The Epic Journey of the Emden and Her Crew

The Epic Journey of the Emden and Her Crew

Khalid Elhassan - September 3, 2018

The Imperial German Navy’s SMS Emden was a light cruiser that was completed in 1909, then sent to join the German East Asia Squadron, based in Tsingtao, China. Displacing about 4300 tons, she was armed with ten 4.1 inch guns and two torpedo tubes, which was a nice punch for a ship of her size. Between that and her ability to do nearly 24 knots – a good speed in those days – the Emden was well suited for her intended role of commerce raiding.

When World War I broke out, the Emden, with a complement of 18 officers and 343 crewmen, commanded by an intrepid commander named Karl von Mueller, set out to fulfill her mission. During a two month cruise in the Indian Ocean, she captured or destroyed over 30 ships, bombed Madras, raided Penang in the Malay Peninsula, and sank an enemy cruiser and destroyer. She was eventually cornered by a more powerful ship and forced to run aground. However, even that did not end her story: some of her crew who had been stranded on an island seized a rickety ship, and sailed their way to freedom in an epic journey that captivated friend and foe alike.

The Epic Journey of the Emden and Her Crew
Aftermath of the Emden’s bombardment of Madras. Naval Encyclopedia

The Epic Cruise of the Emden

In the weeks preceding the war’s outbreak, the Emden was the only German cruiser in East Asian waters. Fearing that war might start at any moment, her captain took the precaution of sailing out to the high seas, lest she be surprised at port, and cornered and sunk by a more powerful enemy. It turned out to be a wise move, as a powerful joint British-Japanese assault, against which the Emden would have stood no chance, fell upon her home port of Tsingtao soon after the war began.

On August 3rd, 1914, one day after Germany declared war on Russia, the Emden captured a Russian ship and sent her back to Tsingtao, where she was converted into an auxiliary commerce raider. The Emden then sailed to the Marianas Islands in the Pacific, where the rest of the German East Asia Squadron was gathering. Upon hearing that Japan was about to join the Entente, the odds against German naval operations in East Asian waters became too great. So it was determined that the squadron should sail instead across the Pacific, around South America, and into the Atlantic. However, the Emden was detached to operate independently as a commerce raider.

Captain von Mueller then disguised his ship by rigging a dummy fourth smokestack, which made the Emden look like the roughly same sized British cruiser HMS Yarmouth. With that disguise in place, the German cruiser’s preferred tactic became to approach target vessels with no colors flying, in the hope that they would mistake her for a British warship. When she got close enough, the Emden would suddenly fire a warning shot while simultaneously hoisting the German flag and signaling the prey: “Stop at once! Do not use wireless!

The Epic Journey of the Emden and Her Crew
Route of the Emden during her commerce raiding in the Indian Ocean. Project Gutenberg

In just a few days, the Emden seized or sank 15 ships, and the total number of her victims eventually exceeded 30. As panic gripped the region, few ships ventured from harbor, so Captain von Mueller expanded his operations by shelling targets on land. On the night of September 22nd, the Emden steamed into the port of Madras, turned her guns on the fuel depots, and opened a 30 minute barrage that set the massive fuel tanks ablaze.

Von Mueller then sailed to the British port of Diego Garcia, sinking six more ships along the way. Upon arriving, the Germans were astonished to discover that the locals were unaware that war had been declared. Keeping mum, they eschewed wrecking the place, and instead took the opportunity to re-provision, repair, and even repaint the Emden. In an act of decency, von Mueller refrained from destroying the still unsuspecting port when he left, and even had his crewmen help repair a local’s vessel. From Diego Garcia, the Emden sailed to Penang in British Malaya, arriving at dawn on October 27th, where she encountered an anchored Russian cruiser and a French destroyer, and catching them off guard, destroyed both.

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.

The Epic Journey of the Emden and Her Crew
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.

The Epic Journey of the Emden and Her Crew
Emden landing party going ashore on Direction Island – the schooner Ayesha, which they would seize and sail to freedom, is in the background. Project Gutenberg

The Stranded Emden Landing Party’s Odyssey

Out of the 376 man crew of the Emden, 133 were killed in the battle with HMAS Sydney, and most of the remainder were captured. The exception was the landing party in Direction Island, commanded by Hellmuth von Mucke, stranded when the Emden sailed away when she was surprised by the Sydney. Ashore, the German crewman watched the battle between their ship and the enemy, and realized that the Emden was outmatched and bound to lose.

Their situation seemed hopeless, with eventual capture and a POW camp all but inevitable. However, the intrepidity and determination of the marooned von Mucke and his men spared them that fate, and they set off on an epic and hazardous odyssey that finally took them back home to Germany. It began when they looked around in Direction Island’s harbor, and spotted the 95 ton schooner Ayesha – a dilapidated old freight hauler, sitting at anchor. They seized it, and hastily prepared it for sailing before the Sydney returned from wrecking the Emden to round them up.

Just before sunset, von Mucke and his men sailed the requisitioned and rechristened SMS Ayesha out of Direction Island and towards freedom, setting course for Padang, a port in the neutral Dutch East Indies. They braved storms, skirted dangerous shoals and reefs, and had a close call with an enemy destroyer that passed within yards of the Ayesha without realizing she was an enemy vessel. Finally, they reached Padang on November 27th.

However, they were unable to linger for long: the Ayesha was now a Germany navy ship, and under international law, it could not stay in a neutral port such as Padang for more than 24 hours. However, while in port, von Mucke got in touch with the German consul, and passed him a note with coordinates for a meeting with a German ship. On December 16th, after a 1709 mile journey, the rickety Ayesha finally met a German merchant steamer, the Choising. The Germans transferred to the Choising, whose command von Mucke assumed, and the Ayesha was abandoned and scuttled. Disguising the Choising as the British steamer Shenir, the Germans then embarked on another hair raising journey, this time to Yemen, controlled by the Ottoman Turks who by then had joined the war on Germany’s side.

The Epic Journey of the Emden and Her Crew
The schooner Ayesha, which got the stranded Emden landing party to safety. Wikimedia

Avoiding well travelled sea lanes, the Germans took a circuitous route around the Indian Ocean that finally brought them to Hodeida, Yemen, in January of 1915. Spotting a French warship in the vicinity, however, von Mucke and his men left the Choising in longboats, and rowed ashore. From Hodeida, they took a pair of dhows – small Arab sailing vessels – which took them part way to Jeddah, avoiding British patrols along the way. They finished trip to Jeddah by land, riding donkeys and camels, and survived a running fight with hostile tribesmen en route. They resumed the journey from Jeddah in dhows, again evading British naval patrols, before continuing their journey overland until they finally reached a Turkish railhead. From there, they made it to Istanbul, and finally, to a hero’s welcome in Germany.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading

Military History Now – The Kaiser’s Pirate Ship: The Astounding Voyage of SMS Emden

Naval Encyclopedia – SMS Emden’s Incredible True Odyssey

Naval History Net – HMAS Sydney v SMS Emden Action, November 9, 1914

New South Wales State Library – HMAS Sydney and SMS Emden

Parramatta Heritage Center – the Exploits of the German Cruiser SMS Emden

War History Online – An Australian Navy Ship Sent this WWI Crew on an Epic Journey Home

Wikipedia – Ayesha (Ship)

Wikipedia – SMS Emden