pre-prepared roads and bridges, a number of traction engines, and some 150 African women water-carriers. After another railway journey, they set off on a voyage down the Lualaba River. The last stage was again by railway, but the rails ran out some way from their destination and so they had to be taken up and re-laid to get the gun boats to the lake.  After this great adventure, the sinking of the Hedwig von Wissman and the capture of her support vessel was almost an anticlimax. 

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the whole business was that the intentions of the expedition remained a complete surprise to everyone.  The Germans were clearly assessing the dangers of a much later attack from a Belgian ship which had been transported to the lake but had not yet been assembled.  Faced with the loss of two of their warships and advancing Belgian and British land forces the German commanders decided to scuttle their last remaining warship.  Spicer-Simson’s successful expedition returned to London in September 1916.

How Behenna and the other sailors coped with their eccentric commander Spicer- Simson, who donned a skirt when he arrived at Lake Tanganyika and was worshipped as a god by the locals, is not recorded.  George Behenna returned to Mevagissey after the war, married in 1922 and once again became a local fisherman and part of this small community until his death in 1965. 

Credit; Mevagissey Museum