As the final chapter in this story played out the Australian convoy with its powerful escort approached the area with the utmost precaution.

[see part onepart twopart threepart five for the entire history of its exploits and sinking by HMAS Sydney] … Nor was the precaution excessive. In spite of the escort a surprise attack by the Emden at night would have done untold harm among the convoy.

In the words of one of the Emden’s officers … we should have got in among the transports from astern, and slipped into the first division astern of the third and fourth ship, then we should have done all possible damage with our guns and torpedoes, and we should certainly have sunk half a dozen ships, probably twelve, before your escort could have come up and stopped us. Of course this was mere conjecture on the part of the officer.

But even so it is difficult to put limits to the ravaging that could be done at night among a number of defenceless transports by a single audacious cruiser, which could fire indiscriminately-since all other vessels would be enemies while their escort must continually be considering the danger of sinking a transport by mistake. But the Emden’s luck had finally turned and she never dreamed the convoy was there. She knew of its existence, but perhaps a little over-valuing herself imagined that it would make straight across the Indian Ocean in more southern latitudes, if by any chance it dared make for Aden at all. Although the Emden was jamming British wireless signals, the station on the island managed to transmit a message stating that a strange warship was approaching, and a few minutes later repeated this with the prefix S.O.S. At the same time the telegraph operator cabled to Australia that a three funnelled warship was off the island, and was landing a party in boats.

Ships on the convoy also picked up the Emden’s order to her collier the Buresk to join her at Port Refuge in the Cocos group. Von Muller, never dreaming an enemy ship was near, thought it a good chance of coaling in calm water, but several operators in the convoy recognised the message as coming from the Emden. The Sydney, the warship nearest the island (52 nautical miles away), was given the order to raise steam for full speed and run down to the Cocos. By 7 am the Sydney was away, doing twenty knots.

At 9.15 she sighted the island and the enemy cruiser simultaneously although she could not tell whether the ship was the Emden or the Konigsberg as both were supposed to be at large in the Indian Ocean at that time.



SS Emden aground on reef, from a photo-mechanical print in A Jose, The Royal Australian Navy 1914-1918, Angus and Robertson, 1933

SS Emden aground on reef, from a photo-mechanical print in A Jose, The Royal Australian Navy 1914-1918, Angus and Robertson, 1933

The Sydney knew she had the speed of either, and so slowed down to complete her preparations for the fight. At about the same time Muller sighted her, he had seen her smoke on the horizon for some time before, hut thought it was that of the Buresk. When, however, the signaller reported a four-funnelled ship, he knew her for a British cruiser-but, believing the Australian ships to be many miles off to the south-west, took her for the Newcastle or a sister-ship, nearer his own size and age. Consequently he decided to fight rather than run. After warning the landing party (for which he could not wait) she steamed out to sea so as to have manoeuvring room for the ensuing battle. It is difficult to image the following events without some background on how naval battles were conducted at this time. Instead of a compact huddle of ships shrouded in battle-smoke the realities of single-ship engagement between the fast cruisers of this period allowed each the utmost freedom to manoeuvre, and the movements of each was frequently obscured from the other by drifting smoke from their coal powered engines.

It must also be remembered that during this engagement the combatants while nearly six miles apart that during actual fight were never closer than three miles; and that even at the last, when the Emden was grounded ashore and the Sydney stood in to compel her to lower her flag, they were separated by a good deal more than two miles. So we must picture the Sydney, just before the fight begins, as rushing along at her full twenty-five knots through a calm sea towards a just visible Emden seven or eight miles off. Captain Glossop at the compass on the fore-bridge, his navigating lieutenant lying on top of the conning tower; his gunnery-lieutenant close by, ready to “ spot ” with his binoculars the fall of shot: the paymaster on deck, sitting on the ship’s box of confidential papers and ready to throw them overboard if anything went wrong with the Sydney; every other officer and man at his fighting station, and then, as the two ships closed (a mile nearer every minute), the Emden’s first salvo dropping out of the sky: for she was firing at extreme range, using the then exceptionally high elevation of thirty degrees which could be given to German guns. That first salvo was excellently ranged along an extended line, but every shot fell within two hundred yards of the Sydney.
The next was closer still, and for ten minutes the Sydney moved through a hail of shell, though, just because of the narrow target she presented to shell arriving from so high an angle, only fifteen hits were actually made on her, and of those only five burst. It was during these early minutes that all her casualties occurred. A closely-bunched salvo hit the after-control platform, and wounded all engaged there. Almost simultaneously a shell hit the range-finder on the fore-upper bridge, killing the operator and wrecking the instrument; if it had burst, it would probably have killed Captain Glossop and two more officers, but it passed harmlessly on through the screen and over the side. Other shells, bursting inboard, killed or wounded some of the crews of guns on the disengaged side, and set fire to some cordite charges lying near those guns; this fire was quickly and pluckily extinguished. A shell pierced the forecastle deck and exploded in the mess-deck caused some inconvenience, but no loss of life. In contrast the Sydney’s fire was not at first so effective. On the run across to meet the Germans Glossop, decided in consultation with his gunnery officer, to open fire at about 9,500 yards and to fight the main action at a slightly lesser range. The Emden’s unexpected opening at 10,500 yards made it sound policy to get in some salvoes earlier than had been intended but the first salvo went over the Emden, the second fell short and wide, and the third produced only two hits only.
The German ship, on the other hand, knowing that her only chance of victory was to get in as many damaging hits as she could before she was herself battered, did her utmost in the way of rapid firing. To this end it is claimed she fired at this time a salvo every six seconds, having three shells in the air at once. As the Sydney turned slightly away in order to maintain the fight at her own range, the Emden found herself falling behind, and veered to starboard to get astern of her opponent, and thus obtain a chance of raking her before it was too late. As she did so, the Sydney made a corresponding turn to port and took full advantage of her superior speed and strength. Her shells smashed the wireless installation, wrecked the steering-gear, shot away both range-finders and cut through the voice-pipes by which communication was maintained between the conning tower and the guns. Soon the forward funnel went over the side, then the foremast, carrying with it the primary fire-control station and incidentally wrecking the fore-bridge. Glossop had by then swung round to bring his broadside to bear at that range, and had lust ordered a trial salvo, when the Emden’s first shells flew over him. Then a shell fell into the after-ammunition-room, which had to be flooded promptly to prevent a disastrous explosion. From this time onwards smoke repeatedly interfered with the opponents clear vision of each other. The Sydney’s fire for various reasons was a little ragged, both range-finders were out of action, and it was not possible to bring all the guns of a broadside to bear at once on the enemy. Instead the Sydney focussed on independent firing supplied as nearly as possible with the correct range. The Emden had turned again on a course parallel to that of her enemy; but the damage she had taken rendered her so obviously ineffective that Glossop had no qualms about letting her close to half her original distance, and even slowed down and turned towards her. When about three miles apart (5,500 yards) the Sydney discharged a torpedo and immediately increased speed before turning sharply to bring into action a battery which had up till then been out of action. Even now Mueller did not abandon the fight and conforming to the Sydney’s movement, he also turned to starboard and struggled on, though not a shot of his had reached its mark since the first fifteen minutes. His second funnel had gone, his engine-room was afire, half his crew mas disabled, and he had no reserves, they had been used for the landing party. and were still on Cocos Island.
As his third funnel funnel failed Muller found himself some three miles nearer land than his opponent and gave the order to run the Emden aground on the reef surrounding North Keeling Island. When Glossop saw her making straight for the reef, he swung in to less than a three-mile range, put in two more salvoes to make sure she could do no more harm, and then left her safe aground and went off to catch the Buresk, which had for some time been hovering on the outskirts of the action. Given the success of the engagement it is important to note that the majority of her crew were, at this early stage in the life in the Australian Navy, lent by the Admiralty from the Royal Navy. But quite a large proportion of the crew were Australians, described by Glossop as …young hands and men under training … and their conduct in their first fight was beyond praise. About 60 were from the Australian training ship Tingiraii, thirty being ‘boys’ of whom T. Williams​​ and Stevenson were wounded. According to Captain Glossop two 16 year olds, A. Colless (Northbridge, NSW) and J. W. Ryan (Ballarat, Victoria) who arrived only a few weeks prior to the battle were … perfectly splendid. One little slip of a boy did not turn a hair, and worked splendidly.
The other boy, a very sturdy youngster, carried projectiles from the hoist to his gun throughout the action without so much as thinking of cover. iii Another boy, Roy M. Millar (Elsternwick, Victoria) was acting as ‘telescope number’ at the upper bridge range-finder, when its pedestal was severed by a German shell which took off the operator’s leg and threw Millar to the deck with the instrument on top of him. He got up (writes an officer), shook himself, remarked ‘Where’s my bloody telescope?’, which he proceeded to unscrew from the instrument, and looked out for torpedo tracks.iv Also praised for their work during the engagement were the … sweating engineers, artificers, and stokers hidden far below. At no moment during the whole action did the engines fail to give Glossop the speed for which he asked. His success and his very slight losses sprang entirely from his speed, which, when required, exceeded the twenty-five knots for which his engines were designed.
The next installment of this story – ‘the aftermath of the engagement’ – will be published on 10 November Note: The NFSA is marking the centenary of the HMAS Sydney defeating the SMS Emden with the publication of the 1931 silent film Sea Raider. see it here
by-saCompiled from Charles Bean’s, History of World War One, Volume 9, by Geoff Barker, Collections and Research Services Coordinator, Parramatta Council Heritage Centre, 2014
References i ii iii Able Seaman A. Colleas (No. 2938, R.A.N.). Of Northbridge, N.S.W.; b. I6 Leading Telegraphist 5. W. Ryan (No. 3293, R.A.N.). Of Ballarat, Vic.; Able Seaman R. hi. hllllar (No 2323. R.A.N.). Of Elsternwick. Vic.; b. Sydney, 19 Oct., 189:. Ballarat. z Oct., 1898. Perth. W. Aust., 14 June, 1898. iv Appendix 17