First Victory 1914; HMAS Sydney’s Hunt for the German Raider Emden


HMAS Sydney’s Hunt for German Raider Emden
William Heinemann: Australia 2013

Reviewer: Desmond Woods


THIS timely book is about much more than just the search for Emden, though her legendary cruise and the Battle of the Cocos Islands are very well covered from both the German and the Australian viewpoint.  But the book is also about the urgent transition that had to be made from peace to war in the last half of 1914, for Australia, the RAN and the RN. It also explains the fate of the ships and men of the German East Asia Squadron which was rightly perceived in 1913 as being a real threat to Australia’s maritime trade and potentially her cities.

The reader is taken from the nation building entry of the RAN’s First Fleet Unit, led by the battle cruiser HMAS Australia, in October 1913, through to the events that culminated in Australia’s first victory when SMS Emden was reported by HMAS Sydney as being ‘beached and done for’ in November 1914.

The book identifies the first strategic mistake of the war at sea as being one of very grave significance.  This was the interference by Winston Churchill, the then First Lord in the Admiralty, with the battle plan of Vice Admiral Sir Thomas Martyn Jerram, RN, the experienced Commander in Chief  on the Royal Navy’s China Station. His flagship HMS Minotaur was more than a match for either of the German armoured cruisers. When war was declared, to Jerram’s near mutinous fury, Churchill ordered him to retreat with his ships to Hong Kong. Until receiving these orders he had been on the point of implementing the Navy’s pre-war plan to bring the German East Asia Squadron to battle off its home port of Tsingtao. The Germans could either come out to fight or be blockaded – either way they would not affect the outcome of the war or threaten British trade.  Rear Admiral Sir George Patey, RN, commanding the Australian squadron  proposed to the Australian Government that Australia escorted by a cruiser should join the RN’s China Squadron and seek out he German ships. This sound joint strategy, which would have in all probability resulted in an early victory, was not entertained far less authorised.

Instead of this sound joint plan the ill judged retreat to Hong Kong ordered from the Admiralty made easy the escape of Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee. His squadron consisted of  two modern and powerful armoured cruisers, SMS Scharnhorst and SMS Gneisenau, four light cruisers and colliers. He sailed unmolested  from Chinese waters heading south into the blue water of the South Pacific where, in an age before radar, he would be effectively a free agent.  It was only after von Spee was clear of pursuit and knew he was unlikely to need all his escorts in battle that he acceded to the request by Emden’s captain to be permitted to detach and engage in cruiser warfare, or ‘guerre de course’, in the Indian Ocean.  Had Jerram and Patey been permitted to bring the German fleet to battle, as they intended,  Emden’s career would have been brief indeed and her name and that of her captain unremarked in naval history.

Much of the rest of the book is about the fatal consequences of that mistaken order to  retreat and the free pass that it gave to von Spee’s ships to operate at will.   But the early chapters also explain the decision to put the elimination of the minor German colonial settlements, and an insignificant wireless telegraphy station around Rabaul, ahead of the big strategic picture, which was to catch and destroy von Spee’s squadron. This was a case of Australian politicians and their Lordships in the Admiralty situating their appreciation rather than appreciating the situation.  Germans in the bush seemed more important than those somewhere on the high seas.  A pre- war plan to seize German New Guinea and Samoa took precedence over the larger significance of destroying an enemy fleet in being.

An account is given of the raising and sending of the Australian militia brigade, consisting of some young soldiers and more experienced sailors, into a costly frontal assault against determined German and native resistance.  Why Patey in his flagship did not provide a barrage from her 12 inch guns, or order fire from his cruisers’ six inch main armament, onto  the nearby the German wireless station, will forever be a mystery. It was well within range and its location reasonably well known. The sound of large calibre shells landing nearby would have provided a very good excuse for a swift German surrender and avoided loss of Australian and probably German and the local native militia lives.

Meanwhile von Spee despite trying to give the opposite impression was inevitably heading for Cape Horn intending to round it and re coal at Port Stanley.  Off Chile he met the very valiant Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, RN, at the Battle of Coronel. This was a predictable disaster.  Cradock’s slow, underpowered, semi-obsolete pre-dreadnought reserve fleet ships were destroyed one by one.  Silhouetted against the setting sun they made an easy mark for expert German gunners who were effectively invisible in the darkness. This battle is covered in tragic detail. Cradock had feared that the consequences of not fighting his much more powerful opponent would be the court martial and disgrace that had befallen Rear Admiral Troubridge, RN, when he had failed to pursue the Goeben and the Breslau in the Mediterranean in the opening days of the war.  Cradock had repeatedly asked the Admiralty for a modern fast armoured cruiser HMS Defence to reinforce him in the South Atlantic before the inevitable battle with von Spee which he accurately foresaw would be a defeat. Defence was delayed by Admiralty bungling at Montevideo.

In Valparaiso, after their  bloodless German victory, Von Spee refused to drink a toast proposed by locals to the ‘damnation of the British Navy.’ He knew his turn to taste defeat was coming.

Once it was realised in Australia and London that von Spee was at Fiji and beyond being a threat to trade Australia could have  been sent to the west coast of Chile and Cape Horn, the only route which the German ships could use if they were to return to Europe. It that had been done then the catastrophe at Coronel would  have been averted. Australia’s 12 inch guns would have far outranged von Spee’s and would have protected the RN’s inferior ships. But of course that is hindsight.  It was only after the humiliating defeat, and the loss of the first fleet action by the Royal Navy since the eighteenth century, that the recently recalled Admiral ‘Jackie’ Fisher sent the battlecruisers Inflexible and Invincible to the Falklands to deal with von Spee’s armoured cruisers.  This they swiftly did at the Battle of the Falkland Islands. The enemy ships that Jerram and Patey could have brought to battle, if permitted to do so, in the North Pacific were finally sunk in the South Atlantic three months and thousands of British sailors lives later.

Most of the book is devoted to providing the best account in recent decades of how Emden and her intelligent and resourceful Captain, Karl Friedrich Max von Muller, von Spee’s protégé, roamed the Indian Ocean and succeeded in trying up British merchant shipping and trade in port for weeks on end in September and October of 1914. Even the sailing of the first convoy of AIF and NZIF troops to the Middle East was delayed by doubt about where exactly Emden was.

Emden’s night attack on the Madras’ oil storage depot, the surprise destruction of the Russian cruiser Zhemchug alongside in Penang and the one sided battle with the brave French torpedo boat destroyer, which made a doomed attack on  Emden, are all well covered. The larger than life characters that inhabited that German wardroom are vividly portrayed, as are the eclectic mix of interesting British merchant seaman Muller took as his prisoners before sinking their ships. His punctilious observance of the rules of war at sea made him into something of an international hero and his hunting by a dozen ships became a game followed with fascination in newspapers around the world.  The contrast between his humane, courteous naval  behaviour and that of the German army’s troops ravaging ‘brave little Belgium’ was noted at the time and has been since by many authors.

The account of the ‘Swan of the East’s’ last battle with her more powerful nemesis, HMAS Sydney,  is movingly and accurately re told with a wealth of detail that brings the battle to life.  The powerful descriptions of the carnage reminds one that when brave men are being torn apart by high explosive lyddite there are no winners and no cause for exultation among those who have witnessed it. Certainly Captain John Glossop was not among those who felt triumphant after he had seen at first hand what his shells had done to Emden’s sailors. He wrote: ‘I’ve seen my first naval engagement, and all I can say is thank God we did not start the war.

The importance of destroying Emden was acknowledged in the British Press while there was general admiration for her captain and his men.  The Times of London wrote: We are pleased that the cruiser Emden was finally destroyed but we acknowledge Commander Von Muller as a valiant and chivalrous adversary. We hope that his life was spared, for should he come to London we would prepare for him a rousing welcome.

Glossop asked his prisoner, Karl von Muller, what he would have done had he known of the presence of the troop convoy so near to Emden. Muller made it clear that he would have done his duty, which would have been to shadow the troopships by day and attack by night with guns and torpedoes until he was sunk or out of ammunition. That certainly puts to rest speculation as to what the stakes were in this mid Indian Ocean encounter.

The final chapters of this extraordinary story of risk taking cover the six months of voyaging of the Emden’s shore party led by Emden’s First Officer, Hellmuth von Mucke, from Direction Island back to Germany via Turkey. Emden’s landing  party was ordered to destroy the British cable and wireless station’s ability to be a nodal point in the Empire’s communication network.  The nonchalance and friendly cooperation with which they were greeted by the British was, we now know, due to the fact that these station operators knew where their second set of wireless equipment was buried to replace the one that the Germans were smashing.  The British  also pointed out where a dummy undersea cable came ashore. The  Germans set about destroying it with axes, while the real one remained undetected under the sand.

When his captain sailed into battle with Sydney, von Mucke soon realised that Emden was overmatched, that von Muller’s luck had run out.  Any survivors must be prisoners.  He was determined to avoid the same fate for himself and his m or than thirty  men and before Sydney returned for him he took the leaky local trading schooner Ayesha and his sailors on a remarkable and unlikely prolonged adventure. He sailed from the middle of the Indian Ocean to the Dutch East Indies and rendezvoused at sea with a German steamer bound for the Middle East. Finally he led his men in dhows up the Red Sea, evading the RN’s patrols, and then fought the local Bedouin to get to a Turkish railhead and thence back to Constantinople.  This saga of escape, perhaps without parallel in modern naval history, makes a great finale to this gripping well written history.

The author in his acknowledgements makes clear his debt to, among many others, James Goldrick and David Stevens of the Seapower Centre – Australia. His German research partner was Henning Bess, a descendent of one of Emden’s officers and a retired German flag officer.  This is a scholarly book rich with the fruits of careful research and can be read and enjoyed by naval historians and general readers of history with equal satisfaction.  It is the first book since the 1914-18 war histories,  to  deal with all the events of the closing months of 1914 from an Australian perspective. It is therefore a real addition to the library of anyone interested in why Australia went to war in 1914 and how events unfolded on the broad canvas of the Pacific, the Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic.

The startling level of success enjoyed by the little Emden and her gallant ship’s company hint at what Maximilian von Spee might have achieved with his whole squadron if Australia had not possessed a battlecruiser that deterred him from implementing Germany’s  pre war plans. He wrote to his wife that until the arrival of HMAS Australia the German plan in the event of war had been to attack Australia and the British Empire through destruction of Australian ships and cargos. He might have also added that he would have aimed to disable Australia’s ports and dockyards by bombardment. They were logical strategic targets.  That was no idle threat. Von Spee bombarded the port of Papeete in French Tahiti as he passed – because he could.

As Mike Carlton makes clear in his foreword the modern counterfactual concept that the Great War was nothing to do with Australia could not be further from the truth.  In 1914 Australia was faced the destruction of her trade and wealth and the possible bombardment of her cities. These facts were not lost on the British and Australian naval officers and Australian politicians who fought hard for a decade to provide the RAN with some teeth and succeeded just in time to prevent disaster.

This book is well illustrated with photographs, diagrams and charts. It contains a useful postscript to explain what became of the main protagonists and provides as appendices contemporary reports and letters.  These add authentic eye witness voices explaining the  events described in the book.

This new book by Mike Carlton is a fine piece of naval research and also a most  enjoyable page turner.  It is thoroughly recommended.







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