Maritime Tales - guns and luxury

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large ship model of a liner with two red funnels, lots of life boats and masts

Ship model of the Cunard liner, Carmania

This little-known story of the Great War conjures up dramatic pictures for me, Stephen Guy. The sight of two luxury liners battling it out must have been amazing.

The 19,524 ton luxury liner Carmania sank the German liner, Cap Trafalgar, earning a unique accolade in the First World War.

The historic engagement took place off the southern coast of Argentina in September 1914, shortly after the outbreak of war.

Requisitioned by the Government and converted into an armed merchant cruiser, the 675 feet long Cunarder, Carmania was one of the few ships to make good use of this role change. She intercepted Cap Trafalgar, a Hamburg-Amerika liner before the war but now also converted and armed. The two ships pounded each other with shells. Carmania was struck 79 times and her bridge caught fire but she was able to give as good as she got.

Following an hour of fierce fighting Cap Trafalgar developed a list and went to the bottom. This was the only occasion when one liner sank another in battle.

Carmania was later escorted to Gibraltar where she was repaired in dry dock. She later patrolled the coast of Portugal and the Atlantic islands before taking part in the Gallipoli campaign. In 1916 she was returned to Cunard and acted as a troopship between Liverpool and Halifax, Nova Scotia, along with her sister. After the war the two ships were used to return Canadian soldiers home.

Cunard liners Carmania and Caronia (1905) were identical apart from their engines. Carmania was powered by newly-invented steam turbines while Caronia had traditional reciprocating engines. The success of Carmania’s turbines led directly to the building of the Lusitania and Mauretania and put Britain back at the forefront of marine design.

Carmania operated between Liverpool and New York and the Mediterranean in winter. She carried 300 First Class passengers, 350 Second Class and some 200 others, mainly emigrants travelling westwards in Third Class and Steerage.  She had major refits in 1920 and 1923 before the economic depression following the 1929 Wall Street Crash made times hard for shipping companies.

Carmania had become outdated and more modern ships were around to take her place. She was withdrawn from service in 1931 and later sold for scrap.

At Merseyside Maritime Museum there is a fine 10 ft long model of Carmania (shown) with painstaking detail right down to the rigging and lifeboats.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.