On this day in 1914, in the first ever wartime action by an Australian warship, the cruiser Sydney sinks the German raider Emden in the Indian Ocean during the first autumn of World War I.
When World War I broke out in the summer of 1914, the Emden was part of Germany’s East Asiatic Squadron, commanded by Maxmilian von Spee. While the rest of the squadron set out for the coast of South America, Spee allowed the ship’s commander, Karl von Muller, to detach the ship from the rest of the squadron in order to effectively threaten British commerce where it was vulnerable, in the Indian Ocean. Beginning on September 10, the Emden wreaked havoc on Allied commercial interests in the Indian Ocean, raiding the towns of Madras and Penang and capturing over 20 unarmed merchant vessels. Muller’s crew also sank two warships, a Russian cruiser and a French destroyer.
On November 9, the Australian light cruiser Sydney surprised the Emden as the latter ship was raiding a British wireless communications station on the Cocos Islands. The attack killed 134 of the ship’s crew members, while Muller and the other survivors were taken prisoner by the British. British newspapers at the time praised Muller for his chivalry towards the crews and passengers of the captured vessels. “If all the Germans had fought as well as the captain of the Emden,” claimed The Times, “the German people would not today be reviled by the world.”
Despite the demise of the Emden on November 9, the exploits of its crew continued, as Muller had put a landing party ashore at nearby Direction Island. The group promptly seized a schooner and sailed to Yemen, crossing the Red Sea and braving Arab attacks on its way to Damascus and finally to Constantinople in May 1915.