Sunday, 9 November 2014

The end of the raider SMS Emden and the battle of Cocos

Franz Joseph Hohenzollern
Prinz Franz Joseph von Hohenzollern, the Kaiser’s nephew, was having the worst day of his Naval career, possibly of his life as he stood on the burning deck of SMS Emden looking at the remains of the vessel he had served upon as torpedo officer. The fore deck was covered with wounded German sailors and marines suffering from burns, abrasions, broken limbs, splinters and disfigurements from the hour long battle with the Australian cruiser that had now left the scene. He and a small band of sailors held rifles and Lüger pistols and aimed them at the sky trying to drive off the Albatross that had descended upon the wounded tearing at cheeks, eyes and wounds.

It hadn’t always been this way. He remembered the day they left Tsingtao to look for Russian vessels as the band played Am Wacht Am Rhein, the day they returned with the Ryazan, the first victory of the war, the journey to meet von Spee, the last signal from Scharnhorst back on the 14th August;

Emden detatched – (Emden detached.)

The vessel had gone on to have an impressive career commerce raiding in the Indian Ocean having rigged up a dummy funnel to appear like HMS Yarmouth she was able to act in secrecy able to approach British vessels and then once on top of them raise the German Ensign and signal:

Stop your engines, send no wireless signals

On the 10th September, whilst operating on the Calcutta to Colombo trade spine, Kapitän von Müller captured the Greek vessel Pontoporros carrying equipment for the English but instead of sinking the vessel took the vessel into his service as a collier and began paying the crew. The next three days saw them pull over seven more vessels which had their crews removed to another captured vessel, Kabinga which was released to take the crews back.

Two encounters with neutral vessels changed the situation for von Müller’s command drastically. The first, a Norwegian, informed him of the British warship, HMS Hampshire patrolling for him and others were joining them. The second vessel, an Italian, immediately reported the incident to the British. Admiral Jerram responded by halting all trade in the area and dispatched British and Japanese cruisers to find the German cruiser whilst his armoured cruiser Minotaur and the Japanese battle cruiser Ibuki were sent to seek out where the Emden was getting her coal, if she, like Karlsruhe had a secret base that she was operating from. There were plenty of islands and deserted coast line, as well as many in India who did actively wanted rid of the British who might aid the Germans as a means to the end to remove the Imperial yoke. As for von Müller, he had already decided to quit for the east coast of India.

The 22nd September saw the German’s most audacious move and von Hohenzollern stood upon the deck of Emden in the early hours of the evening as the cruiser approached
Madras harbour and began firing. Oil storage silos were set on fire, a ship was sunk in the harbour, defensive guns silenced, 20,000 people fled and the British admiralty were left red faced by one German cruiser and 130 rounds of ammunition in half an hour.

Despite the irritation and many victories of Emden and her crew, the British admiralty and Churchill grew to admire the bravery of the plucky German commander and the gentlemanly conduct with which he carried out his war. All prisoners were treated fairly, they were fed well and kept until it was safe to release them in a group, on one occasion with a cheer for von Müller.


Trying to keep the British guessing he struck out at Western Ceylon taking another two vessels and then turning to the Maldives to re-coal and proceed to fruitlessly interdict the trade route from Australia to Calcutta. By then the crew was tired, strained and his engines and vessel long over due for repair and refit having sailed so many miles in the previous two months. Von Müller brought his vessel to the British outpost Diego Garcia some 600 miles from his hunting grounds. The gamble paid off as the islanders were unaware of the commencement of hostilities and they welcomed the German cruiser and von Müller played up to the charade and allowed his engineers to repair the island's motor launch whilst the crew rested, his boilers and pipes were cleaned and the cruiser's belly scraped off. After ten days  von Müller heard that the Royal Navy had reinforced the Hampshire and Chikuma with the auxiliary Empress of Asia which meant the area was safe to return to and so they left port with all their repairs completed. Yet again Emden was successful and between the 16-19th October they caught out seven vessels and released prisoners on the Saint Egbert to Cochinon the 20th October.

Admiral Jerram immediately ordered all merchant vessels to leave the trade routes and to black-out at night time. He also ordered that Askold and Yarmouth be released from convoy duties to begin searching for the Emden. He also ordered the Chikuma and Zhemchung to link up with the armoured cruisers Tokiwa and Yakimo to scour the east of the bay of Bengal.

The most daring raid came on the 28th October when Emden brazenly cruised into Penang harbour, an island off Malaya, with her false funnel raised, and began firing. Her torpedo officer von Hohenzollern gave the order to fire the first torpedo which struck the Russian cruiser Zhemchug as it lay at anchor. Moments later the German guns riddled the hull sending most of the Russian sailors fleeing for cover before a second torpedo struck igniting the forward magazine causing an explosion that lifted the ship up in the water before sinking her leaving 88 dead and a 121 wounded out of a crew of 250. The Commander, Cherkassov was off ship with a lady friend whilst the crew were drinking on deck without anyone on watch. All the ammunition, save twelve shells, were locked away so the one salvo that the Russians fired was all the ammunition they had available.  


The French destroyers in port began to get up steam and von Müller worried that a torpedo attack was imminent and despite the array of merchant ships and facilities that were prime targets the Kapitän decided it was not worth the risk to stay and made for the open sea.


French destroyer Mousquet
The French destroyer Mousquet was encountered as Emden withdrew and began opening fire but the German fire was too accurate and heavy killing the Captain, Lieutenant Théroinne and 46 of the crew with 36 wounded. Emden rescued 33 French sailors from the sea and put them on a passing British steamer with an apology for shooting at an unarmed Government launch during the raid.

The raid's purpose, apart from to cause chaos and damage Allied ships and prestige and to draw the Allied vessels to the east. His next raid, the severance of the radio transmitters at the Cocos islands severing communications between Australia and India. They were also aware that there was a troop convoy heading across the area and with his activity in this area it would cause the Allies to concentrate in the east meaning von Müller could return to the west coast of India again.

After coaling from the Exford on the 8th November, having spent the night searching for her, von Müller ordered Emden onwards and Exford to sail for Cape Horn and to steer away from where he believed the troop convoy was sailing in radio silence (it was actually 150 nautical miles southeast of the Cocos making for Ceylon) and von Müller and his crew were unaware of the real proximity of the Allied warships cutting through.


Early on the morning , 5.50am of the 9th November, a four funnelled cruiser heaved into view of Cocos island and came under the watchful eyes of the Superintendent of the Eastern telegraph company, Darcy Farrant. They had been warned by Admiral Jerram that they could come under attack at any time and to keep an eye on the horizon. As he examined the vessel he noticed that the fourth funnel looked wrong and examined it closely discovering it was in fact canvas. He immediately found Mr La Nauze and got him to run to the W/T sets and send an immediate SOS.

Offshore the Emden lowered a steam launch with first officer Hellmuth von Mucke leading fifty hand picked armed men with machine guns, demolition charges and W/T operators who could identify the right kit to destroy. Some of the team included gunners who were included as a reward for their excellent work at Penang. The Germans rushed ashore and overpowered the La Nauze and Farrant. Von Mucke's men began by placing charges on the tower (accidentally bringing it down on a large stock of whiskey), destroying motor rooms, electrical generators, the radio rooms and began pulling up the Atlantic cables. This took over two and a half hours, longer than von Müller had hoped for as von Mucke was having trouble cutting the cables.

Out at sea the SOS transmission had reached HMAS Melbourne via HMS Minotaur. The Melbourne was leading the troop convoy and was only fifty miles away from the beleaguered radio station. Captain Silver, her commander, was in two minds. Naval strategists feared that the Konigsberg from Africa, had broken into the Indian ocean and was either working with Emden or in concert with her and targeting other targets. The IJN battle cruiser Ibuki under Captain Kato pleaded that for the honour of Japan and the cruiser they would like to be the ones to take the Emden. Silver, however had was worried that Konigsberg could still attack the convoy and if he detatched the battle cruiser, he could be putting the vulnerable soldiers in danger as well as Melbourne and Sydney. However Konigsberg could be at the Cocos too. After great deliberation and much to Captain Kato's horror, Silver detached the Sydney at 7.00

von Müller, German corsair
At 9.00 von Müller was alerted by his lookouts that there was smoke on the horizon - it could only be one thing. Despite his operator's best efforts to jam the Island's signals he knew that some must have got through. He ordered the recall signal be blown from the ship's horn and for Emden to raise steam. Knowing it was a light cruiser he decided to put the ship to sea and brought the crew to high alert and left a bewildered von Mucke with his landing team bobbing in their launch watching Emden leave.

As they hadn't been expecting action Emden's engines were not at full steam and the engineering officer told von Müller that it would take an hour to get up to full speed. This was Emden's greatest strength over the Sydney who had larger guns and armour, von Müller would have to try to buy time but it was not to be.

Sydney opened the ball sending her first salvo over, Emden returned fire but with the same consequences as the gunners tried to find the range. Gaede, the gunnery officer ordered corrections and relayed to his Captain that the Australian vessel was firing 6" shells. Von Müller ordered Emden to close the range and brought her closer to the enemy bringing her 4" guns to a more effective range. The move paid off as the third salvo took out both of Sydney's fire control stations and another shell fell into the fo'castle between Captain Glossop and his first officer but did not explode. The German gunners had failed to turn their shells to active and were in effect, firing blanks. Had it gone off, the confrontation with Sydney would have ended much differently.

As the Australians brought their guns under manual range fire control the Germans fired another five salvos from 9000 yards starting a fire on Sydney's aft Starboard gun which could have started a magazine fire that could have caused catastrophic explosion but again, nothing. Emden's luck had run out. It had reached 10:05 and the Engineers could not provide full speed yet. The battle looked to be turning against them.

The Sydney's first major hit on Emden ripped the radio room apart killing all of the inhabitants, a second took off the foremast, the third killed the gun crews of the bow guns below the Conning tower and splattering the Command crew with blood and splinters. This was only the beginning as round after round ripped through the German cruiser taking down the fore funnel, ripping the rest of the fore gunners to shreds and wounding von Müller, another took out the stern guns knocking over a large stack of ammunition which started a fire. Damage control crews rushed to the area and tried to control it and recover the wounded gunners. Sixteen were dead including their officer, Levetzow who was a close friend of von Hohenzollern. The signals officer Guerard and his men were killed next as the foremast was taken out.

The situation was dire as Emden burned, her gunners were dead, wounded or dying as were their replacements, the ammunition hoists were wrecked and with the speaking tubes from the bridge destroyed as well it was really only a matter of time. Gaede was killed trying to assist on the decks and von Müller tried to asses his options. He ordered his loyal helmsman, the only survivor left in the bridge, to bring her to starboard and try and make a torpedo run. It was all he had left but even that was impossible. Von Hohenzollern reported that the torpedo flats were out of action. It was only 11:00. There was only one option left to von Müller and he ordered his helmsman to change course for Direction island and the reef and try and beach the cruiser. The Sydney continued to bombard them in rapid succession tearing more holes in the superstructure but the German's kept their nerve until the reef stopped the vessel with a loud grinding screech of metal on rocks.
The wreck of Emden

As Sydney left to catch Emden's collier, Buresk, von Müller assessed the situation. His ship's fighting, indeed sailing career was over, a third of his men (100) were dead and another twenty were badly injured. Ship's doctor Luther and von Hohenzollern reported to the Kapitän for orders. They were dispatched to the decks to rally the able-bodied and lightly wounded to put the fires out and gather the wounded on the foredeck. Others destroyed the code books and smashed gunnery equipment, if the Australians were to take this ship they would not get anything useful from her. Apart from the heat, fire and wounds the crew soon discovered that there was no fresh water available as the tanks were below decks surrounded or contaminated with salt water. Volunteers dove into the sea to swim to the island and bring back coconuts but the razor sharp rocks and strong currents ripped the men to shreds, von Müller would have to wait and make do.

Sydney found the Buresk out at sea and boarded her only to find the German prize crew had already opened the seacocks and she was already past saving. The Australian crews pulled the Germans free and brought them aboard where it was reported that one of the officers had said that there was no way that von Müller would surrender. This was backed up when Sydney returned to the wreck and saw the German ensign still fluttering in the wind. Captain Glossop signalled the Germans asking them if they surrendered, no response, he tried again and received a message saying they didn't understand the signal as codebooks were destroyed. They tried a morse code signal but no response. Glossop felt there was no other recourse but to open fire again for a solid five minutes tearing greater holes in the already ruined German vessel. Von Müller had been too busy trying to get his wounded together and stabilise his vessel and he had neglected to pull down the ensign, its' still flying meant that she was still at action stations. With another fifteen men killed in the shelling and more diving over the sides into the reef. He ordered the flag torn down and the battle came to a quick halt. Sydney turned away for Cocos to secure von Mucke's command slowing to pick up German sailors who'd been blown overboard.

Von Mucke had watched Emden charging off towards Sydney and realised what was happening. He ordered the pinace back to the island where they secured the radio crew and began digging slit trenches and deploying the machineguns. As they watched the on going battle von Mucke realised that Emden was doomed and made a daring decision. His men decamped to the island's sailing schooner Ayesha and made her seaworthy and fled the island whilst Sydney was hunting the Buresk. The journey they undertook over the next six months was to become one of the greatest escape stories of the First World War with von Mucke leading his men across the Indian ocean, through the Ottoman empire and finally arriving in Constantinople and reporting to Admiral Souchon.

By the time Sydney had secured the W/T station it was nightfall and von Müller's men had to stay aboard the remains of the swan of the Pacific with wounded dying from their wounds. The next morning the Australians approached with the doctor from Cocos to assist the German crew. With 137 men dead and another 69 wounded, von Müller handed over the remains of the crew and with a last look around his command stepped off onto the Australian lifeboat as the last man aboard, the sparkling career of the raider was over, much to the relief of the British Admiralty.

Von Müller's career was summed up by a reporter for the New York Times;

Her commander is doing with luck and skill an appointed task fully legitimised by the laws of war. Our own Paul Jones did the same thing, and to this day is occasionally called a pirate by the British. They know, however, that he wasn't one, and no more is the commander of the Emden.

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