1914 - 1918

The Battle of Cocos

Australian National Maritime Museum

HMAS Sydney's defeat of the infamous German raider SMS Emden during Australia's first naval battle of World War I.

The infamous Emden
The destruction of the German raider SMS Emden in the Indian Ocean was of great significance to Australians in the first year of World War I. SMS Emden was a Dresden class light cruiser of the Imperial German Navy. Under Captain Von Müller, Emden has been raiding Allied shipping in the Indian Ocean throughout the last months of 1914, causing chaos in commerce and sinking or capturing 23 merchant vessels and two Allied warships.

Members of Emden's crew.

Despite being hunted by up to 50 warships, Emden wreaked a trail of havoc across the Indian Ocean. For three months newspapers across the world were enthralled with the hunt and wondered where the infamous Emden would appear next.

This German medallion features a portrait bust of Von Müller. It was made as a commemorative piece to honour Emden and its Captain.

The gallant Sydney
On 1 November the First Australian Infantry Force had left Albany, Western Australia bound for war in Europe in a massive convoy of 38 transport ships. With German warships still at large, the convoy was escorted by Royal Australian Navy vessels and a Japanese cruiser. On the morning of the 9th of November the convoy received a wireless message from the Cocos Islands reporting the presence of a ‘strange warship’. The escorting cruiser HMAS Sydney under Captain Glossop (RN) was despatched to investigate.

Photograph of Captain John Glossop and HMAS Sydney from an album of souvenir photographs.

A photograph of the crew of Sydney on 9 November 1914.

The battle
HMAS Sydney had superior armament and speed to Emden. Captain Von Müller’s only chance was to score early hits and move in close enough to Sydney to launch torpedos. At first the battle went well for Von Müller and his crew, with Sydney suffering some damage. But it wasn’t critical and Glossop kept his nerve and distance. Soon enough Sydney’s bigger guns began to decimate Emden.

A page from the log-book kept by Frank Trevor Jones aboard HMAS Sydney.

Emden defeated
In less than two hours the Battle of Cocos was over. Von Müller ran Emden onto North Keeling Island a burning wreck. Sydney had lost 4 dead and 16 wounded while Emden suffered 134 killed and 69 wounded. A further 110, including the captain, were taken prisoner.
Emden's survivors
Some 70 of the Emden survivors were brought to the German Concentration Camp at Holsworthy south of Sydney and interned there for the duration of the war along with nearly 5,000 other Germans who were in Australia at the outbreak of war. While anti-German hysteria raged around the country, many of the prisoners of war and internees whiled away their time making art and handicrafts or writing memoirs.

A clothing flail inscribed with an Emden crew member's name.

Remembering the battle
The Battle of Cocos was the first major engagement of Australia’s newly formed navy and widely celebrated by Australians eager for military achievement on the global stage. The story of Emden’s raiding success and valiant defeat was eulogised in Germany and became the subject of books and films.

Australia produced many souvenirs to mark the momentous event and, when Sydney was decomissioned in 1928 and sent to Cockatoo Island Dockyard for scrapping, the dockyard workers also made a myriad of souvenirs from the ship's materials.

The battle was so well remembered that more than a decade after the event, the German film Kreuzer Emden (The Raider Emden) premiered, recalling Germany's heroic activity in the Great War. This movie poster was produced for the American release of the film in 1928.

Frzählung von Gustav Adolf Erbmann’s 1918 book, SMS Emden and her Captain, tells the other side of the Battle of Cocos, focusing on the heroic and skilful role of Von Müller and his command of Emden.

A great victory
This battle in the Indian Ocean was a great moment for Australians eager to show the military prowess of the new nation on the world stage. But the Battle of Cocos was soon to be overshadowed by larger and more tragic events in Western Europe and at Gallipolli.  
Australian National Maritime Museum
Credits: Story

Curator: Dr Stephen Gapps
Producer: Michelle Mortimer

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