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The Sinking 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.


HMAS Sydney



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.


SMS Emden



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 Ibuki.

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 it.

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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