10 September 1914 – Cruiser Rules

The SS Indus is steaming at a leisurely pace towards Bombay to take on troops. Her decks are already fitted with horse stalls and her amenities are fully-stocked in anticipation of the men she will soon float. Then a little after 9 o’clock this morning, her captain spots what appears to be a British warship overtaking him. As he soon learns to his dismay, she is the SMS Emden (see above), a German cruiser based at Tsingtao, and her crew has fitted her with a false fourth smokestack in order to pass for a British boat.

The Emden has been at sea since before the war began. Contemptuous of the odds he faces in this ‘British lake,’ her captain has steamed into the Bay of Bengal with a mission to encourage insurrection, disrupt commerce, and divert British attention from the rest of the East Asiatic Squadron’s movements across the Pacific. Although Captain Karl von Müller’s strategic effort to inspire rebellion in Britain’s South Asian colonies fails, he achieves his economic and operational objectives in sensational style.

Of all the stories in this horrible war, this is one of the best. Müller is nothing if not gallant, preferring to argue with neutral sea captains until they give up their secrets rather than use threats of violence to extort information. On one legend-making evening, he chooses not to force a crew off her ship because the captain’s family would be at risk riding a small boat in the choppy seas. Released whenever possible, Müller’s captives universally acknowledge his humanity. Within a week, even the British press will be praising his remarkable chivalry.

And it is remarkable. This war is hardly going to be a chivalrous affair, and in our grief at the slaughter we tend to turn to stories like this one for some kind of comfort and meaning.

A map of the Emden's outrageously successful diversionary cruise in the Indian Ocean

A map of the Emden’s outrageously-successful diversionary cruise in the Indian Ocean

As the Emden overtakes the Indus and orders her not to radio the shore, First Officer Lieutenant von Mücke jokes that what his captain really needs to capture is a load of soap. In fact, the crew is running short of fresh food and sundries of all kinds, and upon discovering their prize is stocked with exactly these things they spend more than six hours unloading all the goodies they can from her, stacking the booty on their decks before sinking her with six shots from their guns. At sunset, every sailor is issued soap and cigarettes.

Germany’s East Asiatic Squadron was already too small to fight the allies all by itself when Japan declared war on the Kaiser in August. Correctly predicting that the Empire of the Rising Sun would besiege his home port, Spee took his ships across the Pacific towards neutral Chile, stopping at Fanning Island to cut a British undersea cable. Sensing an opportunity in the busy trade lanes of the Indian Ocean, Captain Müller proposed that Spee detach him for a bold charge west instead of east. Defying military orthodoxy, Spee agreed on the 17th of August, sending him into the sunset with a collier (coal ship) for fuel.

In addition to camouflage, the Emden has successfully evaded the British fleet through an innovative use of their onboard radio-set. Although radio direction-finding technology is still in the future, Mücke has been using the signal strength of the HMS Hampshire to gauge their relative distance and thus avoid contact. It is a primitive kind of radio-ranging, a prelude to the invention of radar.

Captain Karl von Müller

Captain Karl von Müller won accolades for his generous behavior towards those he captured

Over the next twelve days, Emden takes five more ships loaded with goods and coal. With each ship, he seizes newspapers for his staff to pore through for shipping news that might guide his campaign. Once word of Emden’s presence reaches port on the 13th by way of a neutral Italian steamer that Müller was obliged to release, wireless communications spread the news around the world almost instantly. As shipping losses become known, commodity prices quickly soar on the London exchange.

Within a week, Emden has dozens of ships of the British, French, Japanese, and Russian navies all searching in vain for her on the high seas, driving First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill to distraction and making headlines around the world. The much-hallowed British Navy is being embarrassed by the upstart.

Müller’s greatest feat comes on the 22nd of September, when the Emden makes a daring night attack on the oil storage tanks at the port of Madras. Approaching within three kilometers of the shore, she illuminates the targets with her searchlight and quickly turns them into flaming wrecks, then makes a clean getaway. Although Müller’s attack has been carefully planned to do as little collateral damage as possible, some shells do land downtown. Within days, twenty thousand people have left the city in fear of further attacks.

“I had this shelling in view simply as a demonstration to arouse interest among the Indian population, to disturb English commerce, to diminish English prestige,” Müller writes in his after-action report. The German Foreign Office has already started fomenting insurrection in the British Raj through Hindu nationalists in Germany and the United States, but the attack does not spark an instant uprising.

Damage in downtown Madras from the Emden's guns. Panic did not fully subside until she was sunk

Damage in downtown Madras from the Emden’s guns. Panic did not fully subside until she was sunk

We should perhaps understand Müller’s behavior in the context of his ship itself, for she cannot replace her ammunition, and can only take on what fuel he is able to capture. The refueling process is a long, dangerous, exhausting ordeal that leaves her sitting still and vulnerable. Coal-fired boilers require constant maintenance and repair; the Emden is overdue for overhaul and refit. Her guns are useful against unarmed merchant hulls and unarmored oil tanks, but the Emden is badly outclassed by many of the ships that are looking for her.

In other words, the daring cruise of the Emden will inevitably end with her very first fight, for she can never outnumber or outgun the enemy.

That Müller has taken the time to be so chivalrous, even at great risk of discovery while parked at sea, can be understood the wrong way — as a product of some imaginary past age of better manners in battle. He knew exactly how dangerous this cruise would be when he proposed it. He knows luck will not always be on his side, and expects to be brought to battle at some point.

Müller is observing the letter of the ‘Cruiser rules’ for commerce-raiding because he hopes to be treated just as well when fate finally catches up with him.