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Story of ‘Emden’ told by collectibles

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By Kerry Rodgers

The story of the German World War I raider ship SMS Emden is one that inspires awe even a century after it occurred. It has been told many times.

Thanks to a collection sold May 13, 2015, by the London auction house of Dix Noonan Webb, a new generation of collectors can come to appreciate the ship’s exploits.

For both Germany and Australia the Emden held considerable significance in the first months of WWI. For Germans it represented one of the few early war success stories of the Kaiserliche Marine, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s expensively built up navy. For Australians, it was the very first victory of their fledgling navy.

Both countries produced medals that told parts of the Emden story. Given that the 25 lots sold included those of both German and Australian origin, together they provided an excellent example of the use of medallic art as a propaganda tool in WWI.

Brass and zinc canteen tokens used on board “SMS Emden” before and during her raiding exploits. Two series of tokens exist: those showing SMS EMDEN and those showing KREUZER EMDEN. Images courtesy Dix Noonan Webb. (5 denomination on Page 31)

Brass and zinc canteen tokens used on board “SMS Emden” before and during her raiding exploits. Two series of tokens exist: those showing SMS EMDEN and those showing KREUZER EMDEN. Images courtesy Dix Noonan Webb. (5 denomination on Page 31)


SMS Emden was the second and last Dresden class light cruiser built for Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial German Navy). She was launched in May 1908 and completed in July 1909. She displaced 4,268 tons and came armed with ten 10.5 centimeter (4.1 inch) guns and two torpedo tubes.

At the outbreak of WWI she was part of Germany’s East Asiatic Squadron based in Tsingtao, China. Her commander was Captain Karl von Müller.

Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo June 28, 1914, Müller put to sea. He assumed war was inevitable and wanted to commerce raiding immediately after a formal declaration was made. One day after Germany declared war on Russia, the Emden captured the Russian steamer Ryazan. Müller sent the Russian vessel back to Tsingtao where she was converted into the auxiliary cruiser Cormoran.

When the commander of the East Asiatic Squadron, Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee, learned Japan was considering entering the war on the Allied side, he ordered Müller to join him in the Mariana Islands. Spee’s intention was to take his entire squadron to South America and then make a dash for Germany. Müller, however, requested that the Emden be detached and allowed to undertake raiding operations in the Indian Ocean. Spee agreed.

Raider at large

On Aug. 14, 1914, Emden sailed for the shipping lanes in the northern Indian Ocean intending to pass through the Molucca and Banda Seas. The ship’s crew had rigged her with a dummy funnel to give her the profile of a British vessel.

Learning a British armored cruiser lay ahead on his intended route Müller sailed up the coast of Sumatra and entered the Bay of Bengal on Sept. 5. His arrival would come as a total surprise to the British who believed him to be still with Spee’s squadron.

His first success was the capture of a Greek collier carrying equipment for the British. Müller took the ship into his service and agreed to pay the crew. Over ensuing weeks five more ships were captured. Of these four were sunk and the fifth used to carry the crews from the other vessels.

When Müller learned from a Norwegian merchantman that Allied warships were operating in the area he upped-stakes and headed to the eastern coast of India.

Shortly thereafter the crew of a released Italian freighter told the British of their encounter with Müller. This saw an immediate cessation of shipping in Bengal with two British cruisers and one Japanese detailed to search for Emden while two others patrolled likely coaling stations.

Madras shelled

In late September Müller decided to make a major propaganda statement and demonstrate his freedom of movement. He shelled Madras on the evening of Sept. 22.

He left oil tanks on fire and others damaged. The British promptly excluded all shipping from the Bay of Bengal. As a result Emden’s first month of raiding saw exports from eastern India decrease by 61 percent.

Photo of the SMS Emden at sea. Image courtesy of the German Federal Archives. Bundesarchiv, DVM 10 Bild-23-61-13 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Photo of the SMS Emden at sea. Image courtesy of the German Federal Archives. Bundesarchiv, DVM 10 Bild-23-61-13 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The news of Emden’s successes and their consequences struck a chord in the German homeland. The ships and its crew were acclaimed heroes. Among the many accolades was a raft of medallic issues.

For his part, Müller now assumed he had overstayed his welcome in Indian waters. He headed for western Ceylon. There he sank a pair of British merchantmen on Sept. 25 and subsequently captured a British collier packed with high grade coal. He promptly put a prize crew on board and used her to support subsequent operations.

After sinking two more British vessels Müller coaled-up at the Maldives and then headed to Diego Garcia for maintenance and a little rest and relaxation. Here the British garrison was blissfully unaware that Germany and Britain were at war. They welcomed the Emden warmly.

Two days later the ship was back to sea. By Oct. 20 she had captured six more vessels. Müller ordered four sunk and retained one for coaling. He sent the captured crews to a neutral port on the fifth.

Penang attacked

Müller proved elusive. He invariably turned up where least expected. On Oct. 27 he launched a surprise attack on Penang in British Malaya.

Emden approached the harbor entrance at 0300 in the wee hours of the morning with her dummy funnel rigged. The lookouts spotted the Russian cruiser Zhemchug in port. Emden pulled alongside fired one torpedo and then opened-fire with its 10.5 cm guns. A second torpedo caused a major explosion and the Russian vessel sank at its moorings. The toll was 81 Russian sailors killed and 129 wounded.

As Müller was leaving he spotted a British freighter loaded with ammunition. He was preparing to capture this ship when he noted he the approach of French destroyer Mousquet quite unprepared for attack. He quickly sent her to the bottom.

The Penang raid sent major shock waves through the Allies. It led them to delay sending large convoys from Australia until suitable escorts were available. But the German home front could not get enough of the gallant Emden and her daring captain. The medallic tributes of 1914 make this very clear.

Müller’s next move was to provide a diversion for the 16 warships from five Allied nations searching for him in the northern Indian Ocean. He set sail for the British coaling, wireless and transoceanic cable station in the Cocos Islands.

The Emden arrived off Direction Island in the Cocos early in the morning of Nov. 9. A well-armed landing party of 53 was immediately sent ashore under Kapitänleutnant Hellmuth von Mücke. Their task was to destroy the wireless and all installations concerned with the vital intercontinental communications cable.

Battle royal

For Müller the Cocos was to prove one bridge too far. The British had posted lookouts who were wide awake. They spotted the ship and its false funnel as it closed. Before the vessel could jam signals the Cocos wireless operator had gotten away one message, “Unidentified ship off entrance.” This did little to concern Müller. Monitoring of the Allied search vessels had told him they were at least 250 nautical miles distant.

Unfortunately for the Germans the signal was picked up by a new arrival in the area of which Müller was unaware, the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney providing an escort to a convoy of Anzac troops on their way to Egypt. She was just 52 nautical miles away and immediately steamed at top speed for the Cocos. Although Emden did pick up wireless messages from Sydney Müller still believed her to be much further north.

At 0900 hours Emden’s lookouts spotted a smoke cloud on the horizon. They first assumed it was the Emden’s collier but 30 minutes later knew it to be a major warship approaching at high speed. Von Mücke’s landing party was still ashore. There was no time for their recovery.

Sydney closed to 9,500 yards and turned to parallel the course of Emden. The German cruiser opened fire first. Müller’s hoped a rapid fire salvo might overwhelm Sydney given that her armament of 152 mm (6 inch) guns packed a far greater punch than those of Emden.

Much to the surprise of the Australians Emden scored direct hits at a far great range than Sydney believed her capable. However, the German was unable to inflict a disabling punch before the Australian cruiser replied with her powerful guns. Just 16 shells hit the Sydney and of these only five exploded.

Emden turned to get within torpedo range but before this could be achieved Sydney had her range and began inflicting serious damage. One of Emden’s forward guns was taken out along with her wireless compartment.

A second attempt to fire a torpedo saw Emden take direct hits on her steering gear and her guns’ range finders.

A third attempt, with Müller steering using just with his propellers, saw Sydney turn away and lob shells from a distance exploding ammunition near Emden’s starboard No. 4 gun.


Müller did not give up until his superstructure was shredded along with the rear two funnels and foremast. With Sydney maneuvering to keep out of torpedo range Müller decided to beach Emden on North Keeling Island to save the lives of his crew. He did so at 1115 hours.

Emden’s engines and boilers were flooded. Her breech blocks and torpedo aiming gear were thrown overboard. All signal books and secret papers were burned.

Sydney now diverted to capture the Emden’s collier. Her crew scuttled her as the Australian cruiser approached. When Sydney returned to the wreck to ask if Emden’s crew would surrender, the Germans were unable to reply so Sydney resumed shelling. White flags were then raised and the Australians ceased fire.

The 16 hits the Emden scored on Sydney killed three of her crew and wounded 13. For her part, Sydney scored 100 hits with Emden losing 133 out of a crew of 376.

The survivors, including Müller, was taken captive the following day. The wounded men were sent to Australia. The uninjured were initially interned in Malta and later in England. Among those taken prisoner was Oberleutnant zur See Franz Josef, second son of Prince Wilhelm of Hohenzollern.

Engraved Mexican peso from the SMS Emden.

Engraved Mexican peso from the SMS Emden.

Mexican silver

A search of Emden by the Australians turned up a prize cache of 6,429 silver Mexican pesos. This was Müller’s contingency fund he had used to buy supplies, pay for repairs or captured crew. Silver Mexican pesos and 8 reales were commonly used in German’s Tsingtao colony for trade with the Chinese. On board the crew used brass and zinc canteen tokens.

When the silver pesos arrived in Australia 1,000 were converted into unofficial medals by Sydney jeweler W. Kerr. In 1918 these were presented to Sydney’s Capt. John Glossop and to the officers and men who served at the time of the ship’s victory. Others went to staff on the Cocos Islands, the Admiralty, the Australian War Memorial and other museums. The remainder were sold to the public to defray costs. Of the unmounted coins 653 were distributed by the Department of Navy and 343 sold to the public. The remaining 4,433 were melted, the silver sold and the money used by the RAN Relief fund.

Emden’s short-lived three month raiding career had been most successful. It had covered 30,000 nautical miles, destroyed two Allied warships, and sank or captured 16 British ships and one Russian merchantman for a total of 70,825 tons. And she had put a major kink in the Allies all-important Indian export trade. Her activities have been described by historian George Odgers as … “one of the most daring careers of maritime destruction in naval history.”
Almost more importantly her propaganda value on the German home front had been incalculable. Medallic commemoratives continued to be produced enshrining her memory.

Müller was not so fortunate. He suffered badly from malaria and was eventually sent to The Netherlands for treatment, as part of a humanitarian exchange of prisoners. This would see him immortalized in bronze by the talented Danish sculptress Lotte Benter. Her portrait shows him weary and careworn.

A medal was done of von Müller in 1917 by Danish sculptress Lotte Benter.

A medal was done of von Müller in 1917 by Danish sculptress Lotte Benter.

A month before the armistice in October 1918 he was repatriated to Germany. There he was awarded Pour le Mérite (Blue Max) and received his long overdue promotion to Kapitän zur See.

In early 1919 he retired from the Navy, dying suddenly in 1923 probably a direct result of his frequent malarial bouts.

Remarkable von Mücke

The beaching of Emden had been observed by von Mücke’s team. He promptly ordered the seizure of the semi-derelict, 95 ton schooner, Ayesha. The experienced German sailors quickly had her seaworthy. After renaming her Emden II they upped anchor and sailed for Padang before Sydney returned from her fruitless pursuit of the collier.

On arrival in Sumatra a German freighter transported them to Yemen. There they made their way up the Red Sea, battling desert and armed Bedouins. They were rescued by the Emir of Mecca.

They were treated well but Mücke came to believe the Emir was holding them as political bargaining chips. Under cover of darkness the entire party decamped to sail north in two dhows. At Al Wajh they landed and marched to the German railhead of the Hejaz Railway. They arrived in May 1916. All 49 survivors then boarded a train to Constantinople.

They disembarked in good order with Mücke at their head, bearing their battle standard they had carried from Cocos. Coming to a halt before German Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, von Mücke lowered his sword and reported, “[The landing party of Emden: 5 officers, 7 petty officers and 30 men strong.]”

Von Mücke’s odyssey is one of the longest wartime escapes ever undertaken: over 6,800 miles by sea and land. All but five of his party made it home.

Although Kaiser Wilhelm II had abdicated in 1918 as German Emperor and King of Prussia, he had not relinquished his role as Head of the Royal House. As such he was still able to confer the Royal House Order and on Jan. 26, 1920, each of the surviving officers of Emden were awarded a Princely Hohenzollern Honor Cross commensurate with their rank while 13 petty officers and several ratings received the Princely Hohenzollern Gold Honor Medal with Swords and the Princely Hohenzollern Silver Merit Medal with Swords, respectively. All awards were made retroactive to May 19, 1918.

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News Express.
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