Cover Story History & Culture

How German cruiser ‘Emden’ struck terror in the heart of the British Empire, and became a Tamil word

1/14

This ‘swan of the east’ had one mission only — to sneak into the Indian Ocean and play havoc with British trade

The summer of 1914 was unlike any other year in Europe. Since early July, the spectre of war had begun to haunt the continent. And by the end of the month , the greed of European imperial powers had plunged the world into World War I.

Around this time, an obscure German light cruiser named SMS Emden had completed four years of service in China, at Tsingtao, the East Asian Station of the Imperial German Navy. In mid-August of that year, the German admiral Maximilian von Spee assembled all his captains on Pagan Island in North Pacific Ocean. The admiral’s plan was for the entire squadron to leave for the coast of South America, its future hunting grounds.

Everyone concurred, except Emden’s Commander, Karl Friedrich Max von Müller. Müller put forth an unexpected proposal: Emden should detach from the squadron and operate as an independent commerce raider in the Indian Ocean. A brave proposition, but possibly suicidal too.

Spee agreed. Soon, the signal flags rose: ‘Emden detached. Wish you good luck!’ they read. Emden withdrew from the long queue, along with her coaler, Markomannia, sailed in a different direction, soon losing sight of the squadron.

From then on, Emden had no harbour of refuge. This ‘swan of the east’ was all alone in hostile waters, with one mission only — to sneak into the Indian Ocean and play havoc with British shipping.

Camouflaged

Emden entered the Indian Ocean on August 30. The British were unaware that a heavily armed 389 ft long German warship was prowling in their waters. Back then, the British dominated the Indian Ocean. Cargo, essential for the survival and expansion of the Empire, was regularly transported across the oceans. The Indian Ocean provided crucial sea-lanes and connected the Far East with Europe. Müller’s idea was to inflict heavy losses on the British by raiding ships on these busy trade routes. This, he believed, would also lower the prestige of the British and inspire the Indians to rebel against their oppressor.

Though swift and well-armed, Emden was poorly protected. But it was her appearance that worried the Germans the most. Unlike the British ships with two or four funnels, Emden had three. The enemy would recognise her from miles away. A brilliant idea struck Müller’s second-in-command, First Lieutenant Hellmuth von Mücke; he simply rigged up a counterfeit funnel with sailcloth and wooden laths.

With Emden’s identity now camouflaged, the Germans were ready to cause trouble. They found their first victim on September 10. On the Colombo-Calcutta route, Emden intercepted a Greek steamer, Pontoporros, which was carrying coal for the British, a much-needed commodity for Emden’s own survival. The very next day, the Germans plundered and scuttled Indus, which was transporting provisions from Calcutta to Bombay for British troops. Later that day, a troopship, Lovat, also ended up at the bottom of the sea. Over the next few days, Killin, Diplomat, Trabbock, and Clan Matheson all met their doom.

With its fourth dummy funnel, the German raider looked exactly like the British cruiser Yarmouth. The crews of the intercepted ships were often left puzzled. Müller’s men were also exceptionally efficient. They would not give the victims any chance to use their wireless. ‘In this way,’ wrote Mücke, they ‘cleaned up the whole region from Ceylon to Calcutta’.

Put to rest

What happened next was an anomaly in naval history. On September 12, Müller captured an English ship, Kabinga, but released it two days later. The gesture was gallant albeit hugely risky. But Müller was no ordinary commander. He was fighting a big war, but with a big heart.

23SMCOVER3

At just 18, Müller had joined the German Navy as a midshipman, and had quickly risen through the ranks to become Emden’s commander by 1913. He proved to be a gentleman, even during war: he resolved to disrupt the enemy’s shipping, but without bloodshed. While the intercepted vessels were destroyed ruthlessly, crew and passengers were treated with kindness. Around 400 people aboard the Kabinga soon reached Calcutta safely.

Although Emden’s hunting grounds in the Bay of Bengal were not far from Indian shores, the British remained completely ignorant of her depredations until around 2 p.m. on September 14.

A day earlier, Müller had intercepted Loredano. Being a ship from a neutral country, Italy, he had let her go. Loredano, however, broke her code of neutrality and reported Emden to a British steamer. The British immediately ceased all shipping activities in the Bay of Bengal. Emden shifted course and drifted towards Rangoon, but in vain. Meanwhile, Vice-Admiral Martyn Jerram dispatched Hampshire, Chikuma, Yarmouth, Minotaur, and Ibuki to hunt Emden down. With several Allied warships now frantically combing the sea, Emden was in peril.

Madras bombarded

The evening of September 22 was like any other in Madras. What the city didn’t know as she made ready to sleep was that her brightly shining lights and well-lit buoys were guiding a raider towards the shore. Some 3,000 yards away from the pier-heads, Emden turned on her searchlights. Painted white, with a stripe of red, Burmah Company’s oil tanks were well within range. Then: ‘A couple of shells sent in that direction, a quick upleaping of tongues of bluish-yellow flame, streams of liquid fire pouring out through the holes made by our shots, an enormous black cloud of dense smoke... we had sent several millions worth of the enemy’s property up into the air,’ described Emden’s First Lieutenant.

Around 130 rounds were fired. Five oil tanks were hit, two went up in the flames. Several shots destroyed a steamer in the harbour; others caused minor damage in the city. Madras reeled. Thousands fled in fear, leading to lawlessness and looting. Shipping operations in the Bay of Bengal ceased. Trade was paralysed. The prices of essential commodities shot up.

23SMEMDEN2

Emden had by now became an overnight sensation. By bombarding Madras, Müller had not intended to harm the Indian people but wanted to spread panic in the city and humiliate the British. It was the first (and only) time an Indian territory experienced the horrors of World War I. Soon, the word ‘emden’ would enter the lexicons of both Tamil (emden) and Malayalam (yamandan) to signify a range of meanings — ‘strict and authoritative’, ‘daring and capable’, ‘huge and powerful’, ‘manipulative and crafty’. Songs would be composed about Emden’s exploits, and older people would use the legend to frighten young children.

Penang harbour

Leaving Madras behind in smoke, Emden steamed southward to the Colombo-Penang-Singapore and the Aden-Colombo routes. She intercepted King Lud, Tymeric, and Gryfevale on September 25. Then Ribera and Foyle were sunk. The capture of Buresk, which was carrying 6,660 tonnes of high-grade Welsh coal, was nothing less than a lifeline for Emden. Müller released Gryfevale, which took the captured crew and passengers to Colombo.

By now, Emden had been cruising for two months, and she badly needed overhauling. Regular coaling in the open sea had fatigued the crew, who needed rest. On October 9, Emden called at Diego Garcia, a British island in the central Indian Ocean, where an enthused old man welcomed the ‘German cousins’ with vegetables and fresh eggs — the news of the war had not yet reached this remote island. After repair and refuelling, Emden left the following day, and continued her forays in the Minicoy area. Clan Grant, Ponrabbel, Benmohr, and St. Egbert fell to Müller’s hands, followed by Exford, Chilkana, and Troilus. The passengers and crew aboard St. Egbert, in fact, landed up in Cochin.

Müller’s dream had now become a British nightmare. They were losing money and reputation. Efforts were doubled to hunt down Emden. Several warships continuously combed the Indian Ocean, and the Germans had many narrow escapes.

In mid-October, Emden set course for the Nicobar archipelago, and reached Nancowry Island on October 26, but seeing a British flag there, steamed further ahead. Two days later, Müller stunned the world by pulling a daring attack on the Penang harbour, where he torpedoed and destroyed Zhemchug (a Russian cruiser) and Mousquet (a French destroyer). There was an exchange of fire, but Emden vanished unharmed.

The nemesis

Emboldened by his success in Penang, Müller headed to the Cocos Islands, approximately midway between Australia and Sri Lanka. On November 9, around 6 a.m., he stopped at Port Refuge. A party of 46 men landed ashore under Mücke’s command to destroy the wireless station on Direction Island and cut communication between Britain and Australia. The island’s wireless operators did manage to send out a message — ‘Unidentified ship off entrance’, but their second message, ‘Emden here’, was stopped by the Germans.

When the Emden crew intercepted an unknown warship calling the island, Müller did some quick calculations and figured that they had plenty of time to accomplish their mission. At 9 a.m., however, the sudden appearance of a cloud in the north took everyone by surprise. About half an hour later, they discovered a warship approaching. Sydney, an Australian cruiser, which had been escorting a convoy of troops to Colombo, had changed course for Direction Island after picking up that first wireless message sent from the island that morning.

Müller had made a fatal miscalculation. He had thought the unknown warship was 250 nautical miles away when she was actually just 52 nautical miles away. Mücke’s landing party had accomplished its task, but it was now too late to leave the island. Emden’s face-off with her nemesis was imminent. Sydney came closer. Emden fired the first shot and scored two hits, but soon the Australian cruiser’s heavy calibre weapons opened up. The German cruiser was torn apart in no time.

Rare courage

Despite heavy casualties and destruction, Müller showed rare courage. He tried to come closer to Sydney to bring her within Emden’s torpedo firing range, but the Australian cruiser maintained a safe distance and kept scoring hits.

Emden, a spent force, now had only one option. Müller voluntarily wrecked her off North Keeling Island and saved his remaining men. Emden had lost 134 men and had 65 wounded. For Müller, it was the death of a dream and he contemplated suicide, but finally chose prison. ‘I realised that my duty was to care for the remainder of the crew — and my death would have been of no use to my country,’ he would write later in a letter. Mücke and his men, who had haplessly witnessed Emden’s destruction from Direction Island, hijacked a rickety schooner, Ayesha, and somehow made it to Germany. After years in a prisoner-of-war camp in England, Müller was finally repatriated to Germany in October 1918, where he died in March 1923, aged 49.

In her short career as raider, Emden had intercepted 23 merchant and naval ships in two months. It was no mean feat. But it was her commander’s chivalry that touched scores of hearts, including that of his enemies. ‘Captain, officers and crew of Emden appear to be entitled to all the honours of war... should be permitted to retain swords’, telegraphed the Admiralty on November 11, 1914.

‘It is almost in our heart to regret that the Emden has been captured and destroyed. We certainly hope that commander Karl von Müller... has not been killed... he destroyed over 74,000 tons of shipping without the loss of a single life. There is not a survivor who does not speak well of this young German,’ wrote The Daily Telegraph. ‘We trust his life has been saved, for if he came to London he would receive a generous welcome,’ wrote The Times, saluting Müller for being a ‘brave and chivalrous foe’.

Rani’s role

23SMCOVER19

Another person had played a significant role in Emden’s capture. On the remote Nicobar Islands in the eastern Indian Ocean, a woman named Islon, the chief of Nancowry Island, had become a British ‘agent’ in the Nicobar. In October 1914, when Emden had touched down on Nancowry, Islon had welcomed her by hoisting a Union Jack. Müller had assumed that the island had a strong British presence and had steamed ahead to Penang. Islon had soon realised that she had welcomed a German warship, and she immediately dispatched a canoe to the nearest signal station to tip off the British. Islon’s intelligence proved crucial. Rear-Admiral Sir Arthur Rullion Rattray would later say: ‘It was she [Islon] who was responsible for our catching the Emden in 1914.’

The grateful British conferred on Islon the title of ‘Rani of Nancowry’, and she emerged as one of the tallest Nicobarese leaders. In 1947, when India became independent, the Rani proved to be a crucial bridge between a historically isolated community and a newly independent nation. The Indian government strengthened the unique political institution by declaring that if Rani Islon fell ill, her daughter Lachmi would carry on in her place. It was Rani Lachmi who ushered in an era of economic prosperity in Nicobar. She set up a cooperative society for the islanders and helped bring several basic amenities to the remote islands. Rani Lachmi passed away in 1989. Fatima now continues the legacy.

Islon, the first ‘Rani of Nancowry’, and Müller, ‘the last gentleman of war’, never met or exchanged a word. But they ended up altering each other’s worlds forever.

The writer is assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. He works with remote indigenous communities.

Other Slideshows

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

Related Topics
Recommended for you