CHAPTER I: KEELING ISLAND
"I REPORT for duty the landing squad from the ship, - three officers, six petty officers, and forty men strong."
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 [Group of coral islands.], 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 3,000 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 reembark 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.