The Last Cruise of a German Raider:

The Destruction of the SMS Emden

By Wes Olson

Reviewed by Devin Poore, August 2019

THE LAST CRUISE of a GERMAN RAIDER details the history of the actions of Emden during the first part of World War I. As a detailed historical account, there isn't much in the way of photos or drawings that would help a modeler builder in regards to Emden's appearance. That said, what little there is comes early in the Wes Olson's book. The book opens with a detailed description of the Emden, which covers everything from the guns and torpedoes she carried, to her size, and speeds during her qualification trials. The author also describes her various compartments, their location in the hull, and their purposes. There is one profile drawing included, showing her as-designed, with a footnote stating she was built with longer prop shafts and larger propellers than depicted in the drawing.

Olson author finishes with the specifics of the ship, he goes into a brief overview of her early naval career, mostly in the Pacific around China, between 1908 and the start of the war. He also delves a bit into the strategy and thinking of the German Navy of that period. We get an overview on aspects such as the dispersion of their German ships to where they'd do most good, and how to supply those far-flung vessels via forward operating supply bases and replenishment ships, be it either through their own colonies, or those of their allies and neutral parties.

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At the opening of WWI, Emden still served as a unit of the German East Asia Squadron, which included the ships Scharnhorst, Gneiseneau, Leipzig and Nurnberg. At the start of hostilities, Emden was quickly detached from the squadron for independent operation, as the remainder of the ships crossed the Atlantic where they would meet their fates at the Battle of Coronel and the Battle of the Falkland Islands. Free to operate on her own, Emden began her true purpose, cruising as an independent raider. Mr. Olson gives much detail to this process, covering exactly what it took to operate such as ship independently in those days. Radio calls to schedule resupply, salvaging coal from captured ships, planning routes based upon anticipated resupply and the types of ships they could hope to capture and the types of coal they burned (coal was a huge consideration at this time), and so on.

The bulk of the narrative is devoted to the period of August to November of 1914, the span of Emden's short yet highly successful wartime actions. During the early August to late October of 1914 timespan, Emden intercepted 32 ships of various types and nationalities. Six of those ships were pressed into service, either as auxiliary cruisers, colliers, or prisoner housing facilities. A few of the remaining ships were released after inspection, but the bulk of them, nearly twenty, were plundered and sunk. 

The book then delves into Emden's most famous period, starting with the sneak attack on Penang Harbor in late October. The ship's most famous battle began with her putting a landing party ashort on Cocos Island on 9 November, to destroy the radio station there. Before being destroyed, however, the station got off a sighting report, which the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney, only 52 nautical miles away at the time, responded to quickly and closed for battle.

Olson goes into great detail of the battle between Emden and Sydney. Told from viewpoints of both ships, it seems that every hit scored and ever man killed or wounded, on both ships, is recounted. Along with the physical descriptions of the battle, the author also takes time to describe how the differences in armaments (Sydney's 6" guns as opposed to Emden's 4.1") made the difference in regards to range and hitting power. The longer range and heavier shells of Sydney's guns allowed her to dictate the battle, during which Emden likely hit Sydney just over a dozen times, while Sydney landed nearly 100 hits on Emden.

With Sydney victorious, the book looks at the wounded, and their care, of the sailor's on both sides. Surgeries are described as well as the patient's eventual fates, and the working conditions are detailed on both Emden and Sydney. One chilling detail is of Sydney being cleaned when she returned to port, as it was necessary to scrub all decks and bulkheads to remove the blood and smells of combat and death.

Not to be forgotten, Olson also gives an account of the journey of Emden's landing party. Stranded on the beach when Emden sailed to meet Sydney, they commandeered a sailing ship, and after thousands of miles and months of sailing, walking, trains, and battle, they arrived in the friendly city of Constantinople in June of the following year.

The remainder of the book speaks to the wreck of Emden. Exposed on a reef, she quickly begins to break apart, due to weather and attempted salvages by authorized and unauthorized parties. Photos of Emden in 1915 show a completely destroyed ship with only one funnel partially remaining. Written reports from 1922 call the wreck "completely destroyed". A salvage firm took what it could in the 1950's. Dives in the early 21st century report that parts of the ship still exist, including a few guns, props and prop shafts, an engine, capstan, a few hull plates, and smaller fittings of brass that are impervious to rust. 

Overall, Wes Olson's book, THE LAST CRUISE of a GERMAN RAIDER: THE DESTRUCTION of SMS EMDEN, is a fascinating read, not only about the career of Emden, but it also provides a window into the warfare of the early 20th century. A further note: the first thing I noticed in picking up the book is its physical quality: thick covers, well printed, securely bound. I'm not sure the actual weight of the paper, but it's substantial, so much so that many times when turning a page, I caught myself making sure two weren't stuck together. I'm not a "purist" who doesn't read books in digital format - I read too much and too widely to put such limits on myself- but I do love a good solid book, and this is one is very well-made. Considering the quality of the text, and that it covers covers everything from ship design, operational logistics, area of operation, operational requirements, and the final battle between Emden and Sydney, the entire package makes this an informative and satisfying read. Highly recommended.