This page is a brief look at the contribution that
the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR)
ships and their crews made to the cause of the
Allied Merchant Navy during
World War Two.
"ROUND THE EMPIRE WITH CANADIAN
Many of the countries of the British Empire
-- shown in red -- were
tied together by the CPR's ocean-going ships. A traveller
could could sail to Canada, stay in a variety of
hotels, enjoy a cruise on a lake steamer,
take the train across Canada and sail for the
Orient, all without ever leaving CPR property.
Picture Source: Canadian Encyclopedia on CD-ROM,
In the decades before the Second World War, the
Canadian Pacific Railway,
with its headquarters in
company in the world.
In addition to the company's network of rail lines
fine fleets of inland and
coastal ships which tied Canada together,
the CPR also owned large fleets of ocean-going
cargo and passenger vessels.
After 1921, most of the foreign-going CPR ships
were managed and operated by the
Canadian Pacific Steamships,
(CPSS), which had its
head office in London,
From the early years,
all kinds of passengers from royalty to immigrants, as well
as mail and valuable cargoes such as tea, spices and silk.
Fifty-two CPR ships served in
World War One, and of those,
15 were lost to enemy action and another
3 were lost through accidents.
After WWI, CPR ships were also quick to help out in other
times of upheaval and disaster -- the
Empress of Australia
helped rescue over
3,000 victims during the devastating
Yokohama earthquake of
1923, and the liners Empress of Asia
and Empress of Canada
evacuated hundreds of people from
in 1937 during the brutal
This photo from George Musk's Canadian Pacific,
shows the elegant
Empress of Australia. She is
still remembered in
Yokohama for the nine days of rescue
work performed by her master,
Captain Samuel Robinson, and her
crew and passengers, after
the 1923 earthquake and subsequent fires which took the lives of
over 250,000 people.
Empress of Australia
served throughout WWII, and at the
end of war, took part in another errand of mercy when she
helped evacuate surviving POW's, captured in
December 1941, from Hong Kong.
After the Second World War started in September 1939,
18 CPR ships were requisitioned by, and another four were
the British Admiralty for
Of those 22 vessels, three of the passenger liners were
purchased by the Admiralty
into Armed Merchant Cruisers,
or A.M.C.'s, for service
in the Royal Navy.
The remaining passenger and cargo liners continued
to be owned by the CPR and
CPR's management company
Canadian Pacific Steamships
under direction of the
These vessels were classed at
merchant ships, rather than
warships, and they were
were manned by civilians who
were paid by the CPR company. These several thousand employees
who came from many different countries
were merchant seamen
and they served in the
Allied Merchant Navy.
THE EARLY WAR YEARS: 1939-1941
The Battle of the Atlantic took a
heavy toll on the CPR ships. The first vessel to
fall prey to enemy action, was the
SS Beaverburn, one of the
state-of-the-art cargo liners, which was commanded by
Captain Thomas "Farmer" Jones.
On February 5th, 1940, after successfully delivering
vital supplies to London,
Beaverburn had joined the Halifax-bound convoy
when she was torpedoed by a
the ship's cook, lost his life. The United States tanker
rescued the remaining 76 survivors.
OIn June 18th, 1940 the CPR lost one of its
passenger liners in a part
of the world which seemed far removed from the war in the North
The SS Niagara,
which sailed regularly to Vancouver, British
Columbia, from Australia and New
Zealand, was blown up by a German mine
which had been
laid earlier that month
in Hauraki Gulf
by the German auiliary cruiser
could not be saved, fortunately,there was no loss of life.
This Leonard Frank photo from Robert D. Turner's
The Pacific Empresses,
which along with her
companion ship, the
sailed for the
Canadian Australasian Line.
shared ownership of the line along with the
Company of New Zealand.
was sunk, she was carrying a secret cargo of gold
bars destined to purchase war supplies for the Allies. The
gold bars were recovered by divers in the following year
in a dangerous salvage operation.
click here for photo --
survived the war.
In late October 1940 the best-known of the CPR's liners
flagship of the company's
Atlantic Fleet, the magnificent
Empress of Britain,
was the next victim of enemy action.
was travelling alone to Glasgow from
Suez via South Africa, when she was bombed
off the northwest coast of Ireland by a
Focke Wulf Condor plane. The "Condors"
were long-range aircraft used by the
to bomb merchant ships
and to spot convoys for the U-boats.
When the Condor attacked
Empress of Britain
crew put up a determined defense, but they were unable
to shoot down the plane and its hits caused terrible fires
to break out. Soon the fires were so out of control that
Captain C.H. Sapsworth,
was forced to give the order to
lives were lost as a result of the attacks.
The survivors, which included women
and children, were rescued later that afternoon by
the Polish destroyer
the British destroyer
and three British naval trawlers
The still burning
remained afloat and the next day two Royal Navy tugs,
in tow with the intention of bringing her in safely to port.
surrounded by escort ships, but in spite of the escorts' vigilance,
two days later on October 28th, the German U-boat,
managed to sneak by the escorts and torpedo
the crippled Empress. She
sank within ten minutes. At
Empress of Britain was
largest Allied passenger liner to be sunk and the biggest
merchant ship loss of the war.
Empress of Britain
launched by the
Prince of Wales
King Edward VII who gave up his throne
to marry Wallis Simpson) in 1930.
George VI and
aboard Empress of Britian
after their 1939 Royal Tour of Canada and they
were so moved by her sad loss, that
they sent their personal condolances to
the CPR. This photo of the Empress taken
at San Francisco
during one of her memorable cruises, is from
the CPR's commemorative booklet Empress
of Britain: Lost in Action in the Service of her
Country, October 28, 1940.
Just over a week after the sinking of
Empress of Britain, the
CPR cargo liner, Beaverford,
under command of Captain Hugh
Pettigrew, was en route from Halifax to
Liverpool as part of Convoy
HX-84. The convoy of 37
merchant ships was under the protection of a former
passenger liner which had been converted into a Royal Navy
armed merchant cruiser -- H.M.S.
Jervis Bay. Shortly before dusk on
November 8, 1940, the convoy was attacked by the predatory
German pocket battleship, Admiral
Scheer. The valiant
Jervis Bay, under Captain
E.S. Fogarty Fegen, tried her best to protect the
scattering merchant ships but, she was no match for the
mighty German raider. After a ferocious battle, lasting
over 20 minutes, Jervis Bay
was sunk with the loss of 187 lives.
65 survivors were rescued by the courageous men of the Swedish
freighter, Stureholm. As
began the search for other prey, the gallant
Beaverford took on the
role of protecting the convoy. Although, she was even more
lightly-armed than Jervis Bay
bravely engaged the massive battleship.
Somehow, the CPR freighter, armed only with two small guns,
managed to hold Admiral Scheer
at bay for over four and a half hours! In the
end, Admiral Scheer
and Captain Pettigrew and his heroic crew of 76, were all
Their sacrifice along with that of HMS
Jervis Bay allowed 31 ships in the
convoy to escape to Britain with their precious cargoes.
This photo of Admiral Scheer,
courtesy of the
Jervis Bay-Ross Park Memorial Site, shows the
formidable German pocket battleship circa
1938. Admiral Scheer was
cleverly designed to incorporate the features of a full-
sized battlecruiser, including torpedoes and six deadly
11-inch guns. HMS Jervis Bay
with her seven antiquated 6-inch guns, and
Beaverford with her two small
4-inch guns, did not have a chance against the fire-power
of Admiral Scheer.
In December 1940, just one month after
Beaverford's courageous stand,
the company lost another of its former passenger liners,
the SS Montrose.
After the start of WWII she
had been taken
over by the Admiralty,
converted to an Armed Merchant Cruiser
Forfar. In the early morning hours
of December 2nd, 1940, under the command of
Captain N. A. C. Hardy, R.N.,
was on her way from Britain
to meet Convoy HX-90
when she was intercepted by
torpedoed a total of 5 times.
Due to the stormy weather and number of U-boats in the area,
rescue operations of
HMS Forfar's crew
were delayed. Although the convoy escorts
HMCS St. Laurent,
HMS Viscount and
a passing cargo ship began picking up survivors as soon as possible,
between 173 and 184 lives were lost (accounts vary). Because the
Montrose had been taken over
by the Royal Navy before she was sunk, she was officially
considered to be a Royal Navy rather than a CPR loss.
This photo from G. Musk's Canadian Pacific shows the liner
which like her sisters, was taken over
by the Admiralty and converted into an Armed Merchant Cruiser (AMC).
She was re-named HMS Wolfe, and
later served as both a submarine and
destroyer depot ship.
Her sister, HMS Montclare
served as an AMC under the command of her peacetime master
Captain W. S. Brown,
before she was also converted into a submarine depot ship.
Both ships survived the war. The brave sacrifice of their sister
Montrose when serving as
is still remembered today by the
Scotland, after which she was named.
During 1941 the CPR had lost two more of the company's
class ships -- Beaverbrae
-- on the convoy routes of the North Atlantic.
commanded by Captain B.L. Leslie,
was on her way back to Canada when she was attacked
on the morning of the 25th of March by a
plane. Fortunately, she was close enough to Britain that
all her crew, including two injured members,
were rescued later that same day.
torpedoed and shelled by
U-48 on April 2nd, 1941.
Everyone on board
made it into the ship's three lifeboats,
but, during the night one of the lifeboats
with 21 men aboard disappeared without a trace.
(It was later thought that
this lifeboat might have been hit
when Beaverdale was being shelled.)
The two remaining lifeboats both
set out for
Iceland, 300 miles away.
After six harrowing days, the
lifeboat under the command of
master, Captain Draper, made
it all the way to Iceland and safety.
The men in the second lifeboat, which was under
the command of
Second Officer G. Mansell,
were rescued while still at sea by the
and her sister ships, Beaverhill
and Beaverbrae, were fast,
roomy cargo liners ideally suited for their war-time role.
lifeboats were used to rescue Allied
soldiers during the evacuation of Dunkirk
In May 1941 Beaverhill
rescued two downed airmen
whose plane had crashed during the
search for the German battleship Bismarck.
Beaverhill was refitted
for passengers and she brought many
RAF recruits to
Canada to train as part of the
British Commonwealth Air
Training Plan. Sadly, like her sisters, Beaverhill
did not survive the war -- she
was lost to stranding on 24 November 1944.
Photo Source: G. Musk's Canadian Pacific.
The Role of the CPR Ships in WWII is continued in
This page is written and maintained by Maureen Venzi
and it is part of the
Allied Merchant Navy of WWII