World War I was only a few days old when the German light cruiser SMS Emden, patrolling off the Korean Peninsula, spotted its first target. Shortly after 4 am on August 4, 1914, lookouts spotted what they believed to be the Russian cruiser Askold. The Emden’s crew readied for action. The Russian vessel fled before it, prompting Emden’s crew to fire a series of warning shots. The vessel slowed after the tenth round and stopped after two more.
A boarding party from the Emden discovered that it had not overtaken the cruiser Askold, but instead the 3,500-ton Russian merchant vessel Ryazan. The vessel, which had 80 passengers, had no cargo aboard that would make it a valuable prize. But Captain Karl von Muller, the commander of the Emden, decided to bring the large, fast ship to the German naval base at Tsingtao, China, for conversion into an armed merchant cruiser.
The boarders took control of the vessel and ran up the German flag. The two ships arrived in China on August 6. By the end of the month Ryazan would leave port, renamed the Cormoran and under German control. It was the German Navy’s first prize of the war, and it marked the beginning of an amazing record for the Emden.
Although the U-boat is often seen as the star of the German Navy during the Great War, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s small force of ships scattered around the globe also gave good service. Some were warships built for specific purposes, and others were converted merchantmen. They had one thing in common, though. They all raided enemy shipping and tied up large numbers of Allied ships dedicated to hunting them. Of all Germany’s raiders, none had a career as bold as the Emden.
In the early 20th century Germany controlled a small overseas empire and found itself in growing competition with other European powers, chief among them the United Kingdom. The German East Asiatic Squadron was based at Tsingtao and represented the bulk of German naval strength in the Pacific. The force was commanded by Konteradmiral Maximillian von Spee and included a number of cruisers and smaller vessels along with auxiliary vessels to carry coal, which was the lifeblood of warships during this period. Coal gave ships a great advantage in speed and maneuverability, but their endurance was limited by what they could carry in their bunkers.
Among von Spee’s force was the Emden. The SMS that preceded the light cruiser’s name was the German acronym for “His Majesty’s Ship.” She was built in 1908 in Danzig on the Baltic Sea. Weighing in at 3,593 tons, Emden was 387 feet long with a beam of 43 feet. The cruiser was armed with 10 10.5cm cannons along with nine 5-pounders, four machine guns, and two torpedo tubes. Her steam engines provided 13,500 horsepower for a top speed of 24 knots. The 790 tons of coal she could carry gave her a range of 1,850 miles at 20 knots or 3,790 miles at 12 knots. Maximum armor thickness was four inches.
Korvettenkapitan Karl von Muller initially commanded the Emden. Born in 1873, he was the son of a Prussian Army officer. When the war began he had 23 years of service in the German Navy and was known as a quiet, competent officer who had the respect of his crew. His second in command was Kapitanleutnant Helmuth von Mucke, who was born in 1881 and also was the son of an Army officer. Mucke had served 14 years and was an extroverted officer who had the crew’s undying admiration. His skills complemented those of von Muller.
Emden had two other notable officers. The first was Leutnant zur See Franz Joseph, a nephew of Kaiser Wilhelm. He served as the ship’s torpedo officer. The other was Kapitanleutnant Julius Lauterbach, a reservist who had only recently joined the crew. Lauterbach had long plied the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans as an officer of the Hamburg-Amerika Line and had extensive knowledge of the region, the ships that serviced it, and the type of men who served as crew on those ships. Both von Mucke and Lauterbach would prove invaluable during Emden’s service as a commerce raider.
On the war’s eve Emden was in port at Tsingtao. In June the British cruiser Minotaur paid a visit. The Emden’s crew helped host the event, which included balls, banquets, and an athletic event. The Germans won at gymnastics and the high jump while the British crew triumphed in the soccer match. Sailors from both countries got along so well that upon the Minotaur’s departure there were numerous protestations that the two nations would surely never fight one another. In the months preceding the war, many of the crew rotated home with the arrival of new replacements. Having new crew to train kept the officers busy.
By the end of July 1914, war was imminent. Admiral von Spee was concerned about his ships becoming trapped at Tsingtao when war broke out. Japan was expected to join the Anglo-French alliance, and it had a substantial fleet nearby. To prevent the loss of his maneuver force von Spee took his fleet to sea on July 31 and soon after dispersed it. It was during this time Emden’s crew captured the Ryazan. After delivering that ship to Tsingtao for conversion to an armed merchant cruiser, Emden rejoined the fleet at Pagan in the Marianas Island chain on August 12.
The admiral commanded two armored cruisers, four light cruisers (one of which was the Emden), and a number of supply ships. The challenge became the pressing need for coal to keep the ships sailing. The admiral did not believe there would be a steady supply for his force in the Western Pacific Ocean, so he decided to sail for the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Admiral von Spee expected his ships could readily replenish their coal supplies in the ports of South America. What is more, his ships would find plenty of British merchant vessels in the Eastern Pacific to prey on.
Rather than leave the Western Pacific completely in Allied hands, von Spee decided to leave a single light cruiser, the Emden, behind to attack local shipping and other targets of opportunity. One supply ship, the Markomannia, would accompany the Emden. The Markomannia carried 6,000 tons of coal and would keep the cruiser going for some time. Eventually the ship would have to find new sources of fuel through captured ships or raids.
Emden and Markomannia sailed southwest from Pagan Island on August 14. Captain von Muller had the crew rig a fake funnel amidships. Emden had three stacks but adding a fourth would make her physically resemble a British County-class cruiser to any distant inspection. Camouflaging her appearance was not only a survival tactic for a commerce raider but also would help lull target vessels into a false sense of security when she approached. The crew had to maintain constant watchfulness and be prepared to act swiftly, whether to attack a merchantman or flee a superior warship.
Eight days after leaving Pagan, the two German ships slipped quietly through the Molucca Passage near Indonesia. They stopped where possible to take on water and provisions. On August 29 they moved into the Indian Ocean and entered the Bay of Bengal with its busy shipping lanes. Coal was running low and Emden needed to secure more before she was rendered adrift. Von Muller began hunting for ships as they approached Ceylon, and on the night of September 9 the crew spotted a light in the darkness. They quickly overtook a ship that turned out to be the Greek steamer Pontoporos.
Although Greece was a neutral nation, Lieutenant Lauterbach boarded the ship to check its credentials and manifest and found the ship was under contract to deliver coal to the British naval base at Bombay. This marked the cargo as legitimate contraband. The Germans even offered the Greek captain the chance
to sail with them under contract and the captain agreed. Von Muller integrated Pontoporos and its cargo of 6,500 tons of coal into his task force.
The Emden arrival in the Indian Ocean was unexpected by the Allies and this gave the ship free rein for a time. Von Muller did not waste this advantage and quickly began striking at the merchantmen in the region. On the morning of September 10 smoke was spotted and the cruiser gave chase. Lookouts spotted what appeared to be a merchantman but had strange white structures on its deck that were feared to be gun emplacements. Von Muller took a chance and they moved in, signaling the ship to stop and not use its radio. The boarding party discovered they had taken the British ship Indus, under contract to transport troops of the Indian Army. The white structures were merely newly constructed horse stalls. The ship also carried luxury goods that were quickly confiscated.