The Kaiser’s Pirate Ship – The Astounding Voyage of SMS Emden

For three months in 1914, the German warship SMS Emden cruised the Indian ocean attacking British ships with impunity. Image courtesy WikiCommons via the German Federal Archives (public domain).

For three months in 1914, the German warship SMS Emden cruised the Indian ocean attacking British ships with impunity. Image courtesy WikiCommons via the German Federal Archives (public domain).

“The short-lived expedition left more than 30 Allied ships ablaze, ground British trade in the Far East to a standstill and terrorized the ports and sea lanes of more than a quarter of the Earth’s surface.”

GERMANY MAY NOT BE A COUNTRY NOTED FOR seafaring swashbucklers a la Francis Drake or Henry Morgan, but it can lay claim to Karl von Müller, the commander of the light cruiser SMS Emden.

Karl von Müller.

Karl von Müller.

During the opening weeks of the First World War, von Müller and his crew of 360 waged an astonishing piratical campaign through the South Pacific and Indian Ocean. The short-lived expedition left more than 30 Allied ships ablaze, ground British trade in the Far East to a standstill and terrorized the ports and sea lanes of more than a quarter of the Earth’s surface.

For three months, a massive multinational fleet scoured the seas in search of the Emden, a ship that often seemed to strike from out of nowhere and then disappear just as suddenly. And even more remarkable was von Müller’s own personal brand of gallantry. While earning himself a reputation as a daring sea captain, his generosity and fair treatment of prisoners won him the respect and admiration of many, including his own enemies.

It’s War

Karl von Müller was already a seasoned naval officer when he was given command of the Emden in 1913. The 40-year-old son of a Prussian army colonel had spent much of his career up to that point patrolling the waters around Germany’s various far-flung colonies.

His new command, which was harboured in the Far East port city of Tsingtao, was commissioned in 1908 and was nicknamed the “Swan of the East”.

When war between the great powers threatened in July 1914, von Müller wisely took the Emden out of port and onto the high seas, escaping the joint Anglo Japanese assault on the German colony. On Aug. 4, with the war less than a week old, he overhauled the Russian mail ship Ryazan. It was the first vessel Germany captured in the war.

The Emden then made for the Marianas in the South Pacific where it caught up with German Imperial Navy’s East Asia Squadron. After learning of Admiral Maximilian von Spee’s plan to return the whole of the fleet to home waters via the Pacific and Cape Horn, von Müller pressed his superior to let the Emden remain in the region to prey on Allied shipping. The admiral approved the plan and the Emden set off with its own coal vessel in tow and plotted a course for the Indian Ocean.

Alone in hostile waters, von Müller disguised his vessel as the roughly equal-sized British cruiser HMS Yarmouth by having his crew rig a dummy fourth smokestack. His preferred tactic was to approach targets with no colours flying hoping his quarry would mistake him for a British warship. When in close, he’d fire a warning shot, hoist the German ensign and signal his prey: “Stop at once! Do not use wireless!”

SMS Emden Nickname: “the Swan of the East” Length – 387 feet Displacement – 3,400 tons Propulsion – Twin screw reciprocating steam engine. Range – 6,000 kms Speed – 23 knots Crew – 360 Armament – 10 4 in. (105mm) guns and two torpedo tubes.

SMS Emden
Nickname —“the Swan of the East”
Length – 387 feet
Displacement – 3,400 tons
Propulsion – Twin screw reciprocating steam engine.
Range – 6,000 kms
Speed – 23 knots
Crew – 360
Armament – 10 4 in. (105mm) guns and two torpedo tubes.

The World’s Most Dangerous Ship

By early September, the Emden was cruising the Indian Ocean plundering British trade ships – 15 in just a few days. By the middle of the month, panic had gripped the merchant fleet and all voyages between India and Singapore were halted. With few ships venturing from harbour, von Müller widened his campaign to include shore targets.

On the night of Sept. 22, he steamed into the port of Madras, India and turned the Emden’s 10 four-inch guns on the port’s fuel depot. Within 30 minutes, the German ship had unleashed a 125-round barrage that set the massive oil tanks ablaze. The explosions even damaged a vessel in the harbour. Emden slipped out of Madras before the shore batteries could get a fix on her. Fears that von Müller was en route to Sri Lanka next caused widespread panic there.

In the coming days, the Emden would send six more enemy ships to the bottom.

Von Müller set his sights next on the British port at Diego Garcia. However, upon arrival, he was amazed to learn that the authorities there had no idea that war had even been declared. Rather than turn his guns on the unsuspecting enemy, von Müller took advantage of the calm to re-provision, repair and even repaint his ship. He returned the generosity of his unwitting hosts by putting his own crewmen to work fixing a local resident’s boat. In a few days, the Emden was back at sea.

The Gallant Foe

In the meantime, newspaper headlines worldwide were heralding the audacious exploits of the Emden. Tales of von Müller’s chivalry captured the world’s imagination. His practice of ensuring the safety of the passengers and crew of enemy vessels became legendary. According to eyewitnesses, von Müller’s men were under strict orders to take off all prisoners before blasting or scuttling a ship. All those detained were either put ashore at neutral ports or transferred to non-belligerent ships and were treated as guests while in German custody.

In one instance the Emden, posing as a British cruiser, got in close enough to the French warship Mousquet to unleash a withering cannonade at almost point blank range. Von Müller ordered 35 survivors of the stricken vessel plucked from the sea and put ashore; five crewmen who died during the rescue were buried by the Emden’s crew with full military honours.

In another encounter, the captain of a captured British vessel was so taken by von Müller’s hospitality, he offered to mail the commander’s personal correspondence upon reaching shore.

Despite this, British Admiralty was less than enthralled by the captain of the Emden. By October, the Royal Navy had gathered a fleet of British cruisers, along with Australian, Russian, French and Japanese warships  — 60 in all — to fan out across the South Seas in search of the elusive German raider.

Emden’s Luck Runs Out

Following a widely successful attack on Penang, Malaya in which the Emden loosed torpedoes at an anchored Russian cruiser and a French destroyer, von Müller ordered his ship to steam for the Cocos Islands in the eastern Indian Ocean. His objective — the strategically vital British telegraph station on the remote Direction Island.

At daybreak on Nov. 9, von Müller anchored off shore and put a heavily armed landing party on the island with orders to bring down the radio mast. The local population refused to interfere with the sailors after they learned that it was the dashing Muller who had ordered the mission. In return for this unexpected goodwill, the Germans promised to spare a popular tennis court situated near the tower. A quick-witted employee of the Eastern Telegraph Company was unmoved however and managed to get a distress signal off before the post was captured.

Unfortunately for von Müller, the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney happened to be just over the horizon when the alarm was sounded. It would arrive on the scene within three hours.

Caught off guard by the sudden appearance of an enemy cruiser bearing down on his ship, von Müller abandoned the shore party and ordered the Emden into action against the larger and more heavily armed Sydney. Within 90 minutes, the German vessel had been hit more than 100 times. It seemed the Swan of the East’s luck had finally run out.

Before noon, von Müller ordered the holed Emden onto a sandbar to avoid her sinking. Noting that the vessel had yet to strike her colours, the captain of the Sydney continued to pour fire into the hapless ship. More than 130 of Emden’s crew were killed in the battle. By sunset, von Müller ordered the survivors to haul down their flag. He and the remaining crew were taken prisoner and the Emden was finished.

Watching the battle from the shore, the 50 men of the German landing party busily prepared to fight off the inevitable ground assault. It never came. The group eluded detection after commandeering an old worn out schooner on the island. Once aboad, they made sail for Sumatra.

Not Quite the End

While the battle of Direction Island was the end of the SMS Emden; the story was far from over. In fact, it got much more interesting!

Von Müller was held as a POW on Malta until late in the war, at which point he was exchanged and returned to Germany. Upon his arrival, he was hailed as a hero and promoted to full captain. All of the ship’s officers, including the famous commander, were awarded the Iron Cross 1st class; the rest of the crew received Iron Crosses 2nd class. Amazingly, even the ship itself was given the same honour. Additionally, all of the crewmen were permitted to add “Emden” to their surnames — a singular distinction that could be passed down to their descendants.

Most of Emden’s captured crewmen were transferred to a British-run POW compound in Singapore, that is until a mutiny by 800 guards of the 5th Indian Light Infantry in 1915 afforded the sailors a chance to escape. While many fled during the chaos, some remained, gathered weapons and protected a group of terrorized British residents who sought shelter in the prison barracks.

As for the abandoned Direction Island shore party, they sailed for a month aboard their purloined schooner before being picked up by a German merchant vessel. They were eventually put ashore in Yemen. Rather than wait for the next ship, the group chose to make an arduous overland trek across the entire Arabian Peninsula to reach Constantinople. From there they obtained ground transport to Germany.

Von Müller died in 1923 of complications from malaria that he contracted in Africa prior to the war. However the legacy of his exploits lived on. Germany would commission no fewer than three other ships named Emden, one of which still serves in the German navy to this day. Each was painted with a giant Iron Cross on its hull in honour of von Müller’s achievements.

The story of the Emden would be featured in three different German films: Our Emden (1926), The Cruiser Emden (1932) and most recently The Men of the Emden (2012) – the latter movie tells the story of the incredible overland journey of the 50 crewmen from the wayward shore party.

The very word “Emden” (or at least variations of it) has become part of two different languages. In Tamil, emdena is used to describe someone who is sneaky, clever or sly, while the Malayalam word for great is emenden.

The beached wreckage of the Emden was plundered for war trophies before being broken up for scrap. Three of the ship’s guns are on display in Australia – one still sits in Hyde Park in Sydney. The ship’s mascot, a statue of a woman, was exhibited in Nicobar for decades and one of the vessel’s artillery shells is a museum piece in Madras, India.

The abandoned wreck of the SMS Emden.

The abandoned wreck of the SMS Emden.

17 comments for “The Kaiser’s Pirate Ship – The Astounding Voyage of SMS Emden

  1. 8 May, 2013 at 1:38 am

    Fascinating tale in its own right that is so often only told as an adjunct to the battles of Coronel and the Falklands. Von Muller was far more successful than von Spee.

  2. 8 May, 2013 at 1:52 am

    Another well written and fascinating story ! THANKS!

  3. 8 May, 2013 at 2:57 am

    Fab story, thanks for posting.

  4. 8 May, 2013 at 6:34 am

    I remember reading about the Emden as a youngster, in a story by MacDonald Hastings in the (now defunct) young persons magazine Eagle (to call it a comic would be grossly unfair). Even at that time I was impressed by the exploits of her captain, no mean feat considering that my country had only finished a war with Germany some fifteen of so years early. Another WW1 German naval officer worthy of being placed alongside von Muller and his exploits is Kapitänleutnant Felix von Luckner of the Seeadler who became a commerce raider in a SAIL vessel. Perhaps worthy of an article, unless it already exists and I have missed it. Drake or Frobisher the Germans may never have had, but they can be proud of von Muller’s and von Luckner’s exploits.

  5. 8 May, 2013 at 2:33 pm

    When war and honor were still glorious on the high sea… a far different cry from the mass slaughter in No-Man’s Land from new weaponry called machine guns and tanks. What an interesting story. Great research once again!

  6. ColCampbell
    13 May, 2013 at 9:24 am

    Muller wasn’t a “pirate.” He was a legal naval combatant carrying out a legitimate campaign against the commerce of a legal belligerent power.

  7. David Miller
    3 April, 2014 at 11:52 pm

    What a great story , I am doing some WW 1 history , another great one is Cemal , a Turkish pilot who took there ( Turkeys ) only operational aircraft-after he had fixed it, a 1909 Bleriot and attacked a British warship with hand grenades !! He took 4 and lit them with a cigar he was smoking , they all missed but he felt honour had been satisfied.
    This was during the failed British attack on the Dardanelles prior to the other failed attack at Gallipoli. When Winston Churchill heard of Cemals attack he was incensed at the challenge to the British
    rule of the Aegean Sea

  8. Colin May
    11 July, 2014 at 4:11 pm

    Excellent article, well done.

  9. 19 January, 2016 at 3:54 am

    The word Emandan is now part of Malayalam vocabulary, not Malayan. Malayalam is the language spoken in Kerala, which lies to the west of Tamil Nadu. Madras (now Chennai) is the capital of Tamil Nadu.

    • 19 January, 2016 at 7:28 am

      Thanks for that. Fixed!

    • P Sethuseshan
      4 February, 2016 at 1:02 am

      Embden in Tamil means fellow with all sort of talents who could be beaten at all

  10. DALE SMITH
    27 May, 2016 at 9:43 am

    Very interesting and publicly not a well known Australian naval action. I have a Saucer and son 16g shotgun serial number 100016 and told tome that it belonged to the commander of this ship. Does anyone know how I would prove or disprove this??

Leave a Reply