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‘How The Emden Was Smashed’, The Age, December 1914

How The Emden Was Smashed

Source:The Age, December 1914


Telegraphed From Perth.
COLOMBO, 16th November.
Scarcely an hour ago I was walking along the lacerated decks of the Australian cruiser Sydney, as she lies in port, and I heard the story of her fight with the Emden in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Even the recital of the bare narrative, the telling of the “plain, unvarnished tale,” is sufficient to stir every fibre of one’s body — to hear that after the first ten minutes’ shooting at a range of from seven to five miles the Emden was at the mercy of our cruiser; that she was afire from her forecastle a little later; that her mast and funnel had gone by the board; that her steering gear had gone, and the Sydney was sending broadside after broadside into her dipping decks; finally, that in half and hour she was a hopeless wreck, and just able to crawl on to the island where she later surrendered, is wonderful.

The Sydney entered into action, making rapid preparations for the approaching conflict. The Emden’s captain knew nothing of the presence of any Australian cruiser in these waters. What he did believe was that the ship he saw approaching so rapidly was some other British war ship, and right up till the concluding phases of the action he believed this. On the other hand, the Emden herself had been mistaken for a British war ship by the operators on Cocos Island. In the falling light of the evening, her identity had not excited the suspicions of the inhabitants, for her color was not distinguishable. Having reconnoitred the harbor and seen that all was safe, or apparently so, the Emden had lain off the island somewhere, and next morning before dawn had steamed into the harbor and dropped anchor close in shore. Still the people at the station were unsuspicious, till the astonished spectators saw one of the funnels, owing to some mischance, wobble and shake, and then fall to the deck in a heap. It was only a painted canvas dummy. There was just time for the wireless operator to rush off to his post and send out the message which was received on the Sydney:— “Strange cruiser at entrance of harbor.”

This revelation at once explained to the operators the origin of the German wireless signals that had been heard overnight. The endeavors of the German to drown the calls for assistance with their high-pitched Telefunken calls were frustrated, till the appearance of a German landing party quickly put a stop to further messages.

But the call had gone forth, and it was picked up before 7 a.m. by the Australian cruiser, with the result that the Sydney went into action steaming at 20 knots an hour, each revolution of the screw gathering headway for her until she was tearing through the water, cutting it with her sharp prow like a knife.

It was not long before those on board her saw lights ahead from the island, and almost at the same moment the top of the masts of the strange vessel. Quickly the funnels rose over the horizon, and by the time the whole ship came into view there was very little doubt in anybody’s mind that it was the notorious Emden.

The Emden opened fire at 9.40 a.m. at her extreme range, slightly under 10,000 yards (about 5 3/4 miles). She let fly a whole broadside, but while this was still in the air our guns had been trained on her and the port batteries had fired. With a shriek the shells came over the heads of the men on the Sydney, while it was seen that our shots had also carried over the chase by about 400 yards. The next broadsides from both ships fell short. One of the gunnery officers in a forward control hardly realised that the combat had commenced when his cap was raised off his head as a shell from the enemy’s third salvo whistled past him and between him and his assistant and carried away the range finder, that was immediately behind him in the centre of the control. The man who had been seated there was almost instantly killed. The captain and other officers were a few feet away, and the shell almost knocked them off their feet. It passed out through the starboard side of the control, and, without exploding, passed through the protecting hammock.

The Germans were firing at a furious rate, and three of their shells would be in the air at one time. A shell struck a raised platform, and gouged a cavity the size of a man’s body along the wall nearest the after funnel, and, passing on out without exploding, struck the deck, and scooped a huge mass of iron out of it, and ricocheted into the water. The five men in this protected position were thrown on the floor wounded in the legs. And while they were still stunned by the contact, another shell tore its way through, bursting as it struck the opposing wall. The enemy’s guns were firing at extreme range, and the angle of descent was steep. Therefore the impact was not so great.

The Emden steamed full speed towards us, making almost due north, but Captain Glossop had read her intent, and had swung sharply to the westward, shearing off so that the Emden could not strike at her desired range. It was a running fight along the port track. On the Sydney, the fire was so rapid that the guns became red hot. The men talked incessantly in the turrets, firing on the signal, never knowing when a shell might knock aside their shield, certain only that danger had passed when a shell went screaming away into the distance. It was a terrible ten minutes. A shell burst open the decks on the forward part, ripping the plates like ribbons, and exploded below in the men’s messroom, the splinters flying in all directions. Great jagged holes were rent in the table, and the concrete floor was chipped as if it were a china plate. Worse damage was the firing of the men’s kits, but this was extinguished before the ship was endangered. The lightning conductor of the after mast was stripped off, and the mast itself grazed, and one of the stays severed, but the mast never wavered, and the flags that flew from the truck were unassailed. A lyddite shell blew two holes in the steam pipes beside the funnel, and exploded behind the third starboard gun, killing instantly two of the crew, and wounding others. As the fragments of the shell rained down on the deck they cut great gashes in it, while the gear of the gun itself was chipped all over, and one of the breach pins blown away. At the time the gun was not in section, for it was the port batteries that were carrying all the fire, but a few minutes later, when the chase rounded, the starboard guns were brought into play, and the gun’s crew changed over to man this gun, which was unimpaired as far as the firing was concerned. The worst damage that resulted from this shell was the firing of some explosives that were lying on deck, and near the gun. At once the hoses were got out, but the smoke covered the ship and enveloped the men as they worked. Fortunately, by the time the starboard guns had to be brought into action the fire was extinguished.

Meanwhile what of the Emden. The greater power of our guns and the appalling accuracy of our fire had in that fight of a quarter of an hour wrought fearful havoc in the enemy’s ship. We were not firing so rapidly as they were, but our aim was surer and the shells went swifter to their mark. With the third or fourth shot the fore funnel of the Emden went with a terrific crash over the side dragging with it stays and rigging. Our guns were finding their mark time after time. The water round the Emden was alive with shot that sent the water over the decks. In another few minutes a whole broadside entered the stern by the after ports, and the shells — there must have been three or four of them — exploded in the interior of the ship, blowing up the deck and twisting the iron plates as if they had been as many inches of cardboard instead of steel, and buckling the deck into a wavy line.

Fire broke out at some points astern, and it is believed, though not definitely known, that this shot wrecked the steering gear as well, for after Emden’s speed appreciably diminished, and she was compelled to steer by her propellers. Thus the after guns were put out of action, while the German wounded have stated that the crew of one of the guns was blown into the water by the shock of the impact. The ship trembled in her course, and shuddered over her whole length.

In the interior the fires were gaining, licking up the wood work and the clothing of the men. The smoke enveloped the whole of the stern, gushed from the hatches and from the ports, smothering the wounded that lay about the decks. It mixed with the smoke and steam from the engineroom. The plates became white hot, and the crew was forced farther forward, but the after funnel came crashing down, cut off near the deck, and the interior funnel fell out and dragged in the water. The after control had gone as well, and our next salvo shot the foremast completely away and wrecked the whole of the fore control, bringing the rigging and iron plates and sand bags and hammocks down on the men, mingling them in an indistinguishable ghastly heat. The Germans’ fire had by this time slackened considerably. In the first quarter of an hour they had been firing broadside, and the Emden had doubled twice like a hare, bringing alternative broadsides into play.

But the Sydney was unscathed, her speed unimpaired, and her engines working wonderfully, at one time topping 27 knots. She was easily able to keep off, taking the greater circle, and steam as she pleased. On the second time of doubling, when the fire from the enemy had died away to a faint spitting from an occasional gun, the Sydney ran in close to within 4000 yards, and fired a torpedo. The direction was good, but it stopped short. The Sydney continued to pour broadsides into her, sweeping her decks and riddling her sides.

The Emden’s fate was now rendered inevitable. Fires burst from her decks at all points. Smoke covered her from stem to stern, and at one period she was obscured from view. As the smoke of our guns cleared away the gunners saw the burning ship, and ceased fire. “She’s gone; she’s gone!” they shouted, their pent up feelings bursting forth. “Man the lifeboats.” Cheers rent the air, but the next minute the Emden emerged from the smoke, firing, and they returned to their guns. Now the third and last remaining funnel went by the board. It was the centre funnel which had toppled over to port. The crew had been driven to the forecastle, which was practically undamaged. The ship was in flames in several parts, the decks were white hot, and the end came when the vessel struck on North Keeling Island, her nose high up on the reef.

The captain of the Sydney, Captain Glossop, decided to give the foe two more broadsides, and these went below the water line. Still her flag was flying from the after mast head, and she showed no signs of surrender.

Meanwhile the German cruiser’s collier had come up, and the Sydney had guns trained on her, and gave chase. At 12.10 she caught her, and fired a gun across her bows, calling on the collier to stop. This the Germans did, having first taken measures to scuttle the ship by removing the seacock. An armed crew put off from the Sydney, and found that the collier was the Bareska, a captured British collier. It was impossible to save the ship, so the crew, including eighteen Chinese and an English steward, a Norwegian cook and a German prize crew of three officers, one warrant officer and twelve men, were placed in boats and were taken in tow by the Sydney. The cruiser fired four shells into the collier, which quickly sank beneath the waves. The Sydney proceeded back to the Emden, and passed some survivors of the Emden struggling in the water. They had been blown overboard at an early period, and were almost exhausted. As the waters were infested with sharks their escape was all the more remarkable. Finding the Emden had still her colors up, the Sydney signalled in the international code, without obtaining any answer, so there was nothing for it but to fire further broadsides, and these with deadly accuracy again found their place below the water line. Then the German captain hauled down his ensign, with the iron cross in the middle and the German Jack in the corner, and hoisted the white flag.

It was by this time 5 o’clock, and the Sydney at once steamed back to pick up the boats of the Bareska. Returning, she rescued two more German sailors on the way. A boat was sent off to the Emden, manned by her own prize crew and an officer, and the captain was informed that the Sydney would return next morning and render what assistance was possible.

There were obvious reasons for observing this precaution. The German cruiser was an absolute wreck on the southern shores of the island, and the surf beat so furiously that it would have been impossible for the boats to approach in the dark with safety. Assistance did not come from the island, for it had been deserted for ten years.

As the Sydney approached the cable station she learned there for the first time that much had been happening on shore. The Germans at daybreak that morning had landed a crew, consisting of three officers and 40 men, with three Maxims, in charge of the first officer, for the purpose of taking possession of the cable station and wireless plant on Direction Island, from which anchorage the Emden had emerged. Not having met with any resistance, as the population of the island is only about 38 souls, and the island is the private property of the Eastern Extension Company, the Germans had proceeded leisurely with their work, when they found the Emden signalling furiously to them to return. Not having time to get away in the heavy boats, they saw their ship steam away to meet the smoke on the horizon that was rapidly resolving itself into a cruiser. With the other people from the station, the Germans proceeded to the roof of the largest building, where they watched the fight from beginning to end. They seem to have awaited the result with absolute confidence, and it was not until the broadside from the Sydney carried away the Emden’s funnel that the inhabitants were hurried below and placed under an armed guard. With what feelings the Germans must have seen their cruiser blown to pieces can be imagined. They waited until the Sydney had gone off after the collier, and then seized a schooner that was lying in the harbor, the Ayesha, of 70 tons burden, with no auxiliary engine.

The party at once proceeded to put out of action the cable and wireless stations and destroyed the instruments of the latter and cut one of the cables. Supplies were obtained for three months cruise, water was taken aboard, and the schooner was loaded up, so that by the time the Sydney once again approached from the north after her last shots at the Emden, the craft was ready for sea, and just at dusk hauled off. The Sydney was on her way at the time, heading straight for Direction Island, and would in all probability have sighted the departing schooner had not she stopped to pick up another German, who was swimming in the water. He too had been blown off his vessel at the commencement of the action. In the dark the schooner slipped by and escaped.

The casualties on the Sydney had not been heavy for such an engagement. There were three killed and one seriously wounded (since died), four seriously wounded, four wounded and four slightly wounded. Early next morning the Sydney once again steamed back to the Emden. The whole ship was in the most appalling condition.

The men who remained alive on board were nearly half mad with thirst or so stunned that they did not feel anything at all, and were unable to appreciate their position or help themselves. They had all been without water for almost two days, as our shots had wrecked the tanks. The fires had for the same reason to burn themselves out, and though the decks now were cool, the charred bodies that lay round showed what an inferno it must have been as she ran onto the reef. It was a work of the utmost difficulty getting the wounded and even those who were uninjured into the boats.

The stern of the Emden had been shot away, and her decks up to the bows were rent and torn in all directions, while the plates were buckled, bolts had sprung, and the ship was falling to pieces. Nearly every gun had been put out of action, and by some means whole gun crews had been incinerated inside the armored shields. Our lyddite and shrapnel had done appalling work. The aim of our guns must have been deadly in the extreme, and one prisoner admitted quite frankly to an officer, “Your artillery was magnificent.” The last man rescued from the ship was the captain. The captain and a cousin of the Kaiser, who was second torpedo officer and just 20 years of age, were amongst those who had not sustained any injuries.

During the absence of the Sydney a party of 20 men had managed to get ashore to the island. Either they had scrambled from the bows of the wrecked cruiser on to the reef, or they had simply been washed unconscious ashore. It was too late that evening to rescue these men, and it was not till the next morning that the cutter was put off at the westward side of the island on a sandy beach, landing at 5 a.m. The party on shore was in a terrible state. They had been too dazed to attempt even to get the coconuts for food and drink. A German doctor had insisted on drinking sea water, and had gone mad, and died the previous day.

In the meantime the Sydney returned to Direction Island, and took back the doctor and assistant that had been left to tend the wounded, and she was back again by 10 o’clock. The remaining wounded and prisoners were embarked at 10.35, and the Sydney headed for Colombo.

The Sydney resembled a hospital ship. On her decks the men were laid out side by side, and their wounds were attended to as well as possible. The worst cases were given accommodation below, the doctors working day and night to help them in their agony. The heat from the ship and the heat from the sun of the tropics made the conditions dreadful. The prisoners and wounded had scarcely any clothes on at all. One man had a gash in his chest, and he had tied a kimono in a knot and plugged the wound with it by means of a piece of cord. Otherwise he was naked.

The death roll on the cruiser had been appalling. There had been 12 officers killed and 119 men. The wounded taken on board were 56, while there were 115 prisoners, including 11 officers. Many of the wounded subsequently died of their hurts.

The prisoners were placed in the cows, with a small guard over them. A converted cruiser met the Sydney and a great number of the wounded were taken off and then the two vessels proceeded to port.

It was only on close inspection that I could discover the scars which the crew point to now with such pride. A casual glance would have detected in the side a hole about as big as a saucer on the port quarter. This had been the result of one of the high trajectory shots. Owing to the great elevation possible with German guns it had made a curious passage for itself, having missed the funnels and entered a galley amidships, tearing a rent in a steam pipe as it went. Then it traversed a passage and blew away portion of a fitting of an officer’s cabin before it passed between the legs of a desk and out of the side of the ship without exploding. This tracing of the course of the shells was fascinating. I could see where the paint had been scorched off the control stations and where the hammocks that would protect the men from flying splinters were burned brown and black or dyed crimson with blood.

Looking in at the door of one of the messrooms below I was told that one of the crew was standing in that position when he heard a shell strike the side and try to pierce the armor plate. He did not wait long enough to see the great blister it raised — almost as large as a football — before it fell back spent in to the sea. The men were below writing home as I went through to the bow to see the damage done by the shell which had torn up the decks. Some of the men were washing. They laughed when they pointed to the places, now filled up with cement, where the shells had burst, and they showed the notice board and graft flues riddled with holes.

As far as the interior of the ship was concerned, I saw nothing else that suggested an action except the officers’ cabin through which the shell had passed. The only knowledge the engineers had of the action was the distant rumbling of the guns and a small fragment of a lyddite shell that tumbled somehow down a companionway. I wondered if too great praise can be bestowed on the engineers for their work in this crisis.

From 9 a.m, — just before she got into action — until noon, when she left the Emden a wreck on North Keeling Island, the Sydney steamed 68 miles at speeds varying between 15 and 27 knots. As I grew more accustomed to look for the chipped off portions of the ship, I marked the places where shells must have just grazed the decks and fittings. All the holes had been filled in with cement, and the stays had been repaired and the damaged steam pipe was working again. The only break in the water supply for the ship was the cutting off for a few minutes of the refrigerating plant. As I went round while the officers accounted for the whole of the fourteen shots, I wondered how many times the Emden had been hit. It must have been more than 100 times. Our gunners had fired about 650 rounds, the starboard guns firing more than the port, while the German cruiser had fired 1500 rounds, and had practically exhausted all the ammunition that they had. It was not possible for them to fire a torpedo, for the chamber had been destroyed by a shot from our guns quite early in the action.

When the full story of the battle comes to be written, from first to last, no more sterling action will be recorded than that of a petty officer who was in a station when it was wrecked at the outset of the battle. You will recall that two shots got home here, and both injured the five men stationed there. The wounds were nearly all about the legs, and the men were unable to walk, yet they knew that their only chance for their lives was to leave this place as soon as possible. Shells were screaming past. The ship shook under the discharge of the guns.

Less badly wounded than his mates, a petty officer managed to stand, and, though in intense pain, half fell, half lowered himself from this position, which is about 5 feet above the deck. The remainder of the party had simply to throw themselves to the deck, breaking their fall as best they could. The five men pulled themselves across the decks by their hands, wriggling on their stomachs until they reached the companionway. They were all making up their minds to fall down this ladder as well, as their only means of getting below, when the gallant petty officer struggled to his feet and carried his mates down the companionway one by one. As a feat this alone is no mean task, but executed under the conditions, it was a magnificent action of devotion, sacrifice and heroism.

The Emden’s Last Fight. [By the Cable Operator at Cocos Islands.]

The Emden’s Last Fight. [By the Cable Operator at Cocos Islands.] The New York Times Current History of the European War, Vol 1, Issue 4, January 23, 1915, p.758
KEELING, Cocos Islands, Nov. 12, (Dispatch to The London Daily Chronicle.)

It was early on Monday that the unexpected arrival of the German cruiser Emden broke the calm of these isolated little islands, which the distant news of the war had hitherto left unruffled. One of the islands is known as Direction Island, and here the Eastern Telegraph Company has a cable station and a staff engaged in relaying messages between Europe and Australia. Otherwise the inhabitants are all Malays, with the exception of the descendants of June Clunies Ross, a British naval officer who came to these islands ninety years ago and founded the line of “Uncrowned Kings.” The war seemed to be very far away. The official bulletins passed through the cable station, but they gave us very little real news, and the only excitement was when it was rumored that the company was sending out rifles in case of a raid on the stations, and orders came that the beach must be patrolled by parties on the lookout for Germans. Then we heard from Singapore that a German cruiser had been dispatched to these islands, and toward the end of August one of the cable staff thought he saw searchlights out over the sea. Then suddenly we were awakened from our calm and were made to feel that we had suddenly become the most important place in the whole worldwide war area. At 6 o’clock on Monday morning a four-funneled cruiser arrived at full speed at the entrance to the lagoon. Our suspicions were aroused, for she was flying no flag and her fourth funnel was obviously a dummy made of painted canvas. Therefore we were not altogether surprised at the turn of events. The cruiser at once lowered away an armored launch and two boats, which came ashore and landed on Coral Beach three officers and forty men, all fully armed and having four Maxim guns. The Germans–for all doubt about the mysterious cruiser was now at end–at once rushed up to the cable station, and, entering the office, turned out the operators, smashed the instruments, and set armed guards over all the buildings. All the knives and firearms found in possession of the cable staff were at once confiscated. I should say here that, in spite of the excitement on the outside, all the work was carried on in the cable office as usual right up to the moment when the Germans burst in. A general call was sent out just before the wireless apparatus was blown up. The whole of the staff was placed under an armed guard while the instruments were being destroyed, but it is only fair to say that the Germans, working in well-disciplined fashion under their officers, were most civil. There was no such brutality as we hear characterizes the German Army’s behavior toward civilians, and there were no attempts at pillaging. While the cable station was being put out of action the crew of the launch grappled for the cables and endeavored to cut them, but fortunately without success. The electrical stores were then blown up. At 9 A.M. we heard the sound of a siren from the Emden, and this was evidently the signal to the landing party to return to the ship, for they at once dashed for the boats, but the Emden got under way at once and the boats were left behind. Looking to the eastward, we could see the reason for this sudden departure, for a warship, which we afterward learned was the Australian cruiser Sydney, was coming up at full speed in pursuit. The Emden did not wait to discuss matters, but, firing her first shot at a range of about 3,700 yards, steamed north as hard as she could go. At first the firing of the Emden seemed excellent, while that of the Sydney was somewhat erratic. This, as I afterward learned, was due to the fact that the Australian cruiser’s range-finder was put out of action by one of the only two shots the Germans got home. However, the British gunners soon overcame any difficulties that this may have caused and settled down to their work, so that before long two of the Emden’s funnels had been shot away. She also lost one of her masts quite early in the fight. Both blazing away with their big guns, the two cruisers disappeared below the horizon, the Emden being on fire. After the great naval duel passed from our sight and we could turn our attention to the portion of the German crew that had been left behind, we found that these men had put off in their boats obedient to the signal of the siren, but when their ship steamed off without them they could do nothing else but come ashore again. On relanding they lined up on the shore of the lagoon, evidently determined to fight to the finish if the British cruiser sent a party ashore, but the dueling cruiser had disappeared, and at 6 P.M. the German raiders embarked on the old schooner Ayessa, which belongs to Mr. Ross, the “uncrowned king” of the islands. Seizing a quantity of clothes and stores, they sailed out, and have not been seen since. Early the next morning, Tuesday, Nov. 10, we saw the Sydney returning, and at 8:45 A.M. she anchored off the island. From various members of the crew I gathered some details of the running fight with the Emden. The Sydney, having an advantage in speed, was able to keep out of range of the Emden’s guns and to bombard her with her own heavier metal. The engagement lasted eighty minutes, the Emden finally running ashore on North Keeling Island and becoming an utter wreck. Only two German shots proved effective. One of these failed to explode, but smashed the main range finder and killed one man. The other killed three men and wounded fourteen. Each of the cruisers attempted to torpedo the other, but both were unsuccessful, and the duel proved a contest in hard pounding at long range. The Sydney’s speed during the fighting was twenty-six knots and the Emden’s twenty-four knots, the British ship’s superiority of two knots enabling her to choose the range at which the battle should be fought, and to make the most of her superior guns. The Sydney left here at 11 A.M. Tuesday in the hope of picking up any of the survivors of the Buresk, the collier that had been in attendance on the Emden and was sunk after an engagement on the previous day. Finally, with a number of wounded prisoners on board, the Sydney left here yesterday, and our few hours of war excitement were over.

SMS Emden and HMAS Sydney

Sydney has a new public transport ticketing system. It is touted as being much better than the previous system but one Image019unfortunate consequence was that the multi-journey tickets under the old system were given a sunset date: 30 June 2010. This is of no consequence to frequent bus travellers who quickly get through multi-journey tickets but I suspect many bus travellers are like me: I don’t catch buses very often so my ‘Travel-10’ lasts me for many months. To use up my ticket I decided to have some lunchtime escapades by taking a bus into the CBD from where I work at Haymarket.

On my travels I visited two pieces of interesting and related First World War military history. Walking back through Hyde Park I stopped at the gun taken from the wreck of the German cruiser SMS Emden.

On another day I took a bus from Wynyard over the Harbour Bridge to Milson’s Point so I could see the bow of HMAS Sydney which is set into the sea-wall, underneath and just to the east of the bridge.

Prior to the First World War Germany held a colony at Jiaozhou Bay on the east coast of China. Germany maintained this outpost for reasons of trade but also to provide a strategic presence for its navy in the Pacific. The city of Tsingtao was the administrative centre of the colony and also home to the German naval base.Image031

The SMS Emden was built in Danzig and launched in May 1908. It displaced 3,364 tonnes, was 118 m long, had a top speed of 43 km/h and was armed with ten 105 mm guns.The Emden was assigned to the German East Asia Squadron, commanded by Vice Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee, and stationed at Tsingtao. In May 1913 Captain Karl von Müller took command of the Emden. In August 1913 the Emden took part in a joint action with British, US and Japanese warships against an uprising of Chinese rebels along the Yangtze River.

During 1914 a war in Europe seemed increasingly likely. The day before war was declared, the 31st July, von Müller left Tsingtao, fearful that the Emden might be trapped by an allied fleet. On August 13 the squadron met at Pagan Island in the northern Marianas where it was agreed that the Emden would sail to the Indian Ocean to harry British and Dominion merchant shipping while the rest of the squadron would attempt to return to Germany via the Pacific and Cape Horn.

Winston Churchill wrote that Graf Spee and the German East Asia Squadron would SMS_Emdenbe doomed once war was declared: “a cut flower in a vase, fair to see yet bound to die.” The squadron was made up of ships mostly inferior to the latest British cruisers and coal and other supplies in the Pacific and Indian oceans were in the hands of the Allies. Spee made his way through the South Pacific, coaling at Easter Island, until he met the British South Atlantic Squadron, under Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, off the coast of Chile. On the 1st November the ‘Battle of Coronel’ resulted in the sinking of two British armoured cruisers. There were no survivors from the combined crew of 1600, which included Cradock. While the British Admiralty saw this as a disastrous defeat Spee knew that this was the beginning of the end for his squadron: he had used more than half his ammunition and had no way to re-arm. Spee received a hero’s welcome from the German inhabitants of Valparaiso then moved the squadron to Mas Afuera some 600 km off the coast. Spee decided to round Cape Horn and attack Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands but the British Admiralty by then had had time to greatly reinforce the South Atlantic and so, on the 8th December, the German East Asia Squadron was destroyed by a superior force.

Meanwhile the Emden had been disrupting shipping in the Indian Ocean –  sinking or seizing more than 20 Allied ships. After leaving Pagan Island von Müller spent most of the rest of August  preparing for his mission. The Emden had already been mistaken once by the Dutch for an English cruiser so to complete the charade a dummy fourth funnel was erected. From a distance the Emden now looked quite like the HMS Yarmouth which was hunting for the Emden. On 28 August the Emden slipped through the narrow strait between Bali and Lombok into the Indian Ocean, her collier Markomannia several miles astern.

Captain von Müller saw himself as a gentleman officer which meant that his goal was the destruction of allied assets but wherever possible he rescued sailors. Typically he would fire over the bows of his victims, remove the crew, scuttle the ship, then transfer the crew to some other vessel for subsequent release.

During September von Müller captured 17 ships. This had the intended effect of shutting down the Indian Ocean trade route. The British Admiralty closed the Colombo-Singapore route and for commercial shipping very high insurance premiums made trade uneconomical. In response warships from the British, Australian, French, Japanese and Russian navies attempted to hunt down the Emden.


On September 23rd the Emden attacked facilities at Madras harbour, destroying the oil storage tanks of the Burmah Oil Company. Upon hearing the news Churchill was furious:

“The escape of the Emden from the Bay of Bengal is most unsatisfactory, and I do not understand on what principle the operations of the four cruisers Hampshire, Yarmouth, Dupleix and Chikuma have been concerted….Who is the senior captain of these four ships? Is he a good man? If so, he should be told to hoist a commodore’s broad pennant and take command of the squadron which…should devote itself exclusively to hunting the Emden.”

The Emden steamed south to the waters around Ceylon then on to Chagos Archipelago and the Maldives, capturing many more ships over a 3 week period, including the collier Buresk with a load of Welsh coal. During this period von Müller learned from the captain of one of the captured ships that the Malayan port of Panang was being used by allied warships. He and his crew also knew that it was only a matter of time before the Emden was hunted down so it was important to keep moving and to attempt more ambitious targets while still able to.

On the 28th October the Emden entered Panang harbour and sank a Russian cruiser: the Zhemchug. Then just outside the harbour it engaged and sank the French destroyer Mousquet. The next major target was the wireless station and telegraph cable on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Von Müller had previously arranged for a captured collier, the Exford, to meet the Emden near these remote islands. The plan was to destroy the communications facilities then carry out coaling and some much-needed maintenance. The name ‘Cocos (Keeling) Islands’ is used to differentiate them from the Cocos Islands in the Bay of Bengal. William Keeling of the East India Company discovered the islands in 1609.

Last_Battle-of_SMS_Emden_aThe Emden anchored off Direction Island, the northernmost of the Cocos group, at 6am on November 9. A landing party of 50 was sent ashore to destroy the radio tower and equipment. This was done but not before a message had been sent that an enemy cruiser had been sighted, possibly the Emden. Von Müller was not to know that an Allied convoy was barely 50 miles away. This was the first convoy transporting Australian troops from Fremantle to Colombo, on their way to Egypt and the trenches of the Western Front. HMAS Sydney left the convoy and steamed south.

At 9am the Emden’s lookout reported a ship approaching from the north. Initially they thought it was their collier, the Buresk, but soon realised it was an Allied cruiser. The Emden blew its whistle to order the landing party to return as quickly as possible but it was too late. The Emden weighed anchor immediately and steamed north to meet the Sydney which had bigger guns, heavier armour and greater speed. Von Müller knew his only chance of victory was get within range with his 105 mm guns, knock out some of the Sydney’s 6 in. guns, then get close enough to use torpedoes. At 9.40am the Emden opened fire and had early success. It destroyed the Sydney’s rangefinder during the first salvo which prevented the Sydney from making direct hits for some time. But the superior speed of the Sydney allowed it to stay at a distance that was on the limit of the Emden’s range while its own guns found their range through trial and error. Once the Sydney’s gunners found their range the Emden was pounded to destruction. Von Müller ran the Emden aground on a reef just off North Keeling Island to give his crew a chance to get to shore.

The German landing party left behind on Direction Island had witnessed the early phase of the battle and realised that whatever the outcome they were on their own. Rather than wait for the Sydney (or some other Allied ship) to return they commandeered an old schooner, the 97 ton Ayesha, spent the rest of the day repairing and loading, then sailed north towards Sumatra. The Ayesha was owned by the Clunies Ross family but it had not been used for some years and was suffering from dry rot. Despite it being barely sea-worthy the party, under Lieutenant Captain Hellmuth von Mücke, decided that taking a chance on the open seas was preferable to waiting on Direction Island to be captured. What followed was one of the greatest adventures in naval history.

[The Australian War Memorial website provides access to a collection of photos, gathered from various sources, which show the events on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Here is a photo of the German landing party leaving Direction Island with the Ayesha in the background].


Von Mücke’s timing was perfect. The Ayesha must have passed closely to the Sydney that evening because the cruiser had returned to Direction Island but did not have sufficient day-light to enter the harbour. Von Mücke and his crew had an uncomfortable three week journey to Sumatra. The Ayesha was designed for a crew of 5 not 50. Perhaps it was fortunate the boat leaked the whole time as it gave the crew something to do. Food and drinking water were in short supply. Fortune was also on their side when they sailed into the Samatran port of Padang on the 26th October. The neutral Dutch authorities said that a Japanese ship which had been cruising up and down the coast on the lookout for them had gone off to coal just a few hours before their arrival. The Dutch wanted to intern this band of itinerate combatants but von Mücke convinced them that the Ayesha was a German warship and that they should be allowed to provision and be on their way.

During von Mücke’s 24 hours at Padang he met with the German Consul who arranged for the procurement of a German-owned merchant steamer and briefed him on events since the outbreak of war – importantly that Turkey was an ally of Germany and that it controlled much of the Arabian peninsula. So a return to Germany via Arabia and Turkey was considered a possibility. Von Mücke and his crew sailed back out to sea on the Ayesha to wait for the promised vessel.

On December 14 von Mücke and his crew met the Choising. It was more spacious than the Ayesha  but it was hardly more sea-worthy and, being a Chinese coastal steamer, had no maps of the Indian ocean. Nevertheless they successfully crossed the Indian Ocean in it, evaded the British blockade at the entrance to the Red Sea, and landed at Turkish controlled Yemen on January 8, 1915.

Crossing the Indian Ocean aboard the Choising may have been a challenge but for these sailors the prospect of an overland march of many thousands of kilometres must have had them reminiscing about their days on the Ayesha. For 5 months Von Mücke and his men travelled by camel and foot, dodged French and British patrols in the Red Sea, negotiated safe passage through Turkish controlled areas and fought a pitched battle with 500 Bedouin tribesman who were part of Lawrence of Arabia’s irregular forces. On 7 May they reached the rail head at Al Ula where the German government had organised a train to take them to Constantinople.

Von Mücke concludes his story in the ‘Voyage of the Emden’:

“In Northern Arabia we had to take to the land once more and so without further incident we reached the southern end of the Syrian railway, where we exchanged our camel saddles for railway carriage cushions. A few weeks later we delivered the flag of the “Emden” to our German Naval Authorities in Constantinople. So, in June 1915, among the roses of Constantinople, ended our journey which had begun in November 1914 under the palms of the Cocos Islands in the Far East”.

The survivors from the wrecked Emden, including Captain von Müller, were collected by the HMAS Sydney and taken to Colombo. Conditions were cramped onboard so some were transferred to the SS Empress of Russia during the journey. At Colombo 50 wounded POWs were landed ashore for hospital treatment while the others were transferred to 3 transport ships which were part of the first ANZAC convoy to Egypt. The wounded POWs were eventually shipped back to Rottnest Island and then interned at Holsworthy and Berrima near Sydney. After landing in Alexandria von Müller and the others were transported to a POW camp on the island of Malta.

Further reading:

Overlack, P. 1996, The Force of Circumstance: Graf Spee’s Options for the East Asian Cruiser Squadron in 1914,
The Journal of Military History, Vol. 60, No. 4, Oct 1996, pp. 657-682

Von Muecke, H. 1917, The Voyage of the Emden, trans Helene S. White, Ritter & Co., Boston, Mass. [avail. via the internet archive]

Hohenzollern, Franz Joseph Prince of, 1928, Emden : my experiences in S.M.S. Emden, H. Jenkins limited, London

Hoyt, E.P. 1967, The last cruise of the Emden, Andre Deutsch, London

Lochner, R.K. 1988, The last gentleman-of-war : the raider exploits of the cruiser Emden, trans Thea and Harry Lindauer, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md.

Writer, L. 2009, First blood : Australia’s first great sea battle, Media 21, Double Bay, N.S.W.

Taylor, J. M. 2007, Audacious Cruise of the Emden, MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, Summer 2007, 19:4, pp.38-47

How The Emden Was Smashed, The Age, 3 Dec 1914 [was available as part of the 150th anniversary of The Age but seems to be no longer available online so I have kept a copy]

The Emden’s Last Fight. [By the Cable Operator at Cocos Islands.] The New York Times Current History of the European War, Vol 1, Issue 4, January 23, 1915, p.758 [This is available online but I always seem to have trouble locating so I have kept a copy.

A German dramatisation is available on youtube:

British archeological TV shows

I really enjoy putting my feet up and watching some guys digging in a soggy trench and going ooh-aah when they find a bit of old pottery or lump of rust. Time Team has been a favourite for a long time. Baldrick from Blackadder (aka Tony Robinson) is the host but he has a bunch of side-kicks. These include a guy who looks and sounds like Catweazle, and another with a west country drawl and funny hat.

Not to be confused with Tony Robinson talking about the Worst Jobs in History.

TimeTeam2007_0 PhilHardingArchaeologist

More recently I’ve begun watching Two Men in a Trench. The two men, Neil Oliver and Tony Pollard, investigate battlefield archeology and like to dress up in period gear. They also have a team of diggers and experts. A notable expert is Andy Robertshaw who runs the Royal Logistic Corps Museum (standing behind the Red Coat).

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10 December 2009: I’m also enjoying ‘A History of Scotland’ on SBS at the moment. So far the first episode of five has been screened. It covered the early history: the Roman invasion of northern Britain and their withdrawal as far south as Hadrian’s Wall, the conflict between Picts and Gaels and the establishment of the Kingdom of Alba.

16 December 2009: sometimes Neil Oliver overdoes his emphatic delivery. It leaves him with nowhere to go when he wants to reach a crescendo. I’m waiting for him to yell “and then we were overun by the FUCKING ENGLISH !! BASTARDS!!!”

21 December 2009: Robert the Bruce, King Robert I of the Scots (1274-1329), versus King Edward I (1239-1307) of England. What a bloody mess.

6 January 2010: I missed episode 4 (the rise of the Stewart royal family and the creation of the highland/lowland divide) but saw the finale, episode 5. Neil seemed to have calmed down. Maybe he knew that the series was coming to an end, as was Scotland as an autonomous kingdom.