Warships Sunk off Penang in World War I

By Enzo Sim

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Mousquet, as photographed in 1902.

Photos from the Imperial War Museum, UK unless stated otherwise.

THROUGHOUT WORLD WAR I, Penang was indispensable to British war efforts as a hub supplying men, commodities and funds. Apart from being an important communication centre linking other key British outposts via telegraphic cables, Penang also played a significant role in securing safe passage for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) troops transported to the ill-fated 1915 Battle of Gallipoli in Turkey.

During the first few months of the war, the German community in Penang were briefly detained by British authorities. However, they were released on parole two days later and only had to report to the police every day. While battles raged on ferociously in Europe and as tensions rose sharply in China, life went on as usual in Penang with German trading houses continuing their daily businesses uninterrupted. [1]

Nonetheless, growing suspicions about espionage activities in Penang eventually culminated in the arrest of 30 Germans, most of them private merchants. They were held overnight at the Penang Club and at Fort Cornwallis before being transferred to St. John’s Island in Singapore.

Karl von Müller, Captain of SMS Emden.

Meanwhile, along the busy shipping routes in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, the German light cruiser, “Seiner Majestät Schif” (SMS) Emden, had been successfully picking off Allied merchant ships caught unaware, and seizing most of their valuable cargoes. In mid-September, it even mounted a surprise attack on Madras (modern day Chennai), leaving bunkering tanks and facilities of the Burmah Oil Company and a telegraphic office ablaze. [2] By the end of September, four more British merchantmen were sunk by Emden, as reported in The Times.

Considering the disruptions Emden’s raids on the Allied war effort caused to the transportation of cargoes and delays in the deployment of ANZAC troops, Vice-Admiral Sir Martyn Jerram mobilised the Allied Far East Squadron at Penang under the command of the Royal Navy’s Hampshire to track down and destroy Emden—consisting of a Russian light cruiser Zhemchug; a French contingent with two destroyers, Mousquet and D’Iberville and two torpedo boats; as well as two Japanese cruisers, Ibuki and Chikuma. [3]

This mobilisation of forces reflects the effectiveness of German naval guerrilla warfare in tying down Allied resources; it had already sunk 23 merchant ships.

On board Emden, its commander, Captain Karl von Müller and his crew had been gathering intelligence through conversations with captured merchant crews and newspapers obtained from captured ships. Among the valuable information gathered was the fact that they were under hot pursuit by Allied warships on the Indian Ocean. With this, von Müller decided to launch a pre-emptive strike on the heart of Allied warship patrols—in Penang.

By now, von Müller had also learned about the Allied Yarmouth’s destruction of Emden’s tender ship, Markomannia, in the waters off Simeulue Island on the west coast of Sumatra, with her German crew’s capture on 12 October.

Four days later, Yarmouth arrived in Penang with 62 German naval crewmen. They were marched through the streets of George Town under armed guard to the Penang prison for transportation by rail to Singapore to be interned. [4] This further cemented von Müller’s determination to wreak havoc on the Allied warship base in Penang before moving on to disrupt Allied shipping lines around Socotra Island by the Horn of Africa.

Route taken by Emden during her commerce raiding operations.

Showdown In Penang

In the wee hours of October 28,1914, as most of Penang’s inhabitants soundly slept, Emden slowly made its way towards the island’s harbour after arriving north of Muka Head at 2am. The Muka Head lighthouse and the harbour were brightly illuminated—a carelessness on the part of the British that would cost them dearly.

To disguise itself as Yarmouth, which had a fourth funnel, von Müller ordered for a dummy fourth funnel, which the crew had constructed earlier, to be rigged up. Emden made her way into the outer harbour unchallenged by harbour authorities.

At 5.04am, from a distance of 800m, the crew of Emden spotted the Russian warship Zhemchug, quietly anchored off the outer harbour. Under the cover of darkness, Emden opened fire on Zhemchug at 5.18am. The shells hit the heart of Zhemchug and plumes of black smoke rose into the air as fire broke out on board.

Despite managing to return some ill-targeted fire on Emden, Zhemchug exploded into flames and broke into two parts on being hit by several more rounds by Emden, before sinking into the sea. [5]

Zhemchug as photographed in 1909.

The commotion had awakened many Penang residents even from as high up as the Crag Hotel in Penang Hill. Residents scrambled to the best vantage points to watch the spectacle. People residing near the harbour, including guests staying at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (E&O Hotel) were also awakened by the loud explosion of the hotel’s seawall—one of them was Ivan Cherkasov, the captain of Zhemchug. He watched helplessly from his room where he was spending the night with his wife, as his cruiser sank into the water.

As it began to steam northwards after destroying Zhemchug, Emden encountered Merbau, a harbour patrol boat which it mistook for an enemy destroyer—possibly an optical illusion caused by the sea-mist—prompting Emden’s gunners to open fire. Merbau’s stern was damaged and an engineer on board was injured, forcing it to sail off as fast as it could towards the shores of Tanjung Tokong.

Emden immediately ceased fire upon realising its mistake and swiftly continued steaming northwest before coming across Glenturret, a British merchantman carrying explosives aboard. Glenturret was spared when Emden’s crews spotted a suspicious vessel far out to starboard—the French destroyer, Mousquet, which had just returned from patrolling the northern waters of the Straits of Malacca.

SMS Emden as photographed in 1910.

Upon reaching a suitable range of her guns, Emden fired her salvos, which struck Mousquet’s super-structure and boiler, obliterating it from the water 16km off Muka Head as the latter launched a counter-attack in vain. At 10.07am, after sinking two Allied warships, the victorious Emden managed to escape unscathed, and steamed west in the direction of Weh Island, northwest of Sumatra.[6]

Before leaving the scene after sinking Mousquet, the crew of Emden managed to rescue 36 survivors who were all transferred, except for three of them who succumbed to their wounds aboard Emden, to a Singapore-bound English cargo ship.

Depiction of the Battle of Penang in a German postcard.

At the end of the day, the Russians bore the brunt of the assault, with 86 lives lost and 250 rescued, while the French suffered 43 lives lost. Despite continuous efforts to rescue the Russian and French naval crew on the first day, bodies continued to be pulled from the water, with two bodies identified as Russian sailors washing up on the shores of Jerejak Island, where they remain buried today. 24 others were also buried at the Western Road Cemetery, where a Russian naval memorial stands to this day as commemoration of them.[7]

The raid on Penang proved to be Emden’s final act of bravado. Thanks to the technology of radio transmission, Emden’s location, as it arrived at the Cocos Island on 9 November to sever the Allies’ transoceanic telegraph cable and radio mast, was finally tracked down by the Royal Australian Navy.

Arriving at the scene the same day, Australia’s HMAS Sydney shelled Emden with well over 100 rounds, forcing it to run aground before von Müller, together with his crew, came out surrendering. He would be interned as a prisoner of war until the end of the war, before being repatriated back to Germany. [8]

Map depicting the 1914 battle which was published in the New York Times.

A detachment of his crew led by Emden’s second-in-command, First Officer Hellmuth von Mucke, who had been sent ashore to sever telegraph cables, managed to evade capture and eventually escaped via sea and land routes. They reached Turkish-controlled Hodeiddah in Yemen before making a lengthy overland journey back to Germany.

With the end of this hostile engagement—and the first for Australia’s navy—the biggest maritime threat to Allied shipping in the Far East was finally cleared.

Memorial commemorating fallen French officers of the Mousquet erected in the churchyard of the Church of the Assumption. (Photo courtesy of Tan Khoo Beng).

Today, although little has changed in places such as the terrace of the E&O Hotel where guests witnessed the naval battle, and as the Zhemchug wreckage continues to lie beneath the waters marked with a buoy, few in Penang will remember the only naval battle ever to take place here.

Russian naval memorial commemorating fallen Russian naval soldiers of the Zhemchug cruiser which was erected in the Western Road Cemetery. (Photo courtesy of Tan Khoo Beng).


[1] Khoo, S. Nasution (2006), More Than Merchants: A History of the German Speaking Community in Penang, 1800s–1940s, (pp. 50–pp. 75), Penang: Areca Books.

[2] Hohenzollern, F.J. (1928), Emden: My Experiences in SMS Emden, English translation (pp. 120–pp. 129), London: Herbert Jenkins.

[3] Navy List (1914), London: HMSO (pp. 23–pp. 50), London: J.J. Keliher & Co. Ltd.).

[4] Penang Gazette, October 24, 1914, (p. 127).

[5] Hohenzollern, F.J. (1928), Emden: My Experiences in SMS Emden, English translation (pp. 240–pp. 245), London: Herbert Jenkins

[6] Huff, P. G. (1994), SMS Emden War Logs, English Translation, (pp. 140–pp. 154).

[7] Kritskiy, N. N. Buyakov, A. M. and Shugaley, I. F. (2004) Last Battle of the Cruiser Zhemtchug. English translation, (pp. 25–pp. 49). Vladivostok: FEFU Press.

[8] McClement, F. (1968) Guns in Paradise: The Saga of the Cruiser Emden, (pp. 90–pp. 105). Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Enzo Sim

is a Mass Communications graduate who has an unwavering passion towards international relations, history and regional affairs of Southeast Asia. His passion has brought him to different Southeast Asian capitals to explore the diverse cultural intricacies within the region.