By Richard Breckon
Following from recent cover pictures of the June edition of the Review featuring Australian warships depicted on postage stamps the well known philatelist Richard Breckon has provided an interesting outline of how images are chosen for postage stamps.
The centenary of the Sydney-Emden battle will occur in November 2014 – the first between a RAN warship and an enemy ship of World War I. This epic event occurred near the tiny Indian Ocean group of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. It was first commemorated on stamps issued by the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in 1976.
In 1902 the Cocos (Keeling) Islands became a key part of the global submarine cable network with the opening of the Eastern Extension of the Pacific Cable Board’s London-Capetown cable. The Cocos relay station attracted the enemy’s attention at the commencement of World War I.
At dawn on 9 November 1914, the German light armoured cruiser SMS Emden landed a party of about 45 men on Direction Island in the Cocos group with the intention of destroying the relay station. As the Emden neared, the island’s radio operators broadcast a message ‘Strange warship approaching’.
At that moment, the first Australian and New Zealand convoy of 30,000 troops was under escort by warships on a course about 80km to the east. The nearest warship to the islands, HMAS Sydney, proceeded at full speed to engage Emden. At 5,400 tons with eight 6-inch guns, the armoured cruiser Sydney outclassed Emden at 3,600 tons and with ten 4.1-inch guns. After a running battle, the Emden became incapable of further resistance. Her captain deliberately ran Emden aground on North Keeling Island.
Meanwhile, the landing party found its own means of escape by seizing Ayesha, an old, three-masted schooner which the party sailed to Sumatra, in neutral Dutch East Indies. By circuitous means, the Emden party eventually reached Germany.
Producing the 1976 Sydney-Emden stamps
In 1955 Australia acquired ownership of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, which had previously been administered by the colony of Singapore. As a result, Australian postal legislation came into force on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Australian stamps replaced Singapore’s stamps. In 1963, separate stamps for the islands were introduced. Cocos (Keeling) Islands stamps enjoyed the same status as Australian stamps and they were available for postal use in Australia.
In the early 1970s, a new series of 12 Cocos (Keeling) Islands stamps was developed on the theme of ships associated with the history of the islands. Naturally, Sydney and Emden were included, as well as another stamp featuring Ayesha.
A commission to prepare designs for the 12 stamps was awarded to Ray Honisett of Melbourne, who at the time was completing the designs of six Australian Antarctic Territory stamps featuring aircraft used by Antarctic explorers. Ray Honisett’s work is represented in the collection of the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
All preliminary stamp designs in Australia are submitted to the Stamp Advisory Committee, a body of art experts tasked with recommending the final stamp designs for approval. The 12 Cocos Ship designs were considered by the Stamp Advisory Committee. Various modifications were required, which involved Sydney and Emden designs.
The original Sydney design featured the burning Emden in the distance, but the distressed ship was deleted from the final design to make the stamp less ‘war-like’. The original Emden design featured a vessel in the background, presumably the raider’s prospective victim. The background ship was also deleted from the final design for the same reason. The changes were made to the two designs at the time of their submission to the Postmaster-General for final approval in September 1973.
The Sydney design shows the ship approaching Direction Island; in the Emden design the ship is emerging from a rain squall; and the Ayesha design features the raiding party about to board. The designs were allocated to stamp denominations of 10c (Sydney), 15c (Emden) and 20c (Ayesha).
The Ship stamp series was printed at the Note Printing Branch, Melbourne, which at the time printed all Australian stamps, as well as Australian banknotes. (Stamp printing today is carried out in the private sector). The 12 stamps were issued on the same day, 29 March 1976, on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and at selected post offices in Australia, which offered philatelic sales facilities.
As noted above, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands stamps were valid for use on mail posted in Australia and many philatelists took advantage of this to use the Cocos Ship stamps. The Ship stamps were withdrawn from sale in September 1979.