At the foot of Western Hill in George Town, on Malaysia’s Penang Island, is a curious monument. Located under a broad canopy of yellow acacia trees and sited among a jumble of white stone crosses, it is a vertical granite slab. Next to it stands a Russian Orthodox cross and a steel anchor whose chain wraps around the upright stone. Its inscription, in Russian, reads: “To the officers and men of the Russian Navy cruiser Zhemchug from their grateful motherland.”
The monument was erected in 1975, more than 60 years after the ship sank in George Town Harbor, taking with her 82 crew members. Their remains were fished out of the harbor and interred in the Western Road Cemetery. The graves are still tended, by the Hai Thong Shipping Company, the agents for the Russian vessels that call on Malaysian ports. Sailors from Russian merchant ships visiting Penang often put fresh carnations on the site, as Russian custom prescribes.
Even today, some old men and women in Penang can remember hearing stories from their parents of that “bloody dawn” on 28 October 1914, when the distant European war suddenly erupted at their doorstep. But the fate of the cruiser Zhemchug is more than just an interesting footnote in the history of World War I at sea. It is a cautionary tale, universally applicable to every naval seaman of what can happen when you let your guard down.
The Tale Unfolds
The protected cruiser Zhemchug was one of two vessels of her class built in St. Petersburg and commissioned in 1904. She had six 4.7-inch guns, later increased to eight, as her main armament and mounted three 18-inch torpedo tubes. Later in 1904 she sailed, with a crew of 14 officers and 340 men, with the doomed Russian Baltic Fleet for its fateful rendezvous with the Japanese at the Battle of Tsushima Strait on 27–28 May 1905 (see “Voyage to Tsushima,” June 2012). The cruiser survived the encounter with enemy battleships and spent the rest of the Russo-Japanese War interned at Manila.
Nine years later another and vastly more destructive war broke out. The Zhemchug became part of a newly formed Pacific squadron made up of British, French, and Australian warships that were teamed against Germany’s East Asia Squadron, commanded by Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee, which was threatening the Allies’ trade in the Pacific and Indian oceans. In October 1914 the Zhemchug was ordered to protect French and British convoys and merchant shipping in the Indian Ocean.
In particular, the Allies were to look out for the Emden, a swift German light cruiser that had undertaken several bold attacks on allied merchant shipping. Cruising along the west coast of British-controlled Malaya, the German vessel had intercepted and sent to the bottom the 7,562-ton merchant ship Troilus, with a valuable cargo of rubber, copper, and tin. She then set course for Penang, an island off the coast of Malaya with an important seaport, George Town.
Meanwhile, Zhemchug Captain Second-Grade Ivan Cherkasov found that sailing in the tropics had begun to take a toll on his crew, which was accustomed to more temperate climates. Tortured by the oppressive heat and thoughts of coming danger, many were already developing signs of depression. The ship herself was in need of some repairs, and her boilers needed cleaning. A little rest and recreation in a bucolic Malay port was just the ticket, and on 26 October, the Zhemchug pulled into George Town’s harbor and dropped anchor off Fort Jetty.
On Another Planet
In this beautiful backwater, the war in Europe must have seemed as though it was on another planet. It looked as if nothing could disturb the serene lapping of ocean waves and the merry laughter of children playing on the beach. The war existed only in newspaper articles and occasionally in stories told by sailors from foreign vessels. The town was virtually unprotected. The only coastal defense was a British observation post about 20 kilometers away.
A third of the crew went ashore, the enlisted men to stroll, after several months at sea, among the rows of street vendors selling exotic delicacies of the East. Captain Cherkasov and some of his officers repaired to sample the pleasures of the plush Eastern & Oriental Hotel, which would later win fame for hosting the writer W. Somerset Maugham. It is still one of the grande dame hotels of Asia. They may have felt at home, since the hotel was founded in 1885 by the Arkis brothers, Armenian émigrés from Russia.
Those crew members who stayed on board were enjoying the sleep-inducing qualities of a rare cool night. The ship was on holiday routine—no lookouts, no extra watch, torpedoes unarmed, only a handful of shells ready and available in case of trouble. In other words, she was a sitting duck.
Just before 0600, the Emden glided quietly into the harbor and stole within 180 meters of the Zhemchug. Unneeded were the subterfuges that her captain, Karl von Müller, had adopted, such as flying the British white ensign and adding a fake funnel to make his ship look like a British cruiser.
As dawn broke, Müller struck the phony ensign and raised the flag of imperial Germany. The Emden opened fire with her guns and launched a torpedo at a range too close to miss. The torpedo hit the Zhemchug just aft of her middle funnel, and water rapidly began to flood into the engine room. Half-sleeping and bewildered Russian sailors raced to the upper deck to man guns, but were raked by fire from the German cruiser. The Russians only managed to get off several rounds at the enemy ship before she let loose another torpedo that found its mark in the Zhemchug’s magazine, causing a huge explosion.
Watching Her Sink
Rudely wakened from their slumbers, George Town’s inhabitants rushed to the waterfront. Among them, hurriedly buttoning his uniform, was Cherkasov, who even then must have had some inkling of the disaster unfolding before him—and of his probable fate for not having been on board his ship when she was attacked. He is said to have torn the insignia off his uniform as he watched the Zhemchug go down.
The battle lasted all of 15 minutes and took the lives of 82 sailors, wounding 143 more. Many were saved by the quick action of the local people.
“Little time elapsed before boats and launches went out to rescue the crew and those watching from shore could see swimmers being swept into the North Channel by the current,” The Times of Malaya reported in its 1 November edition. But once the rescue work began, it was carried out expeditiously and well:
At the hospital, practically all of the doctors in Penang were in attendance, and the Russian wounded were given the greatest care and attention. Forty of them had serious wounds. Four amputations had to be performed and three sailors lost a leg each and one an arm, while many shrapnel bullets [sic] and pieces of shell had to be removed from the wounds of others. Two sailors died that day and one the next morning.
It’s a marvel how the men who later died from their wounds kept themselves afloat but those on the rescue boats state that the ‘Russians behaved like heroes in the water and those who could not swim helping the wounded.’ . . . [D]ays later those tigers of the sea—the sharks—still swam about the scene, and divers are afraid to go down. One cannot be but extremely sorry for the Russian captain at the loss of his ship, and I hear he is heartbroken.
Cherkasov had good reason to be heartbroken, and he must have known immediately what lay in store for him. He and his executive officer were court-martialed for gross negligence. Cherkasov was stripped of his naval rank and his title as a baron and imprisoned for several years. He later returned to sea as an ordinary seaman—or so it is believed.
The Emden slipped out of George Town Harbor almost as quickly as she had entered, pausing briefly to sink the French destroyer Mousquet, which was part of a small French navy flotilla that was also at Penang that night. A second French destroyer, the Pistolet, pursued the Emden, but lost contact with her in the fog. Within two weeks the Emden was to have her own rendezvous with destiny. She was intercepted and sunk by the Australian cruiser Sydney off the Cocos Islands, southeast of present-day Indonesia.