Centenary of the Battle of Cocos – Lest We Forget
Today is the centenary of Australia’s first naval victory on the 9th November 1914. In the Indian Ocean, no less.
So which was the first battle? How did World War I spill into Australian territory? Who won? And at what cost?
Now, I put this together in a video – complete with contemporary photos – so if you’d like to watch instead of read, be my guest:
I must apologise – my voice got a little teary at the end of this video. How could I not? It was war and victory came at the cost of men’s lives.
1914. The start of World War I. Thirty thousand eager young Australian and New Zealand men volunteered to join the army, so they could fight for Britain. Both countries’ fleets assembled in Albany, Western Australia – 38 troop transports escorted by five warships across the Indian Ocean to Egypt, so the new troops could begin their training. It was to be the war to end all wars and they wanted a part of it. They had no idea that a third of them wouldn’t survive the year – with more than ten thousand men dying in Gallipoli alone.
The protagonist in today’s tale is called Sydney. One of the escort ships was the HMAS Sydney, a Chatham Class light cruiser commanded by Captain John Glossop. Launched in 1912 and encased in 3 inch thick armour, she carried 8 6-inch guns, 4 3-pounder guns and 2 21-inch torpedo tubes – more than enough to be quite a formidable force on the water.
The setting for this battle is Cocos – the Cocos Keeling Islands. Two remote coral atolls in the Indian Ocean that were annexed by the British crown BY ACCIDENT in 1857. How can territory be claimed by accident? I’ll tell you, for it was.
Captain Stephen Fremantle, the brother of the man the port city of Fremantle is named for, received orders from Britain in January 1857 to take possession of the Cocos Islands in the name of the British crown. While there are plenty of islands called Cocos, there was only one set of Cocos Islands where he had any authority and it was the Cocos Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean, so he set sail for the atoll in the HMS Juno. On 31 March, 1857, he planted the flag and named John Clunies-Ross the governor of the island group, before sailing back to Sydney. It wasn’t until he arrived back in Sydney that he found out that his vague instructions had been referring to some other islands in the Bay of Bengal – which, coincidentally, were already British territory.
Rather than admit their mistake, the British government decided to keep the Cocos Keeling Islands, particularly when they were identified as the perfect place for a cable station for the subsea telegraph cable spanning the Indian Ocean. The cable station was built on Direction Island in 1901, connecting South Africa via Mauritius to Cottesloe, Western Australia. A cable was also laid from Cocos to the city of Batavia (now Jakarta) which then linked to Darwin in northern Australia.
Cocos Cable Station
As such a strategic communications hub, the staff at the Cocos telegraph station heard all the news.
They knew how valuable Direction Island was and, when stories of a new warship in the Indian Ocean began to circulate, it was only a matter of time before they were its next target. They kept a lookout, ready to radio and telegraph for help as soon as an enemy vessel was sighted.
What was their biggest fear? The scourge of the Allied navies, part of the German East Asiatic Squadron – the Dresden class light cruiser, SS Emden. She steamed into the Indian Ocean in August 1914. In less than two months, she sank or captured 21 vessels, including a coal ship called the Buresk. By November 1914, at least nine Allied vessels were hunting the Emden – but they found no trace of her, aside from the damage she left in her wake.
This one German cruiser was the reason for the troop transports’ heavy escort from Albany, when the convoy of ships left on 1st November 1914.
Yes, the whole Indian Ocean was afraid of one ship.
First Sign of Danger
At 6 am on 9 November 1914, a ship was spotted offshore from Direction Island. At first glance, it had four funnels, like a merchant ship or an Allied vessel, but she didn’t have a flag. The cable staff radioed for help, saying that there was a strange ship in the lagoon entrance.
As the sun rose and the ship moved closer, it became clear that one of the funnels was false. A strange ship with three funnels, pretending it had more?
There was only one ship it could be. The SS Emden.
The cable station staff raced to radio for help again, to anyone who could hear them, that the Emden had arrived at Direction Island, but the Emden jammed their radio signals before they received any reply.
A Polite Attack
A landing party from the Emden was sent ashore to Direction Island in a steam launch. There were 50 men: 30 seamen, 15 technical staff and two wireless men, commanded by Hellmuth Von Mücke and two lieutenants. Two cables were cut with axes and cold chisels; one was the cable to Perth, the other a spare length of cable. The cable crew told Von Mücke that he had been awarded the Iron Cross – the first news he’d heard of it. His response was to tell them that they wouldn’t be harmed.
It may have been war, but it was a very polite sort of attack.
The German landing party cut down the wireless mast – then carefully lowered it down between the tennis courts so the courts wouldn’t be damaged. They smashed the relay station machinery but not the generator because it also powered the ice plant.
Where was help when they needed it most?
The ANZAC Convoy
While the cable station equipment was being systematically smashed, help wasn’t far away. The entire Australian and New Zealand convoy was sixty miles from Cocos – and the HMAS Sydney received the radio distress call, as well as the Emden‘s jamming signal. They were ordered to steam off at full speed to investigate – the crew could have breakfast on the way.
The Sydney covered the distance in just over three hours, sighting the Emden off Direction Island at 9.15 am. When the Emden recognised the Australian light cruiser, she headed into open sea, stranding her landing party on Direction Island.
The Emden fired first, so the Sydney opened fire. A broadside from the Sydney scored them a direct hit on the Emden, before another shot from the Emden took out the Sydney‘s rangefinder and the man operating it, cutting another man’s leg off at the knee. Maybe a minute later, a shrapnel shell burst on deck – injuring 7 of a gun crew of 9. Two of the men died.
A piece from another shell went straight through a man’s body – and he died of his wounds, two days later. His name was Reginald Albert Sharpe.
When the two ships opened fire, the Emden‘s marooned landing party and the cable station staff settled in to enjoy the show – from the best vantage point they could find, the cable station roof.
The Emden hit the Sydney‘s control room next – wounding the control officer, while another man lost an eye.
It wasn’t until 10am that the Sydney managed to land a significant hit on the Emden – and the resulting explosion set fire to the ship. At 10.30, they managed to shoot out the foremast, followed by the second funnel, not ten minutes later. A lucky shot found the Emden‘s boilers and caused another explosion.
At 11am, with three funnels gone and both the bridge and charthouse blown off, the Emden started sinking. Captain Karl Muller set a course for the nearest land – North Keeling Island, running her aground on the surrounding reef fifteen minutes later.
A New Threat
Her opponent disabled, the Sydney found a new target on the horizon – a collier, the Buresk, that had been attacked and captured by the Emden in an earlier battle.
The Buresk was a coal ship and the German prize crew didn’t want the coal falling into enemy hands, so they scuttled it, opening the sea-cocks and smashing the spindles so they couldn’t be closed. The armed boarding party sent by the Sydney discovered this when they heard it from the ship’s Chinese crew, hustling everyone back to the Sydney. The Sydney fired four shots into the Buresk – she sank, still burning.
HMAS Sydney returned to the Emden at 4 in the afternoon, to find her still flying the German Naval Ensign flag. Not wanting to fire on an already disabled vessel, the Sydney asked the Emden three times to surrender – signalling with semaphore flags – but she got no answer and the German flag still flew.
The Sydney fired one final shot into the Emden and received a response. The German flag was hauled down and a white one waved.
The Sydney sent a lifeboat the Emden, manned by the Buresk‘s German crew, carrying water supplies and a message that they’d return to rescue them in the morning.
They then headed out to sea – to pick up three men they’d seen swimming in the water. The poor men had been swimming since 10.30 that morning but the Sydney reports picking up all three of them at 5pm.
The Sydney stayed offshore overnight, as they’d heard (from one of the prisoners, I imagine) that the German landing party on Direction Island were heavily armed and they didn’t want to engage them until daylight.
When daylight came, they assembled a landing party of 35 men and the officers to go ashore. They were met on the jetty by the cable station staff – no one else.
The German landing party, under the able command of von Mucke, had turned pirate. When neither the Emden nor the Sydney returned, they assumed the worst and decided to find their own way home. The commandeered supplies of food and water from Direction Island and loaded them into the boats, eyeing off the Governor’s schooner, Ayesha. Telling the cable station staff they were headed for East Africa, they sailed away in the Ayesha before the Sydney returned.
The Sydney asked for help from the cable station’s surgeon and he accompanied them back to North Keeling to assist with the wounded men on the Emden. It took a whole day to transfer everyone from the Emden to the Sydney and the conditions were pretty crowded when they were done. While the majority of the Emden crew weren’t allowed weapons, for some reason the officers were permitted to keep their swords.
One of the Sydney crew, Leading Signalman John Seabrook, described the damage to the Emden in detail:
“The floor of the conning tower was blown up. The chart house and upper bridge were missing, only the deck of the lower bridge remaining. The foremast was hanging over the port side. The three funnels were laying over the port side – tired I presume – there were big holes all round the decks.
“Where the funnels and engine room had been was one mass of bent and twisted iron. From the mainmast to right aft, there was no woodwork left – not even the wood of the decks. The fire had burnt the lot. The after guns were blistered beyond recognition. All the officers’ cabins were burnt out and it was a straight drop from the deck to the bottom of the ship.”
The German dead were buried at North Keeling Island – the bodies were later exhumed and transported back to Germany.
Three of the Sydney dead were buried at sea.
Around twenty of the Emden‘s wounded had managed to get ashore on North Keeling Island, which turned out to be a terrible idea. The wounded men had been attacked by the large land crabs on the island. In case you’re wondering what sort of crab attacks a man – I’ll introduce you to the land crabs on Cocos. The smaller ones – about the size of two spread hands – are aptly named Cardisoma carnifex. Carnifex means butcher. The bigger ones…well, they’re the same size as the tyres on a four wheel drive and they’re called robber or coconut crabs. Their claws can break through a coconut shell.
The wounded men on the island had to wait ’til the following morning to be rescued from the marauding crabs, but they were, and the Sydney headed to Colombo in Sri Lanka with their prisoners.
They were met and congratulated by some of the New Zealand convoy ships, which were joined by the remainder of the convoy as the week progressed. She resumed normal duty – escorting the convoy to Aden, as originally planned.
For the damaged cable station, help was soon at hand. On 16 November 1914 the cable ship Patrol arrived with repair gear and provisions to replace what was damaged or taken by the Emden raiders. The cable station was operational a week after the attack.
The German landing party in the Ayesha never made it to East Africa – though they never tried to, either. Instead, when they left Cocos, they sailed for Padang in Sumatra. They transferred to a German freighter that took them to Yemen, before making their way over land to Constantinople and then on to Germany. It took them six months. Von Mucke wrote two bestselling books about his experiences on the Emden and his journey after it sank.
The Emden was slowly picked apart by salvage crews from Cocos and Japan, until January 1916, when the Emden started slipping back off the reef into deeper water until she was no longer visible from shore. She still lies there today.
If you ask any Australian today about the HMAS Sydney sinking a German ship in the Indian Ocean, most would be thinking about the World War II vessel, the HMAS Sydney II. But the only part of the original Sydney that took part in the 1941 battle was the ship’s solid silver bell – it was lost with the HMAS Sydney II when she sank with all hands off the coast of Western Australia in November 1941, after disabling the German vessel Kormoran, which was also wrecked in the same engagement.
All of the historic photos used in this post were taken before or during World War 1 – including many that were taken on the day of the battle or during subsequent rescue operations – and were sourced from the Australian War Memorial, the National Library of Australia and the State Library of Western Australia.
The Battle of Cocos was the Royal Australian Navy’s first victory at sea, but it still came at quite a cost – loss of life from both sides. Lest we forget.