When Madras was bombarded by the Germans
By Sruthisagar Yamunan | ENS - CHENNAI
20th August 2012 09:47 AM
This is perhaps one distinction of Madras that is truly historical in the real sense. Being one of the most important colonial centres of the British Raj, Madras that is now Chennai, by 1914, had already gained a fair bit of reputation as a colonial naval base. But on September 22 that year, the city entered the history books by being the one Indian city to be bombarded during World War I.
The German warship that accomplished this feat, ‘SMS Emden’, is among the legendary war cruisers that traversed the oceans in the 20th century. For its achievements, it was aptly called the ‘Swan of the East’, indicating both its beauty and prowess.
Not many who witnessed the bombardment of Madras on that fateful night are alive today, making it extremely difficult to get a first hand account. However, there exists a treasure trove of literature on this legendary light cruiser, including the book written by its iconic captain, Karl von Muller and the now popular The Last Gentleman of War: The Raider Exploits of the Cruiser Emden by RK Lochner.
Seventy-seven-year-old lawyer M R Sehsadri, a long time resident of Madras who is currently in New Delhi, says that the bombardment is a tale that was often repeated by his father M Ramanuja Iyengar during his childhood.
He says while the threat of war was indeed looming large on the country, the night, according to his father, was quiet. Accounts of the night reveal that the light cruiser entered the harbour undetected by the stationed British forces. The shells targeted the Burma Oil Company tankers built in the harbour, destroying several of them and starting a huge fire. Lochner’s book, on Page 111, wonders if the British had any clue about the war. He asks,” Didn’t the port authorities know anything about the war, or did Madras feel so impenetrably secure that it could flaunt precaution?”
The book also mentions that the beacon light, probably an allusion to the lighthouse then situated on the Madras High Court complex, flashed “unexpectedly” when the cruiser approached the harbour, making their approach easier.
However, the crew was considerate. The book says that “Emden’s target was angled so that even an inaccurately aimed shell would not fall in the narrow streets.” Interestingly, a few shells also fell near the Madras High Court premises, bringing down a compound wall. A plaque commemorating the incident was placed on the High Court premises, while the unexploded shells are now kept at the Government museum.
Even before the British forces could retaliate, the cruiser moved its shelling to a merchant ship, and sneaked out and headed towards Pondy. Some accounts also claim that an Indian national was aboard the cruiser helping the crew execute the attack.
- UPA-II anniversary: No honest appraisal
- Woolwich attack provokes anti-Muslim backlash across UK
- Bangladesh allows transit for foodgrains for Northeast India
- Increasing friction between the Chandy and Chennithala factions
- 'Data shows gambling rampant in India'
- Madrasi heart for Pakistani Madrassa teacher
- Somayagam returns after 48 years
- Not a drop of Cauvery for people on its banks