Müller was born in Hanover. He entered the Navy in 1891. He made his way up the ranks throughout the 1890s and 1900s. While posted in German East Africa, he caught malaria, which troubled him for the remainder of his life. Proving himself very capable, Müller was promoted to the rank of Korvettenkapitän in December 1908 and assigned to the Reichsmarineamt (Imperial Navy Office) in Berlin. In 1913, Müller was given command of the light cruiser Emden.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Emden was anchored in the German base at Tsingtao. Emden went out to see inIn the following twelve weeks Emden and Müller achieved a reputation for daring and chivalry unequaled by any other German ship or captain. Müller was highly scrupulous about trying to avoid inflicting non-combatant and civilian casualties. While taking fourteen prizes, the only merchant sailors killed by Emden's guns were five victims of a bombardment of Madras that targeted British oil tanks and a merchant ship.
When Emden sent a landing party ashore to destroy a radio station at Port Refuge in the Keeling Islands on November 8, 1914, she was finally cornered by the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney and was defeated in the Battle of Cocos. A detachment of his crew which had gone ashore evaded capture and escaped to Germany under the leadership of Emden's first officer, Hellmuth von Mücke; this detachment escaped, and eventually made their way back to Germany.
Müller remained detained in the U.K. for most of the remainder of the war. He led an unsuccessful escape in 1917, being immediately recaptured. As the English climate was detrimental to his malaria, he was repatriated in October, 1918 on a humanitarian exchange. He left the service in 1919, and retired to Blankenburg. He entered local politics, joining the German National People's Party, and winning a seat on the state parliament of Free State of Brunswick. He died in 1923.
Karl von Müller in "Last Flight of the Swan of the East"
Luftfregattenkapitän Karl von Müller commanded the SMS Emden, a commerce raider in the German Kaiserliche Luftmarine (airship navy). During the first months of the Great War, the Emden (affectionally nicknamed "the Last Swan of the East") captured a number of ships and launched a daring raid on enemy positions.
The Emden was anchored at Tsingtao when one of the wireless operators, Franz Schatzeder, informed him that Austrian crown prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife Duchess Sophie had been murdered by a Serbian assassin. He discussed the global situation with Emden's first officer, Hellmuth von Mücke. They assumed Austria-Hungary would punish Serbia, but then wondered if the Russian Empire would come to Serbia's aid. They also wondered if Germany would come to Austria's aid against Russia, as war with Russia would also mean war with France. They also pondered what Britain and the U.S. would do.
At the end of July, 1914, the officers of the Emden dined with the crew of the Austrian leviathan, the Kaiserin Elisabeth. The captain was confident that Austria would defeat Serbia, but he wasn't sure what would happen next, an admission that Müller found unfortunate. The next day, Schatzeder inform Müller of Austria's "timed note", and Serbia's response, which sent the dominoes falling, and the world into war.
As the war began, Admiral Maximilian von Spee, the commander of the Far East Squadron, ordered the Emden to proceed to Pagan and begin raiding enemy commerce in the Pacific. Spee was careful to warn Müller not to violate the neutrality of the U.K. Müller was relieved that he was not going to be forced to participate in the defense of Tsingtao from the inevitable American attack.
The "Swan of the East" departed the next night. They were able to avoid a British patrol; even though the U.K. was neutral, they would still have interned the Emden and its crew. Then they encountered a Japanese merchant leviathan. Finally they intercepted a Russian ship, the Rjäsan, which they captured and returned to Tsingtao, where it was refit for German service. After speaking to the commandant about the inevitable arrival of the Americans, Müller and the Emden left Tsingtao for the last time.
At Pagan, the various commanders of the Far East Squadron met with Admiral Spee aboard the Gneisenau . Spee informed the captains that he'd initially thought about ordering the Far East Squadron to patrol the Indian Ocean, but discarded the idea for fear of antagonizing Britain. Instead, he decided the bulk of the Squadron would head towards the Western Hemisphere, using neutral Chile as a coaling station. Spee ordered Müller to take Emden to raid commerce in the Indian Ocean, reasoning that lone leviathan could make a nuisance of itself and evade capture for a long time. Privately, Müller realized that the Emden was comparatively expendable, and even Spee admitted he didn't expect the Emden to last long.
The next morning, the Emden and a collier, the Markomannia, left Pagan and headed for the Indian Ocean. They reached Timor on 25 August, hoping to meet up with one of the collier steamers the German government had placed in the open ocean. However, they could not find it. As the Emden took on coal from Markomannia, they were challenged by the Dutch leviathan, Tromp. The Netherlands were neutral in the war, a position they extended to the Dutch East Indies. The Tromp's captain, Umbgrove informed Müller that he'd ordered the German collier ship to move on as part of his efforts to secure that neutrality. After a quick beer aboard the Tromp, Müller returned to the Emden and left Dutch airspace.
As they moved on their way, Mücke suggested that they disguise the Emden, adding an additional funnel and repainting the hull. Müller agreed, and had the changes made, given the Emden an appearance consistent with an English leviathan. So disguised, the Emden contacted the Greek steamship SS Pontoporos on September 5, 1914. While Greece was neutral, the coal she carried for the U.S. government was fair contraband of war. The engineer was also an American. The Germans seized the coal and the engineer. The next day, they were able to take an American ship, the SS Kentuckian. While the captain of the Kentuckian was able to destroy any official documents, Müller was able to peruse a copy of The Straits Times. Based on an article written by a British businessman, Müller realized that the Russian Pacific Fleet was massing in Vladivostok for an attack on the Japanese. He also realized that whatever the outcome, he and the Emden would still be on their own, surrounded by enemies. Müller had the crew and the contraband of the Kentuckian placed aboard the Markomannia, and had the Kentuckian sunk.
Müller and the Emden continued to raid successfully. They captured and sank the French freighter Marseille on September 7, 1914, again placing their prisoners aboard the Markomannia. A few days later, the Emden stopped the SS Minnesotan. While it was of American registry, her cargo was bound for British Rangoon. Instead of raiding the Minnesotan, Müller offloaded his prisoners and sent her on her way. However, Müller's efforts had delayed merchant traffic through the Indian Ocean, causing insurance rates to rise. Consequently, while Britain retained her neutrality, British leviathans joined the hunt for the Emden. In light of this, Müller decided to fly east towards Burma, knowing that the British expected him to head west.