THE HARBOUR ON FIRE

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The story of a daring attack of Madras by a German Warship

On August 4, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. On the 30th of the same month the German light cruiser SMS (His Majesty’s Ship) Emden sneaked into the Bay of Bengal. The pride of the East Asia Squadron of the Imperial German Navy (Kaiserliche Marine), the lean and graceful 3600-ton vessel was named after the city of Emden and called the ‘Swan of the East’ by her sailors. Mounting ten 4.5-inch rapid fire guns plus two torpedo tubes and capable of a top speed of 25 knots she could outrun any merchant ship of the day. The combination of speed and firepower made her a lethal commerce raider. Commanded by Captain Karl Von Muller Emden’s singular mission was to terrorize British and Allied shipping. An innovative skipper, Muller had a fake funnel made of wood and canvas added to the genuine three the ship had so that she resembled the British ships which had four funnels; a deception which helped him close in on his prey without arousing suspicion. Many a British merchant ship taken in by the ruse – some even convinced it was the well-known British cruiser HMS Yarmouth which Emden closely resembled – would salute her, when to their utter horror she would fire a shot over their bow and signal ‘Stop at Once’ while running up the German naval ensign.

A lone marauder, Emden pulled off her first coup when on September 9, 1914 her crew boarded a 3400-ton British freighter and set off scuttling charges sending it to the bottom. Within the next six days from September 9 – 14 she captured two ships and sank six others. A month later the toll had risen to 11 vessels totaling some 50,000 tons of shipping (it would be double that number in another month). Insurance claims for merchant ships skyrocketed and no captain could venture out of the harbour. Through all this Von Muller came out a thoroughly chivalrous officer. He invariably had the crew of the ship evacuated before sinking it.

During the night of September 22 Emden quietly approached Madras that is Chennai now while some 14 British ships were desperately hunting for her; her target the giant oil storage tanks of Burmah Shell at the harbour and not shipping. Entering the port around 9 PM, while the city remained well-lit despite a mandated blackout, Muller illuminated six oil tanks with his search lights when he was 3000 yards from the pier and opened fire. In a matter of ten minutes he fired 130 rounds to hit two of the tanks setting them ablaze while exploding shells blew up another three, in all destroying 346,000 gallons of fuel, and pulled out stealthily before the shore batteries of Fort St. George could bring themselves into action. Some of the shots seemed to have been fired at random to create panic among the city’s population since shots were later found to have hit locations like the High Court which did not quite fall in the line of fire to the oil tanks. The shooting also resulted in some human casualties; 5 sailors killed and a couple of others injured when a merchant ship in the harbour was hit and sunk in a case of collateral damage; somewhat marring Muller’s reputation of compassion. The bombardment and the explosions as never before witnessed by the city terrified the population to no end and thousands of civilians fled in panic. It was a humiliating blow to the British morale that a single enemy cruiser could create such havoc and put the entire Indian Ocean shipping in utter jeopardy. Muller was to write later: “I had this shelling in view simply as a demonstration to arouse interest among the Indian population, to disturb English commerce and to diminish English prestige.”

Emden sailed southward down Ceylonese east coast and continued to attack merchant shipping off the island for more than a month after her raid on Madras. In late October she launched a surprise attack on Penang and sank the Russian cruiser Zhemchug and the French destroyer Mousquet in the battle that ensued. The cruiser’s luck however finally ran out when she came up against the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney on November 9 all of a sudden off Cocos Islands where he had landed a raiding party earlier to destroy British installations. In a stiff encounter the Australian ship which outgunned its adversary inflicted heavy damage on Emden forcing Muller to run her aground. The German losses in the battle were 131 killed and 65 wounded out of a crew of 376. Captain Von Muller and his surviving crew were taken prisoner. The fame of the German officer’s chivalry had spread so much that he was given a hero’s welcome at London when he was brought there in captivity. After a failed escape bid he was finally repatriated to Germany in 1918, a month before the armistice. Emden itself was damaged beyond repair by the waves and was eventually broken up for scrap in the 1950s.

The daredevilry of the Emden’s crew didn’t end with Cocos Islands. The raiding party of two officers and 44 sailors under Muller’s Executive Officer, Kapitanleutnant (First Lieutenant) Hellmuth Von Mucke, evaded capture, commandeered a 3-masted schooner and sailed to Padang in the Dutch East Indies from where they travelled to Yemen which was part of the Ottoman Empire, a German ally, to finally find their way home to Germany.

The Imperial German Government was to honour all Emden veterans by suffixing ‘Emden’ to their names. Over the years Emden’s legacy seems to have found its way into the colloquial vocabulary of most languages of South India and Sri Lanka. Malayalees traditionally describe anything big and mighty as ‘Emandan!’ In Madras that is Chennai now there remain tell-tale signs of the attack that made it the only metropolis in the country to come under fire in the two world wars. A plaque to the south-end of the eastern wall of the High Court announces the spot where it was hit by a shot from Emden. There was a similar plaque at Clive’s Battery at Royapuram which has since been demolished. A projectile that hit the Yacht Club at the harbour area is preserved in the anteroom of the club and so is a notice board that was damaged in the shelling. Some of the recovered projectiles are on display at Fort Museum.

An unfortunate victim of Emden’s exploits in the Indian Ocean was Henry H Engelbrecht, a Game Ranger at the Yala National Park in Ceylon. He was a POW of the Boer War interned in Ceylon after the British victory in 1902 who continued to live in the country after his release because he refused to swear allegiance to the British Crown, a prerequisite for him to return home to South Africa. A man of Dutch-German descend like all Boers he was suspected by the British of helping Emden with supplies while it traversed Ceylonese Waters and arrested. Held in Kandy Detention Barracks he had to spend three months in the darkness of his cell stark naked since, pleading innocent, he refused to wear prison clothes and the warden couldn’t violate the rules and let him wear his own. Released after three months for lack of evidence, he found all his belongings left behind at the time of his arrest at Hambantota where he was living stolen or missing. A broken man, he died not long thereafter. 17 years later, in 1931, Captain Withoeft, former Second-in-Command of Emden sailed into Colombo on board another German Navy ship. Questioned about Engelbrecht’s involvement the officer stated with absolute certainty that Emden never received any supplies from Ceylonese shores and had the least connection with Ceylon. Too late a vindication for Engelbretcht.

Capt. D P Ramachandran
Capt D P Ramachandran is a war veteran & military history enthusiast who writes about Indian Army’s battles of the past. He can be reached at captdpr@gmail.com
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