Ship's bell from SMS Emden : HMAS Sydney (I)

Accession Number RELAWM12275
Collection type Heraldry
Object type Heraldry
Physical description Steel
Location Main Bld: First World War Gallery: Australia Goes To War: Emden
Maker Unknown
Place made Germany
Date made c 1800-1899
Conflict First World War, 1914-1918

Ship's bell. Part of the attachment point at the headstock has broken off and is missing. There are four horizontal ridges around bell, one near the top, one near the midpoint and two near the mouth. The bell shows extensive evidence of battle damage, incuding one large hole on one side of the mouth, along with smaller holes and craters. The sides of the bell have been compressed - the bell's mouth is no longer round, but is wider than it is deep.

History / Summary

SMS Emden was a German cruiser which was launched in 1908. At the start of the First World War, she was a member of the German East Asiatic Squadron. Emden was detached to stalk the shipping routes across the Indian Ocean and quickly became the scourge of the Allied navies. Between August and October 1914, Emden captured or sank 21 vessels. In November 1914, nine Allied vessels were involved in the hunt for Emden; the threat she posed led to a particularly heavy escort of four warships being allocated to the first Australian and New Zealand troop convoy travelling between Western Australia and Egypt. Surprised by one of these escorts, HMAS Sydney (I), while in the process of destroying the British radio station on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Emden was destroyed in the fight between the two ships on 9 November 1914.

Emden's bell was one of the many relics removed from the beached wreck by the Royal Australian Navy and was retained as a war trophy. The bell had been cast in the nineteenth century for a wooden boat, but was later presented by the city of Emden, a German sea port, to SMS Emden when she was commissioned in 1909. The bell was displayed at the naval base at Garden Island in Sydney, NSW from 1917 until it was stolen in August 1932. In February 1933 it was found buried in the Domain by authorities, across the water from where it was taken.

The bell was then donated to the Australian War Memorial and exhibited in Sydney. It was wired to a plinth, which was bolted to the ground for additional security. However, in late April 1933, two months after it was recovered, it was stolen again. The suspect for the second theft was Charles Kaolmel, a 30 year old German immigrant, who had arrived in Australia in 1925. Kaolmel had been involved in the recovery of the bell the first time. In that instance he claimed he had bought the bell from another man for 150 pounds, not realising it was stolen. He also claimed he intended to take the bell to Germany, where he thought he could sell it for a high price. He told the police that when he discovered it was stolen he panicked, concerned that it would be found in his possession and be accused of its theft, and buried it in the Domain.

In the second theft, Kaolmel used a pair of pliers to cut the wire with which the bell had been fastened to its pedestal. He then placed a bag over the bell and carried it, unobserved, to the fire escape where he then placed it in a truck he purchased for the theft. After Kaolmel stole the bell the second time he moved to Melbourne.

Kaolmel had a number of aliases, including the surnames King, Kohnnel and Watts and the given names Carl, Karl and Otto. The Memorial's director, John Treloar maintained the investigation, including hiring private investigators and following up leads. Months after the second theft Kaolmel was arrested and found guilty of both thefts.

After months of speculation in the press as to its location, including stories that the bell had been shipped to America or Germany, the bell was located on 29 December 1933. Again Kaolmel had buried it in a park, this time in Royal Park in Melbourne. The bell returned to the exhibition in Sydney. There were fears it was not the real bell, so tests were done which determined it was. John Treloar became so concerned about the bell being stolen again that a replica was made, which was displayed until the late 1970s, when the original was returned to display for the first time in forty years.

Bells have several important uses in the world's navies and merchant fleets. They are used for signalling, keeping time and sounding alarms, which maintain a ship's routine and readiness. As well as this functional use they are used in ceremonial occasions.