|Empress of Britain (II)
1931 - 1940
the end of the 1920s, the Canadian Pacific Railway Co. was one
of the foremost shipping companies on the North Atlantic. However, their
services could not quite compare with those offered by other companies
operating between Southampton and New York. Canadian Pacific did have ships
known for their comfort and luxury, but the most fashionable ships were
found on a route more southerly.
for the passengers stood between many companies and the competition was
hard. So, as an effort to lure some of the mid-Western and Western Americans
to sail from Quebec instead of New York, the Canadian Pacific Line decided
to place an order for a new vessel – a ship that would be the company’s
largest to date.
Pacific turned to the Clydebank shipbuilders of John Brown & Co. to
create their new champion. Being a pioneering company in the already growing
cruising-business, the company wanted the new ship to be built with dual-purpose
in mind. She was to operate as an Atlantic liner in the summer season,
and to go on lengthy luxury-cruises during the winter months.
|The splendid Empress
11th, 1930, the new ship was ready to take to the water for
the very first time. It was indeed a great day for the company, with the
new vessel being their largest ever. A great number of people had gathered,
among them Edward, Prince of Wales, who was to do the actual christening
of the new ship. Sending her to her rightful element, he gave her the name
Empress of Britain.
soon began on fitting the new Empress out. As she was intended to
attract passengers away from other ships, she was designed with a great
deal of luxury – something that would also come in handy when she was to
go on cruises. One of the most stunning public areas was the
Mayfair Lounge, which was done in walnut complemented with designs of silver
for the wall panelling. Inspired by ancient Greek architecture, the designers
had included tall scagliola columns and pilasters. The ceiling was adorned
by a large vault, which featured amber glass and the signs of the zodiac
around the base.
of Britain could also offer activities for those more athletically
oriented. The first class gymnasium was equipped with a great range of
devices, for example bicycling machines, electric horses and punch balls.
carpenters and other craftsmen were working in the public areas with decorating
the new Canadian Pacific vessel, engineers were busy installing the engines
down below. The Empress was fitted with Curtis-Brown steam turbines
geared to four propellers. These were expected to give her a service speed
of around 24 knots. If so, she would be not only the largest ship on the
Canadian run, but also the fastest.
fitting out was completed, the Empress of Britain was finally ready
for her sea trials. On April 13th 1931, she set out to prove
her worth. And so she did. By averaging a speed of 25.27 knots over the
measured mile she showed her owners that she would not let them down, at
least not when it came to speed. But would the passengers flock to the
new Empress, as it had been hoped? Soon the company would find out.
|The Mayfair Lounge, one
of the ship's centrepieces.
27th 1931, the day had come for the Empress of Britain
to set out on her premiere voyage from Southampton to Quebec, calling at
Cherbourg on the way. The departure was a festive event, being witnessed
by among many others the Prince of Wales. This very first voyage of the
Empress was a true success. Her time between Cherbourg and Father
Point of 4 days, 19 hours and 35 minutes was the fastest
ever. There was a new speed-champion on the Canadian route.
had seemed to be an enormous success at first soon turned out not to. The
maiden voyage of the Empress of Britain had been an exciting novelty,
but it did not take long before passengers started travelling on the trusted
Southampton-New York route again. And to make matters even worse, the Depression
soon created a massive downfall in the emigration to Canada. In 1932 there
were only 6,882 emigrants landed in the country, compared with 133,141
in 1929. The Empress of Britain seemed to be facing hard times.
instead hoped that the Empress of Britain would make some profit
with her winter cruises. On December 3rd 1931, she set out on
her first world cruise. For her cruising duties, two of the ship’s turbines
were shut down, as speed was not important on leisure cruises. Her two
outer propellers were removed and stowed inboard to reduce drag, and thereby
also bring down the fuel consumption.
of Britain’s world cruises were indeed something extra. Sailing
from New York, she continued east through the Mediterranean and through
the Suez Canal along to India, Java, Bali, China, Japan, the American West
Coast and finally through the Panama Canal back to New York, and it was
not cheap for a person to come along. The minimum fare was $2,100 and a
whole suite could end up at an astonishing
$16,000. Unfortunately, there were not so many that could afford these
prices, and the Empress did not produce much profits as a cruise
ship either, thus making her one of the least profitable liners of her
time. Yet she would go on a world cruise every year until 1939, with the
exception of 1933.
|A beautiful aerial view of
Empress of Britain.
the Empress of Britain continued serving Canadian Pacific in her
dual role. In August 1934, she set a new eastbound record between Belle
Isle and Cherbourg, completing the crossing in 4 days, 6 hours and 58 minutes.
However, a year later, in June 1935, she was involved in her first major
accident when during foggy weather she collided with the Common Bros vessel
Kafiristan in the St Lawrence River. Three men who were working
on the Kafiristan’s forecastle were killed in the impact, and several
others were injured. The Canadian Pacific ship Beaverford was called
in to take the Kafiristan in tow. The Empress was able to
continue under her own power.
to this sad event in the career of the Empress of Britain, her proudest
moment came in 1939. The British King George VI and Queen Elizabeth completed
their goodwill-tour of North America in June, and the Empress was
chartered to take them back to England. For the voyage, the royal couple
and their entourage occupied a large number of the ship’s luxury suites.
two and a half months after this joyous occasion, in Europe the sparks
of war ignited what would become World War II. The Empress of Britain
had left Southampton on September 2nd, and upon her arrival
in Quebec she was ordered to stay there. On the 25th that same
month, she was officially requisitioned to be used as a troop transport.
Once she had been converted into such, she made two trooping crossings
from Halifax to Clyde, each time escorted by destroyers.
1940, the Empress was sent to Australia and New Zealand to transport
troops to Europe. On May 12th she left Freemantle in a troop convoy
together with the Empress of Canada, Queen Mary, Aquitania,
Mauretania and Royal Mail’s Andes.
|The Empress of Britain burning
after having been attacked by German aircraft.
autumn of 1940, the Empress of Britain was on trooping mission between
England and Suez via the Cape. On her way back, she called at Cape Town.
Leaving with 643 people on board, no one knew that this was to be her last
voyage. On October 26th, when the Empress of Britain
was off the West Coast of Ireland, she was suddenly attacked by a German
long-range Focke-Wulf Condor aircraft. The ship was set on fire in the
attack, and it did not take long before the crew had lost control of the
raging blaze. The Captain ordered abandon ship, but a skeleton crew remained
in an effort to save the ship.
destroyer Burza and the two tugs Marauder and Thames
managed to take the burning vessel in tow, and headed for safe waters.
But the German aircraft had reported the ship’s position via radio, and
soon the German U-boat U-32 was on the Empress’ tails. The
U-boat stalked its prey for almost 24 hours before, on October 28th,
she was able to fire three torpedoes against the Empress of Britain.
One of the torpedoes detonated prematurely, but the other two found its
target, and mortally wounded her. The Empress of Britain went down,
the casualties being counted to 49, most of whom had been killed in the
air attack. Two days later, the U-32 was sunk by the destroyer Harvester.
years later, when the bloody conflict of World War II came to an end, no
larger liner than the Empress of Britain had been sunk. She was
the greatest loss for the Allied forces during the entire war.
|The Empress of Britain
||760.6 feet (231.84
||97.8 feet (29.79
||42,348 gross tons
||Four Curtis-Brown steam
turbines turning four propellers.