Saturday, 1 November 2014

Emden Battle Remembered

One hundred years ago today, the first convoy of ANZAC troops sailed from Albany for the battle grounds of the Great War.  Aboard HMAS Sydney, one of 4 naval escort vessels, was one of its young founding officers, Engineer Lieut Cleon Dennis, soon to take part in Sydney's memorable victory against the German raider SS Emden ..............

Country boy Cleon Dennis was born beside the Clarence River in northern New South Wales in 1888 and was a direct descendant of a First Fleeter (Robert Forrester) and a Second Fleeter (Paul Bushell). Cleon fell in love with the open sea when his father was appointed in 1902 as an Inspector of Schools for NSW and the family came to live at Bondi, close to Sydney's world-famous beach. 

Cleon’s surfing adventures are undocumented until 2 January 1907 when nine-year-old Charlie Smith and his cousin were rescued from drowning at Bondi Beach. Within weeks of that surf rescue, Bondi’s volunteers quickly formed themselves into Australia’s first surf life saving club, of which Cleon and his brother Spenser were members.

The Dennis brothers (Cleon on left, Spenser beside him) were of average height but this belied Cleon’s strength: as well as his lifesaving, he played Rugby, and in 1911 he was Sydney University’s middleweight wrestling champion. 

Cleon excelled in his studies at Fort Street Boys High School where he is listed on the Honour Board as a prizewinner in Mathematics. At the University of Sydney in his engineering course he won the University Medal for Geometrical Drawing & Perspective in November 1907, and the Peter Nichol Russell Prize for Mathematics. In December 1910, Cleon shared the Associate Professor Barraclough Prize for a Mechanical Engineering Essay.

One of his university friends was medical student Nigel Boulton and around 1909 Cleon met Nigel’s beautiful sister Thea. She was fourteen years old and Cleon was twenty-one but he decided then and there that Thea was the girl for him, and he waited patiently for her to grow up. 

In the final stages of his degree course, Cleon and his fellow students were approached by Navy personnel, who were seeking officers for the newly developing Royal Australian Navy. Federation had brought a new sense of nationalism as well as the realisation that Australia’s historic reliance upon the Royal Navy was no longer adequate. Cleon’s ‘Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical and Electrical)’ was conferred by the University of Sydney in 1912 and straight away he joined the Navy, on 1 August.

He spent five months with the cruiser Encounter, on loan to Australia from the Royal Navy, learning the ways of a ship’s engine room. Here he formed a friendship with Eric Kingsford-Smith, an older brother of Charlie Smith, a.k.a. the famous aviator Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith, the little boy who'd been rescued at Bondi Beach in 1907 and resuscitated by a nurse fortuitously present on the beach.

Early in 1913, around the same time as his older brother Spenser commenced work as a designing engineer for the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Cleon sailed from Sydney to England aboard HMS Drake, an armoured cruiser stationed in Australian waters from 1911-1913, to help supervise installation of the engines of the first HMAS Sydney, one of Australia’s most famous naval ships. The brand new ship was commissioned at Portsmouth on 26 June 1913 under the command of Captain John C.T. Glossop RN, and sailed for Australia on 25 July. En route to Australia aboard HMAS Sydney, Cleon was promoted to Engineer Lieutenant. 

It was an exhilarating and proud moment when his ship formed part of the flotilla of vessels of the new Royal Australian Navy sailing up Sydney Harbour on Saturday 4 October 1913. Thousands of cheering citizens lined the Harbour foreshores to view ‘the noble sight’ of ‘the Great Grey Fleet’, comprising the new flagship HMAS Australia, the cruisers Melbourne, Sydney, and Encounter and three destroyers. It was a fleet tiny in world terms, but hugely significant to Australians. 

The Fleet Carnival, a full week of celebratory events, included a procession of sailors through Sydney, visits by the citizenry to the flagship Australia, a day out for schools to visit the ships, and lunches at the Town Hall. A special presentation to the Sydney of a silver bell and shield was made at a dinner attended by 2000 citizens of Sydney. Public school children, in a massed display, formed themselves into a living shield inside a living map of Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Each evening the city and the ships moored in Farm Cove were illuminated. A fireworks display thrilled the crowds. It gave one definite social cachet to send out the Navy’s souvenir Christmas cards.

The excitement abated and Sydney spent the pre-war period in Australian waters, apart from a trip to Singapore in March to escort Australia’s first two submarines on the final leg of their journey from England to Sydney. Sydney, AE1 and AE2 reached Sydney on 24 May 1914. When war came in August 1914, Sydney operated around New Guinea. Her involvement in the brief campaign against Germany’s Pacific possessions included the capture of Rabaul and destruction of the Angaur wireless station, in the Palau Islands. Unfortunately the submarine AE1 was lost with all hands as part of the Rabaul campaign. 

In October the Sydney joined the naval escort for the first ANZAC convoy of Australian troops being sent to the Middle East. The naval ships HMAS Sydney, HMAS Melbourne, HMS Minotaur and the Japanese cruiser Ibuki accompanied the 38 transport ships which sailed from Albany in Western Australia on 1 November 1914. As they neared the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean, their various wireless telegraphy officers heard suspicious signals and the telegraph station on Direction Island in the Cocos group sighted a strange ship.

HMAS Sydney, the nearest warship to the Cocos Islands, proceeded at full speed to investigate and several hours later found the German raider SS Emden. In the first few months of the Great War this famous ship wreaked havoc in the Indian Ocean, sinking many Allied ships and bombarding Madras in India. On the morning of 9 November 1914 Emden had already despatched a landing party to destroy the cable and wireless station on Direction Island, crippling Allied communications in the Indian Ocean, and was waiting for its collier Buresk to arrive and refuel the ship. 

The Navy’s official website carries the story of Emden’s response to the arrival of HMAS Sydney
Emden opened fire at a range of some 10,500 yards using the then very high elevation of thirty degrees. Her first salvo was 'ranged along an extended line but every shot fell within two hundred yards of Sydney. The next salvo was on target and for the next ten minutes the Australian cruiser came under heavy fire. Fifteen hits were recorded but fortunately 'only five burst.' It was during the opening stage of the engagement that Sydney sustained all of her casualties. Two shells from a closely-bunched salvo hit the after-control platform wounding all of the personnel closed up there, while a direct hit on the upper-bridge range-finder took off the operator’s leg putting the equipment out of action. [The ship’s log lists three crew members killed, one dangerously wounded, five seriously wounded and four others wounded.]
Sydney's first salvo went 'far over the Emden'. The second fell short and the third scored two hits. Meanwhile, Emden's captain (Captain Von Muller), aware that his only chance lay in putting Sydney out of action quickly, maintained a high rate of fire said to be a salvo every six seconds. It was to no avail. Sydney took advantage of her superior speed and fire power and raked the German cruiser. Her shells wrecked the enemy's steering gear, shot away both range finders and smashed the voice pipes providing communications between the conning tower and the guns. Shortly afterwards the forward funnel toppled overboard and then the foremast carrying away the primary fire control station and wrecking the fire-bridge.
Despite damage, and the inevitable end, Muller continued the engagement until 'only the artillery officer and a few unskilled chaps were still firing.' Finally, with his engine room on fire and the third funnel gone, he gave the order 'to the island with every ounce you can get out of the engines.' Shortly after 1100, Emden was fast on the North Keeling Island Reef. 

With the Emden removed as a threat, Sydney pursued and caught the fleeing Buresk, firing across her bows and sending a boarding party, but the Buresk’s crew had already taken action to scuttle her. Sydney took her crew aboard and returned to the Emden later that afternoon. It took more gunfire before the Emden was willing to raise its white flag. As darkness approached, Sydney then made for Direction Island, hoping to capture the German landing party, but the Germans had commandeered a schooner and escaped, eventually making it back to Germany. Next morning Sydney returned to the devastation of the wrecked Emden and slowly transferred its survivors on board for ongoing medical attention and removal, either to a point of transhipment at sea or Colombo, which Sydney reached on 15 November. (Emden lost 134 men killed in action or died of wounds.)

That legendary sea battle on 9 November 1914, where the Sydney outmanoeuvred, outgunned and destroyed the Emden, was a significant Allied victory. It remains a proud moment in Australian naval history, marked by a memorial in Hyde Park, Sydney, on which Cleon’s name as one of the officers on the Sydney is inscribed below Emden’s gun, which points up Oxford Street. Cleon’s engines performed superbly on the day and he was remunerated as a Senior Engineer Lieutenant from a date less than two weeks after the battle. 

From Colombo, the Sydney was subsequently ordered to Malta and on to Bermuda for patrol duty in the Atlantic. En route, a group portrait of officers from HMAS Sydney was taken at Gibraltar in December 1914. This photo was later ‘lent’ by Cleon to the Australian War Memorial. Officers identified left to right are: 
Back row: Assistant Paymaster Eric Kingsford-Smith standing next to his good friend Engineer Lieutenant Cleon Dennis; Sub Lieutenant James M C Johnstone; Artificer Engineer G A Hutchinson; Lieutenant Basil Owen Bell-Salter; Lieutenant Frederick L Cavaye; Lieutenant Rupert Clare Garsia; Dr Arthur Charles Robert Todd; Gunner Lieutenant Denis E Rahilly. 
Middle row: Dr Leonard Darby; Engineer Lieutenant Lawrence Parsons Fowler; Lieutenant Commander John F Finlayson; Captain J C T Glossop; Paymaster Ernest Claude Norton; Chaplain Vivian Agincourt Little; Lieutenant Cuthbert John Pope (Navigator).
Front row: Mr Alfred Moule Martin (Boatswain); Mr Edward Charles Behenna (Carpenter); Mr George B Salter (Gunner); Mr John C MacFarlane (Torpedo Gunner). 

Still aboard Sydney, Cleon spent a year patrolling neutral ports along the Atlantic coastline between the West Indies and New York, until he was called home, just before Christmas in 1915. He was needed for the installation of the engines in the Sydney’s sister ship, the cruiser HMAS Brisbane, being built at Sydney’s Garden Island Dockyard. 

Sydney was Cleon’s base for the first 10 months of 1916, and he quickly resumed his courtship of Thea Boulton, the girl he’d been patiently waiting to marry for seven years. Thea turned 21 on 10 January 1916 and they were married in June, at the magnificent St James Anglican Church in Phillip St, Sydney. Cleon suffered such a serious nose bleed on his wedding day that the marriage ceremony was almost postponed. One guest wrote ‘after Cleon’s attack I thought that it could not possibly take place on that day'; another mentioned how 'dreadfully ill' he looked. It was a sign of things to come. 

Cleon’s naval career continued to take him away from Thea for long periods. Just before Christmas in 1916 he sailed off in HMAS Brisbane for the Mediterranean, but the ship was soon ordered back to the Indian Ocean to help hunt down several German raiders. By mid 1917 the Brisbane was patrolling off the West Australian coast. Since the ship came into port regularly, Thea seized the opportunity to spend some precious time with her husband. She travelled across the Nullarbor by train before the newly-laid rails had bedded down. 

That happy interlude ended when the Brisbane was sent to patrol the islands of the western Pacific. For most of 1918 she patrolled Australian waters but was at sea, headed for England, when the Armistice ended hostilities. Cleon heard the dreadful news that Thea’s other brother Stephen Boulton, an artillery officer on the Western Front, was killed five weeks before war’s end.

Brisbane spent a month in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea before reaching Portsmouth in January 1919 for a refit. Cleon was able to visit some of Thea’s English relatives. In April 1919 HMAS Brisbane was farewelled from Portsmouth by the Prince of Wales, who presented every officer on the ship with a message of thanks from the King. Cleon’s friend and demobbed brother-in-law Dr Nigel Boulton travelled home with him. 

As they entered Sydney Harbour in June ‘they were received with the regulation salvos from the guns on South Head Forts, and from the warships in port … the welcome sounding of the sirens of vessels at anchor, and the ferry boats, and the hearty cheering from a gathering of a few thousand people’. 

Cleon enjoyed a brief reunion with his wife who, during his long absences from home, taught music at Trinity Grammar School. Then he was off again, on a short posting to HMAS Cerberus, the naval training facility in Victoria. From January 1920 he provided engineering instruction to cadets at the Naval College at Jervis Bay, living with Thea in a local boarding house, but he resigned in November 1920 due to his continuing ill health. 

Having seen most parts of the world as a naval officer, he now opted for the country lifestyle of his childhood. He began work as a dairy farmer in some kind of partnership with his friend Eric Kingsford-Smith, but the venture at Bellingen soon proved ill-fated.

Returning to Sydney, he donned the business suit required of his new position as Assistant Censor of Motion Pictures. His son Stephen arrived in April 1922, followed by daughter Julia in 1924. 

Cleon found permanent work back in his own profession, as an engineer with the Vacuum Oil Company, a large American company which ultimately grew into Exxon Mobil. In 1925 the family moved to New Zealand for several years. 

Third child Frank was born back in Sydney in December 1927. Cleon was promoted to Brisbane, where fourth child Tim was born in January 1930. But with the onset of the Great Depression, the Vacuum Oil Company overnight sacked all married men, who needed to be paid higher wages. Cleon was unemployed for a period, but eventually found a new job working for the Electric Light Company of Toowoomba. The family photograph, taken at Toowoomba, signifies one of their last outings together.

Cleon's poor health now took a sudden turn for the worse. In July 1932 he was diagnosed with myeloid leukaemia. There was no hope. Telegrams were sent to his parents, sisters and brother, who drove all night from Sydney and arrived on the day he died in Toowoomba General Hospital, aged forty four. Exposure to pollutants such as benzene from 1912 to 1920 when supervising the installation and operation of the engines of large naval vessels may have contributed to his early death. A penchant for smoking did nothing to improve his health. 

His bereft young widow and children packed up and returned to Sydney, in time for the birth of his fifth child in October 1932. Baby Cleon was named in honour of the father he never met. When the mast of HMAS Sydney was erected at Bradleys Head in 1934 as a memorial to this famous ship, Cleon’s daughter Julia, pictured and now aged 90, recalls that she, her mother and her brothers (all deceased) were in official attendance at the ceremony.

Thea had always adored her husband, said to be the kindest man you could ever hope to meet. No-one replaced him in her life. She brought up her four sons and her daughter alone, trying to fulfil her husband’s deathbed wish that she ‘raise the children to be honest and to speak the truth’. When she died, nearly fifty years after Cleon, her ashes were taken to Toowoomba Cemetery and scattered on his grave.

(For additional details of the Dennis family, see Louise Wilson's book 'From Buryan to Bondi, the Dennis Family of West Penwith, Cornwall and some Australian Descendants', available from BookPOD)

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