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The Role of the CPR Ships in
World War II



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.

Map of Commonwealth

Many of the countries of the British Empire -- shown in red -- were tied together by the CPR's ocean-going ships. A traveller from Britain 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, c. 1993.

In the decades before the Second World War, the Canadian Pacific Railway, with its headquarters in Montreal, Quebec, was the largest transportation company in the world. In addition to the company's network of rail lines and its 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, England. From the early years, Canadian Pacific ships carried 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 SS 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 Shanghai, China, in 1937 during the brutal Sino-Japanese War.

 Empress of Australia

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 chartered to the British Admiralty for war service. Of those 22 vessels, three of the passenger liners were purchased by the Admiralty and converted 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 managed by CPR's management company Canadian Pacific Steamships under direction of the Admiralty. 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 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 company's 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 OB-84, when she was torpedoed by a U-Boat, the U-41. One man, the ship's cook, lost his life. The United States tanker Narraganset 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 Atlantic -- New Zealand. 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 Orion. Although Niagara could not be saved, fortunately,there was no loss of life.


This Leonard Frank photo from Robert D. Turner's The Pacific Empresses, shows Niagara which along with her companion ship, the MV Aorangi, sailed for the Canadian Australasian Line. The CPR shared ownership of the line along with the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand. When Niagara 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. Aorangi -- click here for photo -- survived the war.

In late October 1940 the best-known of the CPR's liners and flagship of the company's Atlantic Fleet, the magnificent Empress of Britain, was the next victim of enemy action. She 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 Luftwaffe to bomb merchant ships and to spot convoys for the U-boats. When the Condor attacked Empress of Britain the ship's 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 the vessel's master, Captain C.H. Sapsworth, was forced to give the order to abandon ship. Forty-five 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 Burza, the British destroyer HMS Echo and three British naval trawlers Cape Agona, Drangey, and Paynter. The still burning Empress remained afloat and the next day two Royal Navy tugs, Marauder and Thames took her in tow with the intention of bringing her in safely to port. She was surrounded by escort ships, but in spite of the escorts' vigilance, two days later on October 28th, the German U-boat, U-32, managed to sneak by the escorts and torpedo the crippled Empress. She sank within ten minutes. At 42,348-tons, Empress of Britain was the largest Allied passenger liner to be sunk and the biggest merchant ship loss of the war.

Empress of Britain

Empress of Britain was launched by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII who gave up his throne to marry Wallis Simpson) in 1930. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth had travelled 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 Admiral Scheer 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 , Beaverford 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 torpedoed Beaverford and Captain Pettigrew and his heroic crew of 76, were all killed. Their sacrifice along with that of HMS Jervis Bay allowed 31 ships in the convoy to escape to Britain with their precious cargoes.

Admiral Scheer

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 and renamed H.M.S. Forfar. In the early morning hours of December 2nd, 1940, under the command of Captain N. A. C. Hardy, R.N., HMS Forfar was on her way from Britain to meet Convoy HX-90 when she was intercepted by U-99 and 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 Montcalm 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 also 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 HMS Forfar, is still remembered today by the town of Forfar, Scotland, after which she was named.

During 1941 the CPR had lost two more of the company's Beaver class ships -- Beaverbrae and Beaverdale -- on the convoy routes of the North Atlantic. Beaverbrae, 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 Focke-Wulf plane. Fortunately, she was close enough to Britain that all her crew, including two injured members, were rescued later that same day. Beaverdale was 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 The two remaining lifeboats both set out for Iceland, 300 miles away. After six harrowing days, the lifeboat under the command of the Beaverdale's 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 Icelandic trawler Gulltoppur.


Beaverdale, and her sister ships, Beaverhill , Beaverburn , Beaverford, and Beaverbrae, were fast, roomy cargo liners ideally suited for their war-time role. Two of Beaverdale's 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 Part Two


This page is written and maintained by Maureen Venzi and it is part of the Allied Merchant Navy of WWII website.