Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Attack anniversary

Through the 19th century and until the end of World War II, the Indian Ocean was regarded as a 'British Lake'; such was the volume of British maritime traffic crisscrossing this expanse of water. In 1914, when World War I began, the German light cruiser SMS Emden, with Captain Karl von Muller in command was based at Tsingtao (now Qingdao). In late July, she left her base and after receving orders from Admiral Maximilian von Spee, moved into the Indian Ocean in early September to prey upon the British merchant vessels. In a span of just over 2 weeks, the Emden captured seventeen ships and created so much panic not only at sea, where all shipping was stopped, but also on land, with many residents of Madras fleeing inland, fearing an attack on the city.

Their fear was probably heightend by the knowledge that one man on Emden's crew was Dr Cenpakaraman Pillai, an Indian revolutionary who was a fore-runner to Netaji in taking the help of Britain's enemies to fight for Indian independence. It is said that it was with Dr Cenpakaraman's guidance that the Emden hove-to about 3 km out to sea at 9.30 pm, 95 years ago to this day, and opened fire with its guns, targeting the oil tanks of the Burmah Oil Company in the Port of Madras. That objective was met in short order and the Emden then let loose on the High Court building (where the lighthouse continued to flash, unmindful of the ongoing war), the Port itself (a merchant vessel was sunk, killing 5 seamen. It is said that Karl von Muller was upset on hearing of this later, for they were the only civilians killed by a vessel under his command), the National Bank building and of course on Clive's Battery, which was supposed to protect the harbour. The guns of Clive's Battery took over 20 minutes to organize their response. By 10.00 pm, the 'Bombardment of Madras' was over and the Emden had disappeared.

Chennai retains the memory of that bombardment by this plaque at the spot where one of Emden's shells had smashed into the wall of the High Court. And on this day every year, a small group of people - led by Dr. Cenpakaraman Pillai's nephew - gather at this plaque to remember a freedom fighter whose story has been overwhelmed by the horror of the Emden!

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