By Wes Olson
When the small German cruiser SMS Emden was destroyed by HMAS Sydney at the Cocos-Keeling Islands on 9 November 1914 the British Admiralty was presented with a unique opportunity to gather valuable information. Fregattenkapitän Karl von Müller’s decision to run his battered ship ashore to save what remained of his crew allowed the Royal Navy to recover weapons, fire control instruments and documents for analysis and evaluation. It also allowed the Commonwealth Government to secure souvenirs to celebrate the Royal Australian Navy’s first victory at sea.
When Sydney recovered Emden’s survivors on 10 November specialists went onboard the wreck to assess the damage and to remove anything of value. They recovered a book of range tables and two torpedo director sights, and a damage report was compiled by Carpenter Edward Behenna.
HMS Cadmus was subsequently sent to Cocos to dispose of Emden’s dead and to inspect the wreck more thoroughly. The sloop was able to recover electric telegraphs and a binnacle and compass for the Australian Government, and upon return to Singapore reported the discovery of a confidential chest and a safe on the wreck. Commander Hugh Marryat also reported that Emden’s 10.5-cm guns remained onboard, but were missing their breech blocks and recoil pistons (these had been removed by the Germans and thrown overboard). Cadmuswas sent back to Cocos in January 1915 to recover the contents of the chest and safe, one or more guns, and a torpedo. This was accomplished, and Cadmus came away with two guns, a torpedo, a searchlight, and a large quantity of coins.
Emden had been armed with ten 10.5-cm guns. Six were fitted with splinter shields and roofs; two were mounted on the forecastle deck (No.1 gun, port and starboard); two were placed amidships (No.3 gun, port and starboard); and two were mounted on the poop deck aft (No.5 gun, port and starboard). The four guns not fitted with shields and roofs were placed in sponsons below the after end of the forecastle deck (No.2 gun, port and starboard), and below the forward end of the poop deck (No.4 gun, port and starboard). The two guns recovered by Cadmus were Emden’s No.2 guns, port and starboard.
The torpedo, searchlight and one of the guns were subsequently sent to Britain. The Admiralty was keen to study a German 10.5-cm gun because Sydney’s commanding officer, Captain John Glossop, had reported that Emden had opened fast and accurate fire from 10,500 yards – well in excess of what a German light cruiser was thought capable of. It was established that Emdenwas equipped with 10.5-cm C/88 (Model 1888) Schnellfeuer-Kanonen (quick-firing guns). The Royal Navy’s gunnery experts discovered that these C/88 L/40 guns (L/40 indicated the length of the gun in calibres) were fitted to C/04 central pivot mounts; this enabled them to be elevated to 30 degrees, giving them a maximum effective range of 13,300 yards (12,200 metres).
The gun sent to Britain was subsequently put on temporary display in London. Its ultimate fate is unknown, but it was probably cut up for scrap during or after the war. The second gun came to Australia as a trophy, and in December 1917 was placed on permanent display in Hyde Park, Sydney. Two more complete guns and two 10.5-cm barrels arrived in Australia in September 1918. The story of their recovery is equally interesting.
In May 1915 the Commonwealth Government called for tenders for the salvage of Emden. A Defence Department advertisement stated that all tenderers must undertake to forward to Navy Office in Melbourne, and hand over free of charge, all guns and gun mountings, torpedoes and torpedo tubes, fire-control instruments and apparatus, money in whatever form it might be found, and all confidential books and documents that may be salved. Furthermore, should the ship be salved and brought into port, the government was to have the option of purchasing her at a price to be determined by arbitration. Edward Darnley, a Sydney-based commercial diver and salvage contractor was awarded the contract, but a dispute arose and in October the contract was cancelled. It was announced that the Navy would now undertake the work. Emden, stuck fast on a reef off North Keeling Island and pounded by heavy seas, had already started to break up, and when HMAS Protectorinspected the wreck in November it was found that the stern had completely disappeared. On 11 January 1916 the Minister for the Navy announced that ‘nothing more can be done towards either salving the remains of the Emden or any trophies from her’.
The Cocos Islands proprietor and governor, John Clunies-Ross, thought otherwise, and began helping himself to the wreck. Much of the metal he salvaged in 1916 and early 1917, and taken ashore by flying fox, was sold for scrap, but two complete guns with shields (No.1 port and starboard), and two barrels from the amidships guns (No.3 port and starboard), were kept and offered to the Commonwealth. These, and a quantity of other Emden artefacts, were purchased in 1918 for £660. One of the complete guns is now preserved at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, the other is on display at the RAN’s Heritage Centre, Garden Island, Sydney. The two 10.5-cm barrels are also at the Heritage Centre.
Four 10.5-cm guns are still on Emden’s wreck, the remains of which lie under several metres of water. The No.4 sponson guns, port and starboard, are still attached to their mounts and mount support columns, and rest on the seabed outboard of the ship’s engines. The No.5 guns have been moved from their original resting places, suggesting that an attempt was made to salvage them by dragging them towards shore – possibly by Clunies-Ross. The No.5 starboard gun and the remains of its splinter shield sit on the seabed well forward on the starboard side of the wreck. The No.5 port gun and mount (minus shield) lies on the port side, forward of the No.4 gun. These guns will remain on the wreck, which is protected under the Australian Historic Shipwrecks Act of 1976.
Another gun with an Emden connection is held by the Australian War Memorial. This is an Elswick Ordnance Company MkXI* 6-inch barrel, Serial No.2289. HMAS Sydney’s Ship’s Book records this as the cruiser’s No.2 starboard gun (S-2), making it a historically significant artefact.
Early in the action on 9 November 1914 two of Emden’s shells exploded near Sydney’s then disengaged S-2 gun. The first, a high-explosive shell, exploded on the deck behind the gun. Shell splinters struck some of the gun crew, ignited ready-use cordite charges, and started a fire in a lifebelt stowage bin. Moments later a shrapnel shell detonated upon contact with a funnel guy wire, lashing the gun position with hundreds of small steel balls. These two hits killed or injured seven of the nine men who formed the gun crew. Petty Officer Thomas Lynch (gun-layer) and Ordinary Seaman Robert Bell died of wounds, whilst Able Seaman Arthur Hooper (gun-trainer), AB Richard Horne (sight-setter), AB Bertie Green, AB Joseph Kinniburgh, and Ordinary Seaman Tom Williamson were wounded and/or burned.
It is also noteworthy that of the six Distinguished Service Medals awarded for the Emden action, four went to members of the S-2 gun crew; these being Able Seamen Green, Kinniburgh, Harold Collins and William Taylor.
Identifying where individual preserved Emden guns were located on the German cruiser is harder to prove, as the original armament list for the ship does not appear to have survived. Comparing visible damage to the guns with accounts of battle damage and photographs of the wreck after the action can be used as a guide, but is not 100% reliable. Clunies-Ross had to completely dismantle the No.1 guns and their shields to get them ashore, and it cannot be assumed that gun and shield components were correctly mated when the guns were later re-assembled. If by chance they were, then the splinter damage to barrel and shield of the gun at the AWM suggests that it was Emden’s No.1 starboard gun. This would mean that the gun at the RAN Heritage Centre is Emden’s No.1 port gun. The crews of these guns did not survive the action.
The No.2 guns were also dismantled prior to their recovery by HMS Cadmus. As one of these guns was to be sent to England for expert examination, there is a good chance that the component parts of both were carefully marked so that the guns could later be correctly re-assembled. If so, then the damage to the training wheel of the gun on display in Hyde Park suggests that it is the No.2 port gun.
The training and laying gear of the 10.5-cm C/88 gun was located on the left hand side of the weapon, and one man – the gun-layer – worked both. According to German accounts, the only gun-layer to survive the action remained at his post to the end – even after his left forearm was smashed by a shell splinter. This man was Bootsmannsmaat Joseph Ruscinski, and he served the No.2 port gun. In addition to the wound to his left arm, which was later amputated, Ruscinski sustained a large flesh wound to his left thigh. It is logical to assume that the unshielded gun was also damaged when Ruscinski was hit, and the battle damage to the training wheel of the Hyde Park gun is consistent with such a scenario.
The Hyde Park gun surmounts a monument erected in 1917 to commemorate the destruction of SMS Emden, and is a memorial to the four members of HMAS Sydney’s ship’s company who made the supreme sacrifice. The gun is also a silent reminder of the 318 members of Emden’s ship’s company, of which 136 lost their lives in the battle and aftermath. If it is Emden’s No.2 port gun, it also serves as a lasting tribute to one man’s courage and devotion to duty.
Wes Olson is a NHSA member, and the author of The Last Cruise of a German Raider – The Destruction of SMS Emden(Seaforth Publishing, 2018). Previous works include Bitter Victory – The Death of HMAS Sydney(2000 & 2001), and HMAS Sydney (II) – In Peace and War(2016).