MIGHTY HISTORY

A fake smokestack made this German ship an unstoppable predator

During World War I, a new German warship slipped into the largely Allied-controlled Indian Ocean and captured or sunk 30 Allied ships and 25 civilian ships while attacking multiple shore installations in a short-lived, pirate-like rampage that lasted only about 90 days but terrorized British shippers.

The SMS Emden was supposed to be a nice ship, but not all that crazy important in war. It was a light cruiser, a utilitarian ship type that is quick, capable, but not all that robust or rugged. These ships are typically designed for low-level conflict or serve as a guard or screening force for larger ships like battleships or, later, carriers.


But the Emden would steam into Allied controlled waters in early 1914, attacking literally dozens of enemy ships and counting on its speed and a little trickery to let it hit and then withdraw in a series of daring raids.

Sea Raider

It all started in 1913 when the young SMS Emden received a new commander, Korvettenkapitän Karl von Muller (Korvettenkapitän is roughly equivalent to America's lieutenant commander rank). Von Muller was the son of a German army officer, and he had risen to his rank by performing well in front of Germany's elite, including the German emperor's brother.

One of von Muller's distinguishing traits was a sort of cunning shrewdness, something that would serve him well on the Emden. In 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria quickly dragged the major European powers toward war, and von Muller ordered the Emden to sea to prevent its capture in the largely British and Japanese-controlled Pacific islands where the ship was based.

This proved prescient as raiders quickly came for the German fleet. The Emden reported to a rallying point where most of the German navy would meet up to head east to South America, around Cape Horn, and on to Germany. On his way to the rally, von Muller captured the Russian ship Ryazan. When Emden reached the German fleet with its prize, von Muller had a proposal for the admiral.

Instead of heading home to Germany, von Muller said, the Emden should head west and raid Allied shipping, especially that of British ships, for a few months and create chaos in the enemy logistics chain.

Light cruisers lacked the armor or heavier guns common on heavy cruisers or larger ships, but they were still more than a match for destroyers and merchant vessels. And the Emden had torpedo tubes that would allow it to tackle even heavier combatants if it could get the jump on them.

Despite the risk of losing the Emden, a modern and valuable cruiser even if it was light, the admiral agreed to the plan. So von Muller led his crew of about 360 men into the Indian Ocean.

The Emden would need some sort of edge to survive. It was fast, so it could close with enemies quickly, partially negating any range advantages that heavier combatants would have against it. But it would still be vulnerable for crucial seconds or minutes while closing with an enemy.

So von Muller turned to subterfuge. Most British ships had two or four smokestacks, and the Emden would be one of the only ships in the area with three smokestacks. So, von Muller had a fourth, fake smokestack installed on the Emden, making it look a lot like the British cruiser HMS Yarmouth.

This might seem like a minor ploy, good for a few minutes of distraction at best, but that momentary hesitation on the part of the enemy gave von Muller and his crew all the time they needed. In just a few days of fighting in September 1914, the Emden captured or destroyed 15 British ships, forcing many merchant vessels to stay in port.

Suddenly, the British ability to resupply vulnerable islands was crippled, and valuable ships would have to be sent to the Indian Ocean to reinforce the naval effort there.

Oil tanks burn in India after an attack by the SMS Emden, a German light cruiser.

(National Library of France)

But the sudden lack of targets at sea did not stop the Emden. The crew simply started going after shore targets like the oil depots at Madras. The Emden fired 125 shells in a short engagement on September 22, busting open many of the Burma Oil Company's tanks and setting them aflame while also destroying a ship in the harbor.

Between this and earlier attacks, the British decided to cut the number of ships, and potential targets, in the Indian Ocean by 40 percent. This slowed the bleeding of the Royal Navy and merchant vessels but also further slowed the movement of needed war supplies.

But the Emden had taken damage and was running low on supplies by this point, and so it made a risky trip to Diego Garcia where it could attempt to raid needed supplies from the British installations there. But, surprisingly, the Germans found that the locals had no news of the young war when the Emden pulled into harbor, so the German crew simply contracted for repair and supplies without incident.

Freshly resupplied and repaired, the Emden went after British installations at Penang in Malaysia, initiating a short battle there. The primary target was the Russian warship Zhemchung which the Emden hit with torpedoes and cannon fire after approaching under false British colors and with the fake smokestack up.

The Emden sank the Russian vessel and then beat a hasty retreat, but not so hasty that the ship neglected sinking the Mousquet, a French destroyer, while exiting the harbor. This was late October, and the little cruiser had already more than proved its worth in the East, but von Muller wasn't willing to call it quits.

Other German cruisers had successfully snipped undersea wires in their own raids, and von Muller went after the telegraph wire connecting British troops in South Africa to those in Australia. The wire had a major junction at Direction Island in the Cocos Islands.

The German light cruiser SMS Emden sits beached after a determined attack by the HMAS Sydney.

(State Library of Victoria)

The Emden landed a shore party there and quickly went after the two cables. But as it pulled into the harbor, the Morse operator sent off a quick burst via the station's wireless system, alerting a nearby cruiser to the unfamiliar ship in the harbor.

The Emden's shore party was working the destruction of the cables and the wireless antenna when the Australian HMAS Sydney arrived to investigate, forcing the Emden to turn and face her. This effectively marooned the shore party on land, but the Emden was in a fight for its life.

The Sydney was also a light cruiser, but it was roughly a quarter larger than the Emden and slightly more modern, and it quickly gained the upper hand in the fight. The Emden was doomed, and von Muller quickly beached it on a reef. The German ship had suffered over 100 hits in about 90 minutes of fighting. It only stopped after von Muller surrendered.

The shore party would slowly, laboriously make its way back to Germany by sailing to Indonesia, then to the Ottoman Empire, then traveled across the desert in a failed overland bid for safety, then ran a British blockade on the Red Sea, then, finally, overland to Constantinople. It was a six-month journey, but 43 men made it back to Germany.