The Last Voyageof the Emden
A German World War I raider’s odyssey with Australian and Sri Lankan links.

The German World War I (WWI) raider SMS Emden left behind a story that as the years rolled by, became a legend. The main players were Germany, UK and Australia, but the last voyage of this vessel touched lives in Sri Lanka and India. The name ‘Emden’ entered the languages of the two countries, Sinhala and Tamil in Sri Lanka and Tamil and Malayalee in South India (Emandan in Malayalee), meaning a dangerous, tough and resourceful person. In Sri Lanka, in addition to spreading "shock and awe" among the colonisers and the colonised, it created complications in the life of a Boer prisoner of war, Englelbrecht, who was living peacefully in the deep south of the country. The Australian connection came through the RAN light cruiser, the Sydney that scored the first Australian naval victory in WWI when she forced the Emden aground at North Keeling Island. That location too has tragic links to Sri Lanka due to the Cocos Island mutiny in World War II. In addition, Cocos Islands are well known to Sri Lankan fishing vessels operating in those waters.

But the last voyage of the Emden was a fantastic story by itself, rivaling the yarns of sea adventure by C.S.Forester or Patrick O’Brian. Neither Hornblower nor Maturin could outdo Korvettenkapitan (Commander) Karl von Muller, the Captain of the Emden in audacity, courage or chivalry. Emden was launched on May 26, 1908 as a light cruiser. She was named after the city of the same name in north Germany that sponsored the construction. Twelve boilers powered two piston-driven shafts giving her a maximum speed of 24 knots, but the propulsion system was already out of date. Her sister ship, the Dresden, had steam turbine power. Emden’s boilers had to be fuelled manually with coal. Men had to work hard in the grinding heat of the tropics, feeding the 12 hungry boilers, shovel load after back-breaking shovel load. The sleek lines of the ship earned her the nickname of the "Swan of the East". Ten quick firing four-inch (105mm) guns and two transversely mounted torpedo tubes gave her teeth. But she was out-gunned by most of the newer British cruisers with their six-inch guns and multiple torpedo launchers during her lonely albeit short, explosive career in the Indian Ocean, thousands of kilometres from her home port, with no friendly ports or warships for assistance.

What gave Emden an advantage was the amazing ingenuity of her Captain and the sheer guts and tenacity of her 360-man crew. The son of a Prussian army officer, the young von Muller broke with tradition to join the German Navy, but promotion came slow due to his reticence to push himself into the limelight. He was always humane, and chivalrous to the point of fault, sometimes going out of his way to halt ships so that he could convey his apologies to captains of ships where he felt that he had not done the correct thing. Crews of ships attacked by the Emden were allowed to leave the ship before it was sunk, taken on board, looked after and handed over to neutral ships. Von Muller’s Executive Officer was the equally capable Kapitanleutnant (Lt.Commander) Hellmuth von Mucke who managed to extricate the shore party under his command sent to the Cocos to destroy the radio base and sail them away to safety in the commandeered schooner, the Ayesha. Leutnant der Reserve Lauterbach was a former captain of a German passenger liner. Highly efficient staff work kept the captain up to date with all the necessary information for successful tactical action.

Von Muller took command of the Emden on May 1913. Prior to the outbreak of the war, Emden served with the German Eastern Fleet under Rear Admiral Maximilian von Spee and saw action during a rebellion in China. Von Muller received encomiums for putting a rebel fort out of action with accurate gunfire while sailing up the Yangtse River. In August 1914 the Emden left the Fleet and embarked on the epic eleven-week sortie during which she captured or sank 23 mercantile ships, two warships, destroyed the oil storage facilities at Madras (Chennai) and spread terror around the Indian Ocean. Warships from UK, France, Russia and Japan were deployed to stop the Emden. The Mowe (37 ships sunk) and the Wolf (27 ships) were the only German raiders to sink more ships during WWI. But both these ships relied heavily on laying mines rather than on guns and torpedoes, and in the case of the Wolf, 13 of the kills were from exploding mines. Both ships survived the war.

The Emden sailed through neutral Dutch territory, surviving an encounter with a Dutch warship and appeared out of the blue in the Bay of Bengal on the East Coast of India, where in September she took eight prizes in quick succession. After operating in the region, she headed back to India where on 22 September she destroyed the British oil storage facility at Madras. Her expert gunnery enabled the Emden to fire 130 shells, destroying the oil facilities with very little collateral damage. The Japanese Cruiser Chikuma tasked with the protection of Madras was in Colombo, the crew enjoying Sri Lankan hospitality. While the damage done to the city was not very serious, it caused untold panic in Madras. Then, sailing down the East Coast of Sri Lanka, she rounded Dondra Head and within the next four weeks captured thirteen ships. The Emden patrolled 30 miles off the port of Colombo, but did not mount an attack due to the city being on the alert after the Madras episode. But she captured the Tymeric as she came out of Colombo. The mighty colonial empire of the British took a heavy blow in morale. As far as the Indian Ocean was concerned, Britannia no longer ruled the waves. It stopped being a British lake.

It was during the cruise around the south of Sri Lanka that the Emden entered the life of Engelbrecht, a Boer prisoner of war who had, after the cessation of hostilities in South Africa, settled down to a life of peace in the deep south of Sri Lanka. He had been given an appointment as a game ranger at Yala. This tranquility came to an end when it was rumoured that he had been in clandestine contact with the German ship and had supplied it with provisions – meat from the sanctuary. As a result, he lost his position as ranger, and was imprisoned in Kandy until he was released due to lack of evidence. It was very much later, in 1931 when the second Emden visited Colombo that the allegation could be laid to rest. The Captain of the new ship had served with its earlier namesake, and was able to provide an affidavit that Engelbrecht had nothing to do with the German raider.

By this time the Emden was a legend during her lifetime. Newspapers all over the world had headlines covering her triumphs. When she captured a ship carrying a cargo, inter alia, of toilet soap, the soap manufacturers used the story in a very successful advertisement campaign, claiming that the Emden targeted the ship for that brand of soap! Much was made of stories from survivors from ships sunk by the Emden regaling the world with stories of the chivalrous behaviour of Capt. von Muller. In UK, Winston Churchill wrote to the First Sea Lord on October 1 complaining bitterly of the angst caused by Emden’s continued existence: "I wish to point out to you most clearly that the irritation caused by an indefinite continuance of the Emden’s captures will do great damage to Admiralty reputation."

In the midst of all this publicity, the Emden carried on with her voyage of mayhem and destruction. Occasionally, the crew added an oval, dummy funnel of painted canvas to her three funnels, giving her at a distance a reasonable similarity to the four-stack British cruiser, the Yarmouth. At Penang, she destroyed the Russian cruiser, the Zhemchug, with two torpedoes, causing some loss of life. On this occasion, the Emden entered the Penang harbour at speed, flying British colours, an accepted ruse de guerre. But she went into action under the German flag. The Russian Captain and his Number Two were ashore having left the ship in a state of disarray. Both ended up in prison in Russia for their lapse. A plucky French destroyer, the Mosquet, took up the pursuit, only to be sunk for her pains by the bigger German ship. Von Muller took the trouble to send an apology to the Russians for his failure to pick up survivors, and to an unarmed pilot boat he had opened fire upon by error during the encounter.

Capt. von Muller then paid an audacious visit to the British Island of Diego Garcia, where the British officials were unaware that there was a war on, although the manager of facility had his suspicions aroused by the warlike nature of the ship. The ship underwent minor repairs, was coaled, and seen off with great hospitality by the company officials who were in for an unpleasant shock when the next visitor, the Empress of Russia, informed them of the situation.

The last task undertaken by Capt. Von Muller was an attempt to destroy the British communications base at Cocos Island. He arrived there on 9 November1914 and dispatched a shore party of 50 men under his Executive Officer, von Mucke, to carry out the task on Direction Island, and by doing so, strike a serious blow to the British war effort in the Indian Ocean. Once again he had erected the fourth stack to impersonate HMS Yarmouth. But this time, the ruse did not work. The base managed to send out two radio calls, one with the succinct message – "SOS Emden here".

An Australian convoy escorted by four warships, about 53 miles away, received the message. HMAS Sydney, a fast cruiser with six-inch guns was detached to investigate. Commanded by Capt. (later Vice-Admiral) John Glossop, a Royal Navy officer on secondment to the Australian Navy, the Sydney was more than capable of dealing with the German ship. The shells from the four-inch guns of the Emden would bounce off her armour at long range, and with her superior speed, the Sydney could easily keep her out of effective range and inflict punishment with her own guns. But the game German picked up the gauntlet for this unequal contest. The Emden headed towards her foe with her guns blazing, firing 1500 rounds in the one and a half-hour battle. The Krupp rapid-fire guns, with a firing rate of 16 rounds per minute, could have three salvos in the air at the same time and the ability to elevate the guns to 30 degrees came as a surprise to the Australians. The early salvos destroyed the fire control system of the Sydney, put one gun out of action, killed four men and wounded several others before Glossop moved the bigger ship out of Emden’s range. Then the Australians pounded the German ship relentlessly, firing 670 rounds at long range, killing men, destroying guns and blowing the stacks down. Von Muller had only one way of avoiding being sunk. He ran his ship aground on North Keeling Island.

The Sydney broke off action to look for Emden’s support ship and on return, due to confusion in signaling, and as von Muller had failed to lower the German flag, fired several more rounds into the wreck killing twenty men. But Capt. Glossop did not lack a spirit of chivalry. Such attitudes were not unusual in days before war became total and brutal. These were days when fighter pilots called off combat when the opponent ran out of ammunition. On seeing the plight of the Emden, he sent the following note to von Muller.

HMAS Sydney, at sea
The Captain, HIGMS Emden

I have the honour to request that in the name of humanity you now surrender your ship to me. In order to show how much I appreciate your gallantry, I will recapitulate the position.

(1.) You are ashore, three funnels and one mast down and most guns disabled.

(2.) You cannot leave this island, and my ship is intact.

In the event of your surrendering in which I venture to remind you is no disgrace but rather your misfortune I will endeavor to do all I can for your sick and wounded and take them to a hospital. I have the honour to be,

Your obedient Servant,
John Glossop
Captain .

Von Muller had no option but to surrender. His Executive Officer was still ashore with the party detailed to destroy the communications centre. The Emden was in no condition to fight back. Nearly half of her crew were killed or wounded. Her guns could not be aimed and the torpedo tubes flooded. Attempts to evacuate the ship had failed. He accepted the terms and after some futile steps to destroy the ship, was the last to leave her.

The Sydney took von Muller to Colombo from where he was sent to Malta and England. He died in1923 of Malaria, a sickness he had contacted in Africa during his early career in the German Navy. Among those who survived was the 2nd Torpedo Officer, Prince Franz Joseph von Hohenzollern, the young nephew of the Kaiser. The shore party under von Mucke sent to destroy the communication network in the Cocos gave the British the slip by commandeering the almost decrepit schooner Ayesha and sailing away. Hellmuth von Mucke had his own saga on the return trip, bluffing his way out of neutral territory, and travelling through the Middle East, braving the desert and warring Arabs led by Lawrence of Arabia who were fighting the pro-German Turks. He reached Germany, receiving a hero’s welcome, and wrote a gripping tale of the adventures. He saw further service during he war and eventually died in 1957. Leutnant der Reserve Julius Lauterbach, the jovial ex-passenger liner captain, detached to command a captured vessel, was captured, escaped, and went on to further adventures in command of a raider. But this last venture of the Emden had been in vain, as the British reassembled their communication equipment with spares they had hidden from the Germans and were soon back in business.

The story of the Emden is one of courage, intrepidity, and absolute dedication in the face of fearful odds. The warlike spirit of von Muller and his men was tempered with humanity and chivalry. It earned the respect of friend and foe. Unfortunately such stories are rare in today’s world.

The battered hulk of the Emden lay where she ran aground, with souvenir hunters and scavengers carting off whatever they could. In 1952, a Japanese salvage company took away the bulk of what was left. Two guns from the ship are on display in Hyde Park, Sydney and the War Memorial, Canberra. Today, a few pieces, including the drive shafts, still polished by the moving tides, and some shells lie in comparatively shallow water off the island, all that is left of the once proud and feared "Swan of the East". It is now a protected site, but diving on the Emden can be done with prior permission, under strict controls. The ship may have perished, but her memory is part of the annals of the sea, and will remain so for the predictable future.

Ref: Australian War Memorial Records, The Voyage of the Emden by Hellmuth von Mucke. Hoyt, Edwin P, The Last Cruise of the Emden, monograph, War Memorial, Canberra.1966. Ireland, Bernard, War at Sea 1914-45, Cassell, London 2002. Burns, Ross, The World War I Album, Saturn Books, London, 1997. Marshall, Chris, The Encyclopaedia of Ships, Orbis, Leicester, 1995.

(The writer is a retired Senior DIG Police now living in Australia)

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