Emden, the raider

On September 22, 1914, the day Madras was bombed by the German light cruiser SMS Emden, a new word, emden, entered the Tamil lexicon indicating the derring-do spirit of the German raider.

Published : Aug 20, 2014 12:30 IST

SMS Emden. The light cruiser rained 130 shells on the city, targeting harbour installations and Burmah Oil Company fuel tanks.

SMS Emden. The light cruiser rained 130 shells on the city, targeting harbour installations and Burmah Oil Company fuel tanks.

A daring person ever ready to take on any challenge, avan thaan emden (“he’s an emden”), that is the usage today. Only, the word in this case derives from SMS Emden, a German light cruiser named after the town of Emden, which for three months had every British (and Allied) sailor from the China Sea to the Maldives fearing for his life even as the Royal Navy and its allies had at one time 60 warships scouring the seas for the raider that was proving to be a will-o’-the-wisp.

Emden, captained by Kapitan-Lieutenant Karl von Muller, described as “one of the finest officers of the Kaiserliche Marine [the Royal German Navy]”, was part of the German naval squadron in Tsingtao, then part of the German concession Kiao-Chau in China, some way north of Shanghai. When the Great War (the First World War) broke out in August 1914, the squadron was asked to head for home, leaving the fast, 4,500-tonne, 10-gun Emden to search the Indian Ocean for unescorted Allied merchantmen.

Few lone raiders in naval history have been as successful as Emden. It captured or sank 21 merchant vessels, and in a battle off Penang on October 8, it sank a Russian light cruiser and a French destroyer. Among those it sank were half a dozen ships it had captured to serve as supply ships; when each one ran dry, it was sunk. To help in this here-I-am, here-I-am-not game, Emden used deception. It often added a fourth funnel which made it look like a British cruiser, HMS Yarmouth; sometimes, it was even acknowledged with a traditional naval salute as the ships passed by. But in a legendary display of chivalry, before each merchant ship was destroyed, Muller ordered the crew to take to the boats and board one of his prizes, which was then sent on its way to a nearby port.

Emden’s voyage saw it cruising in August past the coasts of Java and Sumatra, then part of the Dutch East Indies and neutral at the time, and entering the Bay of Bengal. Heading north for Rangoon, it sank six ships off the Burmese capital, including the British Indian Steam Navigation’s (BISN) Aronda, which made regular runs between Calcutta and Rangoon. Then, it steamed straight across the Bay to Madras, making the crossing north of the Andamans. On the basis of the chronicles Muller recorded after the Great War ended, it would seem that Emden slowly made its way towards Madras on the afternoon of September 22, taking its time to reach there in darkness. It made Madras Light (the beams of the lighthouse) around 8 o’clock. Across from Emden was a brightly lit city that did not seem to have a care in the world; in fact, most of the senior officers were at a dinner in the Madras Club, it was reported.

At 9 o’clock, Muller ordered slow steam ahead, and 45 minutes later, Emden was in position, 2,500 yards (2,250 metres) from shore and just across from the harbour. It was then that its guns, ten 105 mm ones, opened up. Harbour installations and four all-white Burmah Oil Company fuel tanks were the target of the 130 shells it rained on a city seeing military action for the first time since Hyder Ali’s raid some 125 years earlier! All night long the fires blazed, and as Emden steamed south, it could see the fires even when it was 90 miles (144 kilometres) away.

Past Pondicherry and Negapatam, Trincomalee and Galle, before heading further south to round the Chagos archipelago, and head past the Maldives and round the Laccadives went Emden before it headed for eastern waters again, Penang as its target. Among the ships Emden sank during this part of its journey was one with the “Cities in History” exhibition that Paul Geddes, the famous town planner, was bringing to India to tour the country. Geddes, who had come by an earlier ship, then decided, being stuck in India, to study and write about its cities. What he bequeathed India—thanks to Emden —was a rich corpus of the subcontinent’s urban history.

Morale-shattering loss What the Emden, however, left behind in Madras was a morale-shattering loss. Two of the oil tanks were destroyed, two others badly holed, and Burmah Oil was out of pocket by £30,000, including the loss of 350,000 gallons of fuel. In the harbour, a BISN ship and a Japanese cruiser were damaged and a Binny’s lighter and a Gordon Woodroffe launch were lost. Ashore, railway wagons, the walls of the Disinfection Shed, the Boiler Shed, the Port Trust’s new staff quarters (Springhaven), the Madras Sailing Club and the General Post Office’s stables were all damaged. Shells cratered roads leading to Springhaven and the General Hospital and streets as far away as Maddox Street in Vepery, Haddow’s Road in Nungambakkam, and Poonamallee High Road. Shrapnel hit the gun battery in Royapuram, the High Court wall, a Binny company house on Casa Major Road and buildings in various parts of George Town and on 1st and 2nd Line Beach.

K.N. Prabhu, the well-known cricket writer, once told me that when he studied in St Mary’s School on Armenian Street 25 years after the Emden bombardment he was shown a piece of shrapnel embedded in a wall of one of the ground floor classrooms and ever since then he had been fascinated by the story of “ antha emden ”. He also told me that he had been told that the shelling did not lead to panic and mass evacuation of the city as it happened after the dropping of a couple of bombs near the harbour by a Japanese plane or two in October 1943.

End of journey But to get back to “that emden”, it headed from Penang south past Sumatra for the Cocos Islands where on Direction Island there was a British communication station (manned by men from the Ceylon Signals, who later in the war were to mutiny) playing a signal part in the search for Emden. To destroy this post, Muller landed his deputy, Lt Helmut von Mucke, with 50 armed sailors. It was while anchored, waiting for his shore party, that fate caught up with Muller.

Nemesis arrived in the form of HMAS Sydney, a light cruiser that had joined the Royal Australian Navy in 1913. As part of the escort for the first ANZAC convoy heading for Europe—these Australians and New Zealanders wound up in Gallipoli fighting alongside Indian troops in one of the bloodiest battles of the Great War—it was steaming south of the Cocos Islands when it was ordered to head for Cocos from where an SOS had been signalled that the station was under threat. Sydney was only a couple of hours sailing away when the signal was received. It was full speed ahead—and the moment the two ships spotted each other their guns opened up. It was an uneven battle. Sydney was a bigger (5,500 tonnes) and faster ship and had more firepower, eight 150 mm guns as well as a variety of other armaments.

Battered For a while, it was an even battle but before long Sydney’s heavier shells battered Emden. Muller refused to give up. Rather than have it sink, he beached his ship on North Keeling Island, another island in the archipelago, but refused Capt. John Glossop’s call to surrender. Sydney then kept firing until the German flag was finally lowered. It was November 9. Emden’s 56,000 km memorable journey had come to an end. There were 130 dead and 65 wounded aboard Emden. The Australians lost four sailors and had four wounded. The Australian press hailed Sydney’s as “Australia’s First Victory”.

The German prisoners were put on their supply ship, one of those captured vessels, and sent to Singapore, then Colombo and on to Malta. While in Singapore, a Sikh regiment guarding them mutinied and asked the Germans to join them. Muller and his men refused and awaited their onward journey.

Sydney’s victory did not include the capture of Mucke’s shore party. After lying hidden and watching the action, they took over a three-master schooner and some supplies and sailed to Sumatra, just north of Cocos, as soon as Sydney left the scene of action. Even though none of them knew how to handle a sailboat, they eventually got there and found a German merchant ship getting ready to head for German East Africa. Reaching Yemen in early May 1915, they began a long trek along the eastern Red Sea coast to get to friendly territory, and then to Constantinople in Turkey, before making their way to Germany. Truly, those of Emden were made of stern stuff. Recognising Emden’s feats, the Kaiser awarded the Iron Cross to the ship and all its crew besides granting them the right to suffix their names with the word “Emden”. Muller became Muller-Emden, a naval legend.

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