Cap Trafalgar

SMS Cap Trafalgar

Cap Trafalgar
Shipyard: Bremer Vulkan Shipyard, Germany
Completed: October 1913
Names: Cap Trafalgar, Hilfskreuzer B
Flag: Germany
Fate: Sunk in combat, 14 September 1914
General characteristics
Length: 613 feet
Beam: 72 feet
Tonnage: 18,710
Propulsion: Steam triple expansion engines
Speed: 17 knots
Armament: two 4.1" guns and six pom-poms
SMS Cap Trafalgar (sometimes also called Cape Trafalgar) was a German auxiliary cruiser during World War I. The ship holds the dubious distinction of being the first armed merchant cruiser to ever have been sunk in combat by a ship of the same class, having been destroyed in a furious action in the South Atlantic in September 1914 soon after the start of the war.

Early Career

She was originally a large ocean liner built for passenger use at the Bremer Vulkan Shipyard on the Weser River in Bremen, Germany, for the Hamburg-South America Line. She was completed in October 1913, with 18,710 GRT and named after the Spanish Cape Trafalgar, scene of the famous Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

She spent the next year plying her trade between the German port of Hamburg and the ports of Brazil and Chile, where large numbers of German immigrants had settled. It was on this seaboard that she found herself when war was declared in Europe in August 1914.

World War I

Conforming to pre-war plans, she was summoned to duty in the German Imperial Navy. All passengers and non-essential personnel were disembarked at Montevideo, Uruguay and then the ship set off to rendezvous with the gunboat SMS Eber, which transferred naval officers, ammunition and armaments to the liner, whose job now was to sink British merchant shipping rounding Cape Horn.

She was armed with two 4.1" guns and six pom-poms, all manned by experienced naval personnel, and she was supplied by some of the multitude of German colliers which found themselves trapped on the South American coast by the outbreak of war. She was given the codename Hilfskreuzer B (Auxiliary Cruiser B) and was commanded by Korvettenkapitän (Lieutenant Commander) Wirth, who took her to the Brazilian island of Trindade, 500 miles east of the Brazilian mainland, where the German Navy had established a small, secret supply base.

It was at this base on 14 September 1914 that the Cap Trafalgar was discovered by the British armed merchant cruiser HMS Carmania, a liner belonging to the Cunard Line which had been converted to a convoy escort and raider designed to flush out German colliers and small warships that might be using the inhospitable island as a base against British merchant shipping. Carmania spotted Cap Trafalgar's smoke early in the morning and some hours later was able to surprise the German ship with two colliers in the island's only harbour.

Both captains realised that to fight a successful action they required plenty of room, and so separately steamed several miles from the outcrop in order to gain the space required. The Cap Trafalgar also sent out encoded German messages, announcing the engagement with the Carmania, and the position as 35 degrees West, 26 degrees South, with a NNW heading. Then the two ships turned towards each other and began to fight, the Carmania firing too early and thus allowing the Cap Trafalgar the first blow. Carmania suffered much the worse of the engagement in the ensuing two hours, being hit 79 times, was holed below the waterline, and had her bridge totally destroyed by shellfire. However, as the range closed her own guns began to tell, and fires broke out on both ships, sailors lining the rails and firing machine guns at their opposite numbers as the ships came within a few hundred yards of one another, in a style of fighting more akin with the Napoleonic Wars than the First World War.

Just as it seemed that the fires on Carmania would burn out of control, Cap Trafalgar veered away, lowering lifeboats as she heeled over to port. A shell below the waterline had ruptured several compartments, and the ship was rapidly sinking, although the colliers were able to pull 279 sailors from the wreck before she sank. 51 were killed in the fighting or the sinking (other reports say 16 or 17 lives were lost), including Captain Wirth. Carmania was equally shattered, listing severely, heavily flooded and burning, with nine men dead and many more wounded. It was at this point that Cap Trafalgar's contemporary, the armed merchant cruiser SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm arrived, seemingly to provide the coup de grace for the shattered ship. However, the Kronprinz Wilhelm's captain feared a trap, since many ships both German and Allied in the area had doubtless been listening to the SOS calls of the Cap Trafalgar, which, though in German code, had been supplemented by messages from the Carmania with the British code. Since multiple warships were on their way to the location, and the Cap Trafalgar had presumably already sunk, the captain of the Kronprinz Wilhelm turned his ship about and sailed away without firing a shot. (Von Niezychowski, 1928)

The following day the Carmania was rescued and brought into Pernambuco by other units of the Royal Navy, whilst the survivors of the Cap Trafalgar were deposited at Montevideo by the colliers, from where they would attempt to make their way home.


  • Edwards, Bernard, Salvo! Epic Naval Gun Actions, Cassell, Great Britain: 1995. ISBN 0-304-35171-7.
  • Simpson, Colin. The Ship That Hunted Itself - Penguin Books, 1977
  • Brief description of the Ship
  • Alfred von Niezychowski: The Cruise of the Kronprinz Wilhelm, 1928

External links

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