HMAS Sydney and the sinking of the Emden

HMAS Sydney (I). Photo Courtesy Australian War Memorial.

In late 1914 HMAS Sydney was accompanying the first convoy of AIF troops leaving Australia to fight in the First World War. However, a few days after the convoy left Albany WA, the Sydney was ordered to investigate the presence of a suspicious vessel near the Cocos Islands.  The ship turned out to be the German Cruiser Emden which had been terrorising Allied shipping across the Indian Ocean since the beginning of the war.

On 9 November 1914 the Sydney found the Emden and immediately went into action.     A few days later Stoker Henry Nielsen wrote a letter to his mother living in Rockhampton, Queensland, telling her of their great victory.   The account below has been taken from his letter which appeared in the Morning Bulletin newspaper on 6 January the following year.

Emden before she was destroyed by HMAS Sydney at Cocos Keeling Islands in Nov 1914.

“Just a line to let you know I am still alive and kicking in spite of the Emden.   I have nothing to write about except our scrap with the Emden.   We got a wireless message from Cocos Islands about seven o’clock on the 9th instant saying that there was a German warship lying there with a collier.   We were about fifty or sixty miles away from there, and we altered course and made for Cocos at full speed.”

“We came up with the Emden about 9.30 am and she let go a shot at us at 11,000 yards.   We let go a ranging shot immediately after, and then both ships went at it hammer and tongs. …  Our shots told far more than theirs as we were only slightly damaged and our shots carried away her bridge, foremast, and three funnels in quick succession. Early in the fight the Emden caught fire and continued to burn throughout.”

“One of their shots wrecked our range-finder and killed the men who were working it.”

Emden at Cocos Keeling Islands viewed from a HMAS Sydney boat dated 9 Nov 1914. Courtesy State Library of NSW, FL541160.

“The action lasted an hour and thirty-six minutes.   The Emden got an awful doing and the captain beached her on South Keeling Island.   She continued to fire for a short time after she was aground, but we soon silenced her. …”

“She was still flying the German flag, and when signalled would not reply so we put another broadside into her and she fired another couple of shots.   However, they did not want any more as they pulled the flag down. …  It was late in the afternoon when the Emden hauled down her flag and we went out to sea and cruised about outside until morning.  … We then went back to the Emden to see what we could do for the wounded.   We were there all the remainder of that day fetching off German wounded, and prisoners. …”

“From mainmast to stern she is just a shell, there being only the deck and hull left, all the rest being burnt out.   Her three funnels are lying over the top of one another.   Her foremast is down and her bridge is blown away.   The starboard side of her deck is full of great holes, and she is torn up everywhere.   There are holes in the side that you could walk through. …”

Postcard commemorating the Sydney’s victory..

“During the action we made the best speed the Sydney ever did.   We got just on thirty knots out of her.   Pretty good going!.   …  When we had finished with the Emden’s wounded we came on to [Colombo, Sri Lanka], arriving here last Sunday.”

Stoker Nielsen survived the war and was discharged from the Navy in 1919.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.

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