The Swan of the East- The SMS EMDEN

I am no historian; just an ordinary storyteller.

So today I will tell a story- but not just any story, fable, fairytale or legend. Nothing from my dusty cache of memory – unused since many years ago when my daughter was a toddler. She refused to go to sleep unless  she was told a story. I exhausted all the classic Hans Christian Anderson tales, retold Grimms fairy tales, rediscovered Baron Munchausen for a while, glorified the heroic exploits of the Mahabharata, then went on to lesser known stories like the Spanish fairytale of Medio Pollito, The Snow Queen and many more; always on the lookout for obscure ones to keep her interest alive. Then school happened, she moved on, I moved on,  and slowly, as it always happens, that nightly ritual disappeared from our lives.

This story is a real one, with a real life hero. It is a romantic one too, but not of the Harry-met-Sally type.

It is the story of a brave ship- a coal burning German light cruiser, a steamship that sailed the seas a hundred years ago; and of her captain- who was really, truly, an officer and a gentleman. My story is from the First World War.

I tell this story, incongruous in these days where chivalry is in real danger of becoming extinct, when even little children are not spared in the name of hunting down enemies. When did a child become your enemy? Even if he worships a different God?

Meet the SMS Emden, of the Kaiser’s Naval Fleet- The Swan of the East, and her captain, Karl Freidrich Max von Muller.

Emden 1         Karl

The Emden was commissioned in 1909 as a light cruiser; she was thus relatively new in 1914 when war was formally declared between Germany and Russia, but she did not represent the latest in naval technology. She burned coal, not oil, which meant she had to have a collier ship with her. In contrast to the larger and faster British cruisers of the time who boasted 6 inch guns, the Emden had only 4.1 inch guns. Still, her sleek and graceful lines earned her the admiration of Navy professionals, who coined the epithet- Swan of the East.

Germany was not a nation of seafarers, unlike Britain. Yet she produced a commander, who earned the respect of the world!

Karl Muller was born in 1873- son of a Prussian army officer. The young Muller followed his father’s steps and joined the Prussian army, but transferred to the Navy later.

After various postings on a gunboat, in East Africa (where he contracted malaria, which won in the end) and at the Imperial Navy Office in Berlin, Muller was assigned command of the Emden in the spring of 1913; he was 39 years old. The clouds of war had started gathering across the European sky.

During the opening months of the war, brief and bright like a shooting star, and equally elusive, the SMS Emden would do Germany proud. Muller and his crew of 360 men waged an astonishing battle in the South Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, 1914. Muller, under whose calm and reserved demeanour lay a fierce nationalistic pride, addressed his men- “We will prove ourselves worthy of our ancestors ….and resist to the end- even though the entire world rise against us”. Rather than joining the mother squadron, and travelling home via Cape Horn, Muller believed that establishing a German presence in the Indian Ocean would be a better option. It was difficult to coal an entire squadron but coaling a single cruiser was easier. Muller succeeded in convincing his superior about the merits of the idea and on August 13, Muller received the following command- “You are hereby allocated the Markomannia and  will be detached with the task of entering the Indian Ocean and waging cruiser warfare as best as you can.. tonight you will stay with the squadron- the order will come into force tomorrow morning”.   The parent squadron consisting of 12 warships and 8 supply ships left the island of Pagan and steamed east, on August 13th 1914; the morning of August 14, the Emden received the signal “Detached- Wish Good Luck” – The Emden and her collier, the Markomannia were now officially on their own. They slowly steamed south across the South Pacific- slowly because Muller wanted to conserve coal and therefore fired only six of the ship’s twelve boilers. Their goal lay two thousand miles to the Southwest- the Indian Ocean!

Muller avoided the usual sea routes to avoid detection before the Emden reached her designated operational area. She carefully wound her way through the Dutch East Indies to the Malacca straits. To reinforce anonymity, the possibility of a disguise for the Emden was thought of and since most British warships of those days had either two or four funnels (The Emden had three), Muller approved construction of a dummy fourth smokestack, made by carpenters out of wooden framing and sailcloth, which made the Emden closely resemble the British warship, the Yarmouth! Genius!

The Emden reached the Indian Ocean on September 6, 1914.

Her first catch was on September 9th, the Greek ship Pontoporos, which while neutral in itself, carried a cargo of British coal to Calcutta, which made the cargo contraband. Emden was running low on coal herself and appropriated the Pontoporas as a supply ship. The second victim was the Indus, carrying cargo (mainly beer and soap) to Calcutta. Muller relieved the Indus of her cargo, took prisoners and sunk her on September 10. The next day it was the turn of another transport ship, the Lovatt; Muller sunk her too with shellfire!

By September 12, the Emden, accompanied by the Markomannia and the captured Pontoporas were approaching Calcutta. They stopped a British freighter, the Kabinga, but she was carrying neutral cargo and so was unharmed. Muller transferred his prisoners to the Kabinga and moved on. Muller was aware that since the ships he had sunk would be overdue at their ports and an alarm would be raised soon and so was determined to make the most of his days. On September 14, it was the turn of the British collier, the Killin to be sunk! And on the same day, the Emden caught her sixth and largest victim, the British owned Diplomat, carrying a cargo of tea! That was an interception of six ships in one week!

By this time the British had figured out that there was a rogue enemy cruiser loose in the East Indian waters. Six British destroyers were put on the Emden’ s search but failed to catch her!

A month later the tally of captured and/or sunk ships reached  sixteen. By mid September, panic had gripped the merchant fleets and all voyages between India and Singapore were halted.

But the most audacious move was yet to come.

Muller had been considering a raid on a British shore installation for some time- he wrote, “I intended going from the Rangoon estuary to Madras, and, in the dark, shelling the oil tank installations. I had this shelling in view simply as a demonstration to arouse interest among the Indian population, to disturb English commerce and to diminish English prestige”. He succeeded in all three!

In one of her most daredevil moves, in the evening of 22nd September 1914, the Emden was off the Madras coast. Under the cover of darkness, about three thousand yards out at sea, and steaming parallel to the shore, the guns of the Emden opened fire at the five oil tankers of the British owned Burmah Oil Company,  unleashing some 130 shells, burning the precious fuel down within 30 minutes and disappearing into the night, before the British guns could react. More than three hundred and fifty thousand gallons of fuel was lost- the death toll was just four. Emden’s fight was not against the Indian civilians, already groaning under the yoke of the British!

Needless to say, this exploit did not amuse the British- Winston Churchill, then first Lord of the Admiralty, was understandably livid; his memo reads, “the escape of the Emden from the Bay of Bengal is most unsatisfactory, and I do not understand on what principle the operations of the four cruisers, Hampshire, Yarmouth, Dupleix and Chikuma has been concerted…. the squadron should devote itself entirely to hunting the Emden.” The order was obeyed and a  large flotilla of warships was deployed to seek and destroy her. The Emden still eluded her pursuers; she also captured  six more ships, including the collier Buresk, filled with high quality Welsh coal, in the last days of September.

The heroism, intelligence, chivalry and courage the Emden and her captain displayed, captured the world’s imagination. the tales of the survivors were invariably the same. Muller’s practice of ensuring the safety of the passengers and crew of enemy vessels became legendary. His men were under strict orders to take off all prisoners before blasting or scuttling a ship. All detainees were treated with exquisite courtesy while in German custody and were either put ashore at neutral ports or transferred to non-belligerent ships.  Any enemy crewmen who were casualties during operations would be buried at sea by the Emden crew with full honours.

On October 10th, it was the turn of Clan Grant, carrying valuable cargo from England to Calcutta to be captured. On the same day Muller captured and sunk a slow dredger en-route to Tasmania and on October 17th, the Blue Funnel steamer Troilus, on its maiden voyage from China to Rotterdam was captured, taking the total tally of captured ships up to seventeen!

Yet another British freighter, the St Egbert was also soon captured, but since there were so many prisoners by then, Muller chose not to sink her but used the St Egbert as a means to get rid of most prisoners.

Of course none of this impressed the British Admiralty, who apart from being embarrassed, were witnessing heavy losses both by the near-ceasure of eastern sea trade as well as from the sheer number ships being lost to this lone audacious marauder! The adventures of the Emden in the Indian Ocean forced a red-faced Admiralty to issue a communique assuring shippers  that it was making maximum efforts against Germany’s raiders. “Searching for these vessels and working in concert under various Commander-in Chiefs are upwards of seventy vessels, British, Australian, Japanese, French and Russian cruisers…”

This Armada was deployed across the South seas to hunt the elusive Emden.

Muller judged it was time to move. He had learned that enemy warships were using the port of Penang, off the British colony of Malaya and that Penang was without significant land defences; the information was tempting! The Emden raised her dummy fourth funnel to masquerade as the British Yarmouth, and steamed unchallenged into the port of Penang! The raid was risky but luck was still with Muller- there was only the ageing Russian light cruiser Zemchug there- despite carrying heavier guns, she was no match for the agility of the Emden and was soon torpedoed.

The Zemchug was not the only allied warship in the Penang area- there were another three French destroyers, but two, unfortunately under repair and therefore, out of action. The third, the Mousquet, challenged Emden bravely- but was soon demolished. Muller picked up thirty six survivors from the Mousquet!

Jubilant as they were,  Muller, his crew and the Emden could not afford to linger. Muller planned to destroy the British wireless station at Direction Island, a part of Cocos Island group in the Eastern Indian Ocean. So started the Emden’s last and fateful journey. At 6.00 am on the 9th of November 1914, the Emden dropped anchor off the tiny Direction Island. A shore party set off to destroy the wireless station. The local population refused to interfere in the destruction of the station, once they learned that the German shore party came from the dashing Captain Muller! But the Emden’s luck was running out- while approaching Direction Island, the Emden had not given identification. The quick witted British wireless technician immediately wirelessed an SoS, followed by messages, identifying the intruder as the Emden. Emden failed to jam those transmissions. Then, on that fateful day, Muller made his first, only, last, error of judgement. Instead of moving out to sea, the Emden prepared to coal!

Unfortunately for the Emden, the Australian cruiser, HMAS Sydney, commanded by Captain John Glossop, was just over the horizon when the wireless message reached them. The HMAS Sydney would arrive within three hours!

Caught off guard, Muller frantically signalled the shore party to return. Their response was not fast enough. Muller had no choice but to abandon the shore party and order the Emden into action against the larger, heavier, better armed Sydney! In the three areas that mattered- speed, firepower, armour- the Sydney far outclassed the Emden!

The battle began- briefly the Emden demonstrated her superior gunnery- but her guns could inflict only superficial damage to the Sydney. Then the Sydney started to batter the Emden with her superior guns. After about forty five minutes, the Emden had lost two funnels and the foremast. She was almost shattered. Fire blackened the almost totally wrecked raider, but still there was no white flag flown. The Sydney opened fire on her again.

It was only after Captain Glossop of the Sydney delivered  the terms of honourable surrender did Captain Muller fly the white flag from his one remaining mast! He was also the last to leave his beloved ship! By this time Emden had suffered 134 casualties.

emden 2

The story of this brave ship and her crew draws to its close. Most of the captured crew, including Muller, were imprisoned first at Malta and later towards the end of the war, Muller was exchanged as a PoW and returned to Germany. He was hailed as a hero and was awarded the Iron Cross; all the Emden’s crewmen were permitted to add “Emden” to their surnames- a singular distinction they could pass on to their descendents.

Yet Muller lived quietly at his home in Blankenberg, till his death in 1923, from malaria related complications. He never wrote a memoir; he also declined all invitations to speak about his war stories. When asked why, he replied, “ I should not be able to escape the feeling that I was coining money from the blood of my comrades”.

It was a long story, but I hope, was also one which you enjoyed and which you would like to share with your friends and family and which may also inspire you to delve into history.

The nautical skill, courage and humanity displayed by the Captain of the Emden, was a unique chapter in the history of naval warfare. Karl Muller’s actions in war were marked by humanity, always. He avoided causing casualties as much as humanly possible; the personal honour of the crew of the seized vessels always remained intact. His actions of fairness and chivalry earned Muller the nickname “Gentleman of the War”.

In conclusion, I quote the words of Michael Jaguttis-Emden, Upper Machinist’s Mate-on-board (Courtesy: ) written at the 10th anniversary of his Commander’s death:

“The noble, proud, and generous glowed like radiating from his face. He was restrained to the outside, but internally he took part in everything. He cared for and helped every subordinate who addressed him with his concerns, as he quite often did later at the prison camp. There we got to know him even better than it would have been possible on board a ship… Inner freedom put its mark on his nature; his character was so clear and balanced, nothing in his behaviour was striking a pose or bad faith … He gave confidence to his subordinates and gave them freedom to act as they had experienced the best results… Love and devotion, confidence and dedication as they have been given to Captain von Müller by his crew can be purchased only by pure human benevolence. What was really remarkable about him was that he was kindly disposed towards friend and foe in an identical manner…”.


Salutes, Captain. Wish there were more men like you in these days!


  1. The Emden has passed on variations of her name to at least three languages, including my own mother language- Malayalam. (The others are Tamil and Malaya). It is generally used as an adjective noun to describe a person who is intelligent, sneaky and clever, in Tamil and Malayalam, while in Malayan it denotes “great”. Difference in perceptions!
  2. While I was aware of the exploits of the Emden from the tales my father used to tell, avenues for research was very less in those days. In writing this blog entry I have referred, and The initial spark of interest also came from the following link-, a wonderful collection of photographs. My heartfelt thanks to all these sources!

8 thoughts on “The Swan of the East- The SMS EMDEN

  1. Excellent post you have written here. Usually, history bores me, but this is an exception. I plan to read more history. Thomas Carlyle is one Writer whose works I look forward to reading.

  2. History bores (especially at school- History text books are probably designed for just that!) because of the way it is presented. There are some very excellent writers who have studied particular periods and then have gone on to write wonderful tales, using real life people and incidents. One example is Anya Seton and her “Katherine”.
    I have not read Carlyle at all and will look forward to your impressions.

    • Thank you for visiting! 🙂 The reading that went into it was an eye-opener for me too- the standard of ethics that Mr Muller practiced is well documented. And it extended post-PoW, post-war into his life till the end.
      And when you contrast it with today…

    • What a lovely compliment, Manoj. But perhaps the Outlook guy had a word count to stick to, unlike me. 🙂
      Chempakaraman Pillai was most certainly abroad the Emden during the Madras escapade. I did not bring that connection into my post, because I wanted the attention to be on the ship and her captain.
      E-manden is the word in Malayalam, right up there with Ummakki (monster?) and Pillere-piduthakkaran – for scaring kids to sleep.

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