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The Battle of Penang was a World War 1 naval battle off George Town, Penang. On 28 October 1914, an Imperial German Navy cruiser, SMS Emden, sneaked towards George Town and sank two Allied warships before escaping west towards the Indian Ocean.

In late 1914, SMS Emden had been tasked with a solitary raiding mission within the Indian Ocean to disrupt Allied shipping. Led by Kapitän Karl Friedrich Max von Müller, who believed that the French Navy cruiser Dupleix was in George Town, SMS Emden covertly steamed towards Penang Island on the night of 27 October. Cloaked in radio silence and rigged with an additional fake funnel to disguise her as a British Royal Navy cruiser, SMS Emden arrived off George Town at 0430 hours on 28 October. She immediately torpedoed and shelled the Imperial Russian Navy cruiser Zhemchug. After sinking the Zhemchug, SMS Emden sped away from George Town when she spotted the French Navy destroyer Mousquet. The German cruiser quickly sank the Mousquet off the northwestern tip of Penang Island.

135 Allied personnel aboard both the Zhemchug and the Mousquet were killed. After the battle, the wounded Russian sailors were picked up by Penangite Malay fishermen and sent to the Penang General Hospital. The battle highlighted the lack of war-time preparations by the British harbour authorities in George Town, despite receiving intelligence warnings.

10 Russian sailors were buried in George Town and a Russian memorial still stands on Jerejak Island off Penang Island. A buoy off The Esplanade in George Town marks the spot where the Zhemchug was sunk. However, compared to World War 2, during which Penang Island actually underwent Japanese military occupation, the Battle of Penang is relatively less-known amongst Penangites today.

Background

SMS Emden

SMS Emden, an Imperial German Navy cruiser

SMS Emden

SMS Emden, commissioned in 1909 and named after the town of Emden in Germany, was an Imperial German Navy cruiser. Armed with ten 10.5 cm guns and two torpedo tubes, she spent most of her military carrier in Asia and the Indian Ocean. She came under the command of Kapitän ('Captain' in German) Karl Friedrich Max von Müller in 1913.

When World War 1 broke out on 28 July 1914, SMS Emden was stationed in the then German territory of Tsingtao, China; she was the only Imperial German Navy warship throughout China. Kapitän Müller decided to put SMS Emden to sea to commence commerce raiding. SMS Emden's first action during World War 1 would come on 3 August, when her crew captured the Russian steamer, Ryazan. The Ryazan was subsequently converted into the Imperial German Navy auxiliary cruiser Cormoran.

After SMS Emden rejoined the rest of the Imperial German Navy's East Asia Squadron in the Pacific Ocean, the squadron's commanding officer, Count Maximilian von Spee, learned that Japan would enter the war against Germany and that an Imperial Japanese Navy fleet was hunting for his squadron. Count Spee decided to take his squadron to South America, where he can then try to break through to Europe. Kapitän Müller suggested that a cruiser be detached from the squadron to raid Allied shipping in the Indian Ocean. Since SMS Emden was the fastest cruiser in the East Asia Squadron, Count Spee allowed Kapitän Müller to take the Emden for independent operations in the Indian Ocean.

HMS Yarmouth

Kapitän Müller ordered the installation of a fourth funnel on the SMS Emden, in order to disguise her as HMS Yarmouth (pictured here).

As the three funnels on SMS Emden would give it away as an Imperial German Navy warship, Kapitän Müller ordered the installation of an additional dummy funnel to disguise the ship as the British Royal Navy cruiser HMS Yarmouth.

Route of SMS Emden

The route taken by SMS Emden across the Indian Ocean

Between August and October, SMS Emden was active in the Indian Ocean, capturing and sinking Allied merchant ships, as well as bombarding Madras, India. Although the British were aware of German raiding activities in the Indian Ocean, the Royal Navy was unable to track down the SMS Emden.

Meanwhile, after raiding Allied shipping in the western Indian Ocean, Kapitän Müller decided it was time to move to a new area of operations. He thought that the massive French Navy cruiser Dupleix was docked in George Town and that by sinking the better-armed French cruiser, he would be able to finally achieve glory for Germany.

Zhemchug

Imperial Russian Navy cruiser Zhemchug

The Imperial Russian Navy cruiser Zhemchug was armed with eight Canet guns in turrets, four Hotchkiss guns and four torpedo tubes.

The Imperial Russian Navy cruiser Zhemchug, clad in Krupp armour, was commissioned in 1904. She first saw action in the Russo-Japanese War and was badly damaged in the Battle of Tsushima, which ended in a decisive Japanese victory.

In 1914, Commander Baron I. A. Cherkassov was appointed the captain of the Zhemchug. By then, the armoured cruiser was used as a reserve ship protecting Russian interests in China and was in a state of disrepair.

Upon the outbreak of World War 1, the Zhemchug was tasked with escorting Royal Navy and French Navy warships in the East, as well as pursuing the Imperial German Navy's East Asia Squadron together with the British, French and Japanese navies. In October, the Zhemchug was operating in the Bay of Bengal with the Imperial Japanese Navy cruiser Chikuma.

The Zhemchug arrived in George Town on 26 October for repairs and to clean her boilers. Against the advice of the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy's China Station, Vice Admiral Martyn Jerram, Commander Cherkassov gave most of his crew shore leave and left the cruiser disarmed, save for 12 rounds stowed on deck. While the remaining crew aboard were partying rather than keeping watch, Commander Cherkassov himself was inside the Eastern & Oriental Hotel with his mistress.

French Navy destroyer Mousquet

French Navy destroyer Mousquet

French Navy

Three French Navy destroyers Mousquet, Pistolet and Fronde, as well as the French Navy cruiser D'Iberville, were conducting patrols off Penang Island when the Battle of Penang began.

British Penang

Although the British authorities on Penang Island were aware of the ongoing war and received several intelligence warnings, no war-time preparations were undertaken. This was despite the fact that the Port of Penang in George Town was heavily used by Allied merchant and naval vessels alike, making Penang Island an obvious target for the Germans.

This lackadaisical attitude would prove costly, as the war raged on and spread throughout Asia.

Battle

Battle of Penang map, New York Times, 1914

A map from the New York Times showing SMS Emden's course off George Town during the Battle of Penang.

Sinking of the Zhemchug

After replenishing her supply of coal in the Nicobar Islands, SMS Emden steamed under radio silence towards Penang Island on the night of 27 October 1914. Her departure was timed so that she would arrive off George Town at dawn.

Steaming at a speed of 18 knots (33 kilometres / hour), SMS Emden arrived off George Town at 0430 hours on 28 October. Her arrival was undetected.

Imperial German Navy ensign

Imperial German Navy ensign

Emden's crew quickly spotted a docked warship in George Town with her lights on; it turned out to be the Zhemchug. SMS Emden stealthily pulled alongside the Zhemchug at a distance of only 270 metres and at the last moment, hoisted the Imperial German Navy ensign. Once in position, her crew immediately fired a torpedo at the Zhemchug, commencing the Battle of Penang.

The torpedo hit the Zhemchug's aft and Kapitän Müller immediately gave the order for the Emden's 10.5 cm guns to open fire at the Zhemchug. The attack caught the Zhemchug completely off guard. Both the torpedo and the salvo of shells inflicted heavy damage on the Zhemchug, but Kapitän Müller ordered the Emden to turn around to fire a second torpedo at the Zhemchug.

Meanwhile, the startled crew of the Zhemchug rushed to battle stations. They managed to return fire with the Zhemchug's guns, but missed and hit a merchant ship instead.

The Emden then fired the second torpedo at the Zhemchug. The torpedo found its target and a massive explosion tore the Zhemchug apart. The Zhemchug began to sink and 88 Imperial Russian Navy sailors were killed in the attack.

Sinking of the Mousquet

SMS Emden subsequently came under inaccurate fire from the French Navy cruiser D'Iberville and the French Navy destroyer Fronde. Also, Emden's crew spotted what looked like a torpedo boat rapidly approaching the cruiser. The Emden turned and headed towards the new threat at her maximum speed. At 6,000 yards, the Emden opened fire on the boat. However, the boat turned around and showed herself to be a harmless British pilot boat.

Kapitän Müller, fearing the risk of encountering superior Allied warships, ordered the Emden to speed away from Penang Island. Along the way, her crew spotted the Mousquet, which was returning to George Town from patrol. Due to the fake funnel, Mousquet's crew thought that the Emden was a Royal Navy warship in pursuit of an enemy vessel and followed the Emden.

Out in the open sea off the northwestern point of Penang Island, Emden's crew once again raised their German naval ensign and opened fire at the Mousquet. The Mousquet retaliated by firing two torpedoes at SMS Emden, but both missed their targets.

The Emden then fired a torpedo at the Mousquet, which hit the French cruiser. Both ships continued to exchange salvos of gunfire, but soon, the outgunned Mousquet began to sink.

47 French Navy sailors were killed and the remaining crew of 36 were picked up by the Emden. Three of the 36 survivors later succumbed to their injuries. In a very rare act of chivalry, the Germans gave the three a burial at sea with full honours.

Mousquet's two sister ships, Pistolet and Fronde, attempted to pursue SMS Emden, but lost sight of the Emden in a rainstorm.

Order of Battle

Imperial German Navy

  • Cruiser :
    • SMS Emden

Imperial Russian Navy

  • Cruiser :
    • Zhemchug

French Navy

  • Cruiser :
    • D'Iberville
  • Destroyers :
    • Mousquet
    • Pistolet
    • Fronde

Aftermath

When the Zhemchug started to sink, Malay fishermen rushed to the scene to rescue the Russian sailors in the water. More than 100 injured Russian sailors were fished out from the sea and sent to the Penang General Hospital in George Town. They were treated for many months prior to their repatriation to Vladivostok, Russia.

The Battle of Penang significantly shocked the Allies. They delayed all large convoys travelling from Australia north through the Indian Ocean, believing that larger, more powerful escorts were needed.

The embarrassed British initially tried to silence the press on Penang Island from reporting about the German sneak attack. The British then blamed their own allies - the French for cowardice and the Russians for incompetence.

During the battle, Commander Cherkassov could only watch in horror from the Eastern & Oriental Hotel as his ship sank to the bottom of the Straits of Malacca. He was later court-martialled for negligence while on duty and sentenced to 3.5 years in prison, as well as a reduction in rank and status as an Imperial Russian Navy officer and a member of the Russian nobility respectively.

Battle of Cocos

A Royal Australian Navy sailor on the deck of HMAS Sydney watching the beached SMS Emden after the Battle of Cocos.

Two days after the battle, SMS Emden stopped the British steamer Newburn and transferred all the wounded French Navy sailors to the Newburn after they signed statements promising not to return to the war.

On 9 November 1914, merely 12 days after the Battle of Penang, SMS Emden was engaged by the Royal Australian Navy cruiser HMAS Sydney in the Battle of Cocos. The Emden was badly damaged, forcing Kapitän Müller to beach his cruiser on North Keeling Island to prevent her from sinking.

Legacy

Zhemchug Memorial, Western Road Cemetery, George Town, Penang

The Zhemchug Memorial within the Western Road Cemetery, George Town

Ten Imperial Russian Navy sailors were buried in the Western Road Cemetery in George Town. A plaque with a symbolic ship anchor was later installed within the cemetery. An inscription on the plaque reads 'To the officers and men of the Russian Navy cruiser 'Zhemchug' - Their grateful motherland'.

Russian memorial, Jerejak Island, Penang

The Zhemchug Memorial on Jerejak Island off Penang Island

Another two Imperial Russian Navy sailors were buried in Jerejak Island, east of Penang Island. Their graves are marked by another monument commemorating the Imperial Russian Navy sailors who lost their lives during the Battle of Penang. Soviet Navy sailors renovated the monument twice, in 1972 and 1987.

To this day, the Russian Embassy in Malaysia holds memorial services twice yearly at both memorials.

Penang Cenotaph

The Cenotaph in George Town

In addition, a red buoy northeast of The Cenotaph in George Town marks the spot where the Zhemchug sank. The location of The Cenotaph, which was also built to commemorate the fallen Allied servicemen of World War 1, could not be more poignant.

The Penang State Museum counts among its exhibits an anchor salvaged from the Mousquet.

References

  1. Langdon, M. A Guide to George Town's Historic Commercial and Civic Precints. Penang : George Town World Heritage Incorporated.
  2. http://rbth.com/arts/2015/05/20/battle_of_penang_when_malay_fishermen_rescued_russian_sailors_46165.html
  3. http://www.thestar.com.my/lifestyle/features/2014/06/28/the-battle-of-penang/
  4. http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2011/05/05/russian-heroes-in-battle-of-penang/
  5. http://www.worldwar1.co.uk/emden.html
  6. http://teochiewkia2010.blogspot.my/2011/05/penang-ww1-naval-war-1914.html

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