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Sydney versus Emden

Thursday 7 November, 2019

When war broke out in 1914, the Royal Australian Navy was just 13 years old. Having been formally established on 1 March, 1901, following Federation in January that year, her fleet at the time consisted of the battlecruiser HMAS Australia, the light cruisers Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane (under construction), the destroyers Parramatta, Yarra and Warrego, and the submarines AE1 and AE2.

She was placed under the command of Rear Admiral Sir George E. Patey, a British Admiral, who was knighted on the deck of the Australia before it departed for England in 1913.

The RAN’s first naval operation of World War I was in support of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Forces that were sent to occupy German New Guinea. Among those deployed was HMAS Sydney. [1]

HMAS Sydney’s launching on 29 August 1912 – source:

Sydney is one of the most famous names ever carried by an Australian warship. It is a name that every member of Australia’s Royal Australian Navy is familiar with, and no doubt her victories have, and continue to inspire careers in the Australian Navy.

HMAS Sydney was responsible for the first major RAN victory of World War I when she sank the German light cruiser, SMS Emden off the Cocos Islands.

The date of this successful action was 9 November 1914, with four Australians killed and another 12 wounded in the engagement.

The incident occurred when one of the largest convoys ever assembled, departed from Albany in Western Australia for the battlefronts of World War 1. Aboard were the troops of the AIF, including our own 10th Battalion from South Australia.

The flotilla consisted of 26 RAN ships and a further 10 bearing the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces, who together would later form the original ANZAC.  

The ships steamed out of Fremantle in three long lines, a mile apart – a huge convoy of 38 ships, following two more transports that had joined them. Escorted by HMS Minotaur in the van, the Japanese cruiser Ibuki and HMAS Melbourne on either beam, HMAS Sydney sat astern.

On 7 November Minotaur left her escort position when word was received that HMS Cradock had been destroyed off the coast of Chile by the German raider, Admiral Graf Spee. At this time HMAS Australia was ordered to the Californian coast to guard against the Spee attacking Canada’s ports.

The convoy heading toward England (or so they thought) passed the Cocos Islands in the dawn of 8 November. Here their wireless operators heard the island’s operator tap out two morse code messages in quick succession: ‘Strange warship approaching” followed by ‘SOS’.

Captain Silver of HMAS Melbourne was sure this meant the German raider Emden was at Cocos. Sydney was ordered to steam to the island to intercept. As she raced at 25 knots toward the coast of Coco Islands she spotted the Emden and closed in. When she reached five miles she made ready to fire. To her shock a salvo from Emden landed within 200 metres of her, while a third salvo sent two shells into her hull. In a fine display of German gunnery Sydney took another 15 hits from Emden’s 38 pound German shells before her 100 pound shell finally delivered the fatal blow. Two of Emden’s funnels were hit, destroying her steering gear. Many of her crew were also killed and Kapitan Mueller had no choice but to run her onto a coral reef at Keeling Island. After a ferocious gun fight that ensued for another 25 minutes Emden was eventually defeated, with Sydney’s Captain Glossop sending the famous morse code message “Emden beached and done for”.

Emden aground on North Keeling Island. Source:

Glossop gave the order for Sydney to set off in pursuit of the enemy’s coaler the Buresk, which was soon located. She returned to Keeling Island at 4pm and sent two morse code messages to Kapitan Mueller asking if he had or would surrender?  But there was no response. Sydney fired two more salvos into the burning Emden before her white flag of surrender finally appeared.

The Emden’s 190 survivors boarded the Sydney which steamed for Colombo. Out of respect for the 134 Germans lost in the battle Sydney wired ahead to request that no cheering be made when she entered the harbour.

At home Sydney’s victory made her an overnight sensation. Her picture appeared on the front page of everything – postcards, packets of flour, playing cards and cereal boxes. She was hailed victorious throughout the breadth of the country. Bringing Australia’s first naval victory to our shores secured Sydney’s place in the annals of our military history. By her actions, she had proven beyond any doubt that the Australian Navy had serious defence capability.

Sydney’s crew assembled on her foc’sle shortly after the engagement with Emden. – source




A.K. McDougall, Australians at War – A Pictorial History, Five Mile Press Revised 2007


[1] It was off the coast near Rabaul that the AE1 was lost on 14 September, 1914 including her 32 men and three officers.

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