SMS Emden

SMS Emden was a Dresden class light cruiser who became the best known German commerce raider of the First World War. At the start of the war she was present in Tsingtau, Germany’s colony in China.

Emden left Tsingtau on 31 July under the command of Captain von Müller. Once at sea she received news of the outbreak of war between Germany and Russia, and steamed toward the Korean Strait, where on 4 August she captured the Russian steamer Riasan. As she sailed back to Tsingtau with her prize she learnt of the outbreak of war with Britain. Riasan was armed and turned into the commerce raider Cormoran, and Emden set off again, this time to join Admiral von Spee at Pagan Island in the Mariana Islands, part of Germany’s Pacific Island empire.

SMS Emden before 1914

The Emden reached von Spee at Pagan Island before 13 August. While von Spee pondered his options, and moved west to the Marshall Islands, on 13 August Emden was detached into the Indian Ocean, supported by his supply tender, the Markomannia.

From the Mariana Islands, the Emden sailed south, before turning west along the southern coast of Java and then Sumatra, just missing a an encounter with British warships in the Java Strait, and then at Simalur Island, off the west coast of Sumatra. From there she sailed directly into the Bay of Bengal. By 10 September she was on the shipping lane between Colombo and Calcutta, just north of Sri Lanka, and her successful career was about to begin.

Her first capture was the Greek steamship Pontoporos, carrying 6,000 tons of coal. Although a neutral ship, she was carrying contraband cargo, and so was commandeered, to serve as a second collier, with the Markomannia.

For the moment the Emden was just about the only warship in the Bay of Bengal. The British fleet that should have been there was accompanying the Indian Army expedition in the Arabian Sea. Meanwhile, trade had picked up after a brief pause at the start of the war.

Over the next few days the Emden captured and sank the Indus, Lovat, Killin, Diplomat, Trabboch and Clan Matheson (the last of these was captured at just before midnight on 14 September). The Kabinga, carrying a neutral cargo was also compelled to accompany the Emden, and then on 14 September released with all the prisoners captured from the other ships. Finally, a neutral Italian ship, the Loredano was encountered but let go. The captain of the Loredano spread the news, although his ship lacked a radio, and at 2 pm on 14 September the message finally reached Calcutta.

From the vicinity of Calcutta, the Emden sailed east towards Burma, but news of her presence had prevented any ships from sailing. At the same time the British response was developing. HMS Hampshire, HMS Yarmouth and the Japanese cruiser Chikuma were dispatched from Singapore into the Bay of Bengal to begin the hunt. Their search would be largely futile, with news of the Emden reaching them too late to be of use.

Captain von Müller then turned west. Aware that the British would be patrolling the entrance to the Bay of Bengal he decided to attack Madras, then escape south out of the bay. She arrived at Madras at 9.20 pm on 22 September, just over twelve hours after the Bay of Bengal had been declared safe for shipping. In a short bombardment of the town the Emden hit oil storage tanks, and destroyed 425,000 gallons of oil. She then turned south and sailed around the east coast of Sri Lanka.

Her next target was shipping off the western coast of Sri Lanka, approaching Colombo. In his first raid (25-27 September) he captured and sank the King Lud, Tymeric, Ribera and Foyle, captured the Buresk and retained her as a collier and captured then released the Gryfevale, using her as a prison ship. News of this raid only reached Columbo with the Gryfevale on 29 September. The Buresk had been a particularly valuable prize, carrying 6,000 tons of high quality coal. 

From Sri Lanki, the Emden sailed south to the Chagos Islands, taking on fresh supplies at Diego Garcia, a British possession that had not yet learnt of the outbreak of war! Here von Müller had a stroke of luck, sailing back north along the western side of the Maldives, while the British were sailing south along the eastern side. However, on 12 October his two colliers, Markomannia and Pontoporos, had been captured while on detached duty. The Emden now only had the Buresk to provide coal.

On 16 October Emden began a second attack on the Colombo traffic. On that day she captured and sank the liner Clan Grant, the steam dredger Ponrabbel and the liner Benmohr. On 18 October she captured the Troilus and the St. Egbert, keeping the second ship as a prison ship. On 19 October Exford and Chilkana were added to the haul, and then von Müller made his escape, this time to the east.

Von Müller’s next plan was for an attack on Allied warships at Penang, at the northern end of the Malaysian peninsula. Arriving there on 28 October, he sank the Russian Zhemchug, recently returned to port, and perhaps not at the peak of military efficiency, and the French destroyer Mousquet, on her way back into port from a patrol. The line Glenturret, carrying a load of munitions, narrowly escaped capture.

The voyage of the Emden was drawing to a close. Increasingly powerful Allied forces were closing in on the Bay of Bengal. Von Müller sailed south, intending to attack Cocos Island, an important link in the telegraph cable to Australia and the site of a wireless station. As the Emden approached the island from the west, an Australian convoy, guarded by HMS Minotaur, HMAS Melbourne, HMAS Sydney and the Japanese cruiser Ibuki were approaching from the north east.

On 9 November the Emden attacked the island. Before the Germans took over, a telegraph was sent to Singapore, and a wireless message reached the Minotaur. HMAS Sydney was dispatched to catch the Emden.

Wreckage of SMS Emden

The Sydney was a Chatham class light cruiser, capable of 25.5kts and armed with eight 6in guns. By now the Emden was somewhat below peak condition, and her own top speed was probably somewhat below its 24.1kt best. When the Sydneyappeared at 9.15 am on 9 November, the Emden stood and fought.

After a poor start, the Sydney took advantage of her superior speed and the long (14,000 yards) range of her guns. In a fight lasting 1 hour 20 minutes the Sydney hit Emden over 100 times and at 11.20 a.m. the Emden was beached on North Keeling Island. 

The crew still on the Emden were captured, but the landing party on Cocos Island captured the schooner Ayesha. They were then picked up by the German steamer Choising and escaped to Arabia, making their way through the Ottoman Empire back to Constantinople.

The Emden captured 24 steam ships during her short career. Of these, sixteen British ships, totalling 70.360 tons, were sunk, at an estimated cost of £2,200,000. She also played havoc with the trade of the Bay of Bengal, closing Colombo, Calcutta, Madras and Rangoon at various times. Her cruise had been followed with great interest in Britain and Germany, and Captain Müller’s conduct of the raid was greatly admired

Displacement (loaded)


Top Speed

24kts design
24.1kts trials

Armour – deck


 - conning tower


 - gunshields



386ft 10in


Ten 4.1in guns
Eight 2in quick firing guns
Two 17.7in submerged torpedo tubes

Crew complement







9 November 1914


Captain von Müller (1914)

German Commerce Raiders 1914-18, Ryan K. Noppen. Looks at the surface vessels that operated against Allied shipping during the First World War, a mix of warships, converted liners and converted freighters, including one fully masted sailing ship. Although nowhere near as successful as the later U-boat campaign, these surface ships did embarrass the Royal Navy, especially early in the war, and forced the diversion of sizeable RN and Allied naval forces, so they are well worth studying [read full review]
cover cover cover

Books on the First World War | Subject Index: First World War

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (26 September 2007), SMS Emden ,

Help - F.A.Q. - Contact Us - Search - Recent - About Us - Privacy