Cruisers, Raiders and a British Blockade
The Exploits of the S.M.S. Emden
Long, lean and graceful, the German light cruiser Emden was the pride of the Imperial Navy's China squadron. Known as the "Swan of the East" she was more like an eagle using her razor sharp talons to disrupt commerce shipping. Under the guide of the brilliant Kommandant Karl von Muller, this raider was the scourge of 1914.
Prowling the Indian Ocean, the feats of the Emden were some of the most daring of the war. At 3,650 tons, she swooped down on Allied shipping with such force that one of her frustrated British pursuers was reported to have stated, "We admire her exploits as much as we wish the ship may be taken".
Kommandant von Muller was an excellent officer and used the Emden to the best of her ability. Muller employed a simple yet cunning plan to get close to his victims. Like most German light cruisers she could be distinguished by her three funnels, British cruisers had four. Muller would add a fake funnel made of wood and canvas to give the false impression she was a British ship. This allowed her to slip in close to her prey without arousing suspicion
Emden was as deadly as she was beautiful. She mounted ten 4.1-inch rapid-fire guns, and with a top speed of 25-knots she could out run any merchant ship on the sea. This combination of firepower and speed made her the perfect commerce raider. Yet Kommandant Muller never abused the power the Emdan gave him. He was as chivalrous as he was brave; nicknamed the "gentleman captain" he always followed international rules of war and allowed merchantmen to leave the ship before sinking. Prisoners were taken to the nearest port and allowed to leave, and medical treatment was given to the injured.
Muller and the Emden became a lone marauding commerce raider on September 10, when he boarded a 3,400 ton British freighter - setting off scuttling charges and sending it to the bottom of the crowded shipping lanes between India and Ceylon. Within one week he had sunk six Britishers, and one month later the toll was 11 vessels, totaling some 50,000 tons.
Muller had nerves of steel and his raids became legendary. On September 22, while 14 British warships were desperately searching for Emden, Muller slipped into Marads. Before the British could man their shore batteries, Muller gave the order to open fire, and shells ripped open two huge oil storage tanks owned by Anglo Persian Oil. Thick black smoke billowed into the air; the tanks were completely destroyed and all the fuel inside the tanks burst into flames.
On October 28, the stealthy Emden snuck into the Allied harbor at Panang, Malaya. Muller steadied his anxious crew until they were at point-blank range with the Russian cruiser Yemtschuk. The order was now given - "FIRE" - and the Yemtschuk was sent to the bottom of the harbor. The Emden made a mad dash for the open sea, sinking a French destroyer along the way.
When a moment's peace could be found, the men of the Emden enjoyed the contraband removed from allied ships. An officer's log read "Sometimes I felt like we were at a great fair. Hams dangled from the engine skylight. There were stacks of chocolate and bottles labeled Cognac with 3 stars". But the crew of the Emden knew this could end at any time.
On November 9, Muller anchored the Emden off Keeling Island, west of Australia. 50 men were sent ashore to blow up a British radio and cable station. This was a grave mistake. The radio operator had spotted Emden and a message was sent out "Emden here". The landing party destroyed the station but it was to late. As the men of the landing party made there way back to the ship they were met with a horrifying site: the Emden had set sail without them and an enemy warship was in full chase.
Alerted by the radio message, the Australian heavy cruiser Sydney had at once been sent to Keeling Island. The Sydney had the advantage of superior firepower. With its 6-inch guns, Sydney was able to attack from outside the Emden's range. The order was given and the heavier guns of the Sydney rained shells like hail stones down on the Emden. After 90 minutes the superior firepower of the Sydney showed; the exploits of the Emden were over.
Of the 325 men onboard, 141 were dead; the rest including Muller became prisoners for the duration of the war. The only men to escape were the landing party on shore. Seeing Emdens fate they commandeered an old sailing schooner and quietly slipped away. Eight months and 4,300 miles later, they arrived in Arabia. From there they traveled by foot, stole rides on trains and finely reached their allies in Constantinople in June of 1915. Greeted by a German admiral their leader gave a salute and announced, "I report the landing squad of the Emden, 5 officers, 7 petty officers and 30 men strong".