The Hamburg-Südamerikanische Steamship Line’s Cap Trafalgar had been in service a mere five months when hostilities commenced. A fine new ship typical of the finest passenger liners of her day, she had been built at the AG Vulcan shipyard in Hamburg.
At sea when war was declared, it was determined that the best course of action was to have her rendezvous with the elderly gunboat Eber to transfer that ship’s armament and crew to the newly designated raider. In addition, the Eber’s commanding officer, Korvettenkapitän Wirth, would assume command of the Cap Trafalgar. 2 10.5cm and 6 3.7cm guns were transferred from the Eber; she was subsequently scuttled.
The Cap Trafalgar was repainted with typical British passenger liner colors. Most British liners of the period sported two funnels, three or four funnels being much more common for German liners; accordingly, her dummy third funnel was removed to give her a more ‘British’ appearance, as it was hoped that she could pass for a British ship at a distance, giving her the opportunity to break away if confronted.
After conversion, the plan was to rendezvous with her colliers for fueling at the Island of Trindade off the coast of Brazil. On August 14th, lookouts on the Cap Trafalgar spotted smoke on the horizon. Knowing that they were the only German ships in the general vicinity of the island, it was assumed that the approaching ship was hostile. Captain Wirth ordered the colliers to make their way away from the island at best speed, while he ordered the raider’s crew to prepare for action.
The approaching ship was the British armed merchant cruiser HMS Carmania (included in the Action Card Deck). Just recently converted herself into a warship, she carried 8 old 4.7in guns. She was, in fact, searching for the German collier Patagonia which was suspected of supporting the German light cruiser Karlsruhein the area. There was no intelligence to support the presence of the Cap Trafalgar. In fact, Captain Grant of the Carmania at first suspected that the presumably hostile ship was the German liner Berlin.
Both ships hoisted their respective ensigns and maneuvered for battle. While the Carmania’s guns were larger and she carried more of them, the Cap Trafalgar’s more modern 10.5cm guns outranged them. However, Captain Wirth chose to close with the Carmania so as to bring his rapid-firing 3.7cm guns within range. That mitigated his initial advantage, but enabled more fire to be brought to bear against his adversary.
Both ships were struck multiple times as hit after hit was scored. The Cap Trafalgar suffered a number of waterline critical hits while the Carmania’s bridge was reduced to a flaming wreck. Then the ships seemed to breakaway and take stock of the situation. As the range increased, their fire slowed to a sporadic pace.
The Cap Trafalgar’s speed was now reduced to a crawl as her list increased to a dangerous level. As the Carmania again approached she ceased fire observing the boats being lowered from the German ship. A short time later, the Cap Trafalgar rolled over and slipped beneath the waves.
Their action marked the first time two non-warships met in combat. Ships captured (c), sunk (s), or mined (m): None