A tale of three ships

House flag, Canadian Pacific Steamships. Manufactured by Porter Bros Ltd, c. 1955. (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Pope Collection, Item #AAA0189)

A fascinating look into the lives of three vessels of the former Canadian Pacific Steamship Company (and its Atlantic subsidiary, Canadian Pacific Ocean Services) suggests that perhaps the CPR was the world’s greatest travel system, after all.

RMS Empress of Australia

Type: Ocean liner
Launched: 20 December 1913
Owner: 1913-19 Hamburg-Amerika Line (1913-19), P&O Line (1920-21), Canadian Pacific Steamship Co. (1921-52)
Tonnage: 21,861 gross register tonnage
Length: 615 feet
Beam: 42 feet
Speed: 19 knots
Capacity: First class, 400; Tourist class, 150; Third class, 635
Crew: 520 officers and crew

Originally built as SS Tirpitz for Hamburg-Amerika line, but outfitting was interrupted by the Great War.  Claimed as war prize by the United Kingdom, operated by P&O Line for a year, then bought and refitted by CPR.

Claim to fame #1: Docked at Yokohama, Japan, on September 1st, 1923.  At 11:55am, while the ship was preparing to get underway, the city was rocked by an earthquake (now known as the Great Kanto earthquake) measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale.  The temblor continued for a duration of four to ten minutes and caused many buildings to collapse instantly; noontime cooking fires also set off up to 88 separate blazes across the city.  Tokyo was similarly devastated by the quake and its own series of fires.  All told, the quake was thought to have killed approximately 105,000 souls. Sections of Empress‘ pier collapsed, dumping families and well-wishers into the harbour; the ship lowers boats to recover them.

While attempting to move away from land (and fire), the ship’s screws got fouled by the lines of another vessel.  Empress sends an SOS and received a tow out of the danger area—where an oil-slick fire was spreading across the water.  After her navigation was restored, Empress remained in the vicinity and acted as a hospital ship and marshalling point for refugees, dispatching her boats to take in the afflicted.  She was able to remain on station for twelve days due to resupply from the Empress of Canada, another CP ocean liner which arrived just three days after the quake.  Most of the refugees were taken to Kobe, where the Japanese government had set up a relief station.

Ultimately, Empress of Australia and her crew were responsible for evacuating and caring for over 2,000 refugees in the wake of the disaster.  Captain Samuel Robinson (see photograph) was awarded seven honours from the United Kingdom, Japan, Siam and Spain, for both saving his ship and assisting the relief effort.

(Compare and contrast with Empressmodern-day counterparts following Haiti’s devastating earthquake.)

Claim to fame #2: When King George VI and Queen Elizabeth embarked on their 1939 Royal Tour of Canada and the United States, Buckingham Palace selected RMS Empress of Australia as the royal yacht.

Claim to fame #3: As a commander in the Royal Naval Reserve, Samuel Robinson (her first captain) was entitled to fly the blue ensign rather than the red ensign usually flown by civilian merchant and passenger craft.

Claime to fame #4: The ship was painted grey and pressed into service as a troop transport for the Second World War (and Korea).  Despite criss-crossing the world, she fortuitously avoided major combat damage, but never returned to glamorous passenger service.  Empress of Australia remained a grey-clad troop transport until finally heading to the breakers in 1952.

RMS Empress of Britain

Type: Ocean liner
Launched: 11 June 1930
Owner: Canadian Pacific Steamship Co. (1930-40)
Tonnage: 42,348 gross register tonnage
Length: 760.6 feet
Beam: 97 feet, 6 inches feet
Speed: 24 knots
Capacity: First class, 465; Tourist class, 260; Third class, 470.  Or 700 first-class suites for world cruising
Crew: 520 officers and crew

Claim to fame #1: She was the largest, fastest and most luxurious ocean liner to travel between Britain and Canada.  Christened by Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) on June 11th, 1930.The pride of CP’s passenger liner fleet, Empress of Britain was conceived from the outset with dual roles.  In the summer she would operate from Britain to Quebec with over a thousand cabins in three classes; every winter (when the Saint Lawrence River froze), her accommodations were converted into an all-first-class arrangement with 700 suites, and she cruised the world’s tourist hotspots at a more leisurely pace.  Equipped with four screws, she could make over 24 knots in transatlantic service, where speed was important.  But for world cruising, two of her screws were removed—dropping her top speed from 24 knots to 22 knots, but also increasing her fuel efficiency; on transatlantic runs Empress of Britain consumed roughly 356 tons of oil a day, but on her 1932 world cruise consumption was a mere 179 tons per day.

Claim to fame: #2: Her captain from 1934 to 1937 was Ronald Niel Stuart, a Great War veteran and Victoria Cross winner.  As an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve, he was also entitled to fly the blue ensign rather than the merchant marine’s common red ensign.  Commanding the Empress of Britain was Stuart’s final and most prestigious sea command.  He remained with CP in senior management for a further 13 years, and was a part-time naval aide-de-camp to King George VI during the Second World War.

Claim to fame #3: In June of 1939, Empress of Britain conveyed King George VI and Queen Elizabeth back to the United Kingdom at the conclusion of their Royal Tour.  The passenger manifest for this trip was the smallest she ever carried—just 40 people, including the King and Queen, 13 lords- and ladies-in-waiting, 22 household staff, two journalists and a photographer.  She was escorted back to England by three Royal Navy warships and two from the Royal Canadian Navy.  Following her loss in October 1940, the Royal Couple sent a message to Sir Edward Beatty and the directors of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, expressing their sympathies at her loss and fond memories of their 1939 return journey.

Claim to fame #4: Requisitioned for wartime troop transport in November of 1939 and painted low-visibility grey.  An 9:20am on October 26th, 1940, Empress of Britain was spotted by a German Fw 200 Condor maritime bomber, which hit her with two 250kg bombs and strafed her three times.  With the ship ablaze and flooding, and her firefighting equipment knocked out, Captain Charles H. Sapsworth gave the order to abandon ship.  Of the 643 people aboard, 45 were unaccounted for; 32 of them were crew members.

Remarkably, Empress of Britain refused to sink, so an effort was made to salvage the ship.  Two oceangoing tugs arrived and took the hulk in tow, while destroyer escorts and Sunderland flying boats patrolled for enemy activity.  Late in the day, German sub U-32 managed to slip through the screen and put two torpedoes into the Empress‘ side, bringing her seagoing days to an end.  U-32 was itself destroyed by HMS Harvester and HMS Highlander two days later; some of the sub’s crew were rescued by these same destroyers.  They were subsequently transferred to POW camps in Canada aboard another Canadian Pacific liner, the Duchess of York—commanded by Charles H. Sapsworth.

SS Beaverford

Type: Merchantman
Launched: 28 October 1927
Owner: Canadian Pacific Steamship Co. (1927-40)
Tonnage: 10,042 gross register tonnage
Length: 512 feet
Beam: 61.5 feet
Speed: 15 knots
Crew: 77 officers and crew

Second of five general-purpose merchantmen in the Beaver class (BeaverburnBeaverfordBeaverdaleBeaverhill and Beaverbrae), initially built for CPR but eventually impressed into the war effort.

Claim to fame #1: Beaverford witnessed probably the most hopeless engagement ever embarked upon by a naval escort.  The merchantman departed Halifax, Nova Scotia on October 28th, 1940 along with the other ships in convoy HX-84.  On November 5th, 1940, the convoy was intercepted by German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer.  The convoy’s only dedicated escort—armed merchant cruiser HMS Jervis Bay—engaged the battleship but was easily outranged by the Scheer‘s larger guns.  Jervis Bay lasted somewhere between twenty-four and sixty minutes, losing 190 of her 256 crew.  (Captain Edward Fegen was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his valiant but futile defence of the convoy.Admiral Scheer eventually overhauled the trailing elements of the convoy and started taking apart the helpless merchantmen, sinking six.  Beaverford was one of the casualties, as were all 77 of her officers and crew.  Her wireless officer transmitted a final message before the ship’s destruction:  “It’s our turn now. So long. The Captain and crew of S. S. Beaverford.”

Claim to fame #2: None of Beaverford‘s four sister ships survived the Second World War, either.  Beaverburn (first of the class) became CPR’s first war loss when torpedoed by U-41 in the North Atlantic on February 5th, 1940.  Beaverdale was torpedoed by U-48 April 1st, 1941, although she achieved minor fame before that as two of her boats were used in the evacuation at Dunkirk.  Beaverhill was the only ship of the class not lost to enemy action—she went aground near Saint John, New Brunswick on November 24th, 1944.  Beaverbrae was sunk by enemy aircraft in the north Atlantic on March 25th, 1941.

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