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Kaiser's Corsair.

As the First World War began, Commander Walter Hose sailed from Esquimalt in one of Canada's pair of aging cruisers to search and, if necessary, do battle with a strong German naval force operating in the Pacific Ocean. As the decrepit Rainbow was slow, poorly armoured with two 6-inch guns so old that their shells were still filled with gunpowder rather than lyddite, it was perhaps fortunate for Rainbow's crew that their valiant effort proved unsuccessful.


Further south, German Admiral Graf von Spee was mustering a force of four major vessels and two cruisers. The success and subsequent fate of the German squadron at Coronel and the Falklands is a story in itself, but the adventures of one of the ships which was detached from the force, and given free rein, reads like a Hornblower novel.

Von Spee's force was augmented by two "sister" ships, the SMS Dresden and Emden. Following the Royal Navy's revenge in the Falklands, Dresden initially escaped but was ultimately cornered and forced to scuttle in March of 1915. Emden left on a short but eventful rampage which would have done credit to a modern Francis Drake.


Emden, launched in 1908, was specially designed as a commerce raider. Armed with ten 4-inch guns, and capable of 25 knots, the vessel had the advantage of a 6,000-mile range of action -- quite an achievement in the days of coal-burning warships. In command was Korvettenkapitan Karl von Muller, a member of an old Prussian military family.

Even before the war broke out, Emden had received her baptism of fire, silencing a Chinese shore battery which had been foolish enough to open fire on her for some reason. While in the Yellow Sea, von Muller received the news that Germany was at war with France and Russia, and, wasting no time as, on 2 August 1914 Emden seized a Russian liner which he converted into an armed raider, the Kormoran.

Emden and her supply ship, the collier Markomannia, rendezvoused with Admiral von Spee's squadron where von Muller, at his request, was detached to wreak havoc in the Indian Ocean with Emden. His first encounter was with a German vessel which, unaware of the hostilities, was carrying four million dollars to the Indian government. This was immediately diverted and returned to German hands.


After being "evicted" from Timor by the neutral Dutch authorities, von Muller decided that Emden's three funnels were a distinguishing feature (the Allied warships in the area had four) and added a dummy funnel in an attempt to disguise his ship. On 8 September 1914 came his first success.

The Greek steamer Pontoporos was carrying a cargo of coal. While the ship was, technically, neutral, the cargo was contraband. Von Muller seized the vessel and, perhaps even more importantly, Calcutta newspapers which carried the sailing dates, destinations and cargoes of vessels leaving the port. Armed with this intelligence, Emden was able to sink or seize seven allied merchantmen within the next six days.


Surprisingly, von Muller was becoming something of a hero in the eyes of his British enemies. In contrast to the sometimes inhuman policies of the later sea raiders, the U-boat captains, Emden's master made every effort to spare the lives of the merchant crews. Victims of his earlier sinkings were transferred to a captured vessel, the Kabinga, and escorted close to Calcutta, where the vessel was allowed to proceed on its way -- the erstwhile captives bidding farewell by giving "three cheers to the Emden." The British, brought up in the buccaneering tradition, could not help but have a grudging respect for their formidable foe.

By now, targets in the Bay of Bengal were few and far between, and von Muller decided to diversify. The result was a bombardment of the oil refinery and port of Madras. Braving ineffective return fire from the garrison's heavier guns, Emden succeeded in destroying a thousand gallons of fuel oil. Four more vessels were taken in the next three days but, by now, it was time to move on. Perhaps the luckiest "catch" was SS Buresk, whose cargo of good Welsh coal came at an opportune time as the bunkers of both Emden and Markomannia were almost depleted.


By now, 16 allied warships were seeking Emden, including British, French, Australian, Russian and Japanese vessels. While there was an abundance of bases for the Allies, there were few, if any, havens friendly to the German ship. Von Muller set sail southwards to Diego Garcia, a remote British possession off the beaten track. On his arrival his men were welcomed by the island's administrator, who was so isolated from the outside world that even in October 1914 he was unaware that his country was at war, and offered his visitors repair and careening facilities, which were gratefully accepted. Then it was back northwards, to the hunting grounds.

By now, British admiration was tempered by frustration, especially among ship owners and maritime insurance brokers. However, apart from angry letters to the Times, little could be done. Five more vessels were sunk, another was commandeered to carry their imprisoned crews, while a seventh, the Exford (together with Buresk) replaced the Markomannia, which had been sunk by a British cruiser.


Then came Emden's most audacious raid. Several Allied vessels were moored at the British naval base in Georgetown, on the west coast of Malaya. Emden, sporting her dummy funnel, steamed unchallenged into the roadstead and quickly despatched the Russian cruiser Jemstchoug. As Emden left she encountered a French destroyer, Mousquet, returning from patrol. The destroyer's captain mistook the four-funnelled vessel for a British ship and, by the time that he had identified the German naval ensign, it was too late. Straddled by 4-inch shells, Mousquet went down, her guns still firing. Emden picked up 36 survivors.

Luck eventually ran out for von Muller. On 9 November Emden arrived in the Cocos Islands, where the captain intended to destroy the radio and cable facilities. The sham fourth funnel was by now so battered that it failed to deceive the island radio operator, who quickly sent out SOS calls.

The First Lieutenant, von Mucke, was sent ashore with a party to destroy the island communication facilities, while the Emden's crew awaited the Buresk with her supply of coal. The lookout reported the arrival of the supply vessel.

He was mistaken! The SOS call had been picked up by a convoy carrying ANZAC soldiers to Europe. One of the escorts was HMAS Sydney -- bigger and faster than Emden and carrying guns which were heavier and outranged those on the commerce raider. It was Sydney, responding to the wireless message, that the lookout had sighted.


The German ship tried to put to sea, and at 0940 hrs opened fire, destroying the Australians' fire direction system. That was her last fling -- Sydney withdrew out of range, her heavier guns pounding the German vessel unmercifully. His steering gone, von Muller tried without success to manoeuver by engines alone to get into position to launch a torpedo at the Australian cruiser. Finally, just over an hour after the opening shots, the German decided that to save his crew he would run the sinking Emden aground.

Sydney, meanwhile, had raced off in an attempt to seize the Buresk (which the crew scuttled as the cruiser approached), and when she returned to the scene of the battle, Emden lay on a coral reef, her flag still flying. By now it was late afternoon. The Emden's crew were exhausted, and many suffered from wounds or severe thirst. Despite his victory, Captain John Glossop, of the Sydney, would later be chastised in the British press for his subsequent "unsportsmanlike behaviour."


Glossop signalled in Morse "Do you wish to surrender?" but von Muller flashed back that he did not understand the signal. Sydney promptly replied with two more salvoes into the stricken vessel, after which von Muller hauled down his flag. The Germans had lost almost 200 dead and wounded; all guns were out of action. Many of von Muller's admirers, far from subscribing to the "total war" concept, severely criticized the Australian captain for firing on an enemy who was obviously hors de combat.

There is a sequel to this adventure.


Von Mucke, on the island, saw what had happened to his ship and crew. His party "borrowed" a schooner belonging to the island's owner and slipped past Sydney that night. Reaching Sumatra, he made arrangements for a German vessel in the neutral harbour to meet his ship at sea and, eventually, after more adventures, the Lieutenant and 50 of Emden's crew reached Istanbul and home.

In a three-month period the Emden had captured or sunk 23 allied merchantmen, destroyed two warships and badly damaged another, and had occupied the attention of almost 80 allied warships. One accolade from a British senior naval officer was that "[von Muller] was worthy enough to have served under the British ensign." In view of the somewhat inept performance of the Royal Navy in the early days of the First World War, this may perhaps have been a back-handed compliment.
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Author:Peate, Les
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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