Merchant raider

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RMS Carmania sinking SMS Cap Trafalgar near the Brazilian islands of Trindade, 14 September 1914.

Merchant raiders are armed commerce raiding ships that disguise themselves as non-combatant merchant vessels.


Germany used several merchant raiders early in World War I, and again early in World War II. The most famous[citation needed] captain of a German merchant raider, Felix von Luckner, used the sailing ship SMS Seeadler for his voyage during World War I. The Germans used a sailing ship at this stage of the war because coal-fired ships had no access to fuel outside of territories held by the Central powers due to the Allied blockade.

Germany sent out two waves of six surface raiders each during World War II. Most of these vessels were in the 8-10,000 ton range. Many of these vessels had originally been refrigerator ships, used to transport fresh food from the tropics. These vessels were faster than regular merchant vessels—important for a warship. They were armed with six 15cm (5.9 inch) naval guns, some smaller calibre guns, torpedoes and reconnaissance seaplanes. Some carried mines and were fitted for minelaying. Some captains were very creative about disguising their vessels to masquerade as allied or neutral merchants.

Italy intended to outfit four refrigerated banana boats as merchant raiders during World War II (Ramb I, Ramb II, Ramb III and Ramb IV). In the event, however, only Ramb I and Ramb II served as merchant raiders, and neither ship sunk any enemy vessels. Ramb I was sunk by the Allies, and Ramb II sailed to the Far East, where it was not allowed to raid by the Japanese. She was ultimately taken over by the Japanese and converted to an auxiliary transport ship. (Ramb III served as a convoy escort and Ramb IV was converted to a hospital ship.)

These commerce raiders were unarmoured because their purpose was to attack merchantmen, not to engage war ships in open combat. Also it would be difficult to fit armour to a civilian vessel. Eventually most were sunk or transferred to other duties.

British Armed Merchant Cruisers were generally adapted from passenger liners, and were larger than the German vessels.

During World War I, the Royal Navy deployed Q-ships to combat German U-boats. Although Q-ships were warships pretending to be merchant ships so as to lure U-boats to attack them, their mission of destroying enemy warships was significantly different from the raider objective of disrupting enemy trade.

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