Guns of Emden

Published : Sep 25, 2009 00:00 IST

I WAS moving around Hyde Park, Sydney, looking at the trees unique to that part of the southern hemisphere when I chanced upon a monument that bore a direct historical connection with Chennai. In one corner of the park, overlooking a busy commercial street was a platform on which was mounted a field gun. The legend said that this gun was taken from SMS Emden, the German cruiser that was destroyed by the Australian warship HMAS Sydney off Coco Islands on November 11, 1914, within two months of its dramatic assault on Madras, now Chennai. My immediate question was: Is this one of the guns that actually shelled Madras?

In my search for the answer I came across two books on Emden: Triple Odyssey: The Story of Emden and its Crew by Ted Proud and The Last Gentleman of War: The Raider Exploits of the Cruiser Emden by R.K. Lochner. The second, which details the exploits of Emden using the entries from the log book of the cruiser, has a chapter on the Madras attack.

Emden, commissioned in 1909 as a part of the German East Asiatic squadron, was meant to stalk the Indian Ocean. Named after a small port town in Germany, it had 18 guns, 14 on the starboard side with four-inch barrels and four smaller guns on the port side. The ship, 387 feet (118 metres) long, was powered by coal and had three funnels. Often a false fourth tunnel was fitted to escape identity. Right from the beginning of the First World War this cruiser played havoc with the Allied Navy and commerce. In 1914, between August and October it sank or captured 21 vessels.

Emdens assault on Madras was spectacular and created a lasting impact. The purpose of the attack was to create panic among the citizens, and the commandants goal was to destroy the tanks of Burma Oil Company. When Emden approached Madras on the night of September 22, 1914, there was no Allied warship around, and by 9-45 p.m. it lay 2,500 m off shore near the harbour, with the starboard side facing the city. The commandant of Emden, Karl von Mller, asked his men to bathe and wear laundered uniforms and be ready to attack. In case of a retaliation, and injury, the chances of infection would be far less that way. Keen on avoiding any civilian casualty, he ordered the gunners to keep away from the streets and aim only at the oil tanks, which were close to the High Court.

The city had least expected any action on its shores. The light house on the compound of the Madras High Court was flashing as usual, making the job of the German gunners easy. Mller wondered whether the people were aware that a war was on. When the searchlights of the ship were turned on, the powerful beams could easily pick up the three oil tanks, painted white with red stripes, and within moments all three were hit. One of them was empty but the other two caught fire. On seeing the tanks aflame, the men on Emden cheered as if their favourite soccer team had just scored a winning goal. The 5,000 tonnes of kerosene oil stored in the tanks went up in flames and smoke.

Fortunately for the people of Madras, at the time of the shelling a seaward wind was blowing and so the fire did not spread into the city. Some of the shells hit the High Court building, and one hit the National Bank of India building. There is still a plaque on the Eastern wall of the Madras High Court building marking the spot hit by an Emden shell. There was a similar plaque in Clives Battery, at Royapuram, also. This structure was demolished a few years ago when an overbridge was built. A few shells that were recovered are on display in the Fort Museum.

A merchant ship anchored in the harbour was hit and five civilian sailors were killed. Another ship was sunk. The attack lasted 30 minutes. After firing 130 shells on Madras, Emden turned and disappeared into the darkness. There were field guns at Royapuram in what until a few years ago was known as Clives Battery, and they opened fire. About nine shells were fired but all missed Emden.

The swiftness of the attack and the precision with which the oil tanks were destroyed became the stuff of legend in Madras. Ballads were composed; song books on the attack and the behaviour of the citizens were published. In fact, it is through these song books that we get some idea of the reaction of the people. It was a practice, by the turn of the 20th century, to print these song books, called gujili kadai song books, on events and issues that concerned the common people. They were priced at one or two annas and covered events such as the first train to run in Madras and the bubonic plague epidemic. There were two song books on the Emden attack. I was able to access only one. The song writer, A.M. Mundia Pillai, tells us that one shell hit Satta Nayakan street in Vepery and another hit Vengtachala Mudali street. A woman who was pounding rice was injured by shrapnel.

In panic people fled to nearby towns, including Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur. Land prices plummeted. Evidently, these song books were commissioned by the British and were in the form of an assurance to the people that they were safe in the hands of the British.

The word Emden found its way into Tamil vocabulary. R.K. Lochner, chronicler of Emdens exploits, recorded in 1979: In Tamil the word (Emden) signifies a cunning, resourceful man, in complete control of himself and his surroundings. The village where I grew up had an Emden tea stall, a favourite meeting point for residents.

After the Madras engagement, Emden was scheduled to proceed to the Andamans and Mller had been asked to shell the prison. However, the German naval command left the final decision to him. He decided to go to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) but did not attack. From there Emden sailed to the Laccadive Islands (now Lakshadweep) where it sank six ships of the Allies. Then it proceeded to the tiny island of Diego Garcia, 1,600 km from India, in the Indian Ocean. There they had not known about the outbreak of the war, so Emden filled coal and went eastward where it was to meet its end.

With a brief to destroy a British radio station on Coco Islands, Emden sailed east. After shelling the station, a group of 40 gunmen led by the second in command, Hellmuth von Mcke, captured the station, but not before the station superintendent alerted the Australian Navy through a radio message. HMAS Sydney, far superior in speed and firepower, which was in the vicinity, sneaked in and put an end to the marauding cruiser. Emden was hit more than a hundred times and lost 131 men.

Mller, who did not want to see the ship sink, ran it aground. The scourge of the Indian Ocean lay destroyed and beached on the island. It lay in that spot until 1950. The Government of Australia presented one of its guns to the citizens of Sydney as a souvenir. Another gun has been mounted as a monument in Canberra. Here, the visitor can watch a re-enacted video of the battle of Coco Islands.

All the survivors in Emden were taken prisoner; Mller was the last to leave the ship, in full uniform. Along with the others, he spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner in Malta.

The 40 gunmen who were on the island took hold of an old ship and sailed to Yemen via Sumatra. From there they travelled on land and, despite harassment by the army of Lawrence of Arabia, managed to reach Constantinople, and from there Germany. Von Mcke, who led the team, made the most of his experiences and prospered after the war as an author and lecturer. Mller, in contrast, declined most invitations to speak and lived quietly at his home in Blankenburg until his death in 1923. Asked once why he did not write a memoir, Mller replied, I should not be able to escape the feeling that I was coining money from the blood of my comrades.

Coming back to my question. The gun I saw in Sydney was indeed one of the guns that shelled Madras. It has been clearly recorded in the log book on Emden that all the 14 four-inch guns on the starboard side were used to shell the city. A few metres from this monument is the War Memorial museum. It was closed for repairs. Maybe it contains more information on Emden.

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