The Cruiser (part 2): Emden

by Chris Chant on 25/07/2011

For the first installment, see The Cruiser (part 1): classic multi-role warship

Black and white image of German cruiser SMS Emden at Tsingtao, 1914, smoke coming from its funnelsThe most celebrated cruiser of World War I, and the ship that most successfully exploited the cruiser’s capability in the ‘guerre de course’ role, was the German ship Emden, one of the two light cruisers of the ‘Dresden’ class. The ship had been completed in 1908 after construction at the Danzig Dockyard, and at the beginning of World War I was part of the East Asiatic Squadron commanded by Vizeadmiral Maximilian von Spee at the German treaty port of Tsingtao in China. After considering and then rejecting plans for his whole squadron to undertake a raid into the Indian Ocean before crossing the Pacific Ocean to round Cape Horn before passing north up the Atlantic Ocean to return to Germany, von Spee decided to seek the most direct route home via Cape Horn, but detached Emden under Fregattenkapitän Karl von Müller to undertake an independent cruise supported by the collier Markomannia. From Pagan island, where von Spee had made his decision to split the squadron, the two ships steamed along the eastern side of the Mariana islands in the Pacific, on 13 August in the direction of the East Indies. Two days later, von Müller was unable to raise the German radio station on the island of Yap, north-east of the Palau island group and despatched a cutter to investigate what turned out to be the wreckage of the radio station that had been shelled into total destruction by three British cruisers. Von Müller next steamed toward Angaur island in the Palau island group, which had been leased by a German phosphate company and where he hoped for a meeting with the collier Choising. There was no sign of the collier, but Emden did meet the steamer Prinzessin Alice. von Müller took on extra men from Prinzessin Alice and also Markomannia, and sent a letter to his mother by Prinzessin Alice, which he ordered to a port in the neutral Philippines.

Von Müller then took Emden toward the Molucca islands with the idea of entering the Indian Ocean via the eastern side of Mindanao and the Dutch East Indies. On the night of August 20 von Müller was trying to radio Tsingtao, when he received a radio message from the old German light cruiser Geier. During the British bombardment of Yap, Geier’s captain had hidden his ship and her accompanying collier in a cove, and von Müller now recommended that the two head for internment in the Hawaiian islands. Emden then departed to the south-west once more, crossing the equator on 22 August and on the following day establishing radio contact with the German steamer Tannenfels, with which von Müller agreed a rendezvous at the Dutch and Portuguese island of Timor to take on coal and food. Emden and the Markomannia reached the rendezvous and waited half a day on 25 August without any sight of the Tannenfels, and von Müller therefore took on some 470 tons of coal from Markomannia, seriously denting the collier’s reserve. At this point the Tromp, a Dutch battleship, arrived and instructed the two German ships to sail as they were in contravention of international neutrality laws, and it was later established that the same Dutch warship had previously ordered Tannenfels out of the area. The Dutch ship escorted the German vessels to the edge of the 3-mile (4.8-km) limit, where von Müller headed west in an effort to persuade the Dutch captain that the Germans were heading toward the Pacific. As soon as the Dutch ship had sunk below the horizon, however, von Müller reversed course and headed for Bali and the Lombok Strait into the Indian Ocean. As the Germans ships waited for the fall of night before trying the strait, von Müller’s second-in-command came up with a simple yet effective plan to disguise Emden’s identity: three funnels were the trademark of German light cruisers whereas their British opponents had four funnels, and Mücke recommended that the funnel pattern of Yarmouth (one oval and three round funnels) be copied with batten and canvas. With this disguise in place, Emden passed into the Indian Ocean and began looking for ‘trade’.

On 3 September Emden was approaching Simalur island off the southern coast of Sumatra when the ship’s crew spotted Hampshire, a British cruiser powerful enough to destroy the German ship at long range. Von Müller escaped detection, however, and then managed to take on board nearly 1,000 tons of Markomannia’s coal before being warned off by an official yacht of the Dutch East Indies’ government. On 8 September Emden met the 4,049-ton Greek steamer Pontoporos carrying 6,500 tons of coal from Calcutta. After careful consideration of the legal situation (the Greek ship was a neutral but carrying contraband cargo) and an examination of the papers on board the Pontoporos that revealed the sailing times and destinations of several ships outward-bound from Calcutta, von Müller headed Emden, Markomannia and Pontoporos toward the shipping route linking Calcutta and Colombo in Ceylon.

On 10 September Emden intercepted and boarded the 3,393-ton Indus, a British passenger-carrying freighter en route from Calcutta to Bombay, sent all on board to the Markomannia, and then sank the captured ship. On the following day Emden encountered the 6,102-ton Lovat, an English ship bound for Bombay to pick up troops, took off all on board and then sank the ship. The tide of success was still running with von Müller, and on the following day Emden came up with the 4,657-ton Kabinga, an English merchant ship carrying jute to New York. The sinking of this ship would make Germany financially responsible for the cargo, so von Müller put the personnel from Indus and Kabinga on the ship together with a prize crew. During the night of the same day, Emden captured and sank the 3,512-ton Killin, a Scottish collier making for Bombay from Calcutta with 6,000 tons of coal. Just a few hours later, the German cruiser intercepted and sank the 7,615-ton liner Diplomat carrying 1,000 tons of tea.

During the afternoon of the same date, however, Emden’s position was accurately broadcast by a neutral ship, the Italian Loredano. Late in the afternoon of 14 September Emden sank the 4,014-ton collier Trabboch, which was sailing in ballast. Later that afternoon von Müller ordered Kabinga, now carrying the crews of Killin, Diplomat and Trabboch, to the nearby port of Calcutta. Soon after this the cruiser seized and sank the 4,775-ton Scottish freighter Clan Matheson making for Calcutta with a shipment of Rolls-Royce cars, steam locomotives, typewriters and thoroughbred racehorses, the last of which were shot before the ship was sunk. Clan Matheson’s crew were transferred to a neutral Norwegian ship on the following day.

On 15 September Emden, Markomannia and Pontoporos cruised and coaled south of Calcutta, and Pontoporos was then dispatched to a rendezvous at Simalur island. Two days later Emden searched the upper Bay of Bengal, in the process crossing the shipping lane between Madras and Rangoon and between Calcutta and Singapore, but sighted no ships. It was clearly time for a change, and a raid on Madras recommended itself to von Müller for four reasons: it was a long way from the location given by Loredano; it would disturb the British supremacy in India, which had received no real challenge for more than half a century; the Madras port installations were easily accessible from the sea; and one of Emden’s crew had once worked in Madras and thus knew its geography. Madras harbour was protected by Fort St George, which mounted a battery of 5.9-in (150-mm) guns at least 30 years old. In the evening of 22 September Emden fired 125 shells into the port area from a range of some 3,550 yards (3250 m), scoring hits on the tanks of the Burmah Oil Company, which burned fiercely, as well as other parts of the port. None of the return fire hit Emden, which now headed south past the old French colony of Pondicherry and then south-east round Ceylon to reach the great port of Colombo.

Bombardment of Madras by Emden: oil tanks on fire, black smoke filling the skyBy this time there were 14 major Allied warships looking for Emden: this force included the British ships Empress of Asia, Empress of Russia, Gloucester, Hampshire, Minotaur, Weymouth and Yarmouth; the Australian ships Melbourne and Sydney; the French ship Montcalm; the Japanese ships Chikuma, Ibuki and Yakagi; and the Russian ship Askold. Despite this search effort, Emden encountered and sank the 3,650-ton King Lud and 3,314-ton Tymeric, the latter carrying a cargo of sugar, before seizing the 4,437-ton Gryfevale to carry their crews. Emden now needed high-quality coal to fire her boilers, and discovered more than 6,000 tons of this commodity on board the 4,350-ton British Buresk, destined for the British naval base at Hong Kong but now added to Emden’s little flotilla of supporting ships. Von Müller now headed south, capturing and sinking the 4,147-ton British Foyle and 4,147-ton British Ribera before Emden reached the Maldive islands and then the Chagos archipelago, where her crew had the unpleasant task of changing the boiler tubes and overhauling the condensers. Von Müller now directed his ship’s course toward Diego Garcia, where the Germans were welcomed by the French assistant manager of the island’s oil company, who had heard no news for three months and therefore did not know of the outbreak of war.

At Diego Garcia the Germans heeled their ship over, cleaned the bottom of barnacles and other growth, and applied a coat of paint. From Diego Garcia Emden returned north toward the south-western coast of India, and here her next prizes included Clan Grant on 13 October with a miscellaneous cargo including cattle, the 4,806-ton Benmohr carrying machinery, and on 19 October the 7,526-ton Troilus carrying valuable metals and rubber. As von Müller was gaining these successes, however, the Markomannia had been sunk. Coaling from Pontoporos off Pulo Topak, an island off the western coast of Sumatra, during 12 October, Markomannia was surprised by the cruiser Yarmouth and sunk with 1,300 tons of coal aboard, while the Pontoporos was captured with 5,000 tons of coal in her holds. Buresk was therefore Emden’s only surviving source of coal.

The German cruiser’s most unusual victim was the 473-ton ocean-going dredger Ponrabbel, a British vessel bound for Tasmania but intercepted and sunk on 16 October. The number of prisoners for whom he was responsible was now becoming a burden on von Müller’s freedom of action, and the German officer solved this problem by capturing the 5,526-ton British St Egbert, bound for New York. Two other sinkings in the same period were the 4,542-ton British collier Exford and the 5,146-ton British freighter Chilkana.

Early on the morning of 20 October Emden had a close encounter with possible destruction when she came close to Hampshire and Empress of Russia, but was not seen. Six days later Emden and Buresk reached Nancowrie in the Nicobar islands to coal in preparation for the dawn raid that von Müller was planning against Penang harbour for 28 October.

Entering the harbour on the western side of the Malayan peninsula, Emden saw the Russian light cruiser Jemtchug and launched a torpedo that struck the Russian vessel amidships, causing severe damage. There followed heavy and accurate salvoes from Emden’s guns. Jemtchug was on fire and going down fast, but some of her men were returning Emden’s fire. The French destroyer d’Iberville also opened fire. Emden put a second torpedo into Jemtchug, which completed the destruction of the Russian ship, and then made for the harbour mouth. A short time later Emden seized Glenturret, a British ship carrying explosives, but did not sink this wholly legitimate target, instead sending her into Penang with a message from von Müller apologising to the survivors of the Jemtchug for not picking them up and to the crew of the pilot boat on which Emden had fired as she was leaving the harbour in the erroneous belief that this was a warship.

Black and white image (turned pinkish) of the small French destroyer warship, Mousquet, on the sea with land in the backgroundNext on the scene was the small French destroyer Mousquet, which manoeuvred as though about to launch a torpedo. Emden fired three salvoes, causing the French ship’s magazine to explode, but even so Mousquet fired two torpedoes which Emden evaded without problem even as the French destroyer was sinking. The Germans picked up over 30 survivors, two of whom died during the night of 29 October and were buried at sea. Meanwhile Fronde, sister ship of Mousquet, was following Emden but making sure that she did not come within range of the German cruiser’s guns. On 30 October Emden seized the 3,000-ton British freighter Newburn carrying salt to Singapore but then sent it off with the French prisoners for hospital treatment at Khota Raja. During the following day Emden met Buresk near North Pageh island in the Nassau island group, and the next two days were consumed in coaling, cleaning, repairs and recuperation. During this time a Dutch patrol boat arrived on the scene to ensure that Emden was outside the 3-mile (4.8-km) limit, and her captain also informed von Müller that Portugal had entered the war on the Allied side. Von Müller arranged his next rendezvous with Buresk, and steamed for the Sunda Strait dividing Java from Sumatra and thus constituting a natural chokepoint for northbound and southbound traffic. There were no pickings in the area, though, and von Müller therefore decided to attack the British telegraph and radio installation on Direction Island in the Cocos (or Keeling) island group, where the Australian, African and Indian cables met. Early on the morning of 9 November Emden anchored off the island, Leutnant Hellmuth von Mücke then taking ashore his landing party of 50 men in a steam launch towing two cutters. The Germans landed at 06.30 and encountered no opposition, and after all the people living in the area had been assembled in the square near the telegraph building the German destroyed the installation, using explosives to drop the radio mast but finding it an arduous job to find and cut the undersea cables.

On board Emden a look-out reported a vessel with a single funnel and two masts, a description which fitted the Buresk, whose arrival was expected. But the ship was in fact the protected cruiser Sydney, an opponent considerably larger, faster and more heavily armed than the German cruiser. The arrival of the Australian ship was no coincidence, for the island’s radio station had broadcast news of Emden’s arrival before the Germans landed. The broadcast has been picked up by a convoy carrying Australian and New Zealand troops, with Sydney sailing in advance of the main force of ships. The fate of Emden was now in effect sealed. Von Müller was forced to abandon the landing party as he made for the open sea, and at 09.40 the first German salvoes bracketed the Sydney while the fourth salvo hit the Australian ship and knocked out her fire-control system. Sydney now pulled back to a range of 7,000 yards (6400 m), out of range of Emden’s guns but within the range of her own 6-in (152-mm) weapons, which soon hit the German cruiser’s radio compartment, bridge, one of the after guns and the fire-control position. With his ship increasingly heavily damaged and on fire in several places, von Müller refused to give up and used the superior agility of his ship to try to manoeuvre into a position for a torpedo attack. It was all in vain, and amid a welter of other shell hits that inflicted yet more damage and started additional fires Emden was crippled and her crew had sustained large numbers of dead, wounded and injured. Von Müller decided that he must run the ship aground, and shortly after 11.00 hours the German light cruiser struck the coral reef south of North Keeling Island. For the rest of the day the German survivors suffered the agonies of heat and thirst, several men being killed as they tried to swim through the surf. Meanwhile Sydney had raced off to capture Buresk, and on her return opened fire on Emden once more as the German ship’s colours were still flying. As soon as von Müller had ordered a white flag to be run up, the Australian ship ceased fire. Sydney now freed one of Buresk’s boats, which it was towing with members of the collier’s German prize crew, who reached Emden to offer what aid they could. Sydney turned and headed for Direction Island to take von Mücke’s raiding party, and it was almost 24 hours before the Australian ship returned and finally took off Emden’s survivors, of whom von Müller was the last to leave the ship. The German cruiser had suffered 141 men killed and 65 wounded, and only 117 men were unhurt.

In her three-month independent cruise Emden had covered some 30,000 miles (48,280 km), sunk or captured 23 merchant ships, destroyed one cruiser and one destroyer, caused £15 million of damage, and occasioned an Allied naval search involving, at one time or another, nearly 80 vessels.

Wreck of SMS Emden: burnt and twisted metal sunk in the seaFrance, Italy and Russia followed basically the same course of development at slightly later dates and to smaller overall numbers of ships. The same was basically true of the US Navy, which entered the 20th century with just two armoured cruisers, 15 protected cruisers and three unprotected cruisers, but then began a major programme of development and construction that saw the delivery of more advanced cruisers at an increasing rate. On the outbreak of World War I, when the USA was still neutral, the most modern type of armoured cruiser was the ‘Tennessee’ class of four ships launched between 1904 and 1906 with a displacement of 14,500 tons, an armament of four 10-in (254-mm) guns in two twin turrets, 16 6-in (152-mm) guns in casemated mountings, 22 3-in (76-mm) guns, 12 3-pdr guns and four 21-in (533-mm) torpedo tubes, protection in the form of a 5-in (127-mm) belt and 9-in (229-mm) turrets, and a speed of 22 kt on the 23,000 hp (17150 kW) delivered to two shafts by triple-expansion steam engines. Roughly contemporary was the ‘St Louis’ class of three protected cruisers with a displacement of 9,700 tons, an armament of 14 6-in (152-mm) and 18 3-in (76-mm) guns, protection in the form of a 4-in (102-mm) belt and 5-in (127-mm) conning tower, and a speed of 22 kt on the 21,000 hp (15660 kW) delivered to two shafts by triple-expansion steam engines. The only unprotected cruisers were three wholly obsolete ships of the ‘Montgomery’ class launched in 1891 and 1892, and the American cruiser force was completed by the three scout cruisers of the ‘Chester’ class launched in 1907 with a displacement of 3,750 tons, an armament of two 5-in (127-mm) guns, six 3-in (76-mm) guns and two 21-in (533-mm) torpedo tubes, no protection, and a speed of 24 kt on the 16,000 hp (11930 kW) delivered to two shafts by steam turbines.

Japan followed basically the same course as its Western counterparts, its last armoured cruisers being the two ships of the ‘Kasuga’ class originally ordered from an Italian yard by Argentina, which sold the two units to Japan in 1903. The ships had a displacement of some 7,650 tons, an armament of one 10-in (254-mm) and two 8-in (203-mm) or four 8-in (203-mm) guns in one single and one twin or two twin turrets, 14 6-in (152-mm) guns, 10 3-in (76-mm) guns, six 3-pdr guns and four 18-in (457-mm) torpedo tubes, protection in the form of a 5.9-in (150-mm) belt, barbettes and conning tower, and a speed of 20 kt on the 13,500 hp (10065 kW) delivered to two shafts by triple-expansion steam engines. The equivalent protected cruiser type was the ‘Chikuma’ class of three ships completed in 1912 with a displacement of 4,400 tons, an armament of six 6-in (152-mm) guns, eight 12-pdr guns and four 21-in (533-mm) torpedo tubes, protection in the form of a 3-in (76-mm) deck and 4-in (102-mm) conning tower, and a speed of 26 kt on the 22,500 hp (16775 kW) provided to two shafts by steam turbines.

In the course of World War I Japan kept a close watch on warship developments by the UK, its ally and still the world leader in warship design, and in 1916 felt confident enough of the utility of the new light cruiser concept to order an initial class of two ‘Tenryu’ class light cruisers modelled closely on the British ‘C’ type that included the closely related ‘Caroline’, ‘Cambrian’, ‘Centaur’, ‘Caledon’, ‘Ceres’ and ‘Carlisle’ classes. These two Japanese ships were completed only after the end of World War I, but paved the way for future Japanese light cruiser developments.


[First photo from Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive)]

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