The Bat­tle of Pe­nang

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - INSIGHT - By DINA MU­RAD star2@thes­tar.com.my

JUST a few months af­ter World War I broke out, a his­toric bat­tle took place just off this coun­try’s coast, in Oc­to­ber 1914. While Malaya’s suf­fer­ing dur­ing World War II is well known, few are aware of the im­port and scale of what is now called the Bat­tle of Pe­nang.

Dur­ing WWI, Pe­nang was a prin­ci­pal Bri­tish port, used as an in­ter­me­di­ary to ship cargo, mer­chan­dise and mil­i­tary per­son­nel and equip­ment be­tween East Asia and Bri­tain. Due to the po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary al­liances of the war, the har­bour was also put to use by French and Rus­sian forces al­lied with the Bri­tish.

Rip­ples of war­fare in far-flung Europe touched the shores of Pe­nang on Oct 28, 1914, when a Ger­man ship at­tacked Al­lied ves­sels in a sur­prise one-day of­fen­sive off the coast of Ge­orge Town.

Lt Com­man­der Karl von Müller, cap­tain of the Ger­man cruiser SMS Em­den, re­ceived no or­ders for the unimag­in­able risk he took.

“Von Muller thought that the mas­sive French cruiser Du­pleix was in Pe­nang, and sink­ing her, de­spite her su­pe­rior fire-power, would achieve glory for Ger­many in a way that com­merce-raid­ing could never do,” ex­plains Dr John Robertson, a re­tired Bri­tish psy­chi­a­trist with a mil­i­tary back­ground who pub­lished The Bat­tle Of Pe­nang in 2012.

A covert strike was launched just be­fore day­break by the Em­den, which had al­ready es­tab­lished a record for sin­gle-hand­edly sink­ing over 20 Al­lied mer­chant ships with­out be­ing in­ter­cepted.

Cloaked in ra­dio si­lence and rigged with a mock smoke stack in a suc­cess­ful im­i­ta­tion of Bri­tish ves­sels, the Em­den en­tered Pe­nang wa­ters un­de­tected and promptly launched its at­tack against the docked Al­lied ships.

By the time the Ger­man na­tional flag was raised and a tor­pedo was launched against Rus­sian light cruiser Zhem­chug, it was far too late for Al­lied ships to re­spond. The Zhem­chug, which had been sent East as a mil­i­tary es­cort for French and Bri­tish ships, sank af­ter tak­ing nu­mer­ous ar­tillery blows from the Em­den; 89 sailors died and 143 were wounded.

The Em­den then fired an­other tor­pedo at French de­stroyer Mous­quet, which was just re­turn­ing to port from pa­trol. That at­tack claimed 47 men, with 36 re­main­ing crew taken as pris­on­ers of war

by the Em­den. Three of the pris­on­ers suc­cumbed to their in­juries later; in an act of chivalry and in hon­our of his ad­ver­saries – in a time when such deeds were of­ten over­looked – Von Muller awarded the three a burial at sea with full honours.

The other pris­on­ers were moved to Sa­bang, Su­ma­tra, which was then neu­tral ter­ri­tory as part of the Dutch East Indies.

Im­me­di­ately af­ter the Bat­tle of Pe­nang, the is­land’s lo­cals were quick to ex­tend a help­ing hand to the in­jured and gave them what­ever treat­ment was avail­able.

“Many Rus­sian sailors drowned and Pe­nang Hospi­tal was overwhelmed with Rus­sian ca­su­al­ties. They were cared for by lo­cal people and ex-pats for many months be­fore repa­tri­a­tion to Vladi­vos­tok, Rus­sia. Many of the in­juries were ap­palling and needed great skill and ded­i­ca­tion from lo­cal Pe­nan­gites, who fished them out of the har­bour and then nursed them back to health,” says Dr Robertson.

Al­though an at­tack on Pe­nang had been an­tic­i­pated, Bri­tish har­bour au­thor­i­ties failed to im­ple­ment ad­e­quate safety mea­sures de­spite re­peated warn­ings from French and vis­it­ing Bri­tish com­man­ders, says Dr Robertson.

“At first (af­ter the bat­tle), the Bri­tish tried to muz­zle the lo­cal press, and then, in a sin­gu­lar act of per­fidy, the Bri­tish govern­ment blamed their own al­lies – the French for cowardice and the Rus­sians for in­com­pe­tence. nei­ther was true, but that ver­sion of events has stuck for the past 100 years ... ’til now!” he claims.

In­deed, the of­fi­cer in charge of the Zhem­chug, Com­man­der Cherkassov, was later court-mar­tialled and found guilty of neg­li­gence for be­ing ab­sent from his ship dur­ing the at­tack.

As with many tri­umphs of war, the Em­den’s vic­tory was not long cel­e­brated. Only 10 days later in the In­dian Ocean, the Ger­man ves­sel was sunk by an Aus­tralian light cruiser, the HMAS Syd­ney, in the Bat­tle of Cocos. Some 134 crew­men of the Em­den fell in the bat­tle and 69 were wounded. Von Müller and other sur­vivors were made pris­on­ers of war.

To­day, the mem­ory of the lit­tle known bat­tle in Pe­nang wa­ters is pre­served by me­mo­ri­als erected on the is­land in hon­our of the Al­lied fallen.

On Jere­jak Is­land, Pe­nang’s very own for­mer Al­ca­traz, there is a me­mo­rial for two crew mem­bers of the Zhem­chug. An­other trib­ute can be found in the Western Road Ceme­tery in the shape of an an­chor, with the sac­ri­fice made by the Rus­sian soldiers etched in stone.

Ac­cord­ing to Dr Robertson, the Em­den’s raid­ing in the Pa­cific – which played havoc with the es­sen­tial trade routes of the French and Bri­tish em­pires – left a last­ing im­pres­sion and in­flu­enced later-day naval tac­tics.

“no­body re­alised it at the time, but it demon­strated the ex­tra­or­di­nary ef­fec­tive­ness of com­merce-raid­ing in mod­ern naval war­fare, a strat­egy that was later pur­sued by sub­marines with such deadly ef­fec­tive­ness in the At­lantic by the Ger­man Ad­mi­ral Karl Donitz in WWII,” he says.

“The blame for the loss of those two war­ships, with their ap­palling loss of life, has hitherto al­ways been laid at the feet of the French and the Rus­sians. This myth has now been ex­ploded, and both the Rus­sians and the French, on this 100year an­niver­sary, can hold their heads up and be proud of them­selves, know­ing that they were not to blame for the loss of so many of their brave sailors and coun­try­men on that fateful day.”

The Bat­tle Of Pe­nang by John Robertson is avail­able at a 20% dis­count through its dis­trib­u­tor, Ger­ak­bu­daya. E-mail gerak@ger­ak­bu­daya. com, call 03-7957 8342 or go to gbger­ak­bu­daya. com/book­shop.

In memo­riam: an an­chor marks the grave of the Zhem­chug’s rus­sian soldiers at Ge­orge town’s Western road Chris­tian Ceme­tery. — File pic

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