SMS Emden Captain Von Muller & his exploits in WW I - 01

Oil tanks on fire, Madras German cruiser  Emden-22-09-1914,

SMS Emden, 9 November

Old timers of Madras (now Chennai) used to remember vividly WWI and how the city harbor area was suddenly bombarded in September 1914 by the German warship ''Emden'' commanded by Captain Von Muller, an efficient officer who never attacked civil lines anywhere during his service. In the history of war, seldom one runs into such a  ship captain whose aim was to fight enemy forces without brutality. This is a brief interesting story of the German ship's captain Von Muller, who was on war duty, with a big heart and without malice during the World War I.

German commander Von Muller, Emden battle

 The first world war happened to be a global war and the main theater was Europe. The unwanted war began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918 and in its wake more than 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians died. It was one of the deadliest conflicts in history, exacerbated by better technological and industrial sophistication, resulting in the change of definite political patterns as one will see  through the kaleidoscope after shaking it. The silly reason that sparked off a major conflict was the  assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, by Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo on  28 June, 1914. This caused the diplomatic crisis that soon developed into an international confrontation.
The WW I was also a testing ground for the European powers to showcase their prowess in advanced air, sea and military weaponry. The long-drawn seesaw war saw victories at some fronts and  also disgraceful defeat at various fronts led my two opposing alliances. At last, when the curtain came down on the last phase of  war scene, the Germans faced a humiliating defeat resulting in the rise of  Nazism  decades later.

Though  Germany was  thrashed  in WW I, its well-organized  navy played a key role in several places. and it ships were technically well advanced. Among the German ships,  SMS Emden was the most feared ship  at that time. It  had a length of 118 meters, a beam of 13.5 m (44 ft 3 in) and a draft of 5.53 m (18 ft 2 in) forward with a top speed of 23 knots  (about 43 kms/ hr )  and  could hold 400 sailors. Emden  could  carry up to 860 tonnes (850 long tons) of coal, which gave her a range of 3,760 nautical miles (6,960 km; 4,330 mi). Interestingly, she was the last German cruiser to use reciprocating engines with steam.  Emden's twelve coal-fired Marine-type water-tube boilers  were heated by burning coal.  This sophisticated cruiser Emden's name and notoriety was further enhanced by her last commanding officer, Korvettenkapitän Karl von Müller, a daring and enigmatic navy man.

No other battle  ship played a greater role in the war than 'Emden' which was nicknamed "Swan of the East" because of her graceful line under the command of Von Muller. The ship left Kiel on 12 April, 1910 toward open sea on her regular mission and it happened to be her  final duty at sea and never to be returned to Germany again. Upon hearing that Archduke Ferdinand of Austria had been assassinated by a Serbian, Von Muller sensed that a major conflict was in the offing and was mentally preparing to confront any eventuality. By the time he received the news of start of WWI  on 2 August 1914, he was already at sea having left Tsingtao, Germany's main naval base in northern China a few days earlier. 

Captain Von Muller's war duty had begun with the stopping of  Russian  mail ship carrying lots of terribly shaken up Indian women and the Russian ship was escorted to Tsingtao harbor. It was Emden's first catch. Upon Muller's proposal at a conference on the Pagan inland, Adm. Maximilian von Spee continued his duty east across the Pacific, while Muller himself took charge of raid  on Allied commerce in the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean was called  a "British lake" because of  large British presence in the surrounding ports. On 14 August 1914 Emden detached from the main fleet along with the collier Markomannia. In order to hoodwink the British, Muller jerrybuilt a dummy fourth smokestack on the ship’s superstructure to resemble the British cruiser HMS Yarmouth. On10 September, the Emden began her hunt in  the Indian Ocean and sunk numerous unescorted British ships and saw to it both the captains and captured passengers were treated well and safe.  By the time the British Admiralty, at last, came to know about the presence of the German ship on 14 September 1914, Emden had stopped the movement of ships on the busy  Colombo-Singapore route. It was simply a blockade of shipping operations in the  Indian Ocean by a solitary  German cruiser. It will tickle your nerves if you come to know that the captains of British merchant ships, seeing  Emden approach, would salute her, mistaking her for HMS Yarmouth. When watching the approaching enemy ships, Von Muller would fire the shot over the bow  to stop it and he never took revenge on the captains if they did not obey his orders.

Among Muller's  daring exploits with Emden, the one that he did off the coast of Madras on the night of 22 September 1914  was well planned and caught the British off guard. Stealthily when Emden approached the city of Madras, it was a festival time for the Hindus. Captain observed the coast quietly with the help of one Chempakaraman Pillai, an Indian doctor aboard the ship. He chose the target 3000 yards away and opened fire at 9.30 pm on several large oil tanks within the harbor  owned by the British-owned Burmah Oil Company and set them ablaze. The bombardment lasted till 10 pm. Just before British response from their shore batteries, Emden gave a slip and disappeared in the dark. Muller spared just 125 shell to scare the British, to whom it was a terrible embarrassment. The population of the entire city panicked, so were the British officers who never expected that a German warship would come this far in the Bay of Bengal and attack Madras.The German cruiser's attack  sent residents of Chennai  helter-skelter in fear  and for several months it was the talk of the town and the morale of the British admiralty sank to the bottom of the abyss.

Muller moved Emden towards Ceylon and off the coast of  Trincomalee took provisions for his crew. After sinking a few British ships between 25 and 29 September 1914, and silently moved over to the Maldives, without any interruption from the enemy ships. Anchored at Diego Garcia, he had the ship's keel, etc.,  and his weaponry overhauled for the next 10 days. Back to Laccadive Sea area, Muller bagged ten more Allied ships to his credit. During his raid on Penang, Malaya thirty-six French survivors from Mousquet were rescued by Emden, and when three men died of their injuries,  they were buried at sea with full honors. The other French men were sent to  a safer destination by Muller. In total 72 allied Naval ships were engaged by British and their associates to deal with one single German cruiser.

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Von Muller's winning spree, unfortunately, came to a dead end when he was confronted by the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney  in the Keeling Islands. Several Germans lost their lives, though Muller raised the surrender flag. On 8 November 1914, Müller along with the rest of his surviving crew, was captured and taken to Fort Verdala, Malta. Later Muller was taken to England, where he was interned at a prisoner of war camp for German officers located at the Midlands Agricultural and Dairy College (now the Sutton Bonington Campus of the University of Nottingham). In 1917, he made an abortive attempt to escape along with 21 POWs by tunneling. Upon contracting Malaria in England,  he was sent to the Netherlands for treatment, and subsequently to Germany in October 1918, a month before the armistice, he was repatriated to Germany.  With a single Battleship 'Emden'  Muller terrorized the British Admiralty without using neither violence nor intimidation and tried to avoid killing enemy soldiers. No doubt Von Muller was a brave and intelligent navy officer. That is the reason why he earned the compliment a chivalrous foe, of course, with a big heart. In the strict sense a Karma Yogi.