024: The German raider “Emden” and Jamaica in World War One

The German commerce raider Emden almost closed the Indian Ocean to British shipping in late 1914, sinking nearly 20 ships, shelling Madras and raiding the harbour at Panang. The Royal Australian Navy’s Sydney, escorting nearly 40 transports carrying ANZAC troops to Europe, caught the Emden near the Cocos Islands on 9 November 1914 and destroyed her funnels and steering, so she grounded on a reef: about 190 survived and 134 died.

The captured crew was interned in Malta: some escaped and reached Germany. Captain Karl von Muller was moved to Nottingham where he tunnelled out of prison (but was caught) in 1916. It seems that other officers were shipped to Jamaica where, with German and Austrian businessmen who had settled on the island, they were interned at the army camp at Up Park Camp near Kingston.

Jamaican Leslie Thompson (1901-1987) was a junior bandsman in the West India Regiment, stationed at Up Park Camp barracks. He recalled that there were eight or nine officers there, and they had a piano and a violin. One named Straumann was “a fine violinist” and he helped the Jamaican musicians. “Time was nothing to him”. One or two of the others helped too, surely only too pleased to spend time constructively.

Thompson, a multi-instrumentalist (trumpet, euphonium, trombone, cello, bass) settled in London in 1929, where he died in 1987. He served in the Royal Artillery in World War Two, as a sergeant. His teenage experience of Straumann and the other Emden officers in Jamaica was probably the least likely of the incidents in his life which he described to me in 1985.

Leslie Thompson with Jeffrey Green, Swing from a Small Island: the story of Leslie Thompson was published in 2009 by Northway Publications, London.


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