Navy’s first battle of World War One offers lessons for today

Published on LEUT Debra Holland (author), Mr Ross Coyle (photographer)

Location(s): National Press Club, Canberra

Topic(s): HMAS Sydney (I)

Naval historian and journalist Mike Carlton (right) with Head of the Future Submarine Program, Rear Admiral Greg Sammut, at the National Press Club in Canberra. (photo: LEUT Debra Holland)
Naval historian and journalist Mike Carlton (right) with Head of the Future Submarine Program, Rear Admiral Greg Sammut, at the National Press Club in Canberra.

Naval historian and journalist Mike Carlton drew parallels between Australia's first successful naval battle in the First World War and current maritime security challenges when he delivered the annual Vernon Parker Oration for the Australian Naval Institute at the National Press Club, Canberra recently.

Before an audience that included Second World War veterans, “more admirals than at the Battle of Trafalgar” and naval cadet officers from the Australian Defence Force Academy, Mr Carlton gave a vivid and engaging account of the events of 9 November 1914 when the light cruiser HMAS Sydney destroyed the German raider SMS Emden in action off Cocos-Keeling Islands.

Carlton told the gathering that there were detailed plans to attack Australia's seaborne trade should Germany go to war against England and the British Empire. This would cut commerce and communication links between Britain, Australia and New Zealand  and was coupled with the very real threat of German warships sent to bombard Sydney and Melbourne and other port cities.

“So Australia was directly menaced by Imperial Germany lying just over the northern horizon (in German New Guinea and New Britain), a threat that our forebears understood very well.  

“And it was a threat not just to Australia. Our exports of wool, of wheat, of gold and meat were vital to the economy of Britain. Take wool alone: essential for Britain's army and navy. No wool, no uniforms,” he said.

Under the command of Captain Karl von Müller, a “capable and honourable” commander, Emden proved a formidable asset in Admiral Maximilian von Spee's East Asiatic Squadron.

In the three months leading up to the encounter with Sydney the German raider had menaced the Indian Ocean capturing or sinking 21 Allied vessels.

HMAS Sydney (I), under the command of the equally competent Captain John Glossop, was one of three warships escorting the first ANZAC troop convoy towards Europe via the Middle East when she was ordered to investigate a suspicious vessel reported entering Port Refuge in the Cocos Island group.

It was a “baptism of fire” for Glossop, his combined British and Australian crew and for the Royal Australian Navy itself, but the element of surprise and Sydney's bigger guns soon prevailed.

Lessons and truths realised through Sydney-Emden battle and reinforced during our Navy's actions in the Second World War were still relevant today and into the future, Mr Carlton told guests. 

“Paramount of these (truths) is that Australia is a maritime nation,” he said.

“We are one of the world's great trading powers, but no other has a coastline like ours, washed by the waters of three great oceans. 

“And none of those great trading powers is so dependent, so reliant as we are, on the security of the seas to sustain the inbound and outbound trade in commodities that is our lifeblood. Maritime security is not merely desirable for Australia; it is the very core of our existence,” he said.     

The full transcript of Mike Carlton's oration can be found at the Australian Naval Institute’s website:

His book ‘First Victory 1914 - HMAS Sydney's Hunt for The German Raider Emden’ is published by William Heinemann Australia.