The name Sydney is one of the most famous ever carried by an Australian warship. The first Sydney was a Town Class light cruiser; one of three ordered in 1910 which were part of the initial Australian fleet unit.
Traditionally cruisers were the most versatile element of a naval force. A cruiser’s role was to go anywhere and to do anything and they were to prove particularly useful in the role of trade-protection and scouting duties.
The Town Class cruisers were really a group of classes, each representing a steady improvement in sea-keeping and war-fighting capabilities. Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane belonged to the third group known as the Chathams.
These incorporated a side belt of 3-inch armour to improve protection against high-explosive shells, while better stability resulted in increased accuracy of their gunnery.
The first cruiser laid down for the RAN was Sydney which was launched in August 1912 by Lady Henderson, wife of Admiral Sir Reginald Henderson. She commissioned at Portsmouth on 26 June 1913 under the command of Captain John C.T. Glossop RN. She departed Portsmouth on 25 July 1913 and first arrived on the Australia Station at Albany on 19 September 1913.
On 4 October 1913 she formed part of the Australian Fleet Unit that ceremonially entered her namesake harbour to a rapturous welcome from tens of thousands of spectators who turned out on the shores of the harbour to welcome the arrival of ‘their’ fleet.
Following a period spent in eastern Australian waters, Sydney proceeded to Singapore in March 1914 to meet and escort to the two new Royal Australian Navy submarines, AE1 and AE2, which were en route to Australia from England. Sydney spent the remaining months of the pre war period working up in Australian waters.
The days preceding the outbreak of war in August 1914 found Sydney in Queensland waters.
On 3 August 1914 she was joined at Townsville by the destroyers HMAS Warrego and Yarra before proceeding north to form a unit of Admiral Patey’s Pacific Squadron.
Following the outbreak of war on 4 August 1914, Sydney operated in New Guinea and Pacific waters and in the brief campaign against the German Pacific possessions during which she carried out a series of punitive patrols.
Highlights during this period included the capture of Rabaul (9 to 11 September 1914) and the destruction of the Angaur Island Wireless Station on 26 September 1914.
In October 1914, Sydney and her sister ship Melbourne detached from the Flagship HMAS Australia and returned to Australia to form part of the escort for the first ANZAC convoy which consisted of some 38 means of transport.
The convoy’s escort comprised Sydney, Melbourne, HMS Minotaur and the Japanese cruiser Ibuki.
The convoy sailed from Albany on 1 November 1914 and on the morning of 9 November 1914 was steaming some 50 miles east of the Cocos Islands.
At about 0620 on 9 November, wireless telegraphy (W/T) operators in several transports as well as in the escorting warships received signals in an unknown code followed by a query from the Cocos Island W/T station, ‘What is that code’? It was in fact the German cruiser Emden under the command of Captain Karl von Müller, ordering her collier Buresk to join her at Point Refuge to coal.
Shortly afterwards, the Cocos Island telegraphists signalled ‘Strange warship approaching’ followed later by the same message prefixed by ‘S.O.S.’ – the international distress call.
Emden had by then anchored in Port Refuge and immediately dispatched a landing party, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Von Mücke, with orders to destroy the cable and wireless stations.
As Von Müller patiently awaited the return of his landing party, smoke was sighted on the horizon which was at first assumed to be the Buresk. Soon afterwards the masts of the approaching ship were recognised as those of a warship.
The ship Von Müller had spotted was Sydney which, as the nearest warship to the Cocos group, had been ordered by Captain Silver in Melbourne to proceed at full speed to investigate. By 0700 Sydney was ‘away doing twenty knots’ and at 0915 had simultaneously sighted the island and the Emden some seven or eight miles distant.
At first Captain Glossop could not tell whether the ship sighted was Emden or the Königsberg, both of which were thought to be at large in the Indian Ocean at that time.
In Emden, Von Müller immediately recalled his landing party, raised steam and cleared his ship for action.
Unable to wait any longer for the return of his shore party he weighed anchor and cleared the harbor to the north-north-west to try and improve his position with the intention of inflicting as much damage on Sydney as possible in the opening stages of the inevitable engagement.
Emden opened fire at a range of 10,500 yards using the then very high elevation of thirty degrees.
Her first salvo was ‘ranged along an extended line but every shot fell within two hundred yards of Sydney.’ The next salvo was on target and for the next ten minutes the Australian cruiser came under heavy, accurate fire.
Fifteen hits were recorded but fortunately ‘only five burst.’ It was during the opening stage of the engagement that Sydney sustained all of her casualties. Two shells from a closely-bunched salvo hit the after-control platform wounding all of the personnel closed up there, while a direct hit on the upper-bridge range-finder took off the operator’s leg putting the equipment out of action.
Sydney’s first salvo went ‘far over the Emden’. The second fell short and the third scored two hits. Meanwhile, Von Müller, aware that his only chance lay in putting Sydney out of action quickly, maintained a high rate of fire, reported to be a salvo every six seconds.
It was to no avail. In spite of the damage to her range-finders Sydney used her superior speed and firepower and raked the German cruiser.
Her shells wrecked the enemy’s steering gear, shot away both range-finders and smashed the voice pipes, severing communications between the conning tower and the guns.
Shortly afterward Emden’s forward funnel toppled overboard followed by the foremast which carried away the primary fire control station and wrecked the fire-bridge. Despite the damage and the inexorable end, Von Müller continued the engagement. Half his crew was disabled until ‘only the artillery officer and a few unskilled chaps were still firing.’
Finally, with his engine room on fire and with a second funnel gone, he gave the order ‘to the island with every ounce you can get out of the engines.’ Shortly after 1100, Emden was seen to be fast on the North Keeling Island Reef.
When Glossop saw that his opponent was aground and incapable of movement, he left her in order to pursue the Buresk, which during the action had hovered in the vicinity to the north.
Overtaking the vessel shortly after noon, he fired a shot across her bows to stop her and sent an armed boarding party across to secure her as a prize. Her German crew, however, had opened and then damaged the sea cocks to prevent her capture and she was already sinking.
The boarding party and German crew were consequently recovered and four shots were fired into Buresk by Sydney to speed her on her way to the bottom.
Glossop’s attention now returned to Emden which he reached at approximately 1600.
On nearing her it was observed that she was still flying the German ensign at the mainmast.
A signal was made to her by flag hoist ‘Do you surrender’. The Emden made back by Morse flags (wig-wag) ‘no signal books, what signal’. Sydney responded, using Morse flags, with ‘Do you surrender’ followed shortly afterward by ‘Will you surrender’. No reply was received from Emden and the order was given to ‘open fire, aim for the foot of the mainmast’.
Several salvoes were fired when a man was seen to be climbing aloft in Emden. Glossop ordered his gun crews to ‘cease fire’ and the German ensign was subsequently seen to be hauled down and a white flag waved as a token of surrender. The Imperial ensign was subsequently destroyed by the Germans as soon as it was hauled down.
Once Emden had surrendered, Glossop dispatched a boat manned by some of the seamen from the Buresk with water and a letter to be delivered to Captain Von Muller. Glossop’s letter read:
I have the honor to request in the name of humanity that you now surrender your ship to me.
To show how much I respect your gallantry, I will recapitulate the position. You are ashore, three funnels and one mast down and most guns disabled. You cannot leave this island and my ship is intact. In the event of you surrendering, in which I venture to remind you is no disgrace but rather your misfortune, I will endeavor to do all I can for your sick and wounded and take them to a hospital.
With night approaching Sydney departed the area and sped towards Direction Island to try and capture the Emden’s landing party.
They arrived too late, learning that Von Mücke, having witnessed Emden’s destruction from the shore, had commandeered the schooner Ayesha and made good his escape. He, together with his landing party, eventually made it safely back to Germany following an epic journey over sea and land.
Sydney returned to the aground Emden the following morning where the situation onboard the crippled raider was desperate. Men were lying killed and mutilated in heaps. The ship was riddled with gaping holes and had been gutted by fire.
Emden’s chief surgeon, Dr. Luther, had done what he could for the wounded during the preceding night whom he had attended unassisted and with only a scant supply of dressings and appliances. Under difficult circumstances, Sydney’s crew took on some 190 German survivors during a transfer that lasted five hours.
The wounded, many of them seriously, were attended devotedly by Sydney’s young surgeon lieutenants (L. Darby and A.C.R. Todd) and medical staff who, assisted by Dr. H.S. Ollerhead from Direction Island, worked for forty hours without sleep to ease their suffering.
The Sydney, then heading for Colombo, rendezvoused with the auxiliary cruiser Empress of Russia on 12 November 1914 and all prisoners who could be moved were transferred to her. On 15 November 1914 Sydney arrived in Colombo from where she later proceeded to Malta where she arrived on 3 December.
From Malta, she was ordered to Bermuda to join the North America and West Indies Stations for patrol duties. For the next eighteen months, Sydney was engaged in surveillance duties off neutral ports in the Americas.
On 9 September 1916 Sydney finally left Bermuda, arriving at Devonport on 19 September before proceeding to Greenock for refit.
On 31 October 1916, she was temporarily attached to the 5th Battle Squadron at Scapa Flow. On 15 November she sailed for Rosyth and on arrival joined her sister ships HMS Southampton, HMS Dublin, and HMAS Melbourne as part of the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron, attached to the 2nd Battle Squadron of which HMAS Australia was the flagship. For the remainder of the war, her service was confined to North Sea patrols.
On 4 May 1917, while on patrol from the Humber estuary to the mouth of the Firth, Sydney fought a running engagement with the German Zeppelin (airship) L43 until Sydney had expended all the anti-aircraft ammunition and the L43 all her bombs – ‘the combatants parted on good terms.’
Later, in August 1917 Sydney commenced a three-month refit at Chatham, during which the tripod mast now situated as a memorial at Bradley’s Head, Sydney, NSW was fitted to her. Of more significance, however, she was fitted with the first revolving aircraft launching platform to be installed in a warship.
On arrival at Scapa Flow in December 1917, her commanding officer, Captain Dumaresq, borrowed a Sopwith Pup then being operated from a fixed platform on the cruiser Dublin for use onboard Sydney.
On 8 December 1917, the aircraft was launched successfully from Sydney’s platform in the fixed position. It was the first aircraft to take off from an Australian warship.
Nine days later the Pup flew off the platform turned into the wind; the first time any aircraft had been launched from such a platform in the revolved position. Early in 1918 Sydney took on board a Sopwith Camel, the standard fighter plane which superseded the Sopwith Pup.
On 1 June 1918 as the Royal Navy force to which Sydney was attached entered enemy controlled waters, two German seaplanes were sighted by Sydney at 0933 diving towards HMAS Melbourne.
Both aircraft dropped bombs but no hits were scored. Lieutenant A.C. Sharwood, RAF was quickly strapped into the cockpit of Sydney’s Sopwith 2-F1 Camel, N 6783, and turned into the mean wind 20 degrees off the centerline of the ship. The launching party comprised his engine fitter Birch; rigger Radcliffe and joiner/mechanic Graffy under the direction of Sydney’s First Lieutenant, Lieutenant Commander Garsia, RAN. Sharwood was launched at 0955 and Melbourne’s Camel, N 6756, piloted by Flight Lieutenant L.B. Gibson was launched at 1000.
Gibson climbed into the cloud but failed to locate the enemy aircraft. He returned to circle the force and played no further part in the subsequent air action. This led the captains of HM Ships Courageous and Glorious to think that the enemy had been driven off and consequently they did not launch their aircraft.
Sharwood, meanwhile, had climbed to 10,000 feet and pursued the German aircraft for 60 miles before he was able to engage, diving onto one of the aircraft and firing bursts into it. Official accounts mention only the two seaplanes but Sharwood’s Log Book recalls “Flight from Sydney after three Hun Seaplanes.
Evidently, it was the single-seater which he had hit, observing it shudder before diving into the sea. As he followed it down he was ‘bounced’ by another German aircraft, which he engaged before breaking off the attack when his guns jammed.
He was now faced with the dilemma of returning safely to Sydney which by now was over 70 miles away. By luck he saw the Harwich Force destroyer HMS Sharpshooter below him and ditched alongside it, where he was rescued by sea-boat. The cruiser HMS Canterbury later recovered the aircraft.
Sharwood’s claim of one enemy seaplane forced down was not recognized by the Admiralty because there was no independent corroboration and his gallantry was never rewarded but the interception confirmed Dumaresq’s faith in the future of aircraft.
Sydney was present at the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow on 21 November 1918 and was again involved with a German ship carrying the name Emden when she escorted her old enemy’s namesake into Scapa Flow for internment.
Sydney sailed from Portsmouth on 9 April 1919 for the return passage to Australia calling at Gibaltar, Malta, Port Said, Port Suez, Aden, Colombo, Singapore, Penang, and Thursday Island before arriving in her home port of Sydney on 18 July 1919.
Sydney had come the long way home and her arrival passed almost un-noticed until the following morning when passengers on the Sydney ferries became aware of her presence at her buoy. The return was an anti-climax, but for her crew, many of whom had last seen the port almost four years ago, the thrill of being home was an ample reward.
In 1918 a commemorative medallion was struck by the Navy to recognise Australia’s first naval fight.
The centre-piece for this medallion consisted of a Mexican silver dollar, of which some 6429 were recovered from the wreck of Emden.
The coins were mounted by the Sydney jeweler W. Kerr and presented by Captain Glossop to the officers and men of the Sydney who were on board at the time of the engagement.
Others were given to the staff on Cocos Island as well as the Admiralty, the Australian War Memorial and other approved museums. The remainder was sold to the public. Of the remaining un-mounted coins 653 were distributed by the Department of Navy, 343 were sold to the public and 4433 were melted down and the money used by the RAN Relief Fund.
Another medal was commissioned on behalf of the citizens of Western Australia to specifically recognise the part played in the battle by officers and sailors in Sydney who came from Western Australia. This medal was cast in silver by J.C. Taylor’s Jewelry Works of Perth and depicted an engraving of the Sydney with the words ‘To Commemorate the Victory Over the Emden’ above it.
Except for visits to New Guinea in 1922 and New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands in 1927, Sydney spent the remainder of her seagoing career in home waters, serving as Flagship of the Australian Squadron from September 1924 to October 1927.
She paid off at Sydney on 8 May 1928 and on 10 January 1929 was delivered to Cockatoo Island for breaking up. Sydney’s stern and several other artifacts including guns from her main armament were donated to the Australian War Memorial and a number of other museums and naval bases around Australia.
HMAS Sydney’s Ships Bells
HMAS Sydney carried two ships bells. One which commemorated the ship’s commissioning in 1911 and another that was presented to the ship on her arrival in her namesake port in 1913. The second bell was of solid silver weighing approximately 1000oz.
It bore a representation of the City of Sydney Coat-of-Arms and the words ‘Presented by the citizens of Sydney to HMAS Sydney’. Both the coat-of-arms and the lettering were hand carved.
When HMAS Sydney (II) arrived in Australia the bell was transferred to her in a continuation of the tradition. Regrettably the bell was lost when HMAS Sydney (II) was sunk on 19 November 1941 following a fierce engagement with the German raider HSK Kormoran.
*This article was originally published at www.navy.gov.au