'Brilliant entry of the Australian Navy into war'

On Thursday, November 12, 1914, the Australian government received a telegram from the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, concerning the "brilliant entry of the Australian Navy into war".

The "brilliant entry" was the sinking of the German raider Emden by HMAS Sydney off the Cocos Islands three days earlier, the first occasion a ship of the newly formed Royal Australian Navy had gone into battle.

Destroyed: The German raider Emden "beached and done for" following her defeat at the Cocos Islands by HMAS Sydney on ...
Destroyed: The German raider Emden "beached and done for" following her defeat at the Cocos Islands by HMAS Sydney on November 9, 1914.  Photo: Australian War Memorial

Sydney's initial shots were erratic because the rangefinder was out of action, but it soon gained the ascendancy. Within two hours Sydney telegraphed: "Emden beached and done for."

Sydney was ably commanded by Captain John Glossop, RN. Of the two combatants, his was the newer, bigger and faster ship, with superior guns. His crew, unlike that of Emden, was far from battle-hardened. He exploited his strengths, manoeuvring adroitly beyond the range of Emden's guns, losing only four sailors in the battle.

Australian Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, soon informed the House of Representatives of the battle. About noon on Monday, November 9, Navy Office received a telegram from Cocos Island stating that "a three-funnelled warship had arrived off the island and was landing a party of men in boats".

It realised that the ship must be Emden and that its purpose was the destruction of communications facilities on Cocos.


Efforts were "at once made to get into touch with Sydney, then believed to be in the vicinity of Cocos Islands". Sydney was, indeed, in the vicinity, accompanying the convoy of Australian and New Zealand troop transports which had sailed only a week before from Albany.

An urgent message, Fisher reported, was "despatched ... with the "en clair" preamble, "Very urgent! Do not reply", followed by the Sydney's call sign and the telegram informing her of the Emden's presence at Cocos Island.'

At 4pm the following day the Eastern Extension Company [operators of the radio station on Cocos] brought to Navy Office a telegram with the news that "Sydney was engaging Emden, and that Emden was a wreck on the north of Keeling Island".

The name, Emden, was well known to Australians. For almost two months Emden, increasingly alone, had, with "enterprise and audacity", done serious injury to Allied shipping in the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal; in total it sank 25 steamers. Meticulously observing the conventions of war, few lives were lost. In the previous week it had even bombarded Madras.

Emden, the Swan of the East, was a star ship in Imperial Germany's Pacific fleet based at Qingdao in North China.

A month after the war began, at the suggestion of its captain, Karl von Mueller, the admiral, Maximilian Reichsgraf von Spee, allowed its detachment for operations in the Indian Ocean while the rest of the fleet sailed eastwards to South America.

Emden struck with devastating effect. In Churchill's words, her activities "created a natural feeling of alarm in the mind of the New Zealand and Australian public". This "feeling" intensified as a succession of newspaper reports recorded the raider's triumphs.

Such was the apprehension raised by Emden that departure of the great convoy from Albany had been significantly delayed.  When it eventually sailed on November 1, Emden was the only enemy ship at large in the Indian Ocean.

The news of her sinking was very welcome. Just a week before, the German Pacific fleet had won a major victory against the Royal Navy at the Battle of Coronel, off the coast of Chile - the Royal Navy's first defeat in more than a century. A month passed before the situation was redeemed with complete defeat of the same German fleet in the Battle of the Falkland Islands.

That battle brought the naval war in the Pacific to a close. The formidable German naval squadron in the Pacific had been sunk. The mere presence of the battlecruiser Australia had deterred attacks on the east coast of Australia. All German possessions in the Pacific – notably Qingdao, Nauru, German New Guinea and Samoa – were under Allied jurisdiction.

The Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson, informed London of the "great rejoicings in Sydney and all over Australia on the sinking of the Emden".

But, reflecting on the Battle of Coronel, he commented on the "long bungle in the Pacific", which he attributed to the "remoteness of Admiralty control".

In his account of Emden's destruction, First Victory, Mike Carlton movingly describes the rescue operations which commenced once Emden had formally surrendered.

Captain Mueller did not seek any special privileges but Sydney's officers respectfully welcomed him aboard. In Carlton's account, "To the shrill of a bosun's call, Glossop and the officers came to attention and saluted their beaten foe ... von Mueller gravely returned the salute ... Glossop took him gently by the arm and led him below to his cabin, where a meal had been prepared."

Mueller was eventually transferred to Orvieto, the headquarters ship in the troop convoy.  The commander of the Australian Imperial Force, General William Bridges, observed only minimal courtesy. Charles Bean wrote: "The two might have been in different ships."

Occasionally a member of Bridges' staff dined with him: Lieutenant Richard Casey. Casey considered him "a fine person ... a gallant gentleman".

Mueller told Casey how he would have attacked the convoy had he had the opportunity: "I would have run alongside [an accompanying cruiser] and fired a torpedo ... in the confusion, I should have got among the transports ... I would have sunk half of them ... I should have been sunk in the end ... I always expected that."

After some shabby treatment as a prisoner of war in Britain, he returned to Germany. Briefly active in local politics, he died in 1923.

Destruction of Emden and capture of its survivors was only one ending of the story.

When Sydney arrived at Cocos, the landing party under Emden's second-in-command, Hellmuth von Mucke, was ashore destroying the radio and other communications equipment. Unable to return to Emden, the party commandeered a schooner, Ayesha, and sailed north for the Dutch East Indies.

From thence, in a commandeered freighter, it sailed to Arabia then travelled largely overland to Constantinople, finally reaching Germany nearly eight months after leaving Cocos.

It demonstrated the quality, stamina and character of Emden's crew. This was recognised at the time when, within a few days of the battle, Churchill telegraphed that surviving officers of Emden would not be required to surrender their swords.

J. R. Nethercote, adjunct professor, Canberra campus, Australian Catholic University.