Saturday, 17 January 2015

von Mücke's odyssey

The Emden's landing force before embarking on Ayesha
Korvetten-kapitän Helmuth von Mücke sat in a boat with the rest of his fifty strong landing force watching HMAS Sydney chasing the heavily damaged Emden and realised that he had to do something and ordered his men back to Cooling Island. He had enough fire power to defend the island from an armed landing and if he could dig in on the beaches his four machine guns could make short work of any boats approaching. The big problem was that as soon as the boats had been shot at the Sydney would begin firing her big guns and with no cover to speak of he would only bring death to his small command. What else could be done? Honour demanded that he at least make a show of force especially against an enemy he bitterly despised. He gave the relieved civilians permission to take boats to one of the other islands and ordered his men to dig in and prepare the beaches for an assault but then his eyes settled on the schooner Ayesha in the harbour, his men hadn’t got around to destroying it and suddenly an escape plan began to form. Whilst Sydney was finishing off Emden and looking for Buresk he personally inspected her sea worthiness and satisfied that she could make it at least to a neutral port where another boat could be procured he returned to the beaches and ordered his relieved men to begin massing supplies and anything they could feel that would be useful to an escape attempt or long periods of time at sea. Their foraging was aided by some of those on the island who brought out pipes, tobacco, clothing, water, drums of petrol and blankets as well as offering information about tides, courses, wind and weather in the region. Von Mücke was also advised that Ayesha’s bottom was rotten and that HMS Minotaur and a Japanese cruiser were nearby as well as the Sydney. What hope would he have in a rotten ship that was no longer used with little in the way of supplies? Nevertheless as the sun set the Emden’s steam launch towed “His Majesty’s newest ship” under the battle flag of the Imperial Navy out of the harbour.

Life aboard was pretty basic with the majority of the men sleeping on the iron ballast below decks as the only two beds were reserved for von Mücke and the off duty Lieutenant. Day to day running was the complete opposite of life on a modern steam driven warship and soon the strict German military discipline was allowed to slide with washing in stale water or in impromptu baths during rain storms, shaving was not compulsory and cleaning of teeth was abandoned as were uniforms which rapidly fell into a state of disrepair leaving the crew in a state of semi nudity. There were also hardships with water turning bad in rusted containers which was rectified by catching rain water through a crafted canvas chute and carried in pales to the cleaned tanks. There was also boredom with no room to drill and after cleaning the deck little housekeeping to be done and the majority of downtime was taken up with singing, talking or the few of the crew who were knowledgeable about Sail teaching the others.

For von Mücke there were weightier concerns. The Ayesha was indeed rotten, he had discovered how bad it was shortly after Direction Island whilst poking around in the hold. Should they run over a reef the ship would be torn apart. He was aiming for the Dutch ports of Padang or Batavia but his overall destination was even more ambitious with a choice of three, either German East Africa to join up with General von Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces, locate Königsberg and report to Kapitän Looff or to return to Tsingtaō. He also had to contend with the nagging concern of being intercepted by the Allies. His total armament was four machine guns and twenty nine rifles and his plan was to bring his schooner close to the enemy ship and open fire with what he had whilst sitting under the cruiser’s big guns. They did however take no chances with all the weapons stored below decks and the state of undress only added to the illusion that of a simple trading vessel. With no ability to run or turn away all they could do was hope not to be spotted or questioned and on the one occasion a steamer paid too much attention they were able to bluff their way past.

Wind and weather were a continual problem and damage to the sails and equipment had to be repaired where possible. It took several days to get into Padang harbour where an on going debate with the Dutch authorities developed with them mounting pressure on the three German officers to quietly intern their vessel. With that came news from the other German and Austro-Hungarian steamers. Tsingtaō had fallen, Königsberg had been forced to hole up in the Rafugi estuary and was under siege. There was also news of hard battles and campaigning in East Africa and von Lettow-Vorbeck disappearing into the bush. Whilst the Dutch refused fresh clothes, combs and toothbrushes as it was deemed that it would increase the fighting strength of the vessel. Despite all of the set backs von Mücke and his two officers said they were going to sea and with their fresh food and gear donated by the German vessels in port they sailed into the night singing “Wacht am Rhein” only to be joined by a row boat carrying an reservist officer and engineering officer who wished to join them.

Von Mücke kept the Ayesha heading west hoping that the captains of the German ships in Padang would come looking for them and after two weeks on a foggy 14

th December the freighter Choising caught up with them and the Emden’s crew transferred to the steamship. It was with a heavy heart that the crew gathered to watch their home of 1709 Nautical Miles disappeared beneath the waves with her sea cocks open and holes bored through the rotten hold at 16:58 on the 16th December.

The Choising was only a moderately better vessel and only averaged four knots with cramped conditions as most of the men were delegated an ex-coal bunker for quarters. Nevertheless it was the hand that had been dealt and von Mücke was going to take it and he had a new destination. News in Padang had revealed Turkey was waging war against England and as his men were not infantry trained nor able to locate von Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces and Kapitän Looff had enough of his own problems without fifty more mouths to feed  and so it was decided to head for Turkish territory. After crafting an Italian flag and disguising the vessel as the merchant vessel Shenir they headed for the straits of Perim without charts of the region finally arriving on the 7th January 1915. As they approached a small British blockade von Mücke prepared to sacrifice the Choising and get his men to shore in the largest rowboats with orders to “Obey your officers”.

As a precaution the Choising was blacked out and hugging the coast so as to avoid being silhouetted they were however, illuminated by the Perim lighthouse but attracted no attention from the British gunboats and the Germans were able to slip past and land outside Hodeida the following day. There was a very optimistic belief that all they had to do was march into the town of Hodeida, board the Hejaz railway to Constantinople and they would be back in Kiel in a fortnight. After a misunderstanding which almost saw the garrison attack them as an Allied force making a hostile landing they were greeted with great ceremony and for the first time since leaving Emden they slept on real beds in the local barracks. The path ahead was a tricky one with the sea guarded by the Allies and a long route on land would take two months but with the certainty of the Allies catching them in the thin straits of the Red sea they were forced to prepare for a land march and von Mücke requested the necessary camels, water, food, guns and equipment from the Turkish commander. This endeavour would take two weeks. The climate was hard for the European sailors and despite boiling the water and regularly taking Quinine disease like Malaria and Dysentery quickly caught hold of them and fearing the complete loss of his men before they marched out von Mücke sought advice as to where he could take his men. He was directed to Sanaa in Yemen where the mountainous climate was similar to that of Europe and the water cleaner. The Germans set out on horseback for the journey which proved uneventful but was excellent preparation for the march they would have to endure from Hodeida to the railway. Although Sanaa did prove a better place to rest than Hodeida the sicknesses continued to ravage his forces and they sat for four weeks until they were well enough to ride back to the sea. The land journey was no longer an option, his men would never survive, they would have to sail.

On arriving back at Hodeida von Mücke was able to secure two Turkish Zambuks, a type of sail boat which only had one deck and room for about forty men in each. He divided his forces, their Turkish escorts and equipment in two and placed the wounded under Leutnant Gerdts. Together, under cover of darkness on the 14th March the two vessels moved up the straits and split up so as to lessen the chance of capture by the British blockade manned by two gunboats and the auxiliary HMS Empress of Russia. Taking the chance that the British would not be on duty on a weekend they pressed through the shallows and passed the line where the British ships were stationed without any incident. Life on the Zambuks was very basic, they were small and cramped and there was a continuing problem with lice which were removed from clothing every morning, the most in one shirt was seventy-four! The journey was slow and a little tedious, more so than it had been on the Ayesha as there was absolutely no room to move about at all and everyone huddled under the woollen blankets at night to stay warm and in the sun to stay cool. This was not a great way to travel for the sick but was their only hope as travelling by land and camel would be a virtual death sentence. Knowing that they needed a break von Mücke ordered the boats moved to land at the island of Marka. Their pilot guided von Mücke’s boat over the shallow reef which they passed over a  with a concerning shudder but passed out the other side unscathed, the second boat was less fortunate and Gerdts’ boat ruptured and sank quickly. As the sun sank quickly von Mücke risked his whole party by firing flares, making noise and even lighting a fire on his boat to attract the survivors who were now swimming in the dark shark infested water towards the shoreline. Through some stroke of luck there had been no fatalities with non-swimmers and the sick being brought in on makeshift rafts and a canoe. With no other option but to press on they managed to squeeze all seventy men into one boat and pressed onwards having spent the morning trying to recover what they could from their sunken fellow. With their luck returning a stiff southerly wind caught high in the sail and brought them into Coonfidah where they were able to get hold of a larger Zambuk and proceed further by sea in the company of a Turkish official and his wife who were likewise heading to Constantinople and relished the escort of heavily armed Germans.


The journey by water stopped at Leet in the 24th March as they had been using the 350 mile long reefs known as the Farisan bank to dodge pursuit with their shallow bottom Zambuks but beyond Leet it was wide open sea and there was more news that their planned destination of Djidda was under Naval blockade by the British and absolutely no ship got past without inspection. There was no other choice but to continue by land so Camels and supplies were gathered. The landing party suffered its first casualty at 3am on the 27th March as Seaman Keil, who had contracted Typhus in Hodeida finally succumbed. The shipwreck had weakened him further and the loss of all of their medical supplies in Gerdts’ Zambuk had condemned him. The day after burying him at sea the column of ninety camels moved out tied muzzle to tail marching for eighteen hours a day and only camping between 10am and 4pm during the hottest period. Their road was a perilous one along the coast in territory that was known to be crawling with robbers. Fortune continued to shine on them as there was a full moon that illuminated their trek but they took no chances with weapons at the ready, the machine guns divided between the head of the column and the rear guard under Leutnant Schmidt. On the 31st they were greeted by a Turkish officer and his seventeen men at a water hole, they were from the garrison of Djidda sent ahead to meet them. They brought news that they were only a day’s march away but that the land ahead was plagued by a band of robbers numbering forty men an insignificant number considering the firepower they were carrying and if seventeen men could get past them then there should be no problem pushing on after a few hours rest. During the night Bedouins were sighted on the dunes but they backed away leaving the column unharrassed, with their goal so close von Mücke finally began to relax his guard and unclipped his bandolier and laid his rifle across his lap before turning his camel down the line to check in with Schmidt.

The firing came from nowhere and everywhere, the whole column was surrounded with bullets raining down from all directions, von Mücke led a group of men to the head of the column rifles at the ready, this time there could be no avoiding an infantry engagement. The Camels were pulled down and the two machine guns were deployed and sprayed in the areas of rifle flashes whilst they evaluated the situation. Although the fire came from  ahead and to the left there was no way of telling how many foes surrounded them until the sun had risen properly and then the sea of Bedouin that were camped out around them became crystal clear, von Mücke would later estimate there were three hundred against his fifty German and twenty-four Turkish troops. The Germans had twenty four pistols, thirteen German rifles left supplemented by ten old and three new Turkish rifles with the four machine guns. Bayonets were fixed and the enemy charged, an organised infantry manoeuvre with silver bayonets shining in the sun caused the Bedouin to scatter leaving one German wounded and seventeen Turkish missing and later found in Djidda after beating a retreat much to the German’s consternation. There were also injuries to the Arabic porters who had taken shelter with the camels which had drawn the most fire. The Bedouin dead could not be counted but fifteen were found during the bayonet charge armed with the latest breach loading British rifles.

The equipment was quickly redistributed between the unwounded camels, the wounded men strapped to the sides and quickly formed into lines abreast with a skirmish line in the front under Leutnant Gerdts and rear under Leutnant Schmidt heading for the sea. If they could reach the coast they would illuminate a side of attack. Dr Lang and Leutnant Wellmann led the main caravan whilst Leutnant Gyssling took charged of the flanks ready to respond to any attack. They rode for ten minutes before the enemy fire resumed but thankfully fell short. Leutnant Schmidt’s force bore the brunt of the fire and a shot killed one of the machine gun bearing camels. A request was sent forward for a fresh beast whilst Schmidt ordered the machine gun deployed and fired at the horde that was forming around him, moments later he was laying mortally injured and seaman Josef Rademacher was killed outright and Wellman took command as he brought up two spare camels. This was becoming more and more like an organised attack rather than just a random raid by bandits, von Mücke had mad it common knowledge that a heavily armed German company was moving up to Djidda to try and scare off bandits but it seemed to have attracted a stronger foe.

The fire stopped suddenly as two of the remaining Turkish soldiers ran towards the Bedouins waving white flags of parley which provided time for the Germans to dig in with sandbags filled, camels circled, machineguns placed at the corners of the compound, wounded and Dr Lang placed in a secure position and the water buried where it could not be hit by random gunfire. The Bedouins demanded the Germans disarmed themselves, handed over all of their supplies, ammunition, water, camels and £11,000s before being allowed to move on unmolested to which von Mücke refused. The firing went on all day until nightfall but with no more casualties despite the growing accuracy. It was hot and the men hadn’t eaten all day, the moment they so much as lifted their heads above the parapet than a bullet whistled past. Ammunition was running short especially that half of it was defective having lain underwater in the Zambuk shipwreck for a day and an order was quickly circulated to conserve the “dry” ammunition for the machineguns in case of night attack. As night fell the trenches were deep enough that the men could relax and the men were allowed to sleep in shifts leaving half on duty under an officer after an inspection and cleaning of all weapons. They also had to bury Leutnant Schmidt who had died at 9:00 pm.

A runner was sent on to Djidda which von Mücke estimated as eight hours march on foot away and before dawn the men were roused, given water and hard tack biscuits. As the sun rose so did their opponents who began their incessant shooting again only to be met with full disciplined volleys from the German line as they tried to bluff their strength and coordination but the ammunition situation meant that it soon dwindled. Fireman Lanig was hit twice and died whilst another man was severely wounded. All Dr Lang could do was to dose the wounded up with brandy and patch the wounds with the bandage packs left over from Emden, it was heart breaking to watch the men die and not to be able to do anything to assist but it was all Lang could do until they got to Djidda. There was also an infestation of dung beetles that began swarming over the encampment crawling over the faces and clothes of the sleeping and wounded alike and increasing the chance of a lockjaw infection. On top of that was the incessant heat of the desert and the ever present sand that coated their faces, stung their eyes and filled their trenches but yet they held on for another day.

As night fell again two more runners were sent out for Djidda and the Germans tried to get some sleep. The prolonged combat was starting to take its toll upon the sentries and when a pack of jackals were attracted by the smell of dead camels they opened fire believing it to be a Bedouin raiding party.

The beginning of the third day was critical for the small band of sailors as water was almost depleted as was the ammunition with no word from Djidda. To surrender opened up too many possibilities none of which were palatable to von Mücke who instead planned to sit out the day, hope for relief and if none was to arrive break out on foot. It was a risk but there was a chance that some of his men might make it but he would be forced to sacrifice the sick and wounded.

An envoy from his aggressors quickly put any fears to rest by lessening the demand and asking for £20,000s and allowing them to keep arms and supplies. The wily German commander believed they were briefly because they had seen the approach of a relief column. He gambled with his men’s lives by posturing and telling his visitor that he had more than enough ammunition and water for four weeks, his men were in an excellent position covered by their machine guns. He also invited his opposite number to entreat with him face to face but this was angrily refused. He was told to surrender and meet the terms or face the consequences. The demand was met with curt refusal. Silence followed a last frantic Bedouin volley but the Germans held their ground in case it was a trap. Soon camels of the Turkish army arrived under the Emir of Mecca’s second son arrived and after redistributing supplies they marched leaving forty dead camels and their two fallen comrades.

Having reached Djidda his sick and wounded were taken to the military hospital which slowed their departure time by some days but they were finally getting treatment. There was great apprehension at proceeding on foot in case they were ambushed by the same group of Bedouins and so they once again decided to run the British blockade in a zambuk. News was spread that they would be travelling by camel to try and draw attention to the desert and away from the sea lanes. During the night of the 8th and 9th April they stole out of the harbour and proceeded by shallows and coast as far as Sherm Rabigh where they traded for a fresh boat and headed out again. A general weariness was setting in, they had been travelling in one way or another since August six months before and Germany was still a long way off. With three dead and others wounded and sick there must have been a growing worry that they might not make it through but their commander was determined and considering what they had faced getting this far they had faith in him to get them through.

They reached Serm Munnaiburra on the 28th April which lay 10 nautical miles short of El Wegh their destination but it also marked the end of the protective reefs and not willing to push their luck they proceeded over land arriving the following day and enjoying the well needed baths and sleep. With one final mountain trek with camels to El Ula before them von Mücke decided to take no chances finding his outlook coloured by the previous caravan becoming more suspicious and cautious ordering that every night rudimentary trenches were dug, loaded rifles kept to hand and sentries set. They found that the mountain climate was cooler, far more agreeable to Europeans and more importantly there was plenty of fresher drinking water.

Despite encroaching on a Sheikh’s territory and causing upset for not using his camel the journey was uneventful and the tired Germans arrived at El Ula station and into another world unscathed. Their commander had ridden ahead and things were prepared for them including bathing facilities, food, cold German wine, fresh uniforms, letters from home, the Iron Cross and comfortable chairs.

During the journey to Constantinople they were treated as celebrities and greeted with cheers and marching bands a far cry from the hardships of their global trek. The atmosphere in Constantinople was electric. The landing party headed by von Mücke, his officers and the war flag they had carried before them since leaving Emden flying on their left paraded with every bit of precision they had done at Kiel before the Commander in Chief of the Turkish Navy Admiral Wilhelm Souchon. Coming to a halt von Mücke lowered his sword and reported;

“The landing party of the Emden, five officers, seven petty officers and thirty men strong”

Their only loses being two killed by the Bedouin and one to disease and others too sick to parade. It had been an epic journey that ensured von Mücke would be elevated to national hero and his books Emden and Ayesha would go on to be best sellers in Germany during the war and worldwide afterwards.



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