One hundred years ago, a daring yet chivalrous German captain was making a mockery of Britain's rule of the waves. It took an untested Australian warship to end it.
World War I was barely three months old, but the exploits of Captain Karl von Muller and his 3500 tonne raider-cruiser SMS Emden had already become a feared – but respected – legend.
The German had wreaked havoc in the Pacific and Indian Oceans and choked the British Empire’s lifelines: 25 allied cargo ships and two warships had fallen or been taken captive under Emden’s guns.
Through extraordinary chivalry, Emden’s actions had claimed very few lives. Every cargo ship was boarded and respectfully asked to surrender. As valuable cargoes were plundered or sunk, passengers and crew were politely assembled aboard another captured ship until it was deemed safe to set them loose.
Through such valiance, Von Muller and Emden won the grudging respect of a world at war. Despite heavy censorship, the Empire’s media followed his exploits with a strange mix of fear and pride: Here was a man who embodied the highest naval traditions and ideals.
Pity he was German.
But SMS Emden and the German Asian Squadron was having a serious effect on the war effort.
Tens of thousands of fresh young ANZACs, eager to race to the rescue of the mother country, were left sitting. The cruise liners carrying them were simply too vulnerable to risk.
It was Australia’s worst nightmare: A German warship on the loose, sinking ships seemingly at whim. Crews were refusing to set sail lest they fall to Emden and her courteous captain. It had to be sunk - or at least stopped.
On November 1, Australia’s and New Zealand’s politicians gathered courage to act. The vast fleet of 38 transport ships finally nosed their way out of their safe harbour of Albany and into the Indian Ocean. On board were 20,000 Australian and New Zealand troops and 7800 horses. Guarding them were four sleek, grey warships. Two of them were brand-new cruisers belonging to the fledgling Royal Australian Navy: HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Sydney.
News of the secret convoy had reached Captain von Muller. It was exactly the opportunity he had trained for.
He knew a solo attack on such an assembly of ships would be suicide. But von Muller also knew Emden’s ten 4.1-inch guns and two torpedo tubes could do immeasurable damage if he could just get his ship in among those vulnerable transports.
What he didn’t know was where or when they would depart.
As the first rays of the sun lifted over the horizon on November 9, 1914, the silhouette of a British warship was seen to glide to a stop just within the entrance of the idyllic Cocos Islands lagoon.
At least, that’s what one employee of the Australasia & China Telegraph Company thought. It had the distinctive four funnels of many British cruiser designs and he’d been listening in on the broadcasts of a nearby warship - HMS Minotaur - in recent days.
Its arrival was news enough for him to turn away from his beckoning bed, even though he’d just finished the night shift maintaining the vital communications link between Australia and the rest of the world. Visitors were an event not to be missed and the station had to roll out the welcome mat.
But station doctor Harold Ollerhead knew something about ships. Something didn’t look right.
So he climbed a roof for a clearer look even as a little cluster of ship’s boats began to make their way towards the shore.
The foremost funnel was a fake. He saw it to be a flimsy construction of wood and canvas.
He shouted an alarm.
The telegraph office flashed out a message on the airwaves and undersea cables: “S.O.S., S.O.S, S.O.S. STRANGE WARSHIP AT ENTRANCE.”
Then, with more certainty:
“S.O.S. EMDEN HERE.”
HMS Minotaur heard the call. It tapped out its acknowledgment, changed course and built up to full steam.
Emden heard it also. Warships were the raider’s greatest fear and her radio operators were forever listening for clues as to where the enemy may be.
But Captain von Muller was unconcerned – the signal was distant, at least 400 kilometres away. Even at full speed, a cruiser simply could not cover that much ground in less than 10 hours.
Plenty of time to wreck the vital transmitting facility and slip away.
He was wrong.
Von Muller was oblivious to the location of the secret convoy.
It was very close.
Just over the horizon was the cluster of anxious escorts and vulnerable troop ships carrying the first ANZACS on their way to Egypt.
Even as the 50-strong crisply dressed, impeccably well-mannered – and heavily armed – German raiding party politely asked the telegraphists to stop sending their S.O.S., the 5400 tonne warship HMAS Sydney had swung its bows towards them.
Seiner Majestat Schiff (His Majesty’s Ship) Emden was a light cruiser of the German East Asia Squadron.
Completed in 1909, she no longer represented the absolute cutting-edge of naval technology. Germany now had a fleet of bigger, faster cruisers.
But she was still an impressive, useful ship.
Her graceful lines belied the deadly nature of the ten modern-design 4.1inch rapid-fire guns and two torpedo tubes she carried. But her 118 metres of crisp, clean engineering had earned her the nickname “Swan of the East”.
Weighing in at 3300 tons, SMS Emden had one weakness. She was capable only of 22 knots. Most newer generation warships could push through the waters at speeds above 25.
But Emden had legs: With full bunkers of coal and careful handling, the little cruiser could travel some 6000 kilometres without refuelling.
She was the ideal ship to strike fear into the British Empire, and plans were drawn up to use her and her companions to bombard Australian ports and choke the vital trade routes of the British Empire.
The captains: Karl Von Mueller
Born in Hanover on June 16, 1873, Karl von Muller came from a family with a distinguished history in the German army. He broke tradition when he joined the navy in 1891.
Recorded as a quiet and serious gentleman, he gradually climbed through the ranks to work within the navy’s head office. But, like all naval officers, what he really wanted was a ship to command at sea. That opportunity came in 1913 when he was assigned to the glistening white cruiser Emden, stationed amid Germany’s far-flung Asian outposts.
Under the leadership of Vizeadmiral von Spee, Captain von Muller came to embrace the secret strategy of dashing into the arterial sea lanes and sinking merchant ships, then vanishing into the expanse of ocean before an enemy’s navy could respond.
It was not Captain von Muller’s job to clash with the British in battle. Instead he was to strike fear into the hearts and minds of merchant sea captains and the industries they fed.
The graceful SMS Emden was ideally suited to such a role.
November 9, 1914, had been a quiet morning for the warships shepherding the orderly rows of hastily converted liners.
The escort commander, aboard HMAS Melbourne, had just finished instructing his ships to take up their usual daylight positions at the convoy’s fringes.
Radio silence was strict. Orders were passed by flag, flashing lamps and siren blasts.
But the morning routine was broken at 6.30am when the Cocos’ urgent plea was received: “S.O.S. STRANGE SHIP APPROACHING”.
HMAS Melbourne’s captain immediately ordered his own ship to build up speed. But he hesitated: His was the sole responsibility for keeping the tens of thousands of fresh-faced New Zealand and Australian soldiers safe.
He had to stay with the convoy.
Melbourne’s sister ship, HMAS Sydney, was expectant and ready.
“RAISE STEAM FOR FULL SPEED, PROCEED COCOS”.
It was exactly what Captain John Glossop and his 433 eager young Australian crew wanted to hear.
The soldiers aboard the troop ships knew something was afoot. The silent grey wolves of the sea which had accompanied them across the Southern and Indian Oceans had suddenly started spouting smoke.
With a roar and whoosh of spray, HMAS Sydney heeled sharply and powered away.
One of three cruisers ordered for the newly formed Royal Australian Navy in 1910, HMAS Sydney was designed “go anywhere and do anything”. It was the very definition of a naval cruiser.
Like most British warships of her type, Sydney carried four distinctive smokestacks on her 5400 tonne hull. Cladding the side were slabs of three-inch thick armour designed to protect the vital engineroom.
Those engines could drive the ship through the water at 26 knots.
The eight 6inch guns she carried were of an improved design and could match – or overwhelm – any similar ship of her class.
When delivered to the Australian navy late in 1913, HMAS Sydney and her sisters represented the cutting edge of British naval technology.
The captains: John Glossop
The “suave, bald, soft-voiced” British naval officer in command of Australia’s HMAS Sydney had joined the Royal Navy in 1888. His career saw him moved regularly between England, the Pacific and Australia and lauded as “the embodiment of the true English gentleman”.
He was given command of the newly commissioned HMAS Sydney in 1913 and was at the helm as the ship steamed into Sydney Harbour for the first time.
At the outbreak of war he led his ship to help occupy German territories off Rabaul and New Guinea before being recalled to Australia to guard the ANZAC convoy to the Middle East.
By the time HMAS Sydney clashed with SMS Emden, Glossop’s quiet competency had earned the respect and devotion of his crew.
SMS Emden’s crew were enjoying an unexpected holiday. The band began to play and cigarettes were lit by men casually sitting on the decks enjoying the tranquil lagoon.
Their respite was cut short with a shout from the mainmast at 9am.
The thick brown smoke of a ship travelling at speed had been spotted on the horizon.
Was it the captured coal-carrying cargo ship Buresk Captain von Muller had summoned earlier that morning to replenish Emden’s bunkers?
If so, it was early. There was a degree of uncertainty on the German cruiser’s bridge.
Fifteen minutes later, Emden’s fate revealed itself.
Out of the sun emerged the unmistakable silhouette of a British cruiser – two masts and four smoke stacks.
It was approaching fast.
“What followed now happened extraordinarily quickly,” an account by Captain von Muller reads, “as the enemy warship was coming on at high speed – 20 to 25 knots. I ordered steam up in all the boilers and repeated several times the recall for the landing party: then I gave the orders ‘Up anchor. Clear ship for action’.”
He abandoned the shore party: Emden simply had to get underway before the lagoon’s exit could be blocked.
Von Muller believed his opponent to be HMS Newcastle, a light cruiser carrying two 6-inch and ten 4-inch guns. While slightly larger and faster than Emden, he was confident the experience of his crew could prevail.
His strategy was simple.
Strike first. Strike hard. Keep on striking.
Von Muller knew a bigger-gunned ship would seek to keep its distance, raining down a hail of steel from out of the range of Emden’s own guns. His challenge was to get inside his opponent’s reach and hammer him hard with repeated blows.
“My object was to attempt to inflict on the enemy such damage by gunfire that her speed would be seriously lessened,” von Muller wrote, “and I might be able to bring on a torpedo action with some chance of success.”
Von Muller and his officers would have seen the Sydney’s challenge as her masts rose behind the line of palm trees enclosing the lagoon: 'IDENTIFY YOURSELF'.
The Germans knew there was no point in attempting deception.
Emden’s battle ensign fluttered up the mast and her decks vibrated under the accelerating engines as the crew raced to their action stations. The little cruiser began to churn its way out of the crystal-clear waters of Cocos lagoon.
Despite her smaller guns, SMS Emden got off the first shots.
The German equipment for guiding guns was more accurate than that of the British. But it still took several shots to get it right. And their still-secret guns had far greater range and accuracy than the British suspected.
The officers and crews of both ships could see the black blobs of hurtling cannon shells as the first salvos arced away – and towards – each other at 9.40am.
Then five heavy shells burst in Emden’s boiling wake. Their tall waterspouts would have left little doubt in the captain and crew’s mind as to their error in thinking their opponent was the lightly armed HMS Newcastle.
The cruisers were now well out to sea, beyond the shoals and shallows of Cocos. There they could freely twist and turn in their efforts to seek advantage over each other.
It was a dance the larger, faster and more heavily armed Australian ship was ideally suited for.
But it was Emden that drew first blood.
Captain von Muller’s gamble appeared to be paying off.
His opponent, Captain Glossop, realised this too late: He had let Emden get far too close.
The first shell struck HMAS Sydney in the deckhouse sitting between the last of the funnels and her rear 6-inch guns. It was pulverised into a cloud of flying scrap. A second burrowed into the hull nearby, sending slithers of metal gouging through gear and flesh.
The third hit could have won the battle, there and then.
A shell from Emden plunged into Sydney’s main control position. Captain Glossop and his key officers were totally exposed as the explosive casing carved its way between them and through the thin metal skin of the ship.
It failed to detonate.
If it had, HMAS Sydney would have been left virtually headless.
It proved to be the turning point of the battle. But it was not Emden’s final blow.
Nearly blinded from the damage, Sydney was forced to turn away at speed. Her guns now had to rely on the eyes of their own crews to line-up and guess the distance to the enemy.
Before the sleek grey warship was able to slip out of Emden’s reach, another shell burst over one of Sydney’s big guns. It cut down crew in a hail of red-hot fragments and ignited a stack of cordite charges.
It was a deadly situation. The fire threatened the ammunition hoist and the magazine below it. If this exploded, the Australian cruiser would blast itself into smithereens.
But HMAS Sydney had finally succeeded in opening up the distance between itself and the German. Now Emden’s smaller guns could not reach her.
As the Australian crew fought fires and lugged wounded to the first aid stations, the big cruiser’s guns finally hit home.
Two of HMAS Sydney’s heavy shells tore into the forward structure of Emden shortly after 10am, killing and maiming those of the forward gun crew and wireless office.
Captain von Muller and his officers remained safe in their armoured control tower – but most of the voice pipes which allowed orders to be relayed through the ship were blasted away.
By now, the battle was all but lost. It was just a matter of time.
Emden had failed to strike a blow sufficient to slow Sydney. The Australian cruiser could now pound the German with little fear of retaliation.
Shell after shell ripped into Emden for a full 25 minutes.
Funnels toppled. Masts collapsed. The wheelhouse was wrecked.
With engines choking on their own fumes, Emden began to slow.
Von Muller knew her valiant heart would not beat much longer.
From amid the flames, smoke and debris still came the flash of return gunfire. Emden would not go down without a fight.
But the German cruiser was out of control and burning furiously.
Crew rushed through the wreckage in a desperate bid to get the rudder working again. It was too late.
Captain Glossop had taken full advantage of Emden’s helpless state. HMAS Sydney dashed in close, this time to launch a killing-blow torpedo.
But Emden’s fires were by now utterly out of control. And only one gun remained working.
A German officer would write: “Blood was flowing in streams on deck, and terribly mutilated corpses were lying about. We were answering the fire of the enemy, but feebly.”
With his ship smashed beyond recognition around him, Captain von Muller knew the fight was over.
He had to get his men to shore.
With the last strength of Emden’s failing engines, he drove the fatally wounded cruiser onto North Keeling reef – the last rock of the Cocos Islands.
“I decided to put my ship, which was badly damaged by gunfire and burning in many places, on the reef,” von Muller wrote, “and to wreck it thoroughly in order not to sacrifice needlessly the lives of the survivors.”
Seeing Emden hard aground, HMAS Sydney turned to chase down the coal ship Buresk which had stumbled on to the scene. It was the captured ship Emden had expected to appear that morning. Its German crew attempted to flee before sinking the ship themselves to prevent its capture.
The Australian cruiser turned back to the beached and burning Emden.
Captain Glossop hesitated. He knew he had won. He could clearly see the carnage on the German cruiser’s decks and the crew struggling to reach the shore.
But all the traditions of the sea said that if a warship was flying its flag, it was still willing to fight.
And Emden’s ensign still fluttered proudly from the remains of her mast.
After signals demanding surrender received no clear reply, Glossop reluctantly ordered his gun crews to open fire once again.
It was an order he would later regret: “It makes me feel almost like a murderer,” he said.
Eventually one of Emden’s officers climbed the burning mast to cut the jammed flag loose.
HMAS Sydney had lost four men in the fight.
Out of Emden’s crew of 376, 133 were dead. The survivors – given every courtesy and respect for their success and chivalry – were taken into captivity.
The valiant saga of Captain von Muller and Emden was over.
For the 50-strong landing party left behind at the Cocos Island transmitting facility, it was just beginning. In an epic tale of daring, they managed to make it back to Germany after seizing a schooner and trekking their way across Turkey and Europe. But that’s another story.
HMAS Sydney’s triumphant signal to the anxious and expectant commander of the ANZAC troop convoy would go down in history:
“EMDEN BEACHED AND DONE FOR”.