RETURN TO THE HOMEPAGE                                                                                                                                                                       RMS EMPRESS OF BRITAIN 1930

The world famous RMS Empress of Britain was the finest ship ever built for Canadian Pacific. She was built in 1930 by the renowned shipbuilders - John Brown & Co. (Clydebank) Ltd and was the largest ship ever built for Canadian Pacific.  She was uniquely designed as a dual role ship for the service from Southampton to Quebec City via Cherbourg and for world cruising. Her world cruises in the 1930s during the winter season soon became legendary circumnavigations of the world.


Design and Construction (1927 – 1931):


In 1927 when the directors of Canadian Pacific decided to build a new liner in a further attempt to capture some of the tourist traffic from the west and middle-west of the United States and Canada, they also decided to equip the ship to make her suitable to undertake the annual World Cruise.


It was envisaged that this liner would lure these passengers to Quebec to board the liner rather than face the longer rail journey to New York to board another liner bound for Europe. Canadian Pacific were already promoting their Atlantic service with the slogan, “39% less ocean by the St Lawrence Route”. Thus the new liner was conceived as a very serious contender to those Manhattan based liners and would therefore need to be their equal in every possible way. A liner of such luxury would undoubtedly also become the ship of choice for those people taking a World Cruise. The size of the proposed liner was limited by the harbour facilities at Quebec, and the need for her to pass through both the Suez and Panama Canals.


Having made the decision, things moved fast and the order for the new liner was placed with the John Brown shipyard on the Clyde. Given the yard number 530, the first keel plates were laid on the 28th November 1928.


Several months later a delegation of travel and ticket agents from both Canada and the United States were invited by Canadian Pacific to visit the John Brown’s yard to see the initial stages of construction of the liner. They also were asked to make suggestions about the layout and facilities of the ship, and ultimately several of the proposed ideas were incorporated.


June 1930 was an important month for Canadian Pacific, the Empress of Japan was delivered on the 8th June from the Fairfield yard and, as she made her way down the River Clyde to the open sea, she passed the sparkling white hull of the Empress of Britain on the stocks, being made ready for her launch on the 11th June.


Construction of the hull number 530, which would ultimately become Empress of Britain, had progressed well so that by the time the ship was ready to be launched a considerable amount of joiner work and internal fitting had already been completed.

"I name this ship Empress of Britain. I wish success to her and all who sail in her."

Words of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales at the Launch Ceremony, 11th June 1930.


While it was usual for women to carry out ship launches, in this instance there was a break with tradition, and the hugely popular HRH The Prince of Wales, had agreed to carry out the naming ceremony. With several major liners under construction in Europe and elsewhere in the world at that time, the launching of such a prestigious liner, and by such a popular and glamorous member of the Royal Family, ensured an aura that exceeded mere national importance. As a result, as well as being covered by the world’s press, the launch proceedings were broadcast throughout the British Empire and several other countries. It was the first time that such an event had been covered in this way, and it set the whole tone of modernity and glamour that would surround the ship during her career. A crowd of over 20,000 had gathered to watch the already magnificent hull take to her natural element. At the front of the launch platform the Prince of Wales was flanked by E.W. Beatty, chairman and president of Canadian Pacific, and Lord Aberconway, chairman of John Brown’s. There was a brief delay in the ceremony, then once the ‘all clear’ had been given the Prince named the ship and wished success to her and all who sailed in her. Then, having cut the red, white and blue ribbon, a bottle of Canadian wine swung out and smashed against the hull. He pulled a lever that set in progress the release gearing mechanism. Slowly at first, the newly named Empress of Britain began to move down the slipway to the cheers of the crowds. Within moments she was afloat, and then was taken in tow by tugs to the fitting out berth where she would be completed.


As the months passed, work continued on the fitting out of the new Empress and the world was plunged ever deeper into the Depression. As the Empress of Britain neared completion, elsewhere in the John Brown yard work was progressing on the initial construction stages of another prestigious Atlantic liner, vessel 534, which would ultimately become the Queen Mary. Eight months after the Empress of Britain steamed majestically away from her builders yard, work would cease on the hull of the new Cunarder.


In December 1930 Canadian Pacific announced that Captain R.G. Latta would be the master of the new liner. The appointment was a popular choice, as Captain Latta was respected by his crews and well liked by the passengers. He had joined Canadian Pacific in 1904, and had taken command of the earlier Empress of Britain in 1923.


By late March 1931 the fitting out of the magnificent new Empress of Britain was nearing completion. Her departure from the shipyard for her trials voyage was timed for early on the afternoon of Sunday the 5th April 1931, and a crowd of several hundred thousand people lined both banks of the River Clyde to take advantage of the opportunity to see the new liner depart on her first voyage out to sea. Special trains were provided by the railway companies to take some of the people to stations near good vantage points while other people arrived by buses and other vehicles, and of course, on foot. All were anxious to see the liner that had gradually dominated the skyline of the John Brown shipyard. Now at last she was completed, and she presented a magnificent sight, combining both tradition and modernity. She had an almost straight stem, which seemed an echo of an earlier age, and yet she boasted a stylishly modern cruiser stern. She had an attractively stepped forward superstructure and she was topped by three magnificent buff coloured funnels, each one of which was 68ft high. She looked every inch an Empress: regal, elegant and impressive. She was a beacon of splendour, confirmation that the skill and ingenuity of the shipbuilders, craftsmen and artists had not been stifled by the dark days of the Great Depression.


It took four tugs of the Clyde Shipping Co., Flying Spray, Flying Foam, Flying Kite and Flying Eagle, 2.5 hours to tow the liner as far as the Tail of the Bank, the deep water area where the river meets the Firth of Clyde. The Anchor Line tender, Paladin, escorted this procession while low flying aeroplanes buzzed overhead. The tugs were cast off at Princes Pier and the Empress of Britain steamed for Holy Loch for the preliminary compass adjustments. Later, she was anchored off Greenock, making a magnificent sight, brilliantly illuminated throughout the evening. The following day anchor trials and steering gear tests were made and the ship returned to her anchorage. It was the 7th April that the Empress of Britain sailed for Liverpool. Once there she was berthed at the Gladstone Graving Dock to have her hull inspected, cleaned and painted. She was, at that time, the largest while hulled liner in the world. With the cleaning and painting of the ship completed she left the Mersey on Saturday the 11th April for her full power, fuel consumption and manouvering trials. To the disappointment of many observers who had gathered at Sklemorlie, the well known vantage point along the Firth of Clyde, from where speed trials were often held, the Empress of Britain headed further along the coast, carrying her speed trials off the Isle of Arran. During the two days of exhaustive tests the sea was rough and there was a strong breeze, but, despite the weather conditions, the liner performed well, exceeding her contract speed of 24 knots and reaching an average speed of 25.271 knots. A feature that struck many on board during the trials was that whether under full power or cruising conditions, the smoothness and lack of vibration and noise made it difficult for them to realise that such great power and speed was being developed. The tests continued and in all, over the seven days the Empress of Britain sailed 1,700 miles in all manner of sea conditions. The representatives of both John Brown’s and of Canadian Pacific that had been aboard to take note and evaluate every nuance of her performance were impressed by the results.


On completion of the trials the new Empress was handed over to Canadian Pacific at Greenock. Proudly flying the Canadian Pacific house flag she was turned southwards towards Southampton. Her arrival there on the 16th April was greeted by further crowds all anxious to see Britain’s newest and most splendid ocean liner. She was due to depart on her maiden voyage on the 27th May and was a true Art Deco masterpiece.


Even though the Empress of Britain would not be sailing on the most prestigious of ocean liner routes, Europe to New York, she was, without doubt, the equal of any of the grand ships of state that plied that route. Indeed, as the Prince of Wales had implied in his speech at her launching, she surpassed many of them. With her three imposing funnels and white hull and superstructure she imparted an air of both majesty and power while her interiors – a combination of genteel adaptations of period styles spiked with the hard edged glamour of the then highly fashionable ‘art deco’ – came together to make the Empress of Britain the most stylish and highly individual liner ever built for a British company. Also, at 42,348 grt, she was the largest liner to ply between any two ports of the British Empire.  


The Canadian Pacific Heyday (1931 – 1939): Crossings & World Cruises


On the 31st May 1931, just two weeks before the Empress of Britain was due to depart Southampton on her maiden voyage, an inaugural lunch was held in the Salle Jacques Cartier. The European Manager of Canadian Pacific, Sir George McLaren Brown, drew the guest’s attention to the fact that the exceptional cruising speed of the new liner, which would be around 24 knots, would reduce the open sea passage to no more than 3.5 days and, as a consequence, bring the Orient closer. Working in conjunction with the new and fast Empress of Japan, the Empress of Britain would help save at least two days between London and Yokohama. Sir George’s audience were amused when he assured them that it would be cheaper for them to live aboard the new Empress each winter as she cruised the world, rather than to remain at home.


On the day of her maiden voyage, and shortly before the ship was due to sail, a surprise visitor, the Prince of Wales, hurried onboard. Having performed the naming ceremony he was anxious to see the ship depart on her first voyage – a decision he had made only the night before! The Prince had flown down to Southampton from Hendon aerodrome in his own Puss Moth bi-plane, and having announced that he didn’t want his visit to disrupt the scheduled departure of the ship, he rushed around in just 30 minutes, seeing as much as he could. Despite his good intentions, the Prince did delay the departure, albeit briefly, but at 1.12 pm the majestic new liner eased away from her berth. The Prince of Wales, meanwhile, had crossed to Hythe in his speedboat, and there he had boarded the Imperial Airways flying boat Satyrus. Taking over the controls himself, the Prince piloted the aircraft out towards the sea, then he turned and flew low over the Empress of Britain, dipping the plane’s wings in salute. The maiden voyage had begun and in high style!


As the maiden voyage had been brought forward from late June, this had had an effect on the number of passengers booking. She sailed with only a handful of passengers: 201 in first class, 86 in tourist, and 63 in third. Adding an additional aura of glamour to the crossing was the presence of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, at the time two of Hollywood’s greatest filmstars. Viscount Rothermere, the owner of the Daily Mail newspaper, was also aboard. Mr C.H.J. Snider, the news editor of the Toronto Evening Telegram was also onboard.


For this first voyage the Empress of Britain had a smooth crossing, encountering only moderate breezes and a slight to moderate sea. As she neared Quebec on the 1st June, the crowd that had gathered to greet the new liner had swelled to over 100,000. Shortly before 10.00 pm the Empress of Britain was securely alongside, having completed a record crossing in 5 days, 13 hours and 25 minutes.


However the ship had taken the slightly longer route and, when the seasonal danger of icebergs had passed, she would be taken through the strait between Labrador and Newfoundland. Mr E.W. Beatty, president and chairman of Canadian Pacific, who had been aboard for the voyage, confidently announced that the ship would be able to make the passage from Cherbourg to Quebec in just four and a half days.


The Empress of Britain remained at Quebec for three days and during this time was opened to the public. Over 15,000 visitors, each paying 25 cents, made their way through the impressive array of public rooms. The money that was raised was given to charity. On the 2nd June a gala banquet was held aboard, with the Prime Minister of Canada, the Premier of Quebec and the Lieutenant-Governors of Quebec, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island as principal guests. Other guests from the world of business and politics as well as society helped fill the beautiful Salle Jacques Cartier. During the banquet it was announced that Captain Latta had been appointed as Commodore of the Canadian Pacific fleet.


At 4.30 pm on Saturday the 6th June the Empress of Britain set sail from Quebec on her return voyage to Southampton. Aboard were 238 first class passengers, and 295 divided between tourist and third class. Once again a crowd of several thousand gathered to watch her departure. After 4 days, 9 hours and 20 minutes the liner arrived at Cherbourg, having set a new record for the Quebec-Cherbourg crossing. During the remainder of that summer the Empress of Britain made 16 further Atlantic crossings and proved to be very reliable and efficient. Her outward and return voyages being almost identical in crossing times. Several times she broke her own records and comparisons were made with the Blue Riband holder Europa. However the Blue Riband was only awarded to those liners on the New York route so the Empress of Britain was denied this ultimate accolade. With such reliability she proved that she could operate a fortnightly service. On the 25th August she got her first test against bad weather on the North Atlantic. On this voyage she steamed off the French coast for 8 hours as the gale force winds and heavy seas prohibited the liner from entering Cherbourg harbour to disembark 133 passengers. In the end she abandoned the attempt and sailed straight to Southampton. Her passengers, asleep in their cabins, were blissfully unaware of the storm outside, so well did the ship ride the heavy seas.


While not employed on the prestigious Atlantic route to New York, nonetheless the Empress often made headline news either with her record breaking crossing times or with the glamorous personalities that chose to sail aboard her. In that first season, as well as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, who were aboard for the maiden voyage, the filmstar Jeanette MacDonald also sailed on the ship, as did the writers P.G. Wodehouse and Edgar Wallace. The publicists Rafael Sabatini, Lord Rothermere, Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Castlerosse were also aboard the ship during that first season, and on her 27th June departure from Quebec, the Maharajah and Maharani of Sind and their daughters, the Princesses Beryl, Ruby and Diamond were onboard and added a particularly exotic glamour to the first class passenger list. The Empress of Britain made her mark as one of the most prestigious liners, even earning herself the reputation as ‘Mayfair afloat’. However her passenger loadings were disappointing with many of her crossings sailing half full, even though they were largely the cream of society!


In November, the Empress of Britain entered Southampton’s floating dry dock in preparation for her first World Cruise. The major part of this work being the removal of her two outer propellers and her after engine room being closed down because there was no need for her high speed during the 128 day cruise.


While Canadian Pacific were already experienced in the operation of World Cruises, the nearly 4 month cruise to be operated by their largest and most luxurious ship, and the most prestigious liner in the world to operate such a cruise, was a difficult task to organise even under the best of circumstances. But at the height of the Great Depression it became much harder. A lavish 64 page brochure advertising the cruise was published. Not only did Canadian Pacific have to contend with the effects of the Depression but there was also competition from other steamship lines that were sending their liners on World Cruises: Cunard Line with their very popular Franconia, Red Star Line with the Belgenland and Hamburg Amerika Line with the Resolute. They were all handsome and well appointed ships but none came close to the grand-luxe of the Empress. Her third class accommodation was closed off, with the exception of 34 cabins forward on D Deck. The remaining cabins were rearranged to accommodate just one or two persons. In general, these cabins were made available to the servants who would be travelling with their masters or mistresses on the cruise. Likewise, the tourist class cabins had their upper berths removed, turning them into either single or double cabins. The tourist Smoking Room was retained but the tourist Lounge became the cruise office for the arranging of the often extensive overland excursions that were planned, and the tourist Dining Room was turned into the staff Dining Room. Once in warmer latitudes, forward on the Lounge Deck, in the space normally taken by No 2 cargo hatch, a swimming pool would be installed. The cruise was to cover 29,495 miles and would include calls at 81 ports in 23 different countries.


On the 21st November 1931 the Empress of Britain sailed from Southampton on the first leg of the World Cruise, an Atlantic crossing for her first call at New York – where the majority of the passengers for the cruise would board. That final week of November 1931 was quite a special one in New York; on the 23rd November the city had welcomed the new Furness Bermuda Line ship Monarch of Bermuda. Then, on the 27th November, the Empress of Britain arrived and, although now a few months old, the glamorous Empress rather outshone the brand new and very smart Monarch. During her stay in New York the Empress of Britain naturally generated a great deal of interest, and much of this was focussed on her striking interior.


On the morning of Saturday the 3rd December 1931, 332 passengers, plus a large crowd of friends, relatives and interested spectators, made their way to Pier 62. One passenger, who caught the attention of the press, was the heiress Barbara Hutton, who was taking the cruise with her mother. By noon all visitors were ashore and lining the pier; multi coloured streamers cascaded down the side of the Empress of Britain as she slowly backed out into the Hudson River, turned, and headed towards her first port of call, Funchal (Madeira). From there she would continue to Gibraltar and Algiers, then Monaco. It was there that European passengers, mostly British, who had not wished to endure two mid winter Atlantic crossings – regardless of the superior sea keeping qualities of the Empress – would board the ship. Then at 1.00 am on the 17th December, with just over 400 passengers on board, the Empress of Britain set sail for Naples and then Athens. A highlight of the cruise for many passengers was the opportunity to spend Christmas in the Holy Land, with the ship arriving in the early morning of Christmas Eve in Haifa. All inclusive in the cruise fare were opportunities to visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the Mount of Olives. The passengers taking advantage of this extended side trip rejoined the ship on the 1st January 1932 at Suez. Having left the Red Sea the Empress of Britain steamed across the Indian Ocean to Bombay, anchoring in the harbour there on the 7th January 1932 and remaining until the evening of the 15th January. The lengthy stay was to allow passengers to travel on extended trips, and upon disembarkation from the Empress’s tenders, there were four trains waiting to take passengers on their tours. Having left India, the Empress of Britain continued on to Colombo for a 4 day stay, then on to Padang in Sumartra and Batavia on Java before arriving in Singapore on the 1st February. Then she steamed on up towards Bangkok and then on to Manila. The scheduled call at Shanghai had to be cancelled due to fighting around the city so instead the passengers were given an extended stay in Hong Kong. After the 5 day stay in the British colony, the Empress steamed on to Chinwangtao, where her passengers were able to take a 5 day trip to Beijing. Ten days were spent cruising around Japan, with calls at Beppu, Koba and Yokohama before the ship sailed into the Pacific, towards the Hawaiian Islands. Five idyllic days were spent at sea before arriving at Honolulu on the 12th March, and on the 15th March the Empress arrived in Hilo. On the 20th March the Empress of Britain became the largest liner of that time to sail through the Golden Gate and into San Francisco harbour. She berthed at the Embarcadero’s Pier 32, and for the next two days was visited by several thousand people. This was followed by a call at Los Angeles, and then down the coast of Central America to the Panama Canal. Here again the Empress broke records and became the largest liner of that time to transit the canal, and thus incurring a fee of $18,941.25. Following the transit, 5 hours were spent at Cristobal before the ship sailed for Havana, the last exciting and exotic port of the cruise. On the morning of the 8th April the Empress of Britain arrived back in New York where the cruise ended for American passengers. However for 100 European passengers there was still a few more days left as she sailed on to Southampton and they were joined by a further 350 regular passengers for this final part of the voyage.


Once back in Southampton the Empress was given a one month overhaul and refurbishment in preparation for her forthcoming Atlantic season, and this of course included having her two propellers reattached. Perhaps the most significant event of the 1932 transatlantic season for the Empress of Britain was her fourth westbound crossing. On board were delegates from Britain, India, South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, who were to attend the Ottawa Imperial Economic Conference that would open on the 21st July. Among them were Neville Chamberlain and Stanley Baldwin. As a result of frequent meetings on board the voyage became world news. The voyage became even more newsworthy when on the evening of the 17th July, with the ship steaming through fog and icebergs, a fire broke out in the ceiling of the Empress Room during a concert. The concert was brought to an abrupt end and the fire was extinguished. It was later discovered to be caused by an electrical fault. The damage was confined to some woodwork and curtains. Fog, which had been a continual problem during the voyage, descended again as the ship was steaming up the St Lawrence, and on the morning of the 18th July, as the ship was just off the Saguenay River, she collided with the cargo ship, Briarwood. A head on collision was narrowly averted. Nevertheless it left both ships with dents in their starboard bows but both were not in any danger and continued their voyages. The Empress of Britain was repaired by the 20th July, before she began her return voyage.


On the 23rd November the Empress of Britain departed Southampton for New York with 276 passengers on board, ready to undertake her second World Cruise. It was, in fact, the 10th World Cruise operated by Canadian Pacific and it was set to follow the same route has her previous world cruise, expect that this time it was 129 days long and called at 81 ports and places in 23 countries and as before featured Christmas in the Holy Land, New Year’s Eve in Cairo and India in the cool season. The Empress departed New York at noon on Saturday the 3rd December with barely 300 passengers on board, a hundred of whom were only travelling as far as either the Mediterranean or India. 60 passengers, including the playwright George Bernard Shaw, joined the ship at Monte Carlo. It was not until the 11th April 1933 that the Empress steamed back into New York, and by the middle of the month she was back in Southampton, being made ready for another transatlantic season.


However by this time the Depression was hitting steamship lines harder than ever. Her 1933 transatlantic sailings were mostly half full. For the end of 1933 Canadian Pacific had planned a change to the cruise programme of the Empress of Britain. Instead of sending her off in early December on her World Cruise, it was decided to begin that cruise in early January and send the ship on an 11 day Christmas and New Year cruise, from New York to Kingston, Port au Prince and Nassau instead. The Empress had arrived in New York on the 21st December with 319 passengers aboard, which in actual fact, in mid December on a liner not regularly scheduled to sail on the New York run, in the depths of the Depression, was not a bad figure at all, especially when one considers that she had carried no more than that number on her regular employment on the St Lawrence service in the very height of the season. Planning to send the Empress on the Christmas cruise was a wise move as it was well patronised with passengers from both the United States and Canada. Apart from the crossings from the Panama to Cuba during her two World Cruises, this was the Empress of Britain’s first real visit to the Caribbean. As always, wherever this most remarkable of liners called, she was the object of considerable interest.


The Empress returned to New York on the 2nd January 1934 and embarkation for her third 130 day World Cruise began the following morning with almost 300 passengers coming on board. The passengers left any hint of the Depression when they boarded the Empress as they were pampered by the ever attentive Canadian Pacific crew as they lived aboard for four months in a dreamlike world aboard this liner which by this time had gained an almost legendary status, and would be feted like royalty wherever they called. As was becoming a regular tradition, 100 passengers joined the ship at Monte Carlo. While the itinerary of the cruise was very similar to the previous two, the 1934 cruise had the addition of a call at Bali. On the 14th May she was back at New York with another legendary World Cruise completed.


The most notable event during 1934 for the Empress was the retirement of Captain Latta who had commanded the ship from her entry into service. His final voyage was the 30th June departure from Quebec. His successor was Captain Ronald N. Stuart, VC, DSO. In August the Empress again made a record breaking crossing, with a voyage between Quebec and Cherbourg made in just 4 days, 6 hours and 58 minutes. A month later the Empress encountered the worst weather and roughest seas of her career. In November she briefly ran aground while at Quebec but was refloated within 30 minutes. It had however been a rather unsuccessful year financially for Canadian Pacific that had advertised itself as ‘ The World’s Greatest Travel System’ and it had been unable to pay out any dividends to its shareholders.


However for the 1935 World Cruise it was the most expensive and luxurious cabins that were selling out faster than the less expensive ones so this gave an indication that perhaps the effects of the Depression were coming to an end and people were feeling more relaxed about travelling.  However it was a mere 180 passengers that boarded the liner for her voyage across to New York. On this voyage as well as a considerable quantity of mail, she was transporting $1 million in gold. It was a stormy crossing which delayed her arrival by one day.


Such was the success of her West Indies cruise in 1934 that Canadian Pacific scheduled her to undertake two similar cruises before setting off on her World Cruise. The first of these was a 4 day trip to Nassau, and this was followed by a 11 day cruise to Kingston, Havana and Nassau. On the 10th January 1935, with over 400 passengers on board, the Empress of Britain sailed from New York for the Mediterranean on the first leg of her 130 day World Cruise. As with the previous cruises, there were lengthy stays of several days in some of the ports. By the 28th May she was back in Southampton.


On her first voyage to Canada in 1935 the Empress of Britain had just 318 passengers on board, 125 of them in First Class; there were also 7000 bags of mail in her holds. A thick blanket of fog hung over the Gulf of St Lawrence bringing shipping to a standstill. However the Empress managed to reach Quebec by 7.45 am on the 15th June, two days behind schedule. The passengers were disembarked and the dock workers managed to unload all her cargo and a further 550 passengers boarded in remarkably quick time, allowing her to set sail for England at 2.30pm. Unfortunately fog in the gulf had persisted and the following morning between Anticosti Island and the Magdalen Islands the Empress collided with the cargo ship Kafiristan, which was loaded with coal. While the Empress suffered some hull damage, it was not serious. The Kafiristan however was no so lucky and several members of the crew were injured. The Empress of Britain stood by the damaged ship for several hours and sent a boat across to collect the injured seamen. Sadly as they were being helped into the boat three of the men fell into the sea and drowned. Another Canadian Pacific ship, the Beaverford, took the cargo ship in tow, and the Empress of Britain was able to continue her voyage. Although the collision was seen as unavoidable, the Empress of Britain was eventually held to be largely to blame. On her arrival in Southampton workmen from Harland & Wolff’s repair yard there spent 22 hours carrying out repairs, and she was able to return to service barely a day behind schedule.


While the Empress had carried over 700 passengers on some of her crossings by the late summer of 1935, her passenger compliment was sometimes still less than 300, and on one occasion as few as 184.


Canadian Pacific had expected that the Empress would follow her usual route for her World Cruise in 1936. But in October 1935 Italy invaded Abyssinia and this made passage through the Mediterranean and Red Sea difficult. As a result Canadian Pacific decided to send the Empress of Britain via South Africa instead. However, not wanting two large ships in the same part of the world at the same time, they cancelled the Empress of Australia’s planned South Africa and South America cruise, sending her on a series of shorter cruises to the West Indies instead.


As was now her regular pattern, the Empress first sailed on a 9 day Caribbean cruise and embarked 610 passengers for this. Then she sailed from New York with just 240 passengers for her World Cruise. A further 100 British and European passengers joined the ship at Funchal, having sailed there on board the Empress of Australia, which was on her way to New York. The Empress of Britain caused quite a stir when she arrived at Cape Town with huge crowds lining the docks to greet her. A strong south-east wind hindered her departure pinning her to the dock. Several tugs were eventually able to get her on her way, 24 hours delayed. Having made calls at Cape Town and Durban, the Empress of Britain steamed up to Bombay and from there resumed her usual route around the world.


In 1936 the number of passengers carried by the Empress of Britain rose considerably and on three westbound voyages she carried over 1000 and with some eastbound voyages she also reached close to that number. There was also an increase in the number of passengers booking on the World Cruise, and on the 9th January 1937 she sailed from New York with over 400 passengers aboard. The Empress of Britain was well and truly established as the pre-eminent World Cruise liner: the largest, newest, most opulent and indeed the most expensive. As a consequence her passenger lists on these fabled voyages read like a who’s who with royalty, other titled aristocrats and business moguls as well as the merely very rich. Many of these people returned to the Empress year after year giving the ship a very exclusive and club like atmosphere. She was now under the command of Captain G.R. Parry who remained her master until October 1937 when Captain W.G. Buskwood took over.


At last there was a real change, with 1937 having the best Atlantic season for the Empress of Britain as she carried in excess of 13,000 passengers between June and November. Although the Empress of Britain operated very speedy crossings, Canadian Pacific were operating at something of a handicap. Although the Empress of Australia was also employed on the Southampton to Quebec service, being older and slower, she was unable to offer a balanced service with the Empress of Britain.


In 1938 Canadian Pacific had expected to return the World Cruise to its usual route but due to the continued conflict between China and Japan they had to rethink the itinerary and decided to send the Empress to Australia and New Zealand instead. Prior to her departure she made a 12 day cruise to the Caribbean as usual. The Empress caused a stir wherever she called and over 30,000 people lined Sydney’s waterfront when she arrived for her three day stay. She was the largest liner to enter the harbour and as her masts were too tall to pass under the harbour bridge she docked at Wooloomooloo. After a call at Melbourne she steamed across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand and called at Wellington and then Auckland where the harbour had been specially dredged to accommodate her 32 ft draft.


1938 did not continue to maintain the successes of 1937 for Canadian Pacific. Political unrest in Europe affected the numbers of people travelling from Canada and the United States that summer, and neither Australia nor New Zealand had held the same allure for the World Cruise passengers as China or Japan had. However although they did try to return to the original World Cruise route the war between China and Japan kept hindering things. So the 127 day World Cruise for 1939 in fact would not circumnavigate the world.


It was planned that the Empress of Britain would depart New York on the 7th January, crossing the Atlantic to Madeira, Gibraltar, Algiers and Monte Carlo. Then there would be the ever popular calls at Naples and Athens, and the usual extended stay that allowed passengers to tour the Holy Land. Then onward to Suez, the Red Sea towards India, with a call of several days at Bombay. From there her passengers could take tours to Udaipur, Jaipur, Amber, Delhi, Agra, Benares, Darjeeling, Calcutta and Madras, and even cross to Ceylon and reboard the Empress at Colombo. From there she would cross the Indian Ocean to Penang, Singapore and Bangkok and on up to Hong Kong. Having called at Manila, Bali and Tandjong Priok on Java, the Empress was then to return across the Indian Ocean to South Africa, calling at Durban and Cape Town. From both these ports there would be extensive tours to Bulawayo and Victoria Falls. After leaving Cape Town the Empress of Britain was to head across the South Atlantic to St Helena, and then continue on to Rio de Janeiro. It would be the first time she would call at a South American port. A call was then made at Bahia and then on to Trinidad and finally Havana. Having issued the brochure Canadian Pacific was then faced with political conflict in the Holy Land which caused them to have to cancel the call there and substitute Beirut. Sadly despite the imaginative and exciting itinerary passengers seemed reluctant to book the cruise.


The Empress of Britain was now under the command of Captain Charles Howard Sapsworth, who as it would later turn out would be her final master. Strong westerly gales delayed the arrival of the Empress in New York by 24 hours. On the 23rd December she sailed on a four day Christmas cruise to Bermuda. On board there were 650 passengers, all set to have a truly festive time. Following this, a further 600 passengers boarded the liner for an 8 day cruise to Havana, Nassau and Bermuda. However it was a mere handful of passengers that had book on the World Cruise. Just 164 passengers boarded the Empress on the 7th January and while more were due to board at Monte Carlo she would still be sailing with far fewer than the 400 that Canadian Pacific saw as the ideal World Cruise complement. However a further 100 did board at Cape Town taking advantage of a far more luxurious way to get to New York than the ships regularly employed on the route.


Canadian Pacific had planned for the Empress of Britain to undertake 22 Atlantic crossings during 1939. However things did not work out quite as they had planned. On the 6th May 1939 HM King George VI and Queen Elizabeth had embarked on the Empress of Australia for a voyage to Canada for a royal tour of the Dominion. At the conclusion of the tour the royal party were to return aboard the Empress of Britain and considerable preparations were made to ensure that everything was beyond even Canadian Pacific’s normal flawless standards. The Empress of Britain had made her first crossing of the season to Quebec and, having disembarked her passengers sailed for Halifax to be made ready for her royal guests. The King was to occupy the deluxe suite on the port side of A deck and the Queen was in the corresponding suite on the starboard side. With the royal party onboard, the Empress of Britain left Halifax at 6.32 pm on the 15th June. She had just 42 passengers on board: the King and Queen, 37 staff members, a photographer and two reporters. Three ships of the Royal Navy and two of the Royal Canadian Navy accompanied the liner across the Atlantic. On the 21st June 1939, around 100 miles from Bishops Rock, the Empress of Britain passed the outbound Empress of Australia. The following day the Empress of Britain and her illustrious passengers arrived in Southampton.


The royal charter of the liner had somewhat disrupted her schedule and it was not until the 1st July that she was able to resume her regular sailings, embarking 435 passengers for that particular voyage. Although plans for a 1940 World Cruise had been made Canadian Pacific decided in August 1939 that this would be cancelled. Instead after making three cruises to the Caribbean the Empress would sail on a 6 week cruise around South America. As the summer progressed the situation in Europe deteriorated. On the 2nd September the Empress of Britain was in Southampton being made ready for another voyage to Quebec, however for a while it seemed that the Admiralty may not give permission for her to sail. In the end permission was granted and she set sail with her portholes covered and public room windows blacked out, she sailed with 1,140 passengers. The following day they were informed via the ship’s radio that as everyone had expected Britain was at war with Germany and the Second World War had started.  The Empress of Britain arrived in Quebec on the 7th September 1939 and having disembarked her passengers remained there to await further instructions.


On War Service (1939 - ):


The Empress of Britain remained in Quebec until November 1939 when she sailed for Halifax never to be seen in the St Lawrence ever again. She had been requisitioned for war service as a troopship like so many other liners of that time. The Empress embarked troops from the First Canadian Division for an Atlantic voyage quite unlike any other of her career. Although having been painted grey and fitted with some limited amount of armament – a 6in naval gun and a 3in anti-aircraft gun at her stern four Lewis machine guns on her bridge and one either side of her second funnel. Internally the Empress still gleamed in her peacetime magnificence. The troops she embarked went to war in luxury, enjoying the full benefit of Canadian Pacific’s high standard of service. On the 10th December 1939, in company with the liners Empress of Australia, Duchess of Bedford, Aquitania and Monarch of Bermuda, the Empress of Britain departed on her first convoy; the liners, with their valuable cargo of troops, were escorted across the Atlantic to Scotland by Canadian and British destroyers.


Once the troops had been disembarked the Empress of Britain was sent to Southampton where she was dry docked and changed internally so that she could accommodate more troops, her larger cabins being fitted to take as many as 12 men. Her days as a luxury liner were over. Sadly her fine panelling and artwork were only covered over with protective panels rather than being totally removed. With the hasty refitting work completed she returned to Halifax to embark more troops, also taking them across to Scotland. At the completion of that voyage she again sailed for Southampton and then left for New Zealand via the Mediterranean, arriving in Wellington on the 14th April 1940. There she embarked troops of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force. The Aquitania, Empress of Japan and Andes were also there embarking troops, and the four liners, plus some cargo vessels, all departed in convoy on the 2nd May. When off Sydney, the convoy was joined by the liners Queen Mary, Mauretania and the Empress of Canada, making it one of the most impressive of the war. Having sailed from Fremantle it took the convoy two weeks to reach Cape Town.


The Empress of Britain was back on the Clyde by mid June and remained there for some weeks, her next voyage beginning from Liverpool on the 6th August, with over 3000 troops aboard. Again, she was sailing in convoy with another array of once splendid liners, including the Monarch of Bermuda and the Polish liner Batory. Although the convoy was bound for Suez, they faced a long voyage around South Africa to get there. Once Italy had entered the war it had become too dangerous for convoys of liners loaded with soldiers to sail through the Mediterranean. On the 16th September the convoy arrived at Suez, and the Empress remained there until the 24th September, when she became part of another convoy heading for Durban. This time instead of thousands of troops she was carrying a small passenger load, many of whom were families of Army and Royal Air Force personnel. After her call at Durban the Empress of Britain sailed for Cape Town and there she took on a cargo of 300 tons of sugar. It has also been often reported that she had taken on a load of gold bullion. However this has never been substantiated. She sailed on the 11th October for Britain with 224 military personnel and civilians and a crew of 419 aboard. The voyage was uneventful, the Empress maintaining a zigzag course at 22 knots without an escort due to her high speed.


On Saturday the 26th October 1940 the Empress was almost home, just 60 miles off the north west coast of Ireland and she was expected to reach port within a day.


At 9.20am the lookout spotted a four engined plane approaching, and then circle the liner: it was at first thought to be friendly. It was in fact a German long range Focke-Wulf Condor 200. Having circled the speeding liner it made its first approach from her stern, dropping two bombs and raining machine gun fire onto her. Captain Sapsworth had called for full speed and the Empress was steaming at 24 knots, returning fire from her Lewis guns, which managed to inflict some damage to the plane: rupturing an oil line and putting an engine out of action. Despite this the enemy plane remained a lethal adversary, returning for another attack, but already the Empress was filling with thick black smoke, one of the bombs having penetrated her former Mayfair Lounge. The Empress was burning. Two more bombs were dropped from the plane, neither finding their mark. The next time the pilot turned his plane to approach the Empress from her bow, raking the ship with machine gun fire and dropping yet two more bombs, one of which struck the Sun Deck, destroying several lifeboats and creating more fires. The other bomb hit the ship near to her stern, which put the anti-aircraft gun out of action, creating a fire that caused the stored ammunition to explode. Yet again the pilot turned his plane to create more havoc upon the already crippled liner, this time spraying machine gun fire across her bridge. The enemy plane then turned away to the south, her pilot sending signals indicating the position of the burning liner.


It was only after Oberleutnant Jpe had landed his plane at the base in northern France that they discovered the identity of the ship that they had attacked and this caused great excitement. A telex, reporting the attack, was sent to German Supreme Headquarters. Realising just how significant the attack was a reconnaissance plane was sent out to verify the attack. Despite having done so, the official German news agency still reported that the Empress of Britain had been sunk stating “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.”


It was fortunate that despite the ferocity of the attack and subsequent fires, there were relatively few casualties. However Captain Sapsworth immediately realised that the once glorious Empress was doomed; the fires had spread through several decks and as the fire fighting equipment had been damaged in the attack they could not be brought under control. Thus he gave the order to stop all engines and for the ship to be abandoned. From the sighting of the plane to the “Abandon Ship” order a mere 30 minutes had elapsed. When the crew were sure that the enemy plane would not return they lowered the undamaged lifeboats and began to evacuate the ship. However it took nearly 6 hours before the last survivor had been taken off the Empress.


Late that afternoon the first rescue ships arrived on the scene, the Polish destroyer Burza and the Royal Navy destroyer Echo, and arriving soon after them were three trawlers, Cape Argona, Paynter and Drangey. As the destroyers approached, huge sheets of flame shot up through the devastated liner. They lowered their boats to pick up the survivors and later took aboard those that had been picked up by the trawlers. Once they had everyone aboard they were instructed to sail for the Clyde. Two further destroyers, Broke and Sardonyx, arrived to take their place.


It was very fortunate that out of the 643 people onboard, only 45 were unaccounted for, and just 32 of those were members of the crew. It was presumed that those unaccounted people had either been killed outright, injured and then trapped by fires or that they had drowned.


Remarkably considering the intensity of the attack and the subsequent explosions and fires, the hull of what remained of the Empress of Britain was still intact. Although she had a slight list, she appeared to be in no danger of sinking, therefore it was decided that it was worth trying to save her. On the 27th October, the day after the attack, a party of men from the Broke went on board and attached tow ropes. The ocean going tugs Marauder and Thames had arrived, and had the task of towing the gutted hulk of the once magnificent Empress. Slowly under the care of the tugs, she began to move, with the Broke and Sardonyx standing by as escorts. The magnificent Empress of Britain although ripped apart by explosions and gutted by fire, was not dead yet. Under the tender care of the salvage tugs and the watchful eye of her escorting destroyers she could yet, with luck, make port. A ship of her capacity was a valuable asset during those dark days of the Second World War; she could be rebuilt and she needed to be rebuilt.


Sadly good fortune had deserted the Empress as during the attack a German submarine U-32 was just 60 miles to the south west. Her commander, Oberleutnant Hans Jenisch, had been informed, after the attack, of the location of the burning liner, and headed in that direction. Although he had spotted the limping Empress and her attendant tugs and destroyers, he had been unable to do anything other than order the U-boat to dive as there was a patrolling plane circling overhead. Later, when Jenisch ordered his craft to the surface, the Empress was nowhere to be seen, but that night, using passive sonar, he located the ships and closed in on them. The destroyers were maintaining a zigzag course but U-32 was able to get into position between them and the Empress of Britain and fired two torpedoes. The first of these detonated prematurely but the second hit the devastated liner, causing a massive explosion. It appears that initially the crews of the destroyers assumed that the fires aboard the liner had reached her fuel tanks and caused the explosion. Although anxious to escape undetected, Jenisch ordered U-32 around and fired another torpedo; it found its mark just aft of where the earlier one had exploded, ripping another hole in the hull of the Empress. Confident of his success, Jenisch ordered his submarine safetly away from the scene.


The Empress of Britain was now mortally wounded, her hull rapidly filling with water and she began to list heavily to port. The crews of the tugs rapidly let go of the tow lines and at 2.05 am on Monday the 28th October 1940, the Empress of Britain slipped beneath the waves of the North Atlantic, a mere half a day’s sailing from the shipyard where she had been built. Britain’s greatest liner was no more.


Her war service was not over though. As the largest wreck on the seabed off Britain and in a known location, she was used to help rid the world of the U-boat menace. Scientists had been developing anti-submarine weapons, one of which was the ‘Hedgehog’ a forward thrown series of mortar bombs that proved to be a successful weapon in the Battle of the Atlantic. The projectiles, fired over the bow from a naval vessel, sank in the approximate pattern of a submarine’s shape. Only exploding on contact, the Hedgehog was designed to puncture and explode the pressure hull of a submarine and the Empress was used as a target for the development of this weapon. Her wreck therefore is likely surrounded by unexploded ordnance and covered in fishing nets from trawlers that use this area for fishing.


Soon after her sinking, newspapers started reporting her loss.


Sir Edward Beatty, GBE, KC LL.D, chairman and president of Canadian Pacific Railway, issued the following statement:


News of the loss of the Empress of Britain will come to the great army of people who have travelled aboard her very much as would that of the loss of a personal friend, while all Canadians will hear with a feeling of deep regret that the gallant ship which for nine years proudly represented Canada in all the world’s great ports has met her fate at the hands of the enemy. The Empress of Britain was designed and built to help maintain for the St Lawrence gateway to Canada a position of high importance among the world’s ocean ports, and splendidly she accomplished that duty. She had many proud moments in her all too short career. Those who saw her first entry into Quebec harbour will not forget the tremendous demonstration that greeted her. That was an event second only in interest to the day the ship bore Their Majesties the King and Queen from Halifax on their way home. To the Canadian Pacific Steamship Co. her loss brings an especially keen regret. We were proud of her beauty and of her consistently fine performance and we had reason also to be gratified by the fact that, while her building might have been termed a bold experiment, it was seen to be thoroughly justified very early in her career. The ship has met her end gallantly in the service of the country, as have many others, but when the war is finished and won, still others equally as fine will be built to take their places and carry on the work of maintaining our British supremacy on the seas. Of the loss of the 45 passengers and crew one can only speak with sorrow, which may be somewhat mitigated by pride in the fact that they went to their death with their faces bravely turned towards their duty, as is the manner of British seamen. To their relatives and friends will go the country’s heartfelt sympathy.”


During the following days after the sinking of the magnificent Empress of Britain other equally warm tributes were paid to this great ship.


The Prime Minister of Canada, the Rt. Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King said:


She will be long remembered by Canadians as a brave ship who did her duty in peace and war. Canadians have heard with profound regret of the loss of the Empress of Britain, and with pride of the heroic conduct of her officers and men. For many years she carried the name and fame of Canada with high honour into most of the world’s great ports. When war broke out she was assigned to the sterner tasks of war, and in those tasks played a memorable part. To the relatives of the heroic seamen who lost their lives when their ship sank in the Atlantic, I send the deepest sympathy of the people of Canada.”


New York, a city associated with all the greatest of ocean liners, paid its own special tribute in The New York Times on the 29th October 1940:


No ship ever fitted her name more truly than the Empress of Britain. She was indeed an empress, with pride and grace and dignity in every inch of her…” The article recalled the role of the Empress, during both peace and war, and ended by saying “… The memory of this fine ship will survive until a new Empress of Britain inherits her name.”


A tribute was also send from Buckingham Palace to Sir Edward Beatty and Canadian Pacific:


“I have been asked by the King and Queen to convey to you and the directors of the Canadian Pacific Railway their sincere sympathy in the loss of that fine ship, the Empress of Britain, in which Their Majesties had such a pleasant voyage from Canada last year.”


Sir Edward responded:


“I shall be very glad if you will be good enough to express to Their Majesties our directors’ and my own deep appreciation of their kind message of sympathy in the loss of the Empress of Britain. She was a beautiful ship, of which all Canadians were very proud. In my judgement, she was one of the finest examples of the skill of the Clyde shipbuilders and she ended her life gloriously in the service of the nation.”


Just two days after sinking the Empress of Britain, the U-32 herself was sunk by the British destroyer Harvester. She and another destroyer, Highlander, picked up several members of the submarine’s crew. Later in one of those strange twists of fate, those same crew members were being transported from Britain to a prisoner of war camp in Canada, aboard the Canadian Pacific liner, the Duchess of York. She was under the command of one Captain Sapsworth, who had been commanding the Empress of Britain!


On the afternoon of Sunday the 10th November 1940, a memorial service for the ship and her men was held in Montreal’s church of St Andrew and St Paul. The church was filled with Montreal’s prominent citizens and hundreds of others who had known the ship as passengers or as officers of the company she represented. In the course of his address Rev. Dr. Geo. H. Donald said:


“To the many thousands of passengers who had travelled on the Empress of Britain across the Atlantic or on cruises around the world, her loss was felt as that of a personal friend rather than as an inanimate vessel, magnificent though that vessel was. There is something intimate and personal about all ships but she was one of the greatest that sailed the Atlantic and the further seas. The whole world was proud of her and mourns today as for one who died before her time.”


Sadly today the splendour and luxury of the Empress of Britain of 1930 is somewhat overlooked, the ship being labelled instead as one of the least profit making liners of her time. She was, however, conceived as a serious contender to those liners that regarded Manhattan as their terminus, and suffered as a consequence. The route to New York always remained the prestige service. She was built and entered service in the early days of the Depression and as those days began to fade, Europe began to fall into political unrest and the turmoil of the Second World War. Like all great liners of the 1930s the odds were somewhat stacked against her. Nevertheless the Empress of Britain was a beautiful and remarkable liner and her loss will be mourned forever more as the loss of a truly great ocean liner the like of which the world shall never seen again. 

(c) Cruise Ship History Collection 2018 including www.thecunarders.co.uk                                                                                                                                       A Edward Elliott