Journalist Mike Carlton is an impassioned writer on whatever subject he turns his attention to, mainly Australian politics and society. But when it comes to the Royal Australian Navy, he hoists the battle ensign and hits full steam ahead.
Enough of the naval metaphors. Carlton’s previous book, Cruiser: the life and loss of HMAS Perth and her crew, dealt not only with that ship’s remarkable actions in World War II, but the injustice in not fully recognising the deeds of her master and crew.
It’s similar with First Victory. Carlton wants to tell a ripping yarn, but he also wants to make a point. The exploits of HMAS Sydney and her quarry, the German raider Emden, are worthy enough material, but Carlton uses the book to argue that Australia had no choice but to become engaged in World War I.
He points out that before the outbreak of war, Germany had developed a flourishing colonial empire in Asia and the Pacific, including German New Guinea ‘at our very doorstep’. Moreover, as war grew ever more likely between European powers in the early 1900s, Germany was drawing up plans to choke the lucrative and vital shipping trade between Australia and Britain.
By 1911, the German East Asia Squadron already had war orders to carry it out. And when war broke out two years later, they did just that.
Aided by an established espionage network in Australia, the Germans unleashed havoc on Allied merchant shipping in the Indian Ocean. And it was all down to one light cruiser, the SMS Emden and her wily master, Kapitan Zur See Karl von Muller, who became the war’s first celebrity.
The recently commissioned RAN had as its flagship the battlecruiser HMAS Australia, which could outgun any German ship in the Pacific. This deterrent kept the main German fleet at bay, but the Emden was given free reign to roam the Indian Ocean merchant shipping lanes.
In three months, Von Muller and his crew captured 26 ships, of which 19 were sunk including a Russian cruiser and French torpedo boat. He became a celebrity on both sides of the war for his daring and his chivalry in saving crews before sinking their ships.
His raids even held up the first Australian and New Zealand troop convoy in Western Australia.
In the end bad timing caught the Emden, which had raided the Cocos Islands to destroy communications stations and undersea cables. Von Muller was unaware that the Anzac convoy had set out and was only 80 kilometres away, and it was the escort cruiser HMAS Sydney which broke away for the engagement which would bring about the destruction of the Emden.
It’s one hell of a story, and for the most part it’s the deeds of the Emden and her cast of remarkable characters that enthrall the reader. The exploits went on even after the Emden was run aground, with some of her crew making a daring escape in a rotting schooner and finding their way back to Germany after astonishing land and sea adventures.
Whether or not you’re convinced of Carlton’s belief that Australia had to join the war, you have to acknowledge his compelling argument and swashbuckling high seas drama.
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