- Rahman, Shukor
- Ship histories and stories, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Sydney I
- March 1986 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
(Reprinted by permission of Penang New Sunday Times, October 28, 1984)
On October 28, 1914 – exactly 70 years ago today – most of the people of Penang were still deep in slumber just before dawn when the German raider Emden stole into the Penang harbour and sank the Russian cruiser Zhemchug in the North Channel. As it was leaving Penang, the Emden also sent the French torpedo boat, Mosquet, to the bottom of the sea, 10 miles off Muka Head on the northwest of Penang Island.
At the outbreak of the First World War, a lone German sea-raider inflicted untold damage on Britain’s war effort in the Indian Ocean. The ship was the 3,650-ton German cruiser Emden. In three months she captured or sank 23 merchant ships, attacked ports and harbours, destroyed a radio station and enticed 80 enemy warships into searching for her.
The Emden’s odyssey began on the morning of August 14 1914 when she left an anchorage among the Mariana Islands in the Pacific.
She was off to do battle, alone. Her orders were to penetrate deep into enemy waters and to seek and destroy British merchant shipping.
She was to hunt and be hunted and to fight a war 10,000 miles from the German homeland, which few among her crew ever expected to see again.
How much longer could the Emden maintain her stealthy role? Daily the hunt for her was intensified. Captain Karl Von Muller knew time was running out.
He decided on another strike, which proved to be the most audacious of all. He had already boldly attacked one enemy port, Madras, when no foreign vessel had dared to challenge British rule on the Indian mainland for a hundred years.
Now he would hit another – but this time a fortified naval base. The risks would be enormous but so, too, would be the prize of a successful raid. The new target was Penang.
The attack was made just before dawn on October 28. The Emden had her fourth ‘dummy’ funnel up and a pilot boat at the bottleneck leading into the harbour paid no attention to her.
Just before entering the harbour. Captain von Muller reduced speed and looked around. Even in the greyness the shore lights stood out.
On the port side were four particularly bright lights, evenly spaced, that at first seemed to belong to houses.
But as the earliest rays of dawn appeared, the lights separated and disclosed the large funnels and superstructure of a capital Russian warship, the cruiser Zhemchug. Captain von Muller moved toward the unsuspecting enemy.
The battle flags were run up the masts, revealing her true identity and she turned to bring the port torpedo tube to bear on the Russian cruiser.
At 500 yards, the captain and the torpedo officer could see a steam pinnace drawing away from the Russian ship.
It was only the cookboat, taking the cooks and petty officers to the early morning market to buy fresh supplies.
The Emden swiftly moved her torpedo tube into the precise position required. Then, at 300 yards, still without a stir from the cruiser, Torpedo Officer Witthoeft pulled the release handle. ‘Torpedo away!’
On deck the men strained in the gathering light and could see the tell-tale streak of bubbles. The enemy was not more than 250 yards away.
Now there was stirring aboard the Zhemchug, movement on the bridge and on the decks, but it was too late.
There was a muffled explosion below the waterline, and the Zhemchug seemed to leap out of the water, a large splash appearing against her hull just below the second funnel. Then she fell back and began to settle.
When the torpedo splash was seen from the Emden her crew began to cheer, but this was drowned out by the noise of the Emden’s guns, which opened up on the Russian cruiser, aiming at her forecastle where the men were sleeping.
Flames could be seen aboard the Russian ship. She was deep in the water, and the Emden’s shells were tearing into her.
Captain von Muller decided another torpedo was needed to finish the Russian off quickly. He put the Emden into a turn to port to fire the starboard tube.
In these few moments of manoeuvre the Zhemchug’s crew, or some of them, managed to get to action stations and shells began to whistle across the Emden.
Then came the second torpedo. It exploded with a sharp crack, striking home below the surface at a point beneath the bridge and penetrated the cruiser’s torpedo storage.
There was a second explosion and the centre of the ship rose high. She broke into two pieces and splashed back into the water. Immediately, thick smoke belched out accompanied by flickering tongues of flame. There was a sizzling and hissing sound in the water and a cloud spread around and above the Russian cruiser. Suddenly Captain von Muller saw a fast approaching ship from the mount of the harbour, trailing a dense cloud of black smoke of the kind that is associated with fast torpedo boats.
He turned the ship hard aport and headed for this new enemy at maximum speed. At 6,000 yards Gunnery Officer Gaede opened fire on her.
The boat turned and showed herself to be a Government pilot vessel, quite harmless to the cruiser. She had suffered only one hit in the funnel, and that had not disabled her.
The interruption had, however, caused the Emden to run so far out of the harbour that it was foolhardy now to turn back and resume the attack on the ships there.
The battle flags were hauled down as the Emden moved past the entrance buoy, and soon the men were released from battle stations.
Not one man aboard the Emden had been wounded. But the Penang episode was not yet over. Moving away from the scene of her triumph the Emden made a fresh sighting. That was not a merchantman but a French destroyer.
Less than 5,000 yards from the enemy the Emden raised her battle flags. As the ships closed the Emden’s gunners began shooting.
The enemy let loose two torpedoes and turned, presenting her beam as a target. The torpedoes passed harmlessly astern, and the Emden began to fire.
After two salvos the Emden’s gunners found the range, and the third sent the French tricolour drooping. One shell must have landed in the boiler room because white clouds of steam rose high above the ship.
The French continued to fire and a machinegun sprayed bullets above the Emden. After the 10th salvo Captain van Muller ordered his gunnery officer to cease fire. The enemy ship was badly holed. Would she surrender? But no white flag showed.
Two more salvos were fired. The firing aboard the French ship ceased, and she began to sink.
But still she refused to surrender.
The Emden resumed firing, but after the 20th salvo the captain again ordered a halt. The destroyer was down by the bows. Then her stern rose for a moment, and the entire ship disappeared.
The Emden moved in. Two cutters were put over the side, and in one of them the Emden’s medical officer, Dr. Schwabe, carried bandages and medicines to treat survivors swimming in the sea.
In all, 36 seamen and one officer were rescued and brought back to the Emden. From them the captain learned that he had sunk the 2,000 ton French destroyer Mosquet.
The Emden’s enemies hunted her for three months in the eastern Indian Ocean. At last on November 9 1914 she was cornered.
The German raider’s nemesis was the Australian cruiser, Sydney, which was bigger, faster and fired bigger shells at a longer range than those of the Emden.
Ten minutes after the battle began, the Sydney’s gunners found their target. They then began to cut the little German cruiser to pieces.
The Emden ran aground on the south coast of the Cocos Keeling Island. The engines were stopped, then started again, and she was firmly fixed on the reef.
Captain von Muller’s tactics was to ram his helpless ship into the reefs in shallow water to ensure that the wreck would be irretrievable.
At least this would be better than being sunk at sea or captured as a prize.
On the same day, the following ticker- tape message was sent out to newspapers around the world:
‘The Emden destroyed. Official. The Press Bureau issued the following statement at 12.39pm. The Emden has been driven ashore at Cocos Keeling Island and burnt.’