In the early years of the twentieth century, Kaiser Wilhelm II headquartered his East Asia Squadron in the port city of Tsingtao in northern China, Germany’s principal naval base in the Pacific. On the southern coast of Shandong province, the town was more European than Asian. German engineers had laid out boulevards lined with linden trees. Germans had built the port’s most prominent landmark, a Lutheran church, on a hill overlooking the harbor.
In the years before World War I, the German flag flew over the Marianas, the Marshall Islands, and Samoa in the central Pacific. To the south, Germany held additional colonies, including the Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomon Islands. The East Asia Squadron was meant to safeguard German interests in this far-flung region—a mission that had once consisted of watching for any encroachment by the expansion-minded French. But the threat of hostilities in Europe put the squadron in a precarious position six thousand miles from home.
One of the most respected officers of the kaiser’s navy commanded the East Asia Squadron. Vice Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee, 53, was descended from a prominent Prussian family. He was a thorough navy professional, with a special interest in gunnery.
Spee’s fleet was widely scattered at the outbreak of war on August 1, 1914. The armored cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had left Tsingtao for a long cruise to Germany’s Pacific holdings and were not scheduled to return until September. Of the light cruisers, Leipzig was engaged in gunboat diplomacy off the Pacific coast of Mexico, and Nürnberg was en route to relieve that vessel. The only modern vessel left at Tsingtao was Spee’s third light cruiser, Emden.
Emden had been commissioned in 1909, and its entire operational life had been with the East Asia Squadron. The ship was 387 feet long, forty-four feet at the beam, and displaced thirty-six hundred tons. Its main armament consisted of ten 4.1-inch guns, two forward, two aft, and three mounted on each side. Its triple-expansion engines could power the cruiser at up to twenty-four knots. Three tall funnels were only partially successful in keeping the ship’s smoke from harassing its gun layers.
Though it was relatively new, Emden did not represent the latest in naval technology. Like most warships of its time, Emden burned coal rather than oil, and its underwater prow was a throwback to the days when ramming was an essential tactic in naval warfare. It had no condenser for producing fresh water. The Royal Navy’s newest cruisers were larger and faster and generally mounted 6-inch guns compared with Emden’s 4.1-inch guns. Still, navy professionals admired the German cruiser, whose sleek lines led some to call it the “Swan of the East.”
Emden’s skipper had come to navy command by a curious route. Born in 1873, Karl Friedrich Max von Müller seemed destined for an army career. His father had been a colonel in the Prussian army that crushed France in 1870. He himself had attended a military academy in Schleswig-Holstein and subsequently entered the Prussian army. In 1891, however, Müller, at 18, transferred to the navy.
By 1894 he was signals officer on a battleship, and from there—promoted to lieutenant—he began a two-year posting on a gunboat based in German East Africa (now part of Tanzania). During this assignment he contracted malaria, an illness that would plague him for the rest of his life.
From 1909 to 1912 Müller served in the Imperial Navy Office in Berlin, where he impressed Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. Not until the spring of 1913, however, did the 39-year-old Müller receive his first sea command, Emden.
After two months on the Yangtze River, Emden returned to Tsingtao, where Müller received word that he had been promoted to commander. Spee had come to admire young Müller, whose quiet demeanor disguised a fiercely nationalistic outlook.
While its fate was being determined in the capitals of Europe, the German garrison at Tsingtao played out the last days of peace in the early summer of 1914. Aboard his flagship, Scharnhorst, Spee hosted the officers of the visiting flagship of the Royal Navy’s China Station, HMS Minotaur. Ignoring the political tensions in Europe, the Germans went out of their way to be gracious hosts to Admiral Sir Thomas Jerram and his staff. The officers exchanged lavish dinners, and the crews competed in sports. Bands played as Minotaur departed, and officers exchanged pledges of eternal friendship.
Spee took his squadron to sea on June 20, leaving only Emden and a few auxiliary vessels in Tsingtao. The squadron was in the western Pacific on July 27 when word came from Berlin that war was likely. “Strained relations between Dual Alliance and Triple Entente,” the naval staff tersely advised. “Nürnberg has been ordered to Tsingtao [from Honolulu]. Everything else is left to you.” Since Tsingtao would be highly vulnerable in case of war, Spee ordered Nürnberg to join him at Pagan in the Marianas. He sent a similar order to Emden.
In effect, the naval staff was washing its hands of Spee. According to the German operational plan, the East Asia Squadron would begin commerce raiding in the event of war with Great Britain. In theory, such a campaign would oblige the British to weaken their forces in the Atlantic to protect their empire and its trade routes. However, commerce raiding required a complicated infrastructure of bases or supply ships, particularly for coal-fired warships. Although the German navy had established coal depots at several South Seas locations, the situation forced Spee to evacuate his only real base, Tsingtao. Now he had no way of docking his ships or making any major repairs.
Although he might play hide-and-seek in the islands of the southern Pacific, those waters would not yield a great harvest of enemy merchantmen. In Winston Churchill’s colorful postwar analogy, Spee’s fleet was “a cut flower in a vase; fair to see, yet bound to die.”
Spee saw his situation very much as Churchill did, but he hoped to accomplish much in the time remaining to him.
Meanwhile, on July 31, Emden had left Tsingtao to rendezvous with Spee. Germany declared war on Russia on August 2, and Müller so informed his crew as Emden, pointing east, rounded the tip of the Korean Peninsula.
“The war will not be an easy one,” Müller told his assembled crew. “For years our enemies have been preparing.” He evoked the image of a peaceful, prosperous Germany, insisting that “in peaceful rivalry, by industry and work…by honesty and thoroughness, Germany has won itself a position of honor” that lesser nations now sought to destroy. Yet Germany’s enemies would fail. “We will prove ourselves worthy of our ancestors…and resist to the end, even though the entire world rise against us.”
Two days later, in heavy seas, Müller’s lookout spotted a black steamer with two yellow funnels that immediately turned away from the Germans. Müller hoisted signal flags for “Stop at once—do not use wireless,” but the stranger made a run for Japanese territorial waters and radioed frantic requests for help. Müller fired a warning shot across his quarry’s bow, but the ship did not halt until after he had fired several more warning shots, each closer than the last.
Emden had taken its first prize in the war at sea, and Müller was impressed with his catch. His victim was Russian, a relatively modern liner, Ryazan, carrying some eighty passengers from Nagasaki to Vladivostok. (Müller’s executive officer, Hellmuth von Mucke, would later recall that there were many fearful women aboard, “Most of them…fat Russian Jewesses.”) The prize was capable of seventeen knots, and Müller thought that it had potential as an auxiliary cruiser. Only Tsingtao had facilities where it could be converted for war, and thus Müller faced the first of many difficult decisions. Should he continue to the rendezvous with Spee, or accompany his prize to Tsingtao and risk attack by British units at nearby Weihaiwei? Müller chose to return to his base.
While German technicians set about arming Ryazan—it would become Cormoran II—Emden took on supplies. The crew unloaded superfluous personal items on the quay. They loaded two auxiliary vessels in the harbor with supplies, to serve as tenders to Emden. Müller even took extra crewmen aboard, increasing the vessel’s complement to approximately four hundred, including three Chinese laundrymen. While the radio room maintained a full-time alert for any hint of attack from the sea, the crew filled every available space on the cruiser with coal.
At 6 p.m. on August 6, Emden weighed anchor and moved slowly out of the harbor. Neither the ship nor most of its crew would ever see Tsingtao again. The ship’s band gathered on deck and played “Watch on the Rhine,” followed by much cheering. “All were highly confident,” one of the ship’s officers would write. “Here was reproduced, on a smaller scale, the same war-enthusiasm as was being shown in Germany.”
Emden was not alone. Following the cruiser, in equally frantic departures, were a supply ship, Prinz Eitel Friedrich, and a modern collier, Markomannia. The goal of the three vessels, arranged by radio, was the island of Pagan, where the remainder of Spee’s squadron waited. Steaming south, the three German ships attempted to disguise themselves as neutrals. Emden’s crew painted the Japanese characters for Nagato Maru on its hull and lifeboats. Its escorts painted their funnels the colors of two British lines, P&O and the Blue Funnel Line, respectively.
The German flotilla reached Pagan without incident on August 12, and Spee called a conference of his captains the following day. For all his appearance of rigidity, the admiral respected the opinions of his officers and valued frank discussion. Nevertheless, he had all but decided to take his squadron home by way of Cape Horn, harassing enemy shipping as he went. Having a German squadron roaming the Pacific would certainly cause apprehension in London.
When Spee invited comment, Müller asked to speak. He feared that the squadron would contribute little to the war effort in the course of its long voyage across the Pacific, and establishing a German presence in the Indian Ocean appealed to him. While coaling an entire squadron there would be a problem, might not a single cruiser operate successfully? Müller seemed eager for the assignment. The other captains found Müller’s argument persuasive, and Spee promised to think it over.
After lunch a boat from the flagship pulled over to Emden with a dispatch from Spee: “You are hereby allocated the Markomannia and will be detached with the task of entering the Indian Ocean and waging cruiser warfare as best you can….Tonight you will stay with the Squadron; this order will come into force tomorrow morning.”
At about 8 p.m. on August 13, Spee’s squadron left Pagan, steaming in two parallel columns. There were twelve vessels in all, four warships and eight supply ships. They steamed eastward through the night, and then, at dawn on August 14, Scharnhorst hoisted a signal to Emden: “Detached. Wish good luck.” Müller replied by semaphore, thanking the admiral for the trust reposed in him and wishing the squadron luck. Both would need it.
Emden and Markomannia pulled out of the German column and steamed south. Their goal—some two thousand miles to the southwest—was the Indian Ocean.
Emden made its way slowly across the southern Pacific. Eager to save coal, Müller used only six of his ship’s twelve boilers, cruising in the smooth waters south of the Marianas at an average twelve knots. As the ship steamed toward the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia), each day brought it closer to the equator, and conditions on board grew increasingly uncomfortable.
On the night of August 18-19, the cruiser’s radio room picked up messages from a nearby German mail steamer, Princess Alice. Eager for news, Müller arranged for a rendezvous in the Palau Islands the next day. Captain Bortfeld of Princess Alice advised him that Japan had issued an ultimatum to Germany on August 15, demanding, among other things, that Germany withdraw all warships from East Asian waters. Müller correctly interpreted Japan’s ultimatum as a prelude to war, but he would have to avoid Japanese ships until war was declared.
Müller’s second-in-command, 33-year-old Hellmuth von Mucke, had joined the navy as a cadet in 1900 and served in a series of assignments on shore and with torpedo boats. Like his captain, he had made a favorable impression on the naval staff in Berlin. He had joined Emden late in 1913 and had been made executive officer in June 1914. The outgoing Mucke and his reserved skipper were comfortable in their roles and made an effective team.
Müller was eager to avoid the usual steamer routes lest his ship be spotted before it reached its operational area. He navigated carefully through the numerous islands of the Dutch East Indies, heading for the Malacca Strait. To reinforce his captain’s desire for anonymity, Mucke raised the possibility of a disguise for Emden. Since most British men-of-war had either two or four funnels, Mucke suggested that Emden erect a dummy fourth smokestack. Müller approved, and with wooden framing and sailcloth the ship’s carpenters created a funnel that, Mucke thought, made their ship closely resemble the British Yarmouth.
Fueled and ready, Emden reached the Indian Ocean on September 6. Müller began to patrol the sea lanes, using his radio as well as lookouts to watch for ships. Several frustrating days followed. They found no ships, but false sightings brought the German cruiser’s crew to action stations all too often.
At 10 p.m. on September 9, Emden’s war began in earnest when Müller’s lookout spotted the lights of a single-funnel steamer. The German cruiser moved closer and then fired two blank shots. When the stranger stopped, an Emden signals officer used a lamp to send a warning to the ship not to use its radio. Müller then began the standard procedure for a war on commerce at sea: He sent his prize officer, Julius Lauterbach, with an armed party to examine the stranger’s papers.
The first report was disappointing. The ship in question was a Greek collier, Pontoporos, and as such was a neutral vessel. However, Lauterbach, an old merchant seaman, was well versed in maritime law. In examining the prize’s papers, he discovered it was carrying more than six thousand tons of British coal to Calcutta. This made the cargo contraband of war, and Pontoporos subject to seizure or destruction. Müller had only the half-empty Markomannia as a source of fuel, and the prospect of adding another collier was too good to pass up. Equally important, keeping Pontoporos under German control meant that it would not be able to tell the world that there was a German cruiser loose in the Indian Ocean.
Müller called the Greek skipper onto Emden’s bridge to discuss his situation, offering to hire his ship on contract. The Greek could hardly refuse, and Emden now headed a three-ship flotilla. Its presence still unknown to the enemy, Emden resumed its search. The fox was in the chicken coop.
On September 10, Müller stopped the thirty-four-hundred-ton Indus, which turned out to be a horse transport on its way to Bombay for cargo. The Germans relieved Indus of various supplies, notably soap and beer, before sinking it with shellfire. The following afternoon Emden stopped a larger horse transport, Lovatt. Like Indus, it was in ballast. When it proved difficult to sink the transport by opening its seacocks, Müller sank Lovatt with shellfire.
By September 12, Emden, accompanied by Markomannia and the captured Pontoporos, was approaching Calcutta. That day the Germans stopped a 4,650-ton British freighter, Kabinga, but this latest victim was carrying neutral cargo, and therefore could not be destroyed. Making the best of the situation, Müller transferred his prisoners to Kabinga before continuing his patrol in the busy waters off east India.
Thus far, Müller knew, none of his victims had been able to radio a warning. But some of the ships he had destroyed would soon be overdue at their ports, and the British would be aware that something was amiss. Determined to make the best use of his presence off Calcutta, Müller stopped the thirty-five-hundred-ton British collier Killin on September 13 and sank it the following day. That afternoon Emden’s lookout spotted smoke off the starboard bow. The cruiser’s sixth victim was its largest, the seventy-six-hundred-ton British-owned Diplomat, carrying a cargo of tea. The German boarding party helped themselves to some of the cargo before dispatching Diplomat with explosive charges.
By then, the British had concluded that there was an enemy cruiser loose in the Bay of Bengal; the Royal Navy’s representative in Colombo, Ceylon, advised London that he was suspending all shipping in that direction. The British dedicated five cruisers to the search for Emden, aided occasionally by French, Russian, and Japanese warships. Meanwhile, Müller loaded additional prisoners onto Kabinga and released the ship, confident that his erstwhile guests could not tell the British anything useful.
Emden captured and destroyed two more ships on September 14 and 18. In its most destructive period, the German cruiser had, over nine days, taken nine prizes and sunk six. Now it was time for a change of venue.
Emden steamed southeast, to waters off the coast of Burma, but when Müller found no prizes there, he changed course to the west. The captain had been considering a raid on some British shore installation, and now put his plan into effect. He wrote: “I intended going from the Rangoon estuary to Madras and, in the dark, shelling the oil-tank installations….I had this shelling in view simply as a demonstration to arouse interest among the Indian population, to disturb English commerce, [and] to diminish English prestige.”
After coaling from Markomannia, Müller steamed southwest, all the while listening to radio traffic between British warships searching for their elusive enemy. By the evening of September 22 the German cruiser was off Madras, with the city’s lights in view to the west. When he was about three thousand yards off shore, Müller turned on his ship’s searchlights and probed for installations of the British-owned Burmah Oil Company.
For ten minutes Emden steamed parallel to the coast, unleashing some 130 shells at the white-painted oil tanks. One of the six tanks exploded in a ball of flame; four others were pierced and damaged but did not catch fire. As a result of the raid, more than three hundred fifty thousand gallons of fuel were destroyed, four people were killed, and British prestige was dealt a considerable blow.
To deceive any observers on shore, Emden changed course to the north. Once out of sight, Müller set his course south, to work the waters off Ceylon. In London the first lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, fired off a memo to his first sea lord: “The escape of the Emden from the Bay of Bengal is most unsatisfactory, and I do not understand on what principle the operations of the four cruisers Hampshire, Yarmouth, Dupleix and Chikuma have been concerted….Who is the senior captain of these four ships? Is he a good man? If so, he should be told to hoist a commodore’s broad pennant and take command of the squadron which…should devote itself exclusively to hunting the Emden.”
Morale aboard the German cruiser was sky high. Not only was Emden wreaking havoc in the sea lanes, but in the raid on Madras it had struck the enemy in its most prized colony. But some crewmen may have reflected that their prospects for a safe return to Germany were slight to nonexistent. After attracting the full attention of the world’s greatest navy, Emden was surely a vital target. That navy could never permit the cruiser to make its way home. Continuing to attack the enemy’s commerce, Emden could operate only in the same busy sea lanes that the Royal Navy patrolled, and had to be accompanied by a collier on which the cruiser was totally dependent.
Off Ceylon, Emden again found good hunting. In the last days of September the raider captured six prizes, including a collier, Buresk, filled with high-quality Welsh coal. For the most part, the officers of Müller’s victims had accepted their fate with stoicism, and in return the Germans treated them with courtesy. The master of one prize told newsmen: “The German officers were very polite. I may say extraordinarily polite. Before we left…for Colombo, they all wished us a pleasant journey.”
The master of the steamer Tymeric, however, denounced the “damned Germans” and refused to cooperate with his captors. In return, Müller took the irate skipper aboard the raider under arrest, where he was denounced for his slovenly appearance and for having a cigarette dangling from his lips.
On October 9, Emden dropped anchor at Diego Garcia, a lonely speck of coral in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Although nominally part of the British Empire, it had no radio station, and its few residents were not even aware of the outbreak of war. Müller took advantage of this situation to coal and service his ship, and to give his crew a brief shore leave.
The next day Emden set course again for the waters off Ceylon, and again found the pickings good. On October 10, the raider captured Clan Grant, a thirty-nine-hundred-ton vessel carrying a valuable mixed cargo from England to Calcutta. On the same day, Müller captured and sank a slow dredger en route to Tasmania, and on October 17 the freighter Benmohr became Emden’s seventeenth victim.
On October 18, Müller stopped the Blue Funnel steamer Troilus on its maiden voyage from China to Rotterdam with a cargo of rubber, copper, and tin. Troilus proved to be the raider’s most valuable prize, but Emden now carried so many prisoners that when it captured yet another British freighter, St. Egbert, Müller chose not to destroy it but to use it as a means of getting rid of his prisoners.
The depredations of Emden in the Indian Ocean and the light cruiser Karlsrühe in the Atlantic prompted the Admiralty to issue an embarrassed communiqué in which the navy assured shippers that it was making a maximum effort against Germany’s surface raiders: “Searching for these vessels and working in concert under various commanders in chief are upwards of seventy British, Australian, Japanese, French, and Russian cruisers….The vast expanse of seas and oceans and the many thousands of islands offer almost infinite choice of movement to the enemy’s ships.”
By now Müller had spent as much time off Ceylon as seemed prudent. Yet rather than return to other sea lanes, he implemented a plan that had probably been germinating in his mind for some time. Accompanied by two colliers, he set an easterly course. On October 25, the raider’s crewmen went to action stations, and they spent part of the day in a simulated battle with an enemy warship.
Unknown to his crew, Müller had learned from the skipper of one of his prizes that enemy warships were using the port of Penang, a British colony off the coast of Malaya. The port was largely without land defenses, a fact that made it a tempting target for a raid. Müller raised his dummy funnel to give Emden the silhouette of a Royal Navy four-stacker. In the early morning hours of October 28, Emden steamed unchallenged into Penang’s outer harbor.
The raid was a risky venture, for the Germans might well have encountered a British heavy cruiser coming out of the harbor. But in the first morning light, the only warship visible was anchored offshore near the narrow “gut” that separated the outer and inner harbors. Zhemchug was an antiquated Russian light cruiser. Its 4.7-inch guns were slightly heavier than those of Emden, but the crew’s fighting efficiency did not approach that of the Germans. Emden had yet to be challenged when it launched a torpedo from its starboard tube that struck the Russian in the stern, lifting it briefly out of the water.
Executing a full turn in the harbor, Müller launched a second torpedo at Zhemchug. While Müller’s gunners poured fire at the stricken enemy, just one of the Russian guns fired wildly in response. The second torpedo struck amidships, and Zhemchug’s magazines exploded, sending a huge column of flame, smoke, and debris skyward. Müller was tempted to attack the merchant vessels in the harbor, but he had no way of ascertaining their nationality without jeopardizing his own ship.
The forlorn Zhemchug was not the only Allied warship in the area; three French destroyers were in and around Penang’s harbor. Two of them were under repair, however, and thus were effectively out of action. Outside the harbor, the third French ship, the three-hundred-ton destroyer Mousquet, bravely challenged the emerging Emden. The French commander made an unsuccessful torpedo attack, but Emden quickly demolished his little ship by accurate fire. Müller stopped to pick up thirty-six survivors.
The Penang raid had proved a stunning success, but Müller could not afford to linger; he and his faithful collier made for the Sunda Strait. On the morning of October 30, Emden stopped a British steamer carrying a cargo of salt. The British skipper, having expected his vessel to be sunk, was more than happy to take Müller’s French prisoners to Sumatra instead.
Morale aboard the German raider continued high. Although the ship was showing signs of wear and fresh water was now in short supply, provisions taken from prizes allowed the crew to eat reasonably well. Weather permitting, many of the men slept on deck, in hammocks. Whenever they sighted a squall, the officer of the deck would often steer for it, allowing off-duty crewmen to strip and shower in the rain. Like many warships of its day, Emden had a band, and a quiet day at sea often concluded with a concert, ending with a lusty rendering of “Watch on the Rhine.”
When shipping proved sparse in the Sunda Strait, Müller decided on another change of locale. He had earlier ordered a captured collier, Exford, to meet him in the isolated Cocos Islands. There, Emden would be able both to coal and to undertake some long-deferred maintenance. Once he had destroyed the British wireless station on Direction Island, he expected he could work undisturbed. The raider set a fateful course for the Cocos group.
At 6 a.m. on November 9, Emden appeared off the northernmost of the Cocos group and dropped anchor off tiny Direction Island. A shore party, commanded by Mucke, set out to destroy the radio station set on a small hill.
Already the raider was in jeopardy. When the approaching Emden had failed to reply to a request for identification, the British radio technicians wasted no time in sending an SOS, followed by messages identifying the stranger as Emden. The Germans attempted to jam those transmissions, but Müller now made the first mistake of a nearly error-free cruise. Instead of assuming the worst and returning to sea, he prepared to coal from the nearby Buresk.
Shortly after 9 a.m., the lookout reported a ship to the north. Initially, crewmen thought the stranger was Buresk, but when they saw it approaching very rapidly and recognized four funnels, the Germans knew they were in trouble. Müller signaled frantically for the shore party to return. When it was slow to respond, the raider raised anchor and steamed out of the harbor at about 9:30.
The stranger proved to be an Australian light cruiser, HMAS Sydney, commanded by Captain John Glossop. The fifty-six-hundred-ton Sydney mounted eight 6-inch guns, and was capable of a flank speed of twenty-five knots. In the three areas that mattered—speed, firepower, and armor—it far outclassed Emden. Absent a storm—and the weather was clear—Emden could neither outfight its opponent nor escape.
Müller’s one hope lay in the torpedo. Outside the harbor he turned toward his adversary, who himself turned so that both vessels were heading north. Müller later wrote, “I had to attempt to inflict such damage…with the guns that he would be slowed down in speed significantly before I could switch to a promising torpedo attack.” Captain Glossop would write, “I…sighted…almost immediately the smoke of a ship, which proved to be Emden, coming out towards me at a great rate….I kept my distance as much as possible to obtain the advantage of my [heavier] guns.”
Briefly, Emden demonstrated the superior gunnery that would become a hallmark of the kaiser’s fleet. The raider scored repeatedly with its 4.1-inch guns, but the 35-pound projectiles inflicted only superficial damage. Then Sydney began to batter the raider with its 6-inch guns. One of Emden’s engineering officers recalled: “After the first enemy shells struck us, the motor for working the fans broke down. The temperature [reached] 152 F. About fifteen minutes after the action opened, hits were felt near the engines, noticeable by…the ship listing to port, by floor-plates starting…[and] by objects on the walls being torn from their fixtures.”
An Australian correspondent on Sydney wrote: “After the lapse of about three-quarters of an hour, the Emden had lost two funnels and the foremast; she was badly on fire aft and amidships, so that at times nothing more than the top of the mainmast could be seen amid the clouds of steam and smoke. Her guns, now occasionally firing, gave out a short yellow flash by which they could be distinguished by the dark red flames of the Sydney<’s bursting lyddite.”
Two hours after the battle had opened, the two antagonists were on a northern course, with Sydney keeping to the east of its opponent. Aboard the shattered Emden, Müller ordered a change of course toward North Keeling Island. There, he drove his vessel onto a reef, hoping both to damage the cruiser beyond salvage and to give surviving members of the crew a chance to swim to safety. Fire blackened the totally wrecked German raider.
A lull in the fighting ensued while Sydney captured Müller’s collier, which had appeared at a very inopportune moment. The Australian cruiser then returned to Emden and, lacking any evidence of its having surrendered, opened fire once again. Only after Glossop had delivered, under flag of truce, an invitation to surrender with the honors of war did Müller show a white flag from his one remaining mast. Emden’s crew had suffered 134 fatalities, including seven officers and the ship’s three Chinese laundrymen.
Emden was the first but hardly the last of Spee’s squadron to meet its match early in the war. Spee, after destroying a vastly inferior British squadron off the coast of Chile and successfully rounding Cape Horn, would run afoul of a powerful British task force at the Falkland Islands; all the German ships ended up in Davy Jones’ locker.
By this time, surface raiders as a class were obsolete. Germany, which had begun the war with fewer submarines than the Royal Navy, had discovered the value of the U-boat. Surface raiders would play only a minor role in the last three years of the war. The day of the “gentleman” raider had passed.
As Churchill correctly summarized, the kaiser’s East Asia Squadron was doomed from the outset. Yet a single vessel, Emden, undertook the most remarkable commerce raiding cruise of World War I. In a three-month period, Müller’s cruiser had seized or destroyed fifteen enemy merchantmen, aggregating some sixty-six thousand tons. In addition, it had sunk a Russian cruiser and a French destroyer. Equally important, Emden had thoroughly disrupted Allied commerce in the Indian Ocean and greatly embarrassed the Royal Navy.
Emden’s greatest impact may have been psychological. At a time when the kaiser’s armies in Europe were portrayed as skewering Belgian babies on their bayonets, Emden’s strict adherence to the laws of war stood in marked contrast.
Most of Emden’s survivors spent the remainder of the war as prisoners on Malta. Müller was imprisoned first on Malta and then in England, where he attempted to escape but was recaptured. His executive officer, Mucke, made the most of his experiences on Emden and prospered after the war as an author and lecturer. Müller, in contrast, declined most invitations to speak and lived quietly at his home in Blankenburg until his death in 1923. Asked once why he did not write a memoir, Müller replied, “I should not be able to escape the feeling that I was coining money from the blood of my comrades.”
John M. Taylor of McLean, Virginia, is a frequent contributor to MHQ.
This article by John M. Taylor was originally published in the Summer 2007 issue of MHQ Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to MHQ magazine today!