SMS Emden: Terror of the Bay of Bengal

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    In colloquial Tamil, ‘amadan’ is someone who commits a ‘daring act’ or is ‘manipulative or cunning’. In Malayalam slang, ‘emadan’ or ‘yemandan’ refers to a ‘big and powerful thing’. Believe it or not but these colloquial Indian terms derive from a German warship, the SMS Emden, that ran amuck in the Indian Ocean during World War I, its crafty captain destroying enemy ships through deceit and trickery. Here’s its astonishing story.

    The Emden was a light cruiser belonging to the Imperial German Navy

    What makes the story of the Emden so fascinating is that from August 13, 1914, for three months, the German warship travelled 30,000 miles across the Indian Ocean, sinking or capturing 23 merchant ships and two warships, inflicting damage worth more that Rs 20 crore (remember, it was 1914), and bombing the Madras Harbour while being pursued by more than 80 Allied vessels including 14 warships. It even had a plan to liberate Indian revolutionaries from the Andaman Cellular Jail!

    The Emden was a light cruiser belonging to the Imperial German Navy. During the early 1900s, there was a virtual ‘naval arms race’ between the British and German empires, for control of the world’s seas. The warship, named after the town of Emden in Germany, was completed in 1909 and after launch was stationed at Tsingtao port in China, to protect German commercial interests there. It was under the command of Captain Karl von Muller. When World War I broke out in July 1914, the Emden was the only German warship present in China.

    Captain Muller was a brilliant strategist and he convinced the German high command that he could sink many Allied merchant ships in the Indian Ocean. This would force the Allies to divert warships to pursue the Emden, which would make it easy for the German Navy to launch attacks on Allied shipping lines.

    On 5th September 1914, the Emden sailed into the Bay of Bengal

    And this was his plan. Most German light cruisers could be distinguished by their three funnels, while the British ones had four. As camouflage, Captain Muller added a fourth, fake funnel to the Emden, so it could pass off as a British ship!

    On 5th September 1914, the Emden sailed into the Bay of Bengal. By 14th September, it had captured two ships and sunk six others. A month later, it had sunk 11 vessels. Captain Muller had begun to pull off his plan to perfection.

    But it wasn’t just the daring attacks of the Emden that caught the public’s imagination; Captain Muller’s chivalry left them aghast. Before sinking any Allied vessel, he would make sure the crew was treated well and allowed to evacuate safely. His humane approach earned him praise from even British newspapers!

    Its target was the six large tanks of the British-owned Burmah Oil Company

    Then, on the night of 22nd September 1914, the Emden launched its most courageous attack, one that would rattle the British authorities all the way to London. Despite 14 British ships desperately searching for it, the Emden quietly slipped into the Madras Harbour, and pointing its four massive guns at the port, unleashed its firepower.

    Its target was not the city but the six large tanks of the British-owned Burmah Oil Company. It mounted a massive attack, with one shell fired every 15 seconds – it fired around 125 shells, setting the tanks ablaze. Before the British guns in Madras could retaliate, the Emden had vanished into the seas.

    As Captain Muller would later write in his diary:

    I had this shelling in view simply as a demonstration to arouse interest among the Indian population, to disturb English commerce, to diminish English prestige.’

    The captain had achieved his objective. Madras city was in complete panic and the news had spread all over India. In London, Winston Churchill, as the First Lord of the Admiralty, was livid. Not only were Allied ships being sunk all across the Indian Ocean, the British were forced to drastically curtail mercantile shipping in the vicinity to prevent their vessels from being captured and destroyed. Churchill ordered an end to the Emden’s menace.

    But this only emboldened Captain Muller, who had even an more audacious plan to attack British prestige. Many years earlier, the German Consul General in Calcutta had visited the Andaman islands and reported on the politically volatile nature of the Cellular Jail, where Indian revolutionaries had been imprisoned.

    Captain Muller had planned to sail to the Andamans, and on 2nd October 1914, launch a commando raid on the Cellular Jail and free the revolutionaries. The idea was to foment a revolt in India. But on Churchill’s orders, larger and more powerful Allied warships had been sent in hot pursuit of the Emden, and Captain Muller was forced to abandon his plan. What would have happened if the German commando raid on the jail had gone through as planned? This will always remain a big ‘what if’ in Indian history.

    Next, the Emden set sail for Diego Garcia, a tiny tropical island in the middle of the Indian Ocean that had a small British base. The British personnel stationed here had still not received news of the war between Britain and Germany, and gave the Emden a warm welcome. They even helped the warship refuel and carry out repairs!

    Freshly prepped and battle-ready once again, the Emden set out on another mission, on 10th October 1914, and captured and destroyed many more Allied ships. On the night of 27th October, it launched an attack on the port of Penang in British Malay (now Malaysia) and inflicted heavy damage on Allied ships.

    But the chase was closing in. On 9th November 1914, the Emden was at Cocos Islands, just north of the Andamans. An Australian light cruiser, the HMAS Sydney, caught up with it and, after a short battle between the two warships known as the Battle of Cocos, the Germans were forced to surrender.

    The Emden was badly damaged and Captain Muller ran his ship aground to prevent it from sinking. This was the end of the Emden’s journey. Of its crew of 376, 133 died while the others along with Captain Muller were captured and imprisoned in Malta. In time, the wreck of the ship broke up and it sank.

    The exploits of the Emden would enter the popular imagination, not only in India but also in Australia. A number of movies were produced such as How We Beat The Emden in 1915 and The Exploits of the Emden in 1928. Also, the sinking of the German warship is considered to be the first victory of the Australian navy.

    Interestingly, the story of the Emden did not end with its sinking. Around 50 of its crew evaded capture, and through a Hollywood-style adventure through the jungles of Java, a reckless voyage across the Indian Ocean, encounters with armed nomads in Yemen, trekking through the deserts of Arabia and journeying across Turkey, they finally managed to reach Germany. Their incredible story has been commemorated in the 2012 German film Die Männer der Emden (The Men Of The Emden).

    In India, the only memory of the warship that unleashed a brief but ferocious reign of terror in the Indian Ocean is a couple of colloquial phrases that embody the spirit of its cunning helmsman.


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