World War I was only a few days old when the German light cruiser SMS Emden, patrolling off the Korean Peninsula, spotted its first target. Shortly after 4 am on August 4, 1914, lookouts spotted what they believed to be the Russian cruiser Askold. The Emden’s crew readied for action. The Russian vessel fled before it, prompting Emden’s crew to fire a series of warning shots. The vessel slowed after the tenth round and stopped after two more.
A boarding party from the Emden discovered that it had not overtaken the cruiser Askold, but instead the 3,500-ton Russian merchant vessel Ryazan. The vessel, which had 80 passengers, had no cargo aboard that would make it a valuable prize. But Captain Karl von Muller, the commander of the Emden, decided to bring the large, fast ship to the German naval base at Tsingtao, China, for conversion into an armed merchant cruiser.
The boarders took control of the vessel and ran up the German flag. The two ships arrived in China on August 6. By the end of the month Ryazan would leave port, renamed the Cormoran and under German control. It was the German Navy’s first prize of the war, and it marked the beginning of an amazing record for the Emden.
Although the U-boat is often seen as the star of the German Navy during the Great War, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s small force of ships scattered around the globe also gave good service. Some were warships built for specific purposes, and others were converted merchantmen. They had one thing in common, though. They all raided enemy shipping and tied up large numbers of Allied ships dedicated to hunting them. Of all Germany’s raiders, none had a career as bold as the Emden.