Australia and New Zealand in the Great War
The Legend of the ANZACs
of The Emden
The naval Battle of Cocos
took place on November 9, 1914 during World War I off the Cocos
(Keeling) Islands, in the north east Indian Ocean.
The German light cruiser SMS Emden attacked the British telegraph relay
station on Direction Island and was engaged several hours later by HMAS
Sydney, an Australian light cruiser. The battle was the first
ship-against-ship engagement for the Royal Australian Navy.
The Emden was launched in 1908, and became the Kaiserliche Marine's
representative at the German colony of Tsingtao, in China, and was part
of the German East Asia Squadron. After war broke out on August 4, 1914,
the squadron was ordered to avoid the superior Allied naval forces in
the Pacific, and it headed for Germany, by way of Cape Horn. The sole
exception was the Emden, under Korvettenkapitän (Lt Commander) Karl von
Müller, which headed towards the Indian Ocean, with the objective of
raiding Allied shipping. Müller frequently made use of a fake fourth
smokestack, which — when the ship flew the Royal Navy ensign — made it
resemble the British cruiser HMS Yarmouth and similar vessels.
Within three months, Emden had sunk 30 Allied merchant vessels and
warships. It had also shelled and damaged British oil tanks at Madras,
in India. A collier named Buresk, was captured with its cargo intact,
and was re-crewed with German seamen to accompany the Emden as a supply
vessel. Other victims of the Emden included an obsolescent Russian
cruiser and a French destroyer off Malaya, at the Battle of Penang, on
October 28. By the end of October, no less than 60 Allied warships were
looking for the Emden.
Coincidentally, on November 1, a convoy carrying the Australian and New
Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) to Egypt, left Albany, Western Australia. The
escort was comprised of four cruisers: the Australian Sydney and HMAS
Melbourne, the British HMS Minotaur and the Imperial Japanese Navy's
The radio and telegraph station at Direction Island was a critical
component of Allied communication in and across the Indian Ocean. Müller
decided to destroy the station's radio tower and equipment.
When Emden reached the island at 6am on November 9, the Eastern
Telegraph Company staff quickly realised they were under attack and sent
a message saying "Strange ship in entrance" and "SOS, Emden here". A
German shore party of 50 seamen with small arms, under Kapitänleutnant
Hellmuth von Mücke was quickly landed. The civilian staff on the island
offered no resistance, and Mücke even agreed to take care that the 54
metre (176 ft) tall radio tower did not fall into the island's tennis
court, when its base was blown up. Emden signalled the Buresk to join
The ANZAC convoy happened to be only 50 miles (80 km) away and it was
decided to detach a vessel in response to the SOS signals. Despite
intense lobbying from the commander of the Ibuki, the state-of-art
Sydney — under Captain John Glossop was despatched at 7am.
When lookouts on Emden spotted Sydney approaching, Müller had no choice
but to raise anchor and engage the Australian cruiser, leaving Mücke and
his landing party on Direction Island.
Sydney was larger, faster and better armed — 6 inch (152mm) guns — than
Emden, which had 104mm (4.1 inch) guns. However, the German gunners
fired first at 9.40am from 10km away and scored hits soon afterwards,
knocking out Sydney's rangefinder and one gun. After that, Glossop used
his speed and the superior range of his guns to stay out of reach of the
German guns and avoided further damage and casualties. Meanwhile, his
own gunners gradually found their marks, inflicting sustained and
increasingly accurate fire on Emden.
By 10.20am the Germans had lost their steering, electrics and radio.
Nevertheless, the battle went on for almost another hour. After taking
extremely heavy damage from almost 100 hits, and suffering dozens of
casualties, Müller decided to beach Emden on North Keeling Island to
avoid sinking at 11.15am. Sydney then pursued Buresk, which was scuttled
to avoid re-capture. Müller had neglected to strike his colours after
beaching and when Sydney returned, Glossop signalled Emden to surrender.
As no reply was received, he ordered his gunners to resume firing, after
which a white flag was run up.
The survivors from Emden were then captured and Emden was destroyed.
Emden's crew suffered 131 killed and 65 wounded, from a total complement
of 360. Sydney had three killed and eight wounded. Glossop later said
that he "felt like a murderer" for ordering the last salvoes at the
helpless ship, but had no choice under the circumstances.
The Emden wrecked
In the meantime, Mücke and his men had seized the 123-ton three-masted
schooner Ayesha and some supplies and made for Padang on Sumatra, in the
neutral territory of the Dutch East Indies, where they rendezvoused with
a German merchant vessel on December 13. Mücke's party made their way to
Turkey by way of the Red Sea, arriving on May 5, 1915. From there they
travelled overland, eventually reaching Germany.
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