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Recovering the SS Sybil from German territory on Lake Victoria - May 1915

Updated: Feb 10, 2022

Before World War I the British had run nine steamers on Lake Victoria, mainly to provide a freight and passenger service between Kisumu in British East Africa (BEA) and Uganda. Kisumu was the railhead of the Uganda Railway that started at Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast. Some of the steamers also serviced the ports in German territory such as Bukoba and Mwanza. The SS Sybil was one of the smaller of these steamers, having been launched in 1904 with a capacity of 700 tons and a speed of 9 knots. After the outbreak of war SS Sybil, like most of the other steamers, became part of the Royal Navy Flotilla on the Lake.

HMS Winifred at Kisumu

The Germans armed a tug named the Muansa and with it reacted aggressively against British naval movement on the Lake. On 5th November, whilst patrolling the Lake, SS Sybil struck a rock at Majita which was in German territory between Musoma and Mwanza. Sybil could not be immediately salved and she was was beached and left at Majita, but the British did not want the Germans to refloat her. On 30th March 1915 HMS Winifred, a steamer armed with both a 4-inch and a 12-pounder gun, scored 19 direct hits on the Sybil in an attempt to disable her. However fears persisted that the Germans might salvage the Sybil and use her in conjunction with the Muansa. As no explosives were available to destroy the Sybil completely, an operation was mounted to attempt her recovery.

‘B’ Company 3 King's African Rifles (3 KAR) joined up with 150 men from Nos 3 and 4 Companies of 2nd Loyal North Lancashire Regiment (2 LNL), the force being commanded by Major R.E. Berkeley of the latter unit.

A Rifle Company of the 2nd Battalion The Loyal North Lancashires on a training march in East Africa

At 1800 hours on 11th May 1915 the troops left the BEA port of Karungu, described by one 2 LNL Sergeant as consisting of about nine tin huts, aboard HMS Winifred and HMS Nyanza; four other ships sailed in support, all of them having naval guns mounted on their decks.

Karungu port

The flotilla arrived in daylight the next morning to find three Germans with around 30 of their Askari entrenched on the beach. Whilst the naval guns pounded the beach the troops landed in boats to the west of the Sybil’s location. The enemy withdrew to some kopjes (rocky hillocks) to the south, pursued by the British infantry.

Kopje country near Lake Victoria

After some skirmishing during which the Germans lost one man killed and another captured, the enemy withdrew westwards to a mission building, leaving the KAR and 2 LNL soldiers to occupy the kopjes and entrench a defensive perimeter around the beached Sybil.

The naval salvage party worked for the next three days under heavy downpours of rain whilst the infantrymen were constantly attacked by multitudes of mosquitos. Despite the direct hits that HMS Winifred had previously inflicted on the Sybil the repairs were completed during the night of 13th-14th May. Then a violent rainstorm filled the Sybil up with water and the next two days were spent in bailing out the hull.

The SS Sybil during recovery

Finally on the 16th the Sybil was re-floated and towed to Irugwa Island for two nights whilst further repairs were made, before being triumphantly towed to Kisumu. The troops were disembarked at Karungu for further operations but the eastern Lake area now quietened down. Soon every man of the Loyal North Lancashires’ detachment was ill with malaria.

SS Sybil was re-fitted and she continued her career on the Lake, proving to be a useful naval asset.

Local fishing boat on Lake Victoria

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