RMS Empress of Britain (1930)

The RMS Empress of Britain was an ocean liner built between 1928 and 1931 by John Brown shipyard in Scotland and owned by Canadian Pacific Steamship Company. This ship was the second of three CP vessels named Empress of Britain[1] — provided scheduled trans-Atlantic passenger service from spring to autumn between Canada and Europe from 1931 until 1939.

Empress of Britain passing through the Saint Lawrence River near Quebec in 1937
United Kingdom
Name: Empress of Britain
Operator: Canadian Pacific Steamship Company
Port of registry: London, United Kingdom
Route: Southampton to Quebec (Cruising in winter)
Builder: John Brown & Company of Clydebank, Scotland
Yard number: 530
Laid down: 28 November 1928
Launched: 11 June 1930
Completed: 5 April 1931
In service: 27 May 1931
Fate: Torpedoed and sunk 28 October 1940 by a German U-boat.
General characteristics
Class and type: Steam passenger liner
Tonnage: 42,348 gross register tons (GRT)
Length: 760 ft 6 in (231.80 m)
Beam: 97 ft 6 in (29.72 m)
Draft: 32 ft 0 in (9.75 m)
Speed: 24 kn (44 km/h)
Capacity: 465 1st class, 260 tourist class, 470 3rd class (700 one class when cruising)
Crew: 740

In her time, Empress of Britain was the largest, fastest, and most luxurious ship between England and Canada. She was torpedoed on 28 October 1940 by U-32 and sank. At 42,348 gross tons, she was the largest liner lost during the Second World War and the largest ship sunk by a U-boat.[2]


Work began on Empress of Britain on 28 November 1928 when the plates of her keel were laid at John Brown & Co, Clydebank, Scotland.[3] She was launched on 11 June 1930 by the Prince of Wales. This was the first time that launching ceremonies in Britain were broadcast by radio to Canada and the United States.[4]

Although mostly equipped with eight Yarrow boilers, she was also the first to be fitted with a single Johnson boiler as an experiment.[5]

The ship began sea trials on 11 April 1931 where she recorded 25.5 knots (47.2 km/h), and left Southampton on her maiden voyage to Quebec on 27 May 1931.[6]

Design and construction

As the ship would sail a more northerly trans-Atlantic route where ice-infested waters off Newfoundland sometimes awaited, Empress of Britain was ordered with outer steel plating double the thickness at the stem and for 150 feet (46 m) back at either side, up to the waterline.[3] Her sea trials showed her to be "the world’s most economical steamship for fuel consumption per horsepower-hour for her day."[7]

Her primary role was to entice passengers between England and Quebec instead of the more popular SouthamptonNew York. The ship was designed to carry 1,195 passengers (465 first class, 260 tourist class and 470 third class).[4]

She was the first passenger liner designed specifically to become a cruise ship in winter when the St. Lawrence River was frozen.[8] Empress of Britain was annually converted into an all-first-class, luxury cruise ship, carrying 700 passengers.[9]

For the latter role her size was kept small enough to use the Panama and Suez canals, though at 760.6 feet (231.84 m) and 42,348 gross tons, she was still large. When passing through Panama, there was only 7.5 inches (190 mm) between the ship and the canal lock wall.[10] She was powered by four steam turbine engines driving four propellers: the two inboard took 23 of the power, the outboard 13.[7] For cruising: two engines were shut down and the two outboard propellers retracted to prevent their leaving drag, since speed was not as important on a cruise. With four propellers, her speed during trials was 25.271 knots (46.802 km/h), although her service speed was stated at 24 knots (44 km/h) making her the fastest ship from England to Canada. Running on inner propellers, her speed was measured during trials at 22.595 knots (41.846 km/h).[11] The efficiency of this arrangement became clear in service – in transatlantic service, she consumed 356 tons of oil a day, while on her 1932 cruise, consumption fell to 179.[12]

To serve as a beacon at night during emergencies the three great funnels were illuminated with powerful flood lights. From the air the funnels could be spotted 50 miles away and ships could spot the illuminated funnels 30 miles distance.[13]

Peacetime commercial service

Following sea trials, the ship headed for Southampton to prepare for her maiden voyage to Quebec City. Canadian Pacific posters proclaimed the "Five Day Atlantic Giantess", "Canada’s Challenger" and "The World’s Wondership".[14]

The night before her maiden voyage, the Prince of Wales decided to go to Southampton to bid bon voyage. His inspection of the ship caused a short delay but at 1:12pm on Wednesday, 27 May 1931 Empress of Britain left Southampton for Quebec.[15] Once at sea, the Toronto newspaper The Globe ran an editorial on what the ship meant to Canadians.

“Canadian enterprise has issued a new challenge in the world of shipping by the completion and sailing of the Empress of Britain from England for Quebec. This giant Canadian Pacific liner of 42,500 tons sets a new standard for the Canadian route. Its luxurious equipment includes one entire deck for sport and recreation, another for public rooms, including a ballroom, with decorations by world-famous artists. There are apartments instead of cabins, and each is equipped with a radio receiving set for the entertainment of passengers. . . . In the later years of the last century, … there was long agitation for a ‘fast Atlantic service’. Time has brought the answer. Despite the current depression, Canada has a new ship which will reach far for traffic during the St. Lawrence season, and when winter comes will go on world cruises, carrying passengers who will ask and receive almost the last word in comfort and luxury in ocean travel. The first journey of the new Empress is a historic event in the record of Canadian advancement.”[16]

Empress of Britain made nine round-trips in 1931 between Southampton and Quebec, carrying 4,891 passengers westbound and 4,696 eastbound. To begin her winter cruise, she made a westbound trans-Atlantic trip to New York, carrying 378. On 3 December 1931, she sailed on a 128-day round-the-world cruise,[17] to the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Holy Land, through the Suez Canal and into the Red Sea, then to India, Ceylon, Southeast Asia and the Dutch East Indies, on to China, Hong Kong and Japan, then across the Pacific to Hawaii and California before transversing the Panama Canal back to New York.[18] The ship then made a one-way Atlantic crossing from New York to Southampton, where she entered dry dock for maintenance and reinstallation of her outer propellers. Until 1939, this schedule was duplicated with minor adjustments each year except 1933.[4]

Her captain from 1934 to 1937 was Ronald Niel Stuart, VC, a First World War veteran entitled to fly the Blue Ensign.

Canadian Pacific hoped to convince Midwesterners from Canada and the United States to travel by train to Quebec City as opposed to New York City. This gave an extra day and a half of smooth sailing in the shorter, sheltered St Lawrence River transatlantic route, which Canadian Pacific advertised as "39 per cent less ocean".[19] While initially successful, the novelty wore off, and Empress of Britain proved to be one of the least profitable liners from the 1930s.[4]

In June 1939, Empress of Britain sailed from Halifax to Conception Bay, St Johns, Newfoundland and then eastbound to Southampton with her smallest passenger list: 40 people: King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and 13 ladies and lords in waiting, 22 household staff, plus a photographer and two reporters.[20] The royal couple and their entourage were comfortably settled in a string of suites.[4] After this voyage, Empress of Britain returned to regular transatlantic service, but through summer 1939, war loomed.

On 2 September 1939, one day before the United Kingdom declared war (seven days before Canada entered the war), Empress of Britain sailed on her last voyage for Canadian Pacific, with the largest passenger list. Filled beyond capacity, and with temporary berths in the squash court and other spaces, Empress of Britain zig-zagged across the Atlantic, arriving in Quebec on 8 September 1939.[21]

War service

Upon arrival, the ship was repainted grey and then laid up awaiting orders. On 25 November 1939, when Empress of Britain was requisitioned as a troop transport. First, she did four transatlantic trips bringing troops from Canada to England. Then she was sent to Wellington, New Zealand, returning to Scotland in June 1940 as part of the "million dollar convoy" of seven luxury liners — Andes, Aquitania, Empress of Britain, Empress of Canada, Empress of Japan, Mauretania and Queen Mary.[22]

In August 1940 Empress of Britain transported troops to Suez via Cape Town, returning with 224 military personnel and civilians, plus a crew of 419.[23]


At around 9:20am on 26 October 1940, travelling about 70 miles northwest of Ireland along the west coast, Empress of Britain was spotted by a German Focke-Wulf Fw 200C Condor long-range bomber, commanded by Oberleutnant Bernhard Jope. Jope’s bomber strafed Empress of Britain three times and struck her twice with 250-kilogram (550 lb) bombs.

Only after Jope returned to base in northern France was it discovered which ship he had attacked. A telex was sent to German Supreme Headquarters. Realising the significance, a reconnaissance plane went to verify; and the German news agency reported that Empress of Britain had been sunk:

"The Empress of Britain was successfully attacked by German bombers on Saturday morning within the waters of Northern Ireland. The ship was badly hit and began to sink at once. The crew took to their boats."

Despite the ferocity of Jope's attack and the fires, there were few casualties. Bombs started a fire that began to overwhelm the ship. At 9:50am, Captain Sapworth gave the order to abandon. The fire was concentrated in the midsection, causing passengers to head for the bow and stern and hampering launching of the lifeboats. Most of the 416 crew, 2 gunners, and 205 passengers were picked up by the destroyers HMS Echo and ORP Burza, and the anti-submarine trawler HMS Cape Arcona. A skeleton crew remained aboard.

The fire left the ship unable to move under her own power, but she was not sinking and the hull appeared intact despite a slight list. At 9:30am on 27 October, a party from HMS Broke went on board and attached tow ropes. The oceangoing tugs HMS Marauder and HMS Thames had arrived and took the hulk under tow. Escorted by Broke and HMS Sardonyx, and with cover from Short Sunderland flying boats during daylight, the salvage convoy made for land at 4 kn (7.4 km/h; 4.6 mph).

The German submarine U-32, commanded by Hans Jenisch, had been told and headed in that direction. He had to dive due to the flying boats, but that night, using hydrophones (passive sonar), located the ships and closed in on them. The destroyers were zigzagging in escort; U-32 placed herself between them and Empress of Britain, from where she fired two torpedoes. The first detonated prematurely; the second hit causing a massive explosion. Crews of the destroyers speculated this was caused by the fires aboard the liner reaching her fuel tanks. Jenisch manoeuvred U-32 and fired a third torpedo which impacted just aft of the earlier one. The vessel began to fill with water and list heavily.

The tugs slipped the tow lines and at 2.05am on 28 October, Empress of Britain sank northwest of Bloody Foreland, County Donegal (off Ireland at 55-16N 09-50W).[24]

Gold and salvage

It was suspected that she had been carrying gold. The British Empire was shipping gold to North America to improve its credit and pay its debt (bills for supplies). South Africa was a gold producer, and Empress of Britain had recently berthed in Cape Town. Most of the consignments of gold were transported from Cape Town to Sydney, Australia, and from there to America; there were not enough suitable ships and the gold was frequently held up in Sydney. It is possible that, as a result of this delay, Empress of Britain was transporting gold from Cape Town to England, where it could then be moved across.[25]

On 8 January 1949, the Daily Mail reported that a salvage attempt was to be made in the summer of that year. There were no follow-ups, and the story contained errors. In 1985, a potential salvager received a letter from the Department of Transport Shipping Policy Unit saying gold on board had been recovered.[26]

In 1995, salvagers found Empress of Britain upside-down in 500 feet (150 m) of water. Using saturation diving, they found that the fire had destroyed most of the decks, leaving a largely empty shell rising from the sea floor. The bullion room was still intact. Inside was a skeleton but no gold. It is suspected the gold was unloaded when Empress of Britain was on fire and its passengers evacuated. The body inside the bullion room may have been someone involved in salvage.[27]

The 2018 novel Empress by Brian McPhee was inspired by Empress of Britain and features a fictionalised account of the skeleton in the bullion room.

See also


  1. The first SS Empress of Britain (1906) and the third SS Empress of Britain (1956) were also built for Canadian Pacific.
  2. Steamer, Robert. (1990). The Floating Inferno: The Story of the Loss of the Empress of Britain, (abstract); sunk by U-boat
  3. Turner, Gordon. (1992). Empress of Britain, p. 15.
  4. Miller, William H. (1981). The Great Luxury Liners, 1927-1954, p. 41.
  5. Smith, Edgar C. (2013) [1937]. A Short History of Naval and Marine Engineering. pp. 313–315. ISBN 1107672937.
  6. Musk, George. (1981). Canadian Pacific: The Story of the Famous Shipping Line, pp. 184-186.
  7. Musk, p. 186.
  8. Coleman, Terry. (1977). The Liners: A History of the North Atlantic Crossing, p. 139.
  9. Miller, William H. (1985). The Fabulous Interiors of the Great Ocean Liners in Historic Photographs, p. 72.
  10. Musk, p. 187.
  11. Turner, p. 49.
  12. Turner, p. 95.
  13. "Funnels on Ship Illuminated as Beacon for Planes" Popular Mechanics, July 1931
  14. Choco, Mark H. et al. (1988). Canadian Pacific Posters, pp. 44, 46-47.
  15. Turner, p. 53.
  16. "Canada’s New Empress," The Globe (Toronto). 28 May 1931, page 4.
  17. Turner, pp. 193-194.
  18. McAuley, Rob et al. (1997). The Liners: A Voyage of Discovery, p. 76.
  19. Musk, p. 184.
  20. Turner, p. 175.
  21. Musk, p. 190; Turner, pp. 175-177.
  22. Musk, p. 140.
  23. Turner, pp. 175-183.
  24. Naval Museum of Manitoba: "Canadian-owned (British-registered) Merchant Ship Losses."
  25. Pickford, pp. 119-120
  26. Pickford, p. 120
  27. Pickford, p. 111
  • Cruising Ships, W.H. Mitchell and L. A Sawyer, Doubleday, 1967

Further reading

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