The Epic Journey of the Emden and Her Crew

HMAS Sydney. New South Wales State Library

End of the Emden

The Emden’s depredations sowed chaos and panic throughout the Indian Ocean’s merchant shipping community and disrupted the sea lanes, and voyages between Singapore and India came to a complete halt. That greatly embarrassed the Entente’s navies, none more so than the mighty British Royal Navy, and galled Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty. He was aware that the Emden’s rampage gave the Royal Navy a black eye, and made it look ridiculous for failing to prevent a single ship from wreaking such havoc.

In a bid to bring the Emden’s rampage to an end, a massive multinational fleet scoured the seas in search of the German cruiser. For months, their efforts went unrewarded, as the Emden waged what amounted to naval guerrilla warfare, operating almost like a wraith that seemingly appeared from nowhere to strike, before vanishing into the mist. A silver lining, at least, was the chivalry and gallantry exhibited by the German captain – traits that would soon grow rare, steadily banished by bitterness as the war’s costs in blood and treasure mounted. He treated prisoners with decency, and refrained from wanton destruction and needless cruelty.

After the successful raid on Penang, von Mueller cruised to the Cocos Islands in the eastern Indian Ocean, intending to destroy British wireless installations located there. The Emden arrived on the morning of November 9th, but despite attempts at jamming radio signals, the locals managed to transmit a message: “Unidentified ship off entrance“. It was received by the Australian light cruiser, HMAS Sydney, 60 miles away. Bigger, more heavily armed and armored, and faster than the Emden to boot, the Sydney immediately set course for the Cocos Islands.

In the meantime, the Emden disembarked on Direction Island a landing party of about 50 officers and men, under the command of Lieutenant Helmuth von Mucke, with orders to destroy the wireless installations and bring down the radio mast. Three hours later, the Emden’s luck finally ran out, when German lookouts spotted HMAS Sydney bearing down upon them at full speed. The Emden was caught with her pants down, with a significant part of her crew ashore just when a heavier and more powerful enemy vessel arrived on the scene.

Wreckage of the Emden, beached on North Keeling Island. Wikimedia

There was no time to recover the landing party, who were abandoned as von Mueller ordered the Emden into action against the Sydney. The Emden put up a spirited fight, but her 4.1 inch guns were outmatched by the Australian cruiser’s heavier 6 inch guns. The Emden was pounded to pieces, and she was run aground to keep her from sinking. By sunset, the situation was hopeless, and with 133 of the Emden’s crew already killed, she struck her colors. The survivors were taken prisoner.