top of page
  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 34 - The Gassy Floridians Are Coming By Sea (Ships Week)

Updated: Apr 18, 2020

Sam's Episode Notes: The Battle of Trindade (Or the RMS Carmania Vs the RMS Carmania)

Today I'm going to take you all the way back to the very, very start of World War 1, and a very brutal but quite silly naval battle. Why so silly? Well it was the first time two cruise liners went at it. And it turns out cruise liners don't make very good warships. Best to have more guns and less swimming pools when planning your battleship. But that's not the only reason it's a silly fight. Oh no no. It's because this is probably the only time in history when a warship has fought itself. All will become clear.

So, as most of our listeners will know from their school history class, there was a big ole arms race before WW1, and this was especially true at sea. The British had invented the dreadnought type battleship in 1906 which had immediately made every other warship in the world obsolete. So everyone had started building them, the British had begun building more, etc etc.

The end result of this was lots of new, fast ,heavy battleships all over the world. Which put the British in a conundrum, because they had an awful lot of shipping routes from around the world which they needed to protect. The British empire was the worlds largest, but it was spread all over the shop.

And because they needed all the big ships to fight other big ships, the merchant ships were vulnerable. So they came up with a genius idea. Put guns on the merchant ships and use them to protect shipping convoys if a war broke out. Easy. Meanwhile the German navy had the opposite idea. By hiding guns on their merchant ships, they could sneak up on the allies and attack them. These ships were called auxiliary cruisers. A great idea, with lots of problems.

For a start, the Germans initially began equipping their best merchant ships with guns, because they wanted fast ships to sneak up on the allies with. Unfortunately this was the golden age of shipping, when cruise liners were competing for the Blue Ribband for the fastest Atlantic crossing and most luxurious accommodation, and the newspapers were filled with pictures of these great liners. This meant that the sneaky German ships which were intended to slip unnoticed up to allied convoys were some of the most famous ships in the world at the time, and were immediately recognised. It would be the equivalent of being a celebrity and trying to sneak through a crows of paparazzi by disguising yourself as Elton John.

Also, being very large and very fast, they absolutely munched through coal – in fact both the allies and the central powers realised pretty quickly that using these ships would literally run them through all their coal supplies in weeks, so they pretty quickly gave up on the idea and started using old, slow ships instead.

But these auxilliary cruisers had some successes.

One particularly fun example was the Pass Of Balmaha, an American-owned sailing ship which was sailing from New York to Russia in 1915 when she was boarded by the British to inspect for contraband. When they found some suspicious goods, they captured the ship, took down the neutral stars and stripes, hoisted the union jack flag, and sailed for Scotland with a few British marines to keep watch. Then a German submarine rocked up, so the Americans locked the British in a store room and re-hoisted the US flag. The Germans didn't buy this and so captured the ship themselves, before deciding to turn it into a commerce raider. And so this ship, renamed SMS Saedler or Sea Egale, became probably the only proper sailing warship in WW1. And it was amazing. The Germans absolutely packed it with guns and torpedo tubes, and from December 1916 to September 1917, this ship captured and sunk 15 allied freighters and caused a massive manhunt in the Atlantic before being wrecked on a reef.

Another converted cruise ship, SS Kronprinz Wilhelm, captured 16 allied ships. It should be noted that very few if anyone was killed in these sinkings – the German tactic was to disguise these hunters as other allied ships in distress, then politely inform them they were captured, politely transfer the crews and anything useful, then scuttle the ship they'd captured. It was really very civilised.

But anyway, to the main story. The Battle of Trindade, and one far less successful raider, the German cruise ship SMS Cap Trafalgar. Which was the epitome of luxury. Commissioned in April 1914 so just a few months before the war, she had an open air swimming pool on deck, gold and gilt winding staircases, and a restaurant in a greenhouse with ocean views. I mean everything on a ship has ocean views, but whatever. She was the height of Germanic elegance.

She was also left with space for two large cannons, and six fast-firing heavy machine cannon, as well as machine guns for boarding parties to use. And sure enough, at the outbreak of the war, the guns were fitted and off she sailed, the most glamarous battleship in the world.

Now, as I've said, the Germans liked to disguise their ships as allied vessels in order to sneak up on them. And the Cap Trafalgar was disguised as the RMS Carmania or Royal Mail Ship Carmania, a large but not especially luxurious or distinctive cruise ship of the Cunard company. Unfortunately, unknown to the Germans, the RMS Carmania had itself been converted to an armed cruiser, with a whopping eight large cannons on her. And she happened to be in the same area as the Cap Trafalgar to boot. Uh oh.

And so, on the 13th September 1914, the Cap Trafalgar, disguised as Carmania, was refuelling at a secret German military base on the tiny Trindade island in the middle of the Atlantic, which really is a rock – it currently has a population of 32 Brazilian sailors and bugger all else.

And what should appear around the bay of the island? The Carmania, which had spotted her smoke trails and come in for a closer look.

What follows is a brutal but very silly naval battle, which explains why these types of ships were generally a bad idea.

Firstly, the bay was very small and cruise ships are very large. Knowing that a battle was inevitable, the first thing the two ships had to do was sail, together, out to sea to give themselves space to turn – very Napoleonic and a bit like arranging a fight behind the bike sheds after school.

Equally Napoleonic was how they had to fight. These weren't warships. They didn't have lifts for ammunition to be carried to the guns, or radios to make sure everyone was firing at the same thing. The big old cannon shells had to be run by hand up all these beautiful golden staircases, through the glass restaurant, past the guitarist playing Ed Sheeran covers in the dining hall. Past the casino tables, jumping over the car where Leo and Kate are having sex, and finally up to the guns, which were essentially swinging wildly shooting at anything they could eventually see.

When the ships got close, just like in the good old days, the sailors poured onto the decks and fired rifles and machine guns at each other from point blank range, just like in Master and Commander with Russel Crowe, or as its known in Australia, Top Bloke Bossman on the Big Wooden Floateroo.

And of course cruise ships have no armour, so every show was going through. In the first two hours of the fight, Carmania was hit 72 times, started to sink, and was mostly on fire. Just as it looked as though Carmania was done for, Cap Trafalgar rolled over and sunk, taking her captain, Julius Wirth, and around 50 crew with her.

Carmania decided to get the hell out of dodge – both she and the Cap Trafalgar had been sending out radio messages of the battle and ships from both sides were heading their way. In fact, SS Kronprinz Wilhelm turned up just as the battle was finishing and looked like it was about to claim a 17th allied prize and finish the job, but instead turned and fled worried that it might be a trap, because pretending to be sinking was exactly the tactic the Kronprinz usually used to lure in allied ships.

So the Carmania managed to escape, but only just. She was sinking quickly and would definitely have gone under if she hadn't been rescued by allied ships the next day and towed to safety. As it was, nine of her crew died but she survived the war, being refitted as a troop carrying ship and seeing service in the Atlantic and Gallipoli campaign before being scrapped in 1932.

So there we go, the story of the time a cruise ship with cannons fought itself and won.

Tom's notes: Nautical Phrases

I’ve avoided obviously nautical phrases like ‘shot across the bows’, ‘batten down the hatches’, ‘plain sailing’ unless they have an interesting and/or surprising etymology.

There are a lot of phrases in English with a nautical origin; a clear indicator of the importance of seafaring in the British Empire.

However, it can be quite difficult to establish the credibility of some etymologies. I even came across a fictional organisation called CANOE; the Committee to Ascribe a Nautical Origin to Everything.

So, I have attempted to maintain credibility with my research. The Merriam Webster website was one particularly good source.

Some phrases have numerous credible explanations for their origin

· Toe the line is a good example

o Toe spelt toe

· House of Commons in the UK

o Red line two swords apart separates MPs

o Although no evidence that the red lines existed prior to the House of Commons being rebuilt after the blitz

· Prize fighting; come up to scratch; put your feet against the line to start the fight

· Naval discipline; crew were ordered to stand with their toes to a line either as punishment or as part of drills

Some might have been adopted into nautical parlance

· Hand over fist; for pulling a rope

· Between the devil and the deep blue sea

o The devil could refer to the seam in a boat between the deck planks and the planks used around the sides of the ship. This seam needed to be watertight and to make it watertight, someone would have to be suspended over the side of the ship

· Hunky Dori

o Honcho dori; possibly reference to a street or streets in Japan where American sailors would occupy themselves

Slush fund

· Slush was the grease produced when salted meats were cooked on board ship. The grease was collected in a barrel and sold in ports. The money was used to by luxuries for the crew.

· 1839

Bitter end

· A bit of debate with this one but the consensus amongst experts is that the following explanation is correct.

· ‘Bitts’ are posts on a ship used to secure the ends of ropes or lines (used for whatever reason). The ‘bitter end’ is the end of the anchor rope that is attached to the ship.

· Seaman's Grammar, 1627

o "A Bitter is but the turne of a Cable about the Bits, and veare it out by little and little. And the Bitters end is that part of the Cable doth stay within boord."

Grog and groggy

· A grogram is a silk-based fabric that is made in such a way that the fabric is quite coarse and loose.

· English Admiral Edward Vernon was particularly fond of this fabric and he had a grogram coat. His nickname became Old Grog as a result.

· In 1740 Vernon was frustrated at the impact that a daily ration of rum was having on his crew, so he diluted it with water. This rum became known as grog.

· 1770 in The Gentleman's Magazine; Eighty names for having drunk too much

o “Groggy; this is a West-Indian Phrase; Rum and Water, without sugar, being called Grogg.”

o Just below shit-faced, rat-arsed and pissed as a newt

§ Pissed as a newt; new navy recruits were called Newts

Three sheets in the wind

· Meaning to be drunk

· Earliest use of this is in 1821

· The sheets are chains or ropes used to tie down the lowest corner of a sail. If you had three sails on your boat, with all the sheets lose, the boat would sail like a drunkard walks.

o The Journal of Rev. Francis Asbury, 1815

o “The tavernkeepers were kind and polite, as Southern folks should be and as Southern folks ought not to be; they were sometimes two sheets in the wind. O, that liquid fire!”

Pipe down

· Pipes were often used on ships to communicate commands. For example, a crew would be piped to their next meal. Piping down was to dismiss a crew from the meal table (things obviously became quieter when they left).

By and large

· A boat that sales well towards a wind and away from a wind.

· Earliest example is from 1669; the Mariners Magazine!

o Presumably a magazine perused by sailors when they were waiting to have their hair cut, or were having a poo, or were waiting for a crewmate to have a poo at a floating service station.

§ Fill up with unleaded wind

§ Check your sails are inflated properly


· The highest rating offered by Lloyds of London; famous insurers.

· In the 18th and 19th century, shipping was a huge part of British culture and ships were insured, so the term entered common parlance.

Chock a block

· Chock originally comes from ‘choke’; chock full, choke full, full to choking

· Then chocks evolve into wedges used to secure heavy objects; 1769, A Universal Dictionary of the Marine.

· Block and tackles are pulley systems used to raise or lower sails. When the rope is fully extended in the pulley system, everything locks up; so it’s chock-a-block.

o 1832; a reference.

Close quarters

· An explanation from the 1769 William Falconer’s ‘A universal dictionary of the marine’ again:

o "Close-quarters, certain strong barriers of wood stretching across a merchant-ship in several places. They are used as a place of retreat when a ship is boarded by her adversary, and are ... fitted with ... loop holes, through which to fire."

bottom of page