Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Emden to Sydney story

An ANZAC Day contribution by PAUL OATES


I thought I might relate to you a little bit of history. War often brings out the good and the bad in people but leaves very little in between except the waiting. 

 I saw a few years ago in the news that HMAS Anzac was about leave Albany in WA and to 're enact' the 90th anniversary of the original 1915 voyage of the ANZAC force to the Middle East.

 A little known part of that convoy's voyage concerns Australia's first naval battle and a very interesting anecdote. I found part of this story when I was stationed on Cocos (Keeling) Islands and the rest a bit later in a magazine article. Both parts of the story put together, make a very illuminating insight into the 'norms' of nearly 100 years ago.

 As the convoy steamed westward away from Australia, it travelled close to Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Cocos Islands had a cable station, located on Direction Island for many years, and this was the only link connecting Australia with Britain. The Direction Island cable station was manned by unarmed civilian telegraphers. The cable travelled across the bed of the Indian Ocean from Australia, rose up the eastern side of the island, was connected to the repeater station and then disappeared down into the depths on the western side of the lagoon. The cable is still there today and can be seen when snorkelling on Direction Island.

 A German ship and raider, the SMS Emden, had been sinking shipping in the Indian Ocean since the start of the war and the ANZAC convoy was heavily protected by a number of warships including HMAS Sydney, HMAS Melbourne and the Japanese cruiser Ibuki.

 Early on 9 Nov 15 the Cocos Islands cable station radioed a message "S O S Emden here" and this was picked up by the Australian convoy.

 Now comes the interesting part.

 Knowing that the Emden would monitor radio transmissions, the radio operator in the HMAS Sydney responded with an acknowledgement but intentionally turned his radio down to a quarter strength. This acknowledgement was indeed picked up and interpreted by the Emden's radio operator who believed the Sydney was actually 200 miles away, when in fact she was only 50 miles away. (The beginning of electronic warfare?).

 The Emden then launched a raiding party that occupied the cable station and laughing, cut the cable into 18" lengths to take away as trophies. Unfortunately for the Germans, this was a false cable and the real cable was buried under the sand at their feet.

 Suddenly the Sydney hove into sight and the landing party was urgently recalled. But the Sydney started firing at the Emden and the Emden had to respond and steam away, leaving the landing party stranded.

 Eventually the Sydney, having been struck by Emden shells, hauled off and in a running battle and having larger guns, disabled the Emden to the extent that her captain had to run her aground on North Keeling Island to stop her from sinking and so the crew could abandon ship. What is left of the Emden is still there today although it has slid under the water. It is a designated 'war grave' although some divers have obtained permission to inspect her. I remember seeing her outline and two propeller shafts, still visible from the surface. There also used to be an iron boiler on the beach (in 1990) although the Japanese cut most of her up for scrap between the wars.

 Now comes the really interesting part.

 Those German sailors, left stranded on Direction Island, commandeered the Clunies Ross' work boat, the Ayesha. They then sailed the Ayesha all the way across the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf and travelled overland up into the area that is now Syria. There they finally got in touch with the German advisors attached to the Turkish forces and re-entered the war. A feat almost as good as the whale boat trip to Batavia (now Java) of Captain Bligh when he was marooned in the middle of the Pacific Ocean by some of the Bounty's mutinous crew.

 Now comes the part that as an Australian, always gives me a lump in my throat.

 While all the action was taking place, the ANZAC convoy kept steaming on to Colombo (then capital of Ceylon - now Sri Lanka). The Sydney, having won the battle, collected the German wounded and steamed off after the convoy that had by that time tied up at Colombo harbour.

 Here was Australia's first victory as a nation and apart from the attack on the German Headquarters at Rabaul, its first recognisable naval victory. As the Sydney closed on Colombo harbour, preparations were made for a tumultuous welcome and victory celebration. Over 7,500 ANZAC troops and many allied sailors lined the ships and docks and made ready to enthusiastically greet the Sydney as it steamed into the harbour.

 But the Sydney (who had been damaged by the Emden's shell fire) radioed ahead that she had German wounded on board and that any noise or cheering might disturb them. This news was disseminated around the ships.

 As the damaged Sydney steamed past all the ships, the thousands of waiting ANZAC troops and Navy sailors, according to an eye witness, all stood to attention and no one made a sound.






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