The SMS Emden was a cruiser in the German Imperial Navy. Her keel was laid in 1906 and the ship launched in 1908. After shakedown, she was commissioned in 1909. Her first and only posting was to the East Asia Squadron whose home port was the German concession in China at Tsingtao. She arrived on station in July 1910 meeting the rest of the fleet in German Samoa.
For the next four years, Emden took part in operations in the Pacific protecting German interests. She participated in Yangtze patrols and helped suppress rebellion in the Carolines. In August 1913 she thwarted an attack on her by Chinese revolutionaries while at Nanjing.
In May 1913, Lt. Commander Karl von Muller took over command of the Emden. He had spent his early career as a signal officer on ironclads and spent time in German East Africa on the SMS Schwalbe. He served on the staff of Admiral Prince Heinrich of Prussia and then with the Imperial Navy Office in Berlin. In that service he caught the attention of Admiral von Tirpitz who rewarded him with command of the Emden.
With the winds of war blowing throughout the summer of 1914, von Muller took Emden out to see at the end of July. Germany declared war on Russia on August 2 and Emden recorded her first victory by capturing a Russian vessel that had yet to hear the news that war had been declared.
Admiral von Spee determined that the East Asia Squadron was to return to Germany to assist in the European conflict by sailing around South America. (Most of it would be destroyed at the Battle of the Falklands). Von Muller suggested that one cruiser remain to keep a threat in the area. Emden was the fastest of the German ships so she headed for the Indian Ocean while the remainder of the fleet went southeast across the Pacific.
Emden wreaked havoc in the eastern Indian Ocean as a commerce raider. Between August and November she sank 30 Allied vessels and attacked Madras and Penang. Shipping traffic dropped by over 60% in the region as a result. She was partly aided by deception and the slow pace of communications. The Germans installed a dummy smoke stack to disguise Emden as a British vessel and when she put into Diego Garcia for maintenance the British garrison had still not received word that the war had begun over a month earlier!
On November 9, von Muller turned the ship’s attention to the wireless station on Cocos Island. Arriving early in the morning and seeing no Allied vessels in the region, von Muller put a landing party on shore to take care of the transmitter. Emden was spotted and when she failed to identify herself the wireless station broadcast that an unidentified vessel was approaching.
Answering the call was HMAS Sydney. von Muller believed Sydney was 200 miles furtjer away than she was and thought there was enough time for the landing party to complete its mission. At 0900 lookouts on Emden spotted smoke in the distance and identified it as a warship. Knowing that he was probably outgunned and definitely outnumbered, von Muller knew it was time to escape. There was no time to retrieve the shore party.
Sydney closed to 9,500 yards and began to shadow Emden’s moves. von Muller knew his only chance was to come within Sydney’s range and fire all he could at the Australian vessel and hope to inflict as much damage as possible before Sydney could find her range. The German volleys had little effect. von Muller tried four times to approach to within torpedo distance but Sydney backed away every time.
It did not take long for Sydney’s guns to zero in on Emden and by 1045 Emden was no longer able to return fire. von Muller ran the remains of his ship onto the reef off Cocos Island to prevent its sinking and to save the crew. Emden’s weapons were disabled and the code books burned. The German casualties were heavy — 134 dead, 69 wounded. Most of the survivors were taken prisoner.
The landing party observed the naval battle and knew there would be no rescue. They commandeered the three masted schooner Ayesha and headed for the Dutch East Indies (the Netherlands was still neutral). The landing party eventually made its way to the Ottoman controlled Arabian Peninsula and back to Germany.
It would not be until November 11 before the Sydney and her crew could board the remains of the Emden. Although the weapons and code books were destroyed, the Australians did find one thing of use still on the ship. Emden’s payroll consisting of some 3,000 Mexican silver dollars were seized. The Australian Admiralty turned some of these into souvenirs by affixing a commemorative broach and presented them to senior officials.
At least one German also made a souvenir out of a Mexican Peso inscribing the piece shown above with the legend “Von Bord S.M.S. Emden 9 Novbr 1914 Riff Nord Keeling”.
German naval vessels issued tokens for use in their canteens. The above set of tokens were from the SMS Emden. Most of the SMS Emden tokens in the collector’s market were looted from the ship by the crew of the HMAS Sydney.