German Raider

THE BAND HAD PLAYED Watch on the Rhine as the sun rose on that 31 July , the sailors left behind cheered from the wharves, other men waved their hats and women cried as the Emden had pulled out of Tsingtao for what would be the last time. Her officers and crew had little time to reflect on the probability that they would never again see the shores of Tsingtao, nor eat cakes with coffee at the Cafe Metropol. That first evening at sea a Japanese mail steamer spotted the German ship and immediately radioed the presence of the cruiser as 'on course 135 degrees, approximately 190 miles from Tsingtao'. Course was immediately altered and speed improved. As he would for most of his last cruise aboard the Emden, Captain Karl von Műller spent most of his time on the bridge. Comfortable chairs had been placed there, where he could sleep between action or emergencies. He spent most of his waking hours studying charts. Below the bridge, lookouts were added during the hours of darkness, while gun and torpedo crews were always kept ready for action.

The Emden's extraordinary success - although short-lived - was due largely to this man. According to the accounts of officers aboard the ship, von Műller was regarded almost with reverence by his crew. Karl von Műller was retiring by nature, shy and withdrawn, which he had been since childhood. The son of a militia officer, he had risen from naval cadet and seen service on many ships, including the pre-dreadnought battleship Kaiser Wilhelm II where he served as gunnery officer in 1903. However, his progress through the ranks was slow and it was not until 1912, when he was nearly forty years old, that he was given the Emden, his first, and last, command.

The ship herself was a light cruiser designed, not to fight other warships, but to disrupt merchant shipping. She had ten 105-millimetre guns, which were sufficient to subdue anything other than an opposing cruiser; she could make nearly twenty-five knots, which allowed her to catch and overhaul any merchantman then afloat, and she could travel for 9,000 kilometres without re-coaling if she kept to a low speed. Among von Műller's officers was the extrovert Lauterbach, the debonair Prinz Franz Joseph of Hohenzollern (who was a nephew of the Kaiser and now second torpedo officer) and, as chief officer, Kapitanleutnant Hellmuth von Műcke. Von Műcke was a professional naval man, tall and slender with brown hair and blue eyes, who embodied all the attributes of the German military man. He was the most Anglophobic of the officers and persistently raged against the British. He had been commander of a destroyer in home waters before being assigned to the East Asiatic Squadron. While a strict disciplinarian, he was also a man of considerable intelligence and ability. After the Emden's end, he was to show both those attributes.

By 12 August, Emden reached her rendezvous point in the Caroline Islands. In an interview in 1917, von Műcke describes his ship as taking “up a berth near the flagship amidst the cheers of the squadron. All three ships (the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau presumably being the others) were busy coaling from colliers, and in their neighbourhood lay a large number of auxiliary vessels”. The following morning saw the squadron head for sea, in line ahead; at midday, von Spee signalled Emden to proceed independently. The previous day had seen von Műller suggest to his admiral that the ship be sent to the Indian Ocean.

After farewelling von Spee and his squadron, von Műller set course for Malayan waters, accompanied by the collier Markomannia. She tried to raise the German wireless station on Yap, but by this time the Hampshire, the Yarmouth and the Minotaur had shelled it out of action. So the two German ships headed for Angaur Island in the Palau group and the German phosphate operation where another collier was due to meet them and provide more fuel.

Instead, on 20 August, they met the Norddeutscher-Lloyd mail steamer Prinzess Alice carrying a number of soldiers, sailors and reservists. The mail ship had been heading for Manila and been diverted on von Műller's orders. Several of the sailors were transferred to the Emden along with supplies. Prinzess Alice was then ordered to follow the Emden to sea, but there was a fault with her boilers and von Műller despatched her to the Philippine port of Cebu. Next day, it was the turn of the antiquated light cruiser Geier to rendezvous with the Emden. This painfully slow and poorly armed gunboat had only been advised of the war's start two days earlier due to problems with its radio equipment.

Von Műller ordered her back to Angaur to try and locate two colliers which could then sail to meet the Emden, and she was then ordered to go on to Yap to try and defend it if the wireless station had been repaired. After that, she should try and catch up with von Spee's squadron. After a number of calls to find the colliers and after hearing that the Planet was already at Yap, the Geier's commander set his wallowing gunboat on course for Majuro Island in the Marshalls. The combination of poor coal, faulty boilers and a fouled bottom restricted her to seven knots. She was to reach the island two weeks after the squadron had left this part of the Pacific. The ship was then due to head for the United States for internment, but even though her collier took her in tow in order to save fuel, poor Geier was able to go only as far as Honolulu, and was interned there.

Meanwhile, the Emden had crossed the equator on 22 August passing through the Molucca Passage and was heading for Dutch Timor where she was due to meet a collier three days later. The collier did not keep the meeting, the Dutch observing neutrality and ordering it away before Emden arrived, so von Műller was forced to take nearly 500 tons of coal from the Markomannia, the refuelling having to take place off the coast of the Portuguese side of the island. The Dutch were particularly anxious to keep out of the war; they did not want to suffer Belgium's fate at the hands of the Germans. The captain of the Dutch warship Marten Harpertzoon Tromp received von Műller aboard where he imparted the news that he had ordered the collier away. 'I am sorry. You cannot coal here', he stated simply. After von Műller had returned to his ship, the Tromp escorted the Germans out of territorial waters. The Emden headed east, then cut back on to a westerly course once she was out of sight of the Dutch.

Meanwhile, von Műcke had had an idea – disguise. Every British ship would be on the lookout for the Emden and its three tell-tale funnels. British cruisers had four: three round and one oval. Overnight the Emden was transformed by the addition of a fourth “funnel“ made of canvas initially, then replaced with sail cloth on a lattice frame;  now, at least at a distance, she could be mistaken for the Yarmouth which was also in the area. It was painted grey and when necessary could spew chemically-produced smoke. 

The air was thick with the wireless traffic from British ships. The Hampshire, although von Műller did know of it at the time, was perilously close. The Germans meanwhile steamed up the coast of Java and Sumatra, keeping out of sight of the coast, crossing the equator again on 3 September and then moved into the Bay of Bengal.

The coal in the bunkers was getting low again. Von Műller had to find somewhere he could safely come alongside the Markomannia to transfer more coal. That place was Simalur, a small island in the lee of Sumatra now called Pulau Simeulucut, which she reached on 4 September. The Hampshire had been at the same spot the previous day. The bay was perfect for the Germans because it offered anchorages which could not been seen from the open sea. As usual, the coaling was backbreaking work, all 1000 tons of it. They began in the morning, but the men had to stop work as the day got hotter and hotter. They restarted later in the day and carried on until just before midnight, the job still unfinished. The men slept on deck that night; after the punishing heat of the coal holds, they could not face sleeping in airless cabins. The work began again at first light.

Once more, the Dutch found them out. The Dutch official aboard the Government vessel which had turned into the bay pointed out that they had already overstayed the twenty-four limit in Dutch waters. The Germans managed to stall by saying they needed two hours to raise steam. The Dutch benignly agreed to that extension taking advantage of the hospitality in the wardroom until the deadline arrived. Von Műller was anxious to avoid being bottled up in harbour, and so the two German ships steamed out to sea before the deadline expired. The exhausted crews, who had been looking forward to a rest once the coaling was done, had to turn to immediately and prepare their ships for sea. But now the Emden was at last in the Indian Ocean and ready for action.

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