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The Ruse of the SMS Emden

By Edited Apr 27, 2016 1 0

Just before dawn on 5 October 1914, the German light cruiser SMS Emden (nicknamed the Swan of the East for her graceful lines), commanded by Captain Karl von Müller,  dropped anchor in the lagoon of the atoll of Diego Garcia, along with its collier (basically a coal barge). This tiny British dependancy lies in the Indian Ocean 1,600 kilometers south of India, an unusual sphere of action for German cruisers. The island had no telegraph or other means of communication with the outside world, save the schooner service that stopped there once every three months. The arrival of two large ships was therefore a cause for celebration in the island community.

SMS Emden

Mr Spender, the plantation manager, was equally pleased; he hoped that the ships were British, bringing news and supplies. He couldn't be sure of the nationality of the two vessels anchored in the lagoon because, oddly, they were not flying any colours. When he went aboard the SMS Emden and was greeted by the captain it quickly became obvious that the ship was German. However, any ship was welcome at Diego Garcia and Captain Karl von Müller proved to be a charming host. The two men talked and agreed how the ships and island could help each other.  The community was poor, and Müller offered to pay handsomely for fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat, since his ship needed a resupply after two months cruising the Indian Ocean. In addition, the SMS Emden's hull had become coated with barnacles and needed careening, a service for which her captain would also reward the islanders.

For the next few days the sailors and community worked together effectively. They careened the SMS Emden, afloat in the still lagoon waters, by flooding the port and starboard compartments in turn so as to make the ship list to one side and then the other, allowing the islanders to scrape the barnacles off her keel. Provisions were brought and loaded. The ship was also repainted and various minor repairs were carried out.

Diego Garcia

Finally, on 10 October, the SMS Emden and its collier headed back out into the Indian Ocean. Müller was pleased; though he hadn't told the British subjects on Diego Garcia of the outbreak of the First World War, he had managed to obtain what he needed without resorting to violence. He could now return to his mission of attacking British shipping. However, Captain Muller's luck was running out. The SMS Emdem had already sunk or captured a total of thirty Allied merchant vessels and warships. In effect she was now the single most hunted ship on the planet, with sixty Allied warships now searching for her. In less than a month the SMS Emden's career would come to an end: Muller ran her aground to prevent her from sinking on 9 November after engaging the more powerful Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney at the Battle of Crocos.

SMS Emden Wreck

On 12 October, two British warships, the armoured cruiser HMS Hampshire (the ship which would later hit a mine and sink whilst carrying Lord Kitchener) and the auxilliary cruiser HMS Empress of Russia, arrived in Diego Garcia and asked whether the inhabitants had seen the German warships that was playing havoc in the British supply lines. The islanders admitted that they had, but since no one had informed them of the outbreak of war they had helped her on her way.




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