A painting depicting the RMS Carmania sinking the SMS Cap Trafalgar near the Brizilian islands of Trindade on 14 September 1914.
Painting by Charles Dixon. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
One of the first naval battles that took place in World War One was between two converted merchant ships that had been turned into armed auxiliary cruisers. The British ship HMS Carmania sunk the German ship Cap Trafalgar, on the 14 September 1914 in a bloody clash in the South Atlantic. This was called the Battle of Trindade.
The Cap Trafalgar, also known as Cape Trafalgar was named after the famous Napoleonic War naval battle between the British fleet led by Horatio Nelson that defeated a combined French and Spanish fleet in 1805 off the Spanish Coast. The Cape Trafalgar had been built in Germany for the Hamburg-South America Line, for the trade between Germany and the River Plate in Uruguay and Argentina. Her maiden voyage was on 10 April 1914 for South American ports in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. She was the largest vessel in the South American waters and one of the most lavish and could carry nearly 1,600 passengers.
When the War started in Europe, Cap Trafalgar was commandeered by the German Imperial Navy. On 18 August she arrived in Montevideo, Uruguay from Buenos Aires, Argentina for coal and then went to the remote Brazilian island of Trindade, 805 kilometers/500 miles east of the Brazil. Here she was equipped with two 4.1 inch guns and six one-pounder pom-pom guns and an experienced naval crew led by Korvettenkapitän (Lieutenant Commander) Wirth. Her mission was to sink British merchant shipping. After an unsuccessful first trip from its remote supply base she returned to Trindade Island to refuel from two German colliers on 13 September.
The Carmania, an ex-passenger ship and was now armed with eight 4.7inch guns and commanded by Captain N. Grant. It was patrolling for German raiders when at Trinidada Island and found Cap Trafalgar and two German colliers in the island’s only harbour. Cap Trafalgar went west and the two colliers withdrew away from the impending battle between Carmania and the Cap Trafalgar.
The Carmania fired a shot across Cap Trafalgar’s bow, and Cap Trafalgar replied with its guns and a bloody exchange of accurate shell fire from both ship’s guns went on for over two hours with fires raging on both on them. The Carmania had received 79 hits including on her waterline, her bridge was smashed by shellfire. However, as the Carmania closed in on the Cap Trafalgar its gunfire was devastating on the German ship. At one point the two ships were only 300 yards apart and both crews were shooting at each other with rifles and machine guns from the railings.
Cap Trafalgar started listing to the side and swung away from the Carmania as fires were burning wildly. A British shell had hit below the waterline smashing a number of compartments. Cap Trafalgar was sinking fast, reports of her crew members killed ranged from 16 to 51 and 279 sailors were rescued by another armed merchant cruiser SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm, who decided not to engage the Carmania, as it knew that Allied naval ships were enclosing on Trindade Island. Both British and German ships had been listening to the Cap Trafalgar’s SOS calls. Some Cap Trafalgar survivors were rescued by the German collier Eleonore Woermann and taken to Buenos Aires were they were interned for the rest of the War. The Carmania’s casualties were 10 dead and 26 wounded. It was rescued the next day by British Navy ships and bought into the Brazilian port of Pernambuco.