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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

Direction Island Cable Station
and the Battle of Cocos

In November 1914, a German landing party from the SMS Emden attempted to put out of action the cable station on Direction Island, one of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, now part of Australia.

While the landing party was still ashore, the Emden was attacked by an Australian light cruiser, HMAS Sydney, and ran aground on North Keeling Island (where its remains still lie today). Marooned on Direction Island, the officer in charge of the landing party, KapitänLeutnant (First Officer) Hellmuth von Mücke, commandeered the schooner Ayesha which was moored in the lagoon, and sailed it with his crew to the Dutch East Indies. There they boarded a German steamer to Turkey, then travelled overland by a circuitous route to Germany, where they arrived after many adventures seven months after leaving Cocos.

While still at war, von Mücke wrote a book about this arduous voyage, titled The “Ayesha”, being the Adventures of the Landing Squad of the “Emden”, which was translated into English by Helene S. White and published in the USA in 1917. The first part of the book describes the landing on Direction Island and the destruction of the cable station, and is reproduced below.

Bill Glover sets the stage for these events:

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands consist of 27 coral islands situated between latitudes 11° 49' and 12° 12' S and longitudes 96° 49' and 96° 56' E. They were discovered in 1609 by Captain William Keeling, a Royal Navy commander and agent of the East India Company, while returning to England with a convoy from the Dutch East Indies.

The islands remained uninhabited until 1826 when Alexander Hare, a former East India Company official, arrived and settled on Direction Island with a group of Malays. The following year a former trading partner of Hare and former East India ships captain, John Clunies Ross, arrived with his wife and family and a number of Malay seamen, who formed a settlement on Home Island. The trading partnership had not been very successful and problems soon arose between the two groups. After eight years of discord Hare decided to leave and moved to Batavia. John Clunies Ross died in 1853 and was succeeded by his son John George Clunies Ross.

In 1857 the Admiralty issued Captain Fremantle of HMS Juno instructions to annex the Cocos Islands. Clunies Ross was appointed Governor by Fremantle and later the British Government gave the Clunies Ross family perpetual lease of the islands.

The Clunies Ross family established coconut plantations on the islands, building up a successful business dealing in copra which they transported, in their own schooner, to Batavia for onward transmission to London or Hamburg. They carried mail to and from Batavia as well as supplies.

When it became clear that the Pacific cable would go ahead the Eastern Extension, Australasia & China Telegraph Company decided to improve its service to Australia. It leased land on Direction Island from the Clunies Ross family, building a cable station on the site. The new cable route was Durban - Mauritius - Rodriguez Island - Cocos - Perth and Adelaide.

On the morning of 9 November 1914, cable station staff on Direction Island saw a warship approaching. Having been warned about SMS Emden the wireless operator sent out a message. “Strange warship approaching.” This was soon followed by “SOS! Emden here.” These messages were picked up by a passing troop convoy and one of the escorts, HMAS Sydney, was despatched at full speed.

SMS Emden, 9 November 1914

The Captain of SMS Emden, Fredrich von Muller, sent a landing party of fifty men and officers with instructions to destroy equipment and cut the cables. Emden’s steam launch and two cutters were used to ferry the party ashore. The station staff were rounded up and placed under guard while the rest of the landing party set about destroying instruments and trying to cut the cables. They succeeded with the Perth cable but failed with the one to South Africa.

While this was going on the crew remaining aboard Emden saw smoke on the horizon and assumed it was their collier Buresk. Realising that the vessel approaching was a warship they weighed anchor and signalled the landing party to return. Unable to reach the Emden, the landing party headed for the Clunies Ross schooner Ayesha, anchored in the lagoon. They sailed Ayesha to the Dutch East Indies, where they boarded a German steamer which took them to Turkey. From Turkey they travelled overland, reaching Germany seven months after leaving Cocos.

“Well Done Australia”
HMAS Sydney which ended the career of the elusive
& notorious German Cruiser Emden Nov 1914

The first salvo in the battle was fired by Emden at 9.40 am. This caused damage and casualties aboard Sydney. It was twenty minutes before Sydney scored a major hit, but from then on it was only a matter of time. The battle ended at 11.15 am. when Captain Muller ran the Emden aground on North Keeling Island.

For more background information see Bill Glover’s Cocos (Keeling) Island stamps page

75th anniversary souvenir sheet showing the engagement of the Sydney and the Emden

This photograph of the wreckage of the Emden and the further set at the end of the page are courtesy of John Boyd, whose great uncle, Robert Langley Boyd, was a cableship captain from the 1890s until the 1930s. The photographs have come down in the family, but it is not known if they were taken by Captain Boyd.

Inscribed on the reverse:
Wreckage of the Emden
H.M.S. Sydney in distance

Despite the caption, examination of an enlarged view of the distant ship shows that it is not the Sydney. It is believed to be RMS Empress of Japan, a liner converted to an auxiliary cruiser in 1914 after the start of the war, which is recorded in various references as having been on the scene.
See the comparison below of the ship in the Emden wreck photo (top) and the Empress of Japan (bottom):

While these events were unfolding at sea, First Officer von Mücke was ashore:

THE “AYESHA”

CHAPTER I

KEELING ISLAND

“I report for duty the landing squad from the ship, - three officers, six petty officers, and forty men strong.”

KapitänLeutnant
Hellmuth von Mücke

It was on the ninth of November, 1914, at six o'clock in the morning that I reported for duty to the commanding officer of his Majesty’s ship, “Emden,” Captain von Mueller, at the gangway of the ship. The “Emden” was lying at anchor in Port Refuge, a harbor formed by Keeling Reefs. Alongside were the two cutters in which the officers and men of the landing squad had already taken their places. The steam launch was ready to push off and tow them ashore. My orders were to destroy the wireless telegraph and cable station on Direction Island, which is the most northerly island of the Keeling group, and to bring back with me, in so far as possible, all signal books, secret code books, and the like.

Three cables run from Direction Island, one line to Mauritius, another to Perth in Australia, and a third to Batavia. As this station was the last absolutely British connection between Australia and the motherland - the other cables having been cut by some of the other ships of our cruising fleet - we had every reason to suppose that we would meet with vigorous military resistance. For this reason we were taking with us all of the four machine guns that the “Emden” carried. Two were aboard the steam launch, the others had been put on the cutters. The men were equipped with rifles, side arms, and pistols. The launch took the cutters in tow, and we were off for Direction Island.

Even quite small boats must pick their way very carefully while within the waters of this atoll, in order to avoid the numerous, constantly changing coral reefs. The course that we were to take from the ship to the point at which we were to land, covered a distance of about 3000 meters.

Direction Island is very flat, and is covered with a luxuriant growth of tall palms. Among their towering tops we could discern the roofs of the European houses and the high tower of the wireless station. This was our objective point, and I gave orders to steer directly for it. Just below our landing place a small white sailing vessel was riding at anchor.

“Shall we destroy that, too?” inquired one of my lieutenants, pointing to the little schooner.

“Certainly,” was my answer. “It has sailed on its last voyage. Detail a man at once to be ready with the explosive cartridges.”

With our machine guns and firearms ready for action, we landed at a little dock on the beach, without meeting with resistance of any kind, and, falling into step, we promptly proceeded to the wireless station. The destruction of the little white sailboat was deferred for the time being, as I wished first of all to find out how affairs on shore would develop.
We quickly found the telegraph building and the wireless station, took possession of both of them, and so prevented any attempt to send signals. Then I got hold of one of the Englishmen who were swarming about us, and ordered him to summon the director of the station, who soon made his appearance, - a very agreeable and portly gentleman.

“I have orders to destroy the wireless and telegraph station, and I advise you to make no resistance. It will be to your own interest, moreover, to hand over the keys of the several houses at once, as that will relieve me of the necessity of forcing the doors. All firearms in your possession are to be delivered immediately. All Europeans on the island are to assemble in the square in front of the telegraph building.”

The director seemed to accept the situation very calmly. He assured me that he had not the least intention of resisting, and then produced a huge bunch of keys from out his pocket, pointed out the houses in which there was electric apparatus of which we had as yet not taken possession, and finished with the remark: “And now, please accept my congratulations.”

Congratulations! Well, what for?“ I asked with some surprise.

“The Iron Cross has been conferred on you. We learned of it from the Reuter telegram that has just been sent on.”

We now set to work to tear down the wireless tower. The men in charge of the torpedoes quickly set them in place. The stays that supported the tower were demolished first, and then the tower itself was brought down and chopped into kindling wood. In the telegraph rooms the Morse machines were still ticking busily. What the messages were we could not decipher, for they were all in secret code. But we chuckled with both amusement and satisfaction as we pictured to ourselves the astonishment of the senders, who were waiting in vain for a reply to their messages, for, from the vigorous action of the apparatus, we concluded that some information was eagerly desired. But this, to our regret, it was not in our power to furnish.

Our next duty was quite to the taste of my vigorous boys in blue. A couple of heavy axes were soon found, and, in a few minutes, Morse apparatus, ink bottles, table legs, cable ends, and the like were flying about the room. “Do the work thoroughly!” had been our orders. Every nook and corner were searched for reserve apparatus and other like matter, and everything that bore any semblance of usefulness in a wireless station was soon destroyed. Unfortunately this fate was shared by a seismometer that had been set up on the island. In their zeal my men had mistaken it for a lately invented addition to the telegraph service.

To locate and cut the submarine cables was the most difficult part of our task. A chart, showing the directions in which the cables extended, was not to be found in the station, but close to the shore we discovered a number of signboards bearing the inscription, “Cables.” This, therefore, must be the place where we must search for the ends of the cable strands. Back and forth the steam launch carried us over the cables that were plainly to be seen in the clear water as we tried to grasp them with a couple of drags and heavy dredging hooks, which we drew along the bottom. It was no light task, for the cables were very heavy, and the only power at our command was a very limited amount of human strength. For a while, it seemed impossible to draw the cables to the surface; in the end, after we had succeeded in raising the bight of the cable a little, my men had to get into the water, dive, and tie tackle to it, by the aid of which we continued our labor. With great difficulty we at length succeeded in getting the cable strands into the boat. I did not want to use any of the dynamite cartridges for the work of destruction, as the “Emden” might have need of them for the sinking of more steamers. So we set to work upon the stout cables with crowbars, axes, driving chisels, and other like implements. After long and weary labor, we succeeded in cutting through two of them, and we then dragged the ends out to sea, and dropped them there. The third cable was not to be found in spite of our diligent search for it.

A small house of corrugated iron, in which were stored quantities of reserve apparatus and all sorts of duplicate parts, was blown up and set on fire with a couple of explosive cartridges. All newspapers, books, Morse tapes, and the like, we took away with us.

Our landing squad was just about to re-embark when, from the “Emden,” came the signal “Hurry your work.” I quickly summoned my men, abandoned my intention of blowing up the small white schooner as a matter of little importance, and was on the point of pushing off from shore, when it was reported to me: “The 'Emden' has just sounded her siren.” This was the command to return to the ship with the utmost despatch. As I was boarding the steam launch, I saw that the anchor flag of the “Emden” was flying at half mast, which told us that she was weighing anchor. The reason for this great haste was a mystery to me, and, for the present, was no concern of mine. All my effort was bent upon getting back to the ship as speedily as possible. With all steam on we raced toward the “Emden,” taking the shortest course between the reefs.

Meanwhile, the “Emden” had turned seaward, and was running at high speed out of the harbor. My first thought was that she was going to meet our tender, the “Buresk,” that had been ordered here with coal, and which, I supposed, she was going to pilot through the reefs. In this belief I continued to follow the “Emden” as fast as I could, but was surprised to find her going at a speed of from sixteen to seventeen miles. Our launch, with the heavily laden cutters in tow, could make barely four miles an hour.

Suddenly we saw the battle flags on the “Emden” run up, and then a broadside burst from her starboard. Even yet the reason for all this was hidden from me, and I believed the “Emden” to be in pursuit of a steamer that had come in view.

But now a salvo of five heavy shells struck the water just aft of the “Emden”; five tall waterspouts marked the places where they fell into the sea. There was no longer any room for doubt; we knew that a battle was on in earnest. The “Emden’s” opponent we could not see, for the island, with its tall palms, was between us. The “Emden,” in the meantime, had increased her distance from us to several thousand meters, and was adding to her speed with every moment. All hope of overtaking her had therefore to be abandoned, and I turned back.

CHAPTER II

THE “AYESHA”

We landed at the same place at which we had gone ashore before. Again I ordered all the Englishmen to assemble, and their firearms were taken from them. The German flag was raised on the island, which was declared to be under martial law; every attempt to communicate by signal with any other island, or with the enemy’s ships, was forbidden; my officers were given orders to clear the beach for defence, to mount the machine guns, and to prepare to intrench. Should the engagement between the two ships prove to be a short one, I could count with certainty upon the enemy’s cruiser running into port here, if for no other reason than to look after the station. It was not my intention, however, to surrender without a blow an island on which the German flag was flying.

The Englishmen on the island were little pleased at the prospect, and begged permission, in case it should come to a battle, to withdraw to one of the other islands. Their request was granted.

Accompanied by two of my signal men, I now took my station on the roof of the highest house to watch the fight between the two cruisers. As a whole, the Englishmen showed little interest in the conflict that was going on but a few thousand meters distant from the island. Other matters seemed to claim their attention. With an ingratiating smile one of them stepped up to our officers, who were head over ears in work down on the beach, and asked:

“Do you play tennis?”

It was an invitation which, under the circumstances, we felt compelled to decline.

By the time I had reached the roof, the fight between the “Emden” and the other cruiser was well under way. I could not identify the enemy’s ship, but, judging from her structure, and the amount of water raised by the falling shells, I concluded that it must be one of the two Australian cruisers, the “Sydney” or the “Melbourne.” As the columns of water raised by the enemy’s shells were much taller than those caused by the “ Emden’s,” I estimated the guns of the enemy to be of 15 centimeter caliber.

The “Sydney,” for she it was, as I learned later, was more than a match for the “Emden.” Our ship of 3600 tons displacement could deliver a broadside of only five 10½ centimeter guns, and had no side armor, whereas the “Sydney,” being a vessel of 5700 tons displacement, could fire a broadside of five 15.2 centimeter guns, and had armored sides. From the very beginning, the “Emden’s” fire reached its mark on the enemy’s cruiser, whose guns, it must be said, were aimed pretty badly. The water spouts that were raised by their falling shells were mostly several hundred meters distant from one another. But when one of the volleys did hit, it made havoc on our unarmored vessel.

During the very first of the fight, the forward smoke stack of the “Emden” was shot away and lay directly across the deck. Another shell crashed into the stern aft of the cabin, and started a great blaze, the gray smoke of which was mixed with white steam, showing that the steam pipes had been damaged. The “Emden” now turned sharply about and made a dash for her foe, apparently for the purpose of making a torpedo attack. It cost her her foremast, which was shot away and fell overboard. For the moment it seemed as though the enemy’s ship intended to discontinue the fight, for she turned and ran at high speed, followed by the “Emden.” Whether the “Sydney” had suffered serious damage which could not be discerned from without, I could not tell. Perhaps it was simply her intention to increase her fighting distance from the “Emden,” in order to take advantage of the greater caliber of her guns.

The running fight between the two ships now took a northerly course at an ever increasing distance from the island, and soon the two cruisers, still fighting, were lost to view beyond the horizon.

The point for me to settle now was what to do with the landing squad. So far as our ship was concerned, the damage she had suffered at the hands of a far superior foe was so great that a return to the island, even in the event of a most favorable outcome of the battle, was out of the question. She must run for the nearest port where she could make repairs, bury her dead, and leave her wounded. At the same time I could count with certainty upon the arrival of an English war vessel ere long in Keeling harbor, to learn what had befallen the cable and wireless station. For, had not the telegraphic service to Australia, Batavia and Mauritius been cut off entirely?

With our four machine guns and twenty-nine rifles we could, for the time at least, have prevented the English from making a landing on the island, but against the fire of the English cruiser’s heavy guns, which would then have been directed against us, we would have had no defence whatever. Taking everything into consideration, therefore, we could do no more than defer the surrender of a position that, from the outset, it had been impossible to hold. Moreover, confinement in an English prison was little to our taste.

Now, fortunately for us, the small white schooner that we had failed to blow up was still riding at anchor in the harbor. It could, and it should help us to escape from our predicament. I decided to leave the island on the little boat. Her name was “Ayesha,” and at one time she had served to carry copra from Keeling to Batavia two or three times a year, and to bring provisions back with her on her return trip. Now that steamship service had been established between these two points, she lay idle and dismantled in the harbor, and was gradually falling into decay.

The “Ayesha”

Taking no one with me, I got into the steam launch and went out to the schooner to learn whether she was at all seaworthy. The captain and a single sailor were aboard her. Of the former I inquired casually whether he had any ammunition aboard, for I did not wish him to suspect the real purpose of my coming. He said there was none, and a brief inspection of the ship led me to believe that she was still seaworthy. Consequently I sent my officers and men aboard the “Ayesha” to get her into trim for sailing.

There was plenty to do on the little ship. All the sails and rigging had been taken down and stowed away, and had now to be put in place again..

When the Englishmen on the island realized that it was my intention to sail off in the schooner, they warned me with great earnestness against trusting ourselves to her, saying that the “Ayesha” was old and rotten, and could not stand a sea voyage. Furthermore, they informed me that an English man-of-war, the “Minotaur,” and a Japanese cruiser were in the vicinity of the island, and that we would surely fall a prey to one of them.

As my predecessor in command of the “Ayesha” was leaving her, he wished us Godspeed, and concluded with the comforting remark, “But the ship’s bottom is worn through.”

When, in spite of all these warnings, we remained firm in our purpose, and continued the work of getting the “Ayesha” ready for sea, the sporting side of the situation began to appeal to the Englishmen, and they almost ran their legs off in their eagerness to help us. Could it have been gratitude that impelled them to lend us their aid? It is a question I have never been able to answer to my satisfaction, although, to be sure, several of them did express a feeling of relief at the thought that now the fatiguing telegraph service with its many hours of overwork, and its lack of diversion, was a thing of the past. They showed us where the provisions and water were kept, and urgently advised us to take provisions from the one side, where they were new and fresh, rather than from the other, where they were stale. They fetched out cooking utensils, water, barrels of petroleum, old clothes, blankets, and the like, and themselves loaded them on trucks and brought them to us. From every side invitations to dinner poured down upon us; my men were supplied with pipes and tobacco; in short, the Englishmen did all they could to help us out.

Nor were they sparing with advice as to the course we ought to take, and time proved that all they told us of wind and weather, of currents, etc., was in every way trustworthy. As the last of our boats left the shore, the Englishmen gave us three hearty cheers, wished us a safe journey, and expressed their gratitude for the “moderation” which we had shown in the discharge of our duty, wherein all of our men had behaved “generously,” they said. Then, cameras in hand, they still swarmed about the “Ayesha,” taking pictures of her.

Meanwhile the lookout on our ship reported that the two battling cruisers had come into sight again. From the top of the “Ayesha’s” mast I could at first see only the thick cloud of black smoke that the “Sydney’s” smoke stack was belching forth, but soon the masts, smoke stacks and upper deck came in sight. Of the “Emden” I could see only one smoke stack and one mast; the rest of the ship was below the horizon. Both cruisers were steering an easterly course, and both were still firing their guns.

Suddenly, at full speed, the “Sydney” made a dash at the “Emden.” “Now,” thought I, “the 'Emden’s' last gun has been silenced, and the `Sydney' is running at her to deal her her death blow.” But then, in the black smoke of the English ship, between the foremast and the nearest smoke stack, a tall column of water shot up, which could only be the result of a serious explosion. We supposed that it was caused by a well-aimed torpedo shot from the “Emden.” The “Sydney,” which was still running at a speed of twenty nautical miles, now made a quick turn to starboard, changed her course entirely, and steamed slowly westward. The “Emden” continued to steer an easterly course. Both ships were still firing at each other, but the distance between them grew greater and greater, until finally they were beyond the reach of each other’s guns. The fight was over. In the approaching darkness both vessels were soon lost to sight beyond the horizon. That was the last we saw of them. The conflict, which had begun at about 8.30 in the morning, ended at six o'clock in the evening. The report, published in all the English newspapers, that it was only a “sixty minutes’ running fight” is therefore to be classed with the many similarly false reports made by the English.

The oncoming darkness now warned me to make my way as speedily as possible out of the harbor, for the dangers of the coral reefs render it unsafe for navigation after nightfall. In the meantime we had taken aboard water enough for four weeks, and provisions for eight. The sails had been bent on as best they could be. I made a short speech, and with three cheers for the Emperor, first in command, the war flag and pennant fluttered up to the masthead of his Majesty’s latest ship, the schooner “Ayesha.” Slowly the steam launch took us in tow. I climbed to the top of the foremast, as from there I could best discern where lay the reefs and the shoals, for of charts we had none. With the boatswain’s whistle I gave the launch orders to steer to starboard or to port, according to the lay of the reefs. The “Emden’s” two cutters we carried in tow.

Our departure was much too slow to suit us. The sun was setting, and in these latitudes, so near the equator, there is no twilight. No sooner has the sun disappeared below the horizon than the blackness of midnight reigns. We had not passed quite through the danger zone of the reefs before it grew so dark that, from my position on the foremast, I could not see ahead sufficiently far to direct our course. In order to be able to see anything at all, I climbed down into the port fore channels close by the water, and gave my orders from there.

Just as we were passing the last reef that might prove dangerous to us, we spent some anxious moments. Suddenly, in spite of the darkness, I could see every pebble, every bit of seaweed on the bottom, an unmistakable evidence that we were in very shallow water. Our lucky star guided us over this shoal also, however, and we did not run aground.

Meanwhile we had set some sail, and had thus lightened the work of the steam launch, which still had us in tow. Before long we were free of the sheltering islands, and the long, heavy swells of the ocean put some motion into our new ship.

When we were far enough out at sea to sail our boat without danger of running into the surf to leeward, I called the steam launch back to the ship, so as to take off the crew. The heavy swell made this manoeuvre no light task. Again and again the little steamboat was dashed against the side of the “Ayesha,” and, although the future of the launch was of little interest to me, this unexpected encounter between my old ship and my new one gave me serious concern. I had no confidence in the “Ayesha’s” ability to endure with safety such vigorous demonstrations of friendship. Finally, however, we succeeded in ridding ourselves of the steam launch in this way: the last man aboard her started her engine again with the little steam that was left in the boiler. Then, from aboard the “Ayesha,” we reached over with a boat hook, and turned the rudder of the steam launch to port. Courtesying elegantly, the little boat drew away from us, and soon vanished in the darkness. Whither it went, I do not know. In all likelihood it found a grave in the surf that beat wildly only a few hundred meters away. Perhaps, however, it is still beating about the ocean, raiding on its own account.


There is no further mention of Direction Island or the cable station in the book, but the story continues, chronicling the many hardships encountered by von Mücke and his crew as they made their way back to Germany. As the translator of this edition noted in her preface:

“That men placed in almost daily peril of their lives can retain their sense of humor and a kindly attitude toward men and circumstances throughout a desperate struggle with adverse conditions is a happy testimony to the buoyancy and to the superiority to the merely physical that courage in the face of danger begets.

“Although always bravely confident, there is an engaging ingenuousness and freedom from self-conceit in Lieutenant von Mücke’s delightful recital of his amazing achievement, while his never failing appreciation of the humorous side of the situation illumines the entire narrative as with flashes of sunshine.”


The wreckage of the SMS Emden
Images courtesy of and copyright © 2012 John Boyd

The Australian War Memorial website has a page on HMAS Sydney.

A medal commemorating the sinking was issued in Australia; the medals incorporated a portion of the Mexican silver dollars recovered from the Emden.

Last revised: 2 July, 2014

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