Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Strangest Naval Battle in History?

I freely admit to being a bit of a naval history junkie.  Every few years I have to re-read the Hornblower series of books set in the Napoleonic Wars.  For some weeks afterwards my speech is riddled with various nautical terms: t'gallants, carronades, for'castle and so forth.  It is not easy to work these into most conversations but I try manfully.

In the modern day things have all gotten less colorful.  Sure there are still a few pirates out there but they are unpleasant mercenaries and the navies of the civilized world are hunting them not with frigates but with remotely piloted drones.

It makes me nostalgic for a simpler era.

Today is the 97th anniversary of one of the most confusing naval battles in history.*

The Battle of Trinidad was fought on 14 September, 1914 between two ships who were pretending to be each other.  Confused yet?

When World War I broke out in August of 1914 the German navy had made some preparations.  Among other things there were plans to convert passenger liners to auxiliary cruisers, intended to prey upon Allied merchant ships on the high seas.

So immediately after the onset of hostilities the civilian liner Cap Trafalgar left port in Montevideo, Uraquay and rendezvoused with a supply ship that transferred guns, ammunition and men to serve as gunners.  They then proceded to a secret supply base on an isolated island called Trinidad in the South Atlantic.

A secret German base on a Brazilian island is not the only odd quirk to the history of Trinidad; in 1893 James Harden-Hickey proclaimed himself James I, Prince of Trinidad and set up a military dictatorship.  This "Franco-American author, newspaper editor, duelist and adventurer" went so far as to set up an office in New York City, to sell government bonds, and to hand fashion himself a crown.  Ignored or ridiculed by the world at large-I have not been able to discern the attitude of the tiny local population-he was run off  a couple of years later.

Such was the setting for the Battle of Trinidad.  The Cap Trafalgar had been outfitted with a couple of naval guns and disguised as a similar ship, the Carmania of British registration.  Lo and behold, over the horizon comes another ship.....the Carmania, which had been outfitted with a few guns by the British, and camouflaged as, you guessed it, the Cap Trafalgar.  Talk about bad luck, each ship adopting the only disguise possible that immediately identified it as a hidden foe!

This being the early weeks of the Great War nobody really knew what they were doing, so the two ships opened fire with their unfamiliar weaponry, coming within the rather Napoleonic range of a couple of hundred yards of each other.  By that point both crews were blazing away with not only cannon but rifles, and had they gotten much closer one imagines that they would have organized boarding parties with cutlass and marlin spike.

Lacking armor or effective damage control they were both badly damaged, but the Cap Trafalgar-the real one-was holed below the waterline and sank first.  The Carmania was in no position to do much beyond staying afloat, so things looked grim when a second German ship, the Kronprinz Wilhelm turned up.  This was another converted passenger liner.  Understandably confused, the captain of the Kronprinz Wilhelm could not figure out what was happening, but knew that radio messages had gone out and that other Allied ships were on the way.  He decided discretion was the better part of valor and turned tail.

Thus ended the confusing Battle of Trinidad, with the Carmania limping away, the Cap Trafalgar sinking and the German survivors heading for Uruguay on a couple of supply ships that happened by.  Some of them reportedly made it all they way back to Germany after many adventures.

*I suppose the category of most confusing Naval Battle is an arbitrary one.  Why, even in the subcategory of Uraguayan Naval Battles there was one in 1840 where a shortage of cannon balls lead one of the belligerants to load their cannon with aged Edam cheese!

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