Tuesday, 19 May 2009

The sinking of the Empress of Canada.



RMS Empress of Canada was an ocean liner built in 1920 for the Canadian Pacific Steamships (CP) by Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Company at Govan on the Clyde in Scotland. This ship -- the first of two CP vessels to be named Empress of Canada -- regularly traversed the trans-Pacific route between the west coast of Canada and the Far East until 1939. This Empress was distinguished by the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) prefix in front of her name while in commercial service with Canadian Pacific. When not carrying mail, the ship would have been identified as SS Empress of Canada.

In 1920, Canadian Pacific Steamships ordered a new ship to be built by Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Company at Govan near Glasgow in Scotland. This Empress was a 21,517 ton, 653 foot ocean liner. She undertook her maiden voyage on 5 May 1922. Based at the port of Vancouver, British Columbia, the first Empress of Canada was intended to provided service to Japan, Hong Kong, and China. Her sister ships included Empress of France and Empress of Britain.

Great Kantō earthquake
On 34 September 1923, the Empress of Canada arrived at Tokyo harbor -- just three days after the devastating Great Kantō Earthquake struck the city. She found that the Empress of Australia had been converted to a command post from which the British consul was directing relief work; and the Empress of Canada transported refugees to Kobe -- 587 Europeans, 31 Japanese, and 362 Chinese.

World War II
Following the outbreak of World War II in 1939, she was converted for use as a troopship. She carried ANZAC troops from New Zealand and from Australia to the war zones in Europe.

SS Empress of Australia's ballroom was cleared for sleeping as ANZAC troops are transported from the Antipodes to the war zones in the Northern Hemisphere. This specific image was captured at sea in January 1940 near Fremantle, Western Australia.


The return voyage from Europe was not less dangerous than the trip north had been. On 13 March 1943, while en route from Durban, South Africa to Takoradi carrying Italian prisoners of war along with Polish and Greek refugees, the SS Empress of Canada was torpedoed and sunk by the Italian submarine Leonardo Da Vinci approximately 400 miles (640 km) south of Cape Palmas off the coast of Africa. Of the approximate 1800 people on board, 392 died. Nearly half of the fatalities reported were Italian prisoners.

66 comments:

Anonymous said...

my father was royal navy .gunner on this ship when she was sunk ..i have been looking up the ships he served in,he did survive a second sinking and came home after the war

Bronwyn Owens (nee Kerr-Taylor) said...

Have discovered that a relative died on this ship in 1940 at the beginning of WW2. He was Bombardier Theodore Ross Kerr-Taylor and only 22 yrs old. He was on way to the Middle East. He apparently became ill on board ship with severe tonsilitis, and despite some medical attention including an injection, died. He was buried at sea - the first of the war.

Every Sailor said...

Hello Anonymous and Mrs. Owens, thank you both very much for your kind visits.

Anonymous, it is wonderful news to hear that your father survived not one, but two sinkings! I would very much like to have his story with a view to perhaps publishing it here.

Mrs. Owens, thank you for sharing the sad story of your relative who passed away in Empress of Canada, of what seems by modern standards, to be a trivial illness. 22 seems terribly young to die by modern standards, especially from an illness that we, today, would consider easily treatable, but one must remember in those dark days, many tens of thousands died at sea whilst possessing similarly tender years. I often think that it could ONLY be the sea that constitutes a sufficiently fitting memorial for so many lost, so young, including Bombardier Kerr-Taylor. Thank you again for your kind visit.

Megan Baines said...

my grandad was on this ship and he survived. he worked in the engine room. he was in the water for 5 days watching people dying. he never really talked about his time during the war but he did tell us some bits. my grandad recently passed away at the grand age of 93 and i thought it would be nice to look at the ship he served on.

James Verdun Baines, worked in engine room.

monicadeam@tiscali.it said...

Mio padre Pietro de Ambrosis era un prigioniero italiano che viaggiava sulla Empress of Canada quando è stata affondata dal Leonardo da Vinci- E' stato salvato dopo tre giorni e tre notti passate in acqua su una barca sovraffollata. Chi ha parenti o genitori che erano sulla nave può contattarmi

Monica De Ambrosis said...

My father Peter was on Empress of Canade and he survived after 3 day and 3 night in the Ocean. Please contact me if your father was on the Empress too.

bryan810 said...

My father was a Royal Navy gunner in the D.E.M.S. and served on many merchant navy ships on Atlantic Convoys (and sunk a few times) he was also sabataged by both food contamination, so they had to live on rice for the whole crossing) and fire bombs in New York harbour, when the ship was loaded with 500lb bombs, aviation fuel and 2 stean engines mounted on deck. He and another DEMS sailor managed to put the fire out and save the ship, even though the Captain and crew had abandoned ship. He was also at Dieppe, Suez canal and Anzio, but the worst was being sunk on the Empress of Canada. When they had to abandon ship he said it was like jumping off a 3 story building into the sea full of oil and wreckage. As he was not wearing a life jacket it allowed him to swim unheaded. Just as well because he was chased by a shark and managed to escape by climbing onto some of the wreckage, some days later he came across a rubber dingy full of survivors, he had to hold onto the rope around the dingy as there was no room for him as well, until somebody died and was put over the side. One of the others had fallen asleep with his hand in the water, due to the cold it was numb, when he woke up and took his hand out it had been bitten off. After 6 days those still alive were picked up by a Royal Navy ship which treated them the best they could, days afterwards they were still picking up survivors, some of whom were partly eated by sharks and had to be shot to put them out of their missery as there was nothing anybody could do for them.

My dad said he was one of the lucky ones, although for the rest of his short life he was in constant pain due to the amount of oil and salt water he had swallowed, that together with no food or water for those 6 days had ruined his insides.

I must mention that my father could not stand the bad treatment the merchant navy sailors received on land (all because they did not wear a military uniform), some of the merchant sailors he served with had been sunk many, many times and still came back for more, even though they did not get paid from the time their ship was sunk!

Jim Pugh said...

Howell Pugh my Grandfather survived the sinking of the Empress, he had just finished his shift in the engine room and sat on his bunk when the torpedo struck , he spoke little of his ordeal but relived it frequently in his sleep where my grandmother learned of the terror they all suffered , on return to the U.K he signed up straight away to another ship , i am proud to have his medals and his sea record book , a great man like the many who served this country , i would be interested to hear from others whose relations served on the Empress

Jeff said...

My father Michael Victor James Dunford also served on the Empress of Canada...he survived the sinking and told stories of shark and barracuda attacks. He suffered from insomnia the rest of his life...unable to sleep until after the time (midnight or so?) that the torpedoes hit the Empress. he also hated water. He emigrated to Canada after the war.

Anonymous said...

My great aunt was aboard the ship when it was sunk. She was a Polish nurse who had also survived Siberia.

Bernard Mabbett said...

Many thanks for the infomation on the sinking of the Empress of Canada. Felix Bernasconi was a DEMS Gunner at the time of the sinking. he was torpeoded four times during the war and survived.

Bernard Mabbett

Sue Bates said...

Trying to work out where my father was & when during WW2.I have his diary for all 1944 when he's in Palestine with the Middle East Forces in the RASC Mobile Petrol Filling Company..He went there via South Africa on the Empress of Canada & told us (his family) it was sunk on the return journey. So he must have arrived early March, I think.

Patrick Madden said...

My late father was an AB on the 'Empress of Canada' he survived the sinking and after a long period of days in a lifeboat they were rescued. By sheer coincidence a Polish POW was on the same ship at the same time who later married my Fathers sister

Roy Price said...

My Father - Len Price - was a steward on the Empress of Canada. He bought my mum's engagement and wedding ring in NZ when the ship visited NZ to pick up troops. Hard to get gold in the UK during the war.
He escaped the sinking and got into a lifeboat and was in it for 5 days. He told me the Italian sub surfaced and picked up some Italians. They were scared that the sub would shoot them but that didn't happen.He arrived back in Liverpool wearing just his shorts and a singlet
Dad was also torpedoed on HMS Salopian in 1941 and again attacked off Norwegian coast by a German pocket battle ship.
Ironically, he joined the Merchant Navy to avoid the army as he thought the army was too dangerous!
I haven't got his Merchant Navy Discharge book and don't know the name of the 3rd ship sinking.

Tina Scammell said...

My Father Ronald Good, is also a survivor from the sinking of the Empress of Canada. At the time he was 16yo and serving on the ship as a cabin boy (and is now 85). He also has stories of people being taken by sharks, And he remembers being picked up by the ship HMS Borious, and vividly remembers the letters H77 on its side. He went on to serve on other merchant ships, and later joined the British Army. My sister and I found your site whilst looking for photo's of ships he served on, to make a collage for him for Christmas.

Anonymous said...

My Father Wieslaw Dabrowski was on the " Empress of Canada" when she was torpedoed. He often told the story of his friend, who he took it in turns with to go in the water. His friend has his leg bitten off by a shark and took his life jacket off and disapeared under the the water.

Anonymous said...

My Grandmother was on the Empress of Canada when she sank, together with my Godmothers Father, Pamela Luke and Jack Smith, I'm told that Jack went and got Grandma from her cabin or she would have gone down with the ship.

Pamela was on her way home from Singapore where she had been stationed as a morse code operator whilst in the Wrens, I don't know much more informaiton as she would never speak of her war years and never collected her medals as she said she'd not done anything in the war.

I do know only Pamela, Jack and one other survived in their life boat and that all my Grandmothers jewelery went down with the ship.

Anonymous said...

Book "Three Miles Down" [1998] James Hamilton-Paterson, tells story of attempt to salvage gold from this shipwreck

Robert Penny said...

I have just spent part of my afternoon talking with my honorary Auntie, now in her nineties, about her father, who was a gunner in the RN. He joined as a boy in the ranks and eventually became a Lieutenant Commander. James Davis was on the Empress of Canada returning from a posting as a gunnery training officer in Durban when the ship was torpedoed. He knew what was coming after the first torpedo as he had been torpedoed and sunk twice in quick succession at the Battle of Jutland. He got himself on deck as quickly as he could but had to slide down a rope to the water, suffering severe rope burns, for which he later required skin grafts. My Aunt has a picture of her father in uniform, which I can scan and send if anyone is interested. I'll also try to find out some more details.

Mike Kenny said...

My mothers brother Edward Robertson was part of the crew when the ship was lost.She always spoke of him as quiet man who was sadley missed by all who knew him. Can anyone recognise him as one of the lost crew.

stanley kowalski said...

Victoria Chorpenning My father Stanislaw J. Kowalski was on the Empress of Canada when it was torpedoed on March 13, 1943 close to midnight. It was again hit by a second torpedo and sunk after midnight. He survived by sliding down the rope and getting onto a rescue boat. He survived three days and nights on the rescue boat till he switched places with a woman who was picked up on a raft. From there on the sixth day a Royal Navy light cruiser. They arrived in Freetown on March 19th, 1943. Would love to hear from anyone that was on the boat or had relatives that survived. My Dad is 92 years old but still talks about his war experiences as if it was just yesterday

Anonymous said...

My name is jack bell I was on the empress of Canada when she sunk I was an assistant steward I was 18 years old when the ship was torpedoed most every one was asleep except for crew tar still still had duties there was a lot of confusion as all of the electrics were out so no one could see there was a lot of screaming too some people including myself could not swim I climbed down a rope into the water with my life jacket on and manoeuvred myself away from the ship in case I got sucked under there were sharks in the water any many were attacked when light came I was alone in the water I saw an upturned lifeboat an made my way to it and scrambled on to the top of it . I was on the lifeboat for 5 days before I was found by one of the motorised lifeboats that were from the empress I could see them looking but they seemed too far away they must of been searching in wider circles and I was found

rogedon said...

roger.d@sky.com
My late father survived the torpedo attack on the Empress. I have only just started to learn about what happened as he never spoke of his war experiences, his name was Donald Davies known as Don and was from Shropshire he served three tours of duty on the ship between 1941 and when she was sunk. I would be interested to learn of any information,eyewitness accounts or stories that have been past down to relatives of what happened and how it affected those involved please email

Catherine McCaskill said...

catherinemccaskill@yahoo.co.uk

I'm a volunteer researcher for a new heritage centre to be opened in the old offices of Fairfield Shipyard hopefully some time this year. I'd be grateful for any information on the crew, passengers or in fact anyone who was involved in the Empress of Canada. She was of course built in Fairfields and the story would start from her days in the yard until her sinking. I notice so many people on this site who have relatives involved and would like to pull it all together.

Anonymous said...

A family friend from Enfield called Ronald Whitfield died in the sinking. He was a young Royal Navy man. Does anyone have a listing of the people who perished with the Empress?

Anonymous said...

My uncle, Ernie Batten, was eaten by sharks after getting off the ship before it was sunk by the Italian submarine. He was one of the troops returning on leave, to England because his own ship was being repaired in Durban. He and a large number of his colleagues were in the water in float jackets as there weren't enough lifeboats and he was seen to be taken by sharks by his mate who survived to tell the tale.

My other uncle, Billy Batten, also died in the Atlantic when his aircraft carrier was sunk West of Gibraltar on 15th November 1942.

R.I.P Uncle Ernie and Uncle Billy.

Anonymous said...

My Grandfather, Louis Gold Survived the sinking. I think he was the ships pharmacist. He often spoke of the sinking and seeing many of his mates being taken by sharks. He spent 3 days in the water before being rescued.

Anonymous said...

My Grandfather, Louis Gold Survived the sinking. I think he was the ships pharmacist. He often spoke of the sinking and seeing many of his mates being taken by sharks. He spent 3 days in the water before being rescued.

Anonymous said...

I have an ashtray in the form of a ships wheel, made of solid aluminum with a crest in its centre bearing a checkered white and red flag with the name of S. S. Empress of Canada around it in a blue circle. I would like to know if it came from that ship.

john mace said...

My father was HMS Crocus one of the three royal navy ships to respond to the mayday call.

Anonymous said...

My Grandfather, William Sams whom perished on this ship and our family have very little information, it has been said that he escaped on a life boat but went back to the sinking ship to help try and release the Italian PoW. We wonder whether this could have been possible?

shaun said...

My dad Richard OUtrum Massy was the purser and a photographer on the ship from 1939 through the time it sunk. He had many stories to tell of his travels, friends and about the sinking.
I can recount some of the stories and have come across lots of photos of the ship, the travels and of the people on the ship ,especially in the 40's. Where would be the best place to post these so relatives and searchers about this time could access them?
Shaun Massy brink
contact me also at www.traumatransformed.com

Andrew Lee said...

My father(Andrew Lee) was a stoker on the
Empress of Canada He survived

Basiaanna said...

My mother, Zofia Reder, and her mother survived the sinking of the Empress of Canada. In her papers, after her recent death, I found a copy of the luncheon menu from March 9th!

Roy Price said...

My Father was a steward - he could have served your mother that dinner!

Patricia Lewandowski said...

My late grandfather survived the torpedo attack on the Empress of Canada, his name was Roman Lewandowski, Sergeant Tank of the Polish Armed Forces. He never spoke of his war experiences but he wrote a diary of war with the events. He was in Palestine with the Middle East Forces on 1942, and he had traveled from Suez to Durban in the RSM "New Amsterdam" between January 2 and 13, 1943. After the sinking of the Empress , he traveled to Liverpol.

E. Boughton said...

My father, Divisional Officer Ernest Boughton of the Manchester Fire Brigade, was the first person to board the ship after the fire was brought under control, being the senior fire officer there that day. The ship was listing at 45 degrees and the deck was still very hot. Fire brigades from all over the north of England, and the northern Midlands, collaborated in fighting the fire.

Yvonne Beeston said...

My late father Daniel Castille was French? He joined the Royal Navy and had to change his name to Richard Johnston. My father told us he was winning at cards when a torpedo struck. He said the Italians all went down with the ship as their door was never unlocked. He helped an elderly couple on to a raft. A young lady on the raft only a flimsy nightie on and he had shorts so they swapped and he made a loin cloth out of the nightie. Two days later an allied plane flew over. A corvette took them to Freetown on the West African Coast. They were there until April. My mother his fiancé thought he must have drowned. When he returned they decided to get married as soon as possible which they did on 5th June 1943. He lived until he was 80 and died in 2002 and my mother died in 2010.

mac said...

My father was a Royal Airforce NCO on hi sway home from a long tour in Ceylon. He was in the water with many others until picked up by an RN vessel. He did say that there were a number of Nurses on the float that he was near, and the men all stayed in the water so that the nurses would have the best chance of survival. He suffered shark bites which pained him all his life. Like most of these heroes, he said almost nothing about it during his life, but the family are trying to research what did happen and what ship he may have been rescued by. He was landed in Freetown with a number of other survivors, and eventually returned to Active Service in the RAF, where he continued to serve until retirement at the age of 55. He sadly passed away some years ago, but if anyone has any info about access to any official records of this event I would be grateful for that info. My Father was Flight Sergeant L.E.Mckie.
M.I.McKie, Master Mariner (Retd) mac.mckie@gmail.com

Bill Delahunty said...

My father Bill Delahunty and his older brother Tom were engine room men on the 'Canada' when she was torpedoed. They were to be in the same lifeboat but decided to separate on the boat beck so maybe one would get home.My dad told me he was in the motorboat rounding up survivors from the water and witnessed some of his crew mates taken by sharks.Both my dad and his brother got home and carried on through the war.As soon as the ship sank the crew pay stopped and my Mum got no money at all until my Dad got home and went back to sea.

Anonymous said...

Kay said:

My late father, Ralph N. Walling was a British War Correspondent on the Empress of Canada and survived four days on a raft when it sunk. He was frustrated by censorship at the time and not allowed to write about it, but in the l960s he wrote an account in the Philadelphia Bulletin, paying tribute to a young doctor who swam through the sharks, tending the injured until he, too, was eaten. The doctor's family got in touch, grateful to know how their son had died, and my father was very glad to have told the tale at last.

Anonymous said...

My father Richard Moore (now deceased) was a writer/gunner on HMS Boreas, one of the 4 vessels which picked up survivors. He said the Boreas picked up 700 Empress of Canada survivors out of the shark infested waters.

Maureen said...

Yes my Dad was on the Empress he is still alive to tell his story at 96 years old!!

Maureen said...

Well I guess your and my Dad could have been sea mates I can't believe at 96 he can still tell his story!

Maureen said...

Hello yes my Dad survived and is still telling his story at 96 years old there should be a movie made of this!!

Maureen said...

Your Dad and mine should get together!!

Maureen said...

Yes my Dad talks about his survival on the Empress all the time he is 96 now!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Maureen. Five posts is enough I think.

Maureen said...

You would probably have known my father Denis Gent he's 96 now and tells his story

Maureen said...

Oh really????

David Robinson said...

I had the pleasure of being a freind of Captain George Goold's son Ron.
He talked a lot about his father and had many stories of his fathers time as Captain in the Empress line.
One that sticks to my mind is Ron and his brother George telling us how their father stayed on the bridge until the ship was abandonded and literally walked off
the bridge and into the water.
Ron had his father's Captains hat until he passed away in 1980, when it went to his brother George.
The best part was how Captain Goold had had his crest sewn on upside down. According to Ron nobody said a thing.
In all the years I knew him, every summer, he planted Petunia's and Crocus's to commerorate 2 of the rescue ships. A tradition his mother had started a year or so after the sinking.
It's been many years and the more I think about it the more the stories come back
I will write more down as they come to me.
Pics of Captain Goold
https://open.library.ubc.ca/collections/chung/chungphotos/items/1.0217019#p0z-4r0f:
https://open.library.ubc.ca/img/thumbnails/cdm/chungphotos/400/1.0217840

Darren Talley said...

Maureen, please contact me at livethefour at gmail - our group is making a documentary, and would love to have your father's testimony. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Hi my father Alfred Caruana (maltese)he was on the empress of canada he was a second cook and baker i know he was selling cakes and sandwhiches to the troops during ww2 he had two suitcases full of dollas when the ship went down i know he had money he lent my uncle one thousand pounds to start a bookies runner as gambling in england was illegal at the time.on the night of the friday 13th march 1943 shortly after the torpedo struck my fathers best friend who was a pipe smoker he said to my father im going back into the cabin to get my pipe, he was never seen again. my father spent 5 days and 5 nights in a kylie life raft he saw a woman in the water he reached out to grab her into the life raft pulling her by her hair she had been eaten from the waste down. He was taken to seirra leone hospital where he spent two weeks recovering.
my father was a very superstitious man he never liked friday the 13th.

Glynn Carauna

Shaun Brink said...

My dad was on the ship and I have quite a few photos he took. If you have a photo of your grandad you could send it to me and I will look to see if I have any of him.
Shaun. Shaunbrinksart@sol.com

Shaun Brink said...

My dad was too and I have many photos he took

Shaun Brink said...

I have many of the same stories from my dad. He lived with PTSD from those days on the ocean though back then PTSD was not a recognized thing

Tony said...

I have been following my dad's progress in the Merchant Navy Reserve Pool and have a discharge note from the National Archives saying he had been on the Empress of Canada. Given it the note is dated April 1943 I can only assume he got back OK. Did anyone's Dad or Grandad know him?? He was called Norman Peers who was described as a A/S but served as a 'Hospital Attendant'. He was not a well man and died at 55 which is no surprise as I believe he was torpedeod twice. If anyone has any information to help my research I'd be very grateful. tony.peers@btinternet.com

Sophie Dickerson said...

Really great but also incredibly awful to read all of the accounts regarding the Empress of Canada. A relative of mine, George Henry Crowther, died when the Empress went down. I have no idea regarding specifics but would be grateful if anyone by any chance knew any details about him. Many thanks, Sophie

Shaun Brink said...

Hi Sophie. I am scanning photos of that time from my dad's old albums. I have lots of stories too. Was you relative a military passenger or crew member?

Shaun Brink said...

Tony, I think I may have a picture of your dad. Do you have any from that time period so I can compare?
Shaun
Summersunwoman@aol.com

Anonymous said...

Hi I'm trying to find out information regarding my Dads uncle Bernard Wright, he was on his way home for leave when the ship got hit...we have no information except that he died... He was 21..if anyone has any information I would be grateful.
Carol
silverwolfe_13@hotmail.com

Dr Susanna J Dodgson said...

I knew Dr Freda Burton Bonner who was returning to UK when it was torpedoed. After the war she went to medical school and never stopped being useful. Her fiance was also on board and perished.

Shaun Brink said...

I found many old photos from my dad's time on the Empress of Canada. I started a page on facebook to post them and the stories. I welcome any of your photos too.
Here is the link
https://www.facebook.com/empressofcanadasinking/

A Katrina Moment said...

Can anyone help me contact Basiaanna. My father was on the ship and spoke about her mother and grandmother on the ship. He recounted his conversations with her in his book, No Place to Go Home. I am currently rewriting the book and would love to have more information on her relatives.

Anonymous said...

My father Patrick Nugent was on the Empress of Canada when it was sunk. He was returning from the Middle East as a CPO (EA) in the Royal Navy after having been torpedoed and sunk on HMS MEDWAY in the Mediterranean a few months earlier. He was 3 nights and 2 days in the water on some kind of rescue boat before being picked up by a ship he called "H99" but may have mistaken it over the years for the "H77". He never really talked much about it but did mention shark attacks. He passed away in his eighties about 20 years ago.