The Australian Navy is today commemorating the anniversary of the RAN’s first sea battle, between HMAS Sydney and the German light cruiser SMS Emden. The confrontation changed the way Australians thought of themselves as a maritime nation. On 9 November 1914, an urgent signal was sent by the wireless operator on the Cocos Islands, reporting the arrival of a mysterious warship. HMAS Sydney I, escorting the first Australian and New Zealand troop convoy to the European theatre of war, was sent to investigate.
The mysterious visitor turned out to be SMS Emden, which in just two months of war had alreaady captured or sunk 25 merchant vessels, a Russian cruiser and a French destroyer. The German ship opened fire first, accurately targeting her Australian enemy with a salvo every six seconds. A dozen hits were recorded in the first 10 minutes of the engagement, but fortunately for Sydney only five burst. Four Australian sailors were killed and several wounded.
Sydney hit back hard. Her 6-inch shells wrecked the enemy’s steering gear, shot away equipment and smashed Emden’s internal communications. Shortly afterwards her forward funnel toppled overboard, soon followed by the foremast.
Despite the damage and the inevitable end, Emden fought on. Half her crew were disabled and her second funnel had gone, before her captain ran her aground in a bid to prevent further loss of life.
Sydney’s Commanding Officer Captain John Glossop later signaled his German counterpart:
” I have the honour to request that in the name of humanity you now surrender your ship to me. In the event of’ your surrendering in which I venture to remind you is no disgrace but rather your misfortune, I will endeavour to do all I can for your sick and wounded and take them to a hospital.”
Emden lost 134 men killed in action or died of wounds, but the care lavished on the injured by the Australian sailors did much to earn the respect of the defeated Germans.
Royal Australian Navy Historian Dr David Stevens says the RAN was blooded for the first time that day. Although highly significant, the battle is sometimes overlooked.
“Australians are very familiar with the ANZAC legend forged at Gallipoli,” Dr Stevens said. ” but Australia’s baptism of fire came several months earlier, and a lot closer to home. By removing the German threat at sea the RAN ensured that future convoys could cross the oceans in safety. No Australian soldier was ever lost to enemy action on his way to the Middle East.”
The men who fought and died for their respective countries left behind a legacy of honour, honesty, courage, integrity and loyalty – these are the values which Navy lives by to this day.
Dr David Stevens from the Sea Power Centre in Canberra is available for interview on request.
Imagery of Sydney I and Emden can be found at www.Navy.gov.au
The original of CAPT Glossop’s signal is also on-line.
LCDR Fenn Kemp: 0423 395 416
Defence Media Liaison: 02 6127 1999 or 0408 498 664