The Last Battle of the SMS Emden

The Battle

On November 9, 1914, the German Light Cruiser SMS Emden under the command of Captain von Müller entered Port Refuge off Direction Island in the Cocos (Keeling) Group of Islands with the intention of destroying the British Cable and Wireless Station on the island.

cocos (keeling) islands

The Cable and Wireless Station was an important communication link. Submarine cables connected to Perth on the West coast of Australia, and also to Batavia and Mauritius.


At the time, Captain von Müller believed that British Warships were at least 250 miles away. (A British Convoy was, in fact, no more than 55 miles away).

von Müller
Captain von Müller

At 6.00 am a steam pinnace and two cutters under the command of Lieutenant von Mücke carrying 30 seaman, 15 technicians, and two wireless operators, left the Emden and headed for the shore.

By 6.30 am they had reached the shore and were met by nine members of the Cable and Wireless Station staff who offered no resistance.

They then set about destroying the installations, not before, however, the Cable and Wireless Station wireless operators had sent a message,

"SOS Strange ship in entrance"

At 9.15 am Captain von Müller recognised an impending problem. Smoke on the horizon which he thought to be from the Buresk,(a previously captured British collier used by the Emden for coaling), was in fact from the Royal Australian Navy cruiser HMAS Sydney under the command of Captain Glossop, who had responded to the SOS. The Emden's sirens were blown to alert the shore party to return to the Emden. The shore party embarked quickly in their vessels and made for the Emden, but were too late, and had to turn back to shore.

HMAS Sydney

Not wishing to be caught in the harbour, the Emden departed immediately and closed on the Sydney and at about 9.40 am at a range of about 9,000 yards opened fire. The Sydney was hit, four seaman were killed, others wounded and the automatic aiming devices of the Sydney put out of action.

The Sydney with her faster speed, six inch guns and greater range was able to get out of range of the Emden's guns, and over a period of the next hour and half, pounded the Emden with gunfire inflicting tremendous damage. The Emden tried to close with the Sydney to get in range and at one stage was able to do so, but her guns had been put out of action. At 10.40 am the Sydney fired a torpedo at the Emden, but it missed.

At 11.15 am, with much structural damage, guns and torpedo tubes out of action, two funnels demolished, the third at a crazy angle, fire, damage below the waterline and sinking, many wounded and dead seaman, Captain von Müller decided to run the Emden aground on North Keeling Island in an effort to save his wounded men and also to make the ship useless for the enemy.

SMS Emden aground on North Keeling Island

But the action was not over.

The Sydney left the scene immediately to pursue the Buresk. The Sydney returned at about 1.00 pm towing two boats from the Buresk and with the Buresk's crew.(The 'take-over' German crew of the Buresk had scuttled the ship when the Sydney caught up with her). If Captain Glossop had been uncertain as to the identity of the ship he had been fighting, he was certainly informed by the Buresk's crew that it was the Emden.

The Sydney then approached within about 4000 yards of the Emden and signalled the Emden,"Do you surrender? The Emden replied with flags, "No signal books" (the books had been thrown overboard when the Emden ran aground). The Sydney again signalled the Emden,"Do you surrender". This was not acknowledged. Another signal from the Sydney,"Have you received my signal?" No answer from the Emden. The Emden's Battle flag was still flying. Captain Glossop fired again on the Emden causing further damage and more loss of life. Eventually, the colours were cut down and a white flag waved. Thereafter the firing stopped.

The Sydney despatched a boat carrying some members of the German crew of the Buresk to go to the stricken Emden. The Sydney then headed for Direction Island to capture the German shore party. However, it was night time on arrival and the Sydney waited until the morning, but there was no sign of the Germans. They had escaped in the schooner Ayesha.

Captain Glossop borrowed a Doctor and two assistants from the Wireless station and proceeded as fast as possible to the Emden's aid.

The injured and uninjured crew of the Emden were taken on board the Sydney which set course for Columbo.

On 12 November, the slightly injured and some of the uninjured were transferred to the Empress of Russia.Forty nine wounded German sailors were sent to Hospital in Columbo, and after recovery were sent to Australia to prisoner-of-war camps.

The remaining prisoners on board the Empress of Russia were distributed among several Transports and were sent to prisoner-of-war camps in Malta.

Battle Map

The Cost in Lives
The Emden lost 134 killed and 65 wounded. The Sydney lost 4 killed and 12 wounded.

The Emden remained aground on North Keeling Island until 1960 when a Japanese scrap metal company salvaged the metal from the vessel. The remains have slipped back down the reef, where they now lie in 8 metres of water.

The Emden has been declared an historic shipwreck.

Following the Emden battle, the Sydney served in UK waters for the remainder of the war. Post war she returned to Australia and later became the flagship. She was scrapped in 1929.
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| Direction Island Revisited | Memorabilia and Photos
| Cable and Wireless Station | The Ayesha |

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