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The Role of the CPR Ships in
World War II, Part Two


Continued from Part One


On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor and the dynamics of the war changed. Allied attention expanded to areas of the Pacific Ocean now threatened by Japan. A few hours after Pearl Harbor was hit, Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong, and began their push down the Malay Penninsula towards the British fortress of Singapore. After a courageous but, doomed defense against the overwhelming Japanese forces, Hong Kong surrendered on Christmas Day, 1941. Singapore continued to hold out against her attackers, but the city was in desperate need of troops and supplies. (Click Here for Map)

Five CPR ships -- Aorangi, Empress of Australia, Empress of Japan, Duchess of Bedford, and Empress of Asia, were all involved in the last attempts to reinforce Singapore and to evacuate refugees. The first four liners were able to successfully carry out their missions and get away to safety by the end of January 1942. The slower coal-fuelled Empress of Asia, laden with 2,235 troops and military weapons and equipment, was not so lucky. On February 5th, 1942, having fallen behind her convoy, the liner was targeted by Japanese planes as she approached Singapore harbour. Low flying aircraft dove at the Asia and made at least three direct bombing hits which set her on fire. Although her gun crews fired back furiously, and the troops on board used their small arms to try and protect the liner, they were no match for the Japanese airforce. Soon, the fires on board the grand old empress were out of control, and her master, Captain J.B. Smith, ordered the ship to be abandoned. Despite continual attacks by the Japanese planes, nearby escort vessels including the Australian corvette HMAS Wollongong, the British escort HMS Dana, the Indian Navy escort HMIS Sutlej, and the Australian sloop HMAS Yarra, bravely stood by the Asia. The gallant Yarra manoeuvred right up against the side of the blazing liner and managed to rescue the incredible total of 1,804 survivors. Fifteen of the Asia's troops and one crew member were killed. None of the precious military equipment could be salvaged, and the burnt out ship sank four days later.

Once ashore, Captain Smith and many of the Asia's crew were able to escape from the city on various other vessels. The ship's doctor and 132 other crew members volunteered to help out at one of the Singapore hospital which was swamped with victims from the two-month bombardment of the city. Singapore fell to the Japanese on February 15, 1942 and the volunteers who had stayed behind at the hospital, were incarcerated in brutal Japanese POW camps for the duration of the war. One medical assistant, Kenneth Nickels, who survived three and a half years of savage treatment in the infamous Changi Jail, later described his time there as "hell on earth".

Empress of Asia

This photo from Robert D. Turner's Pacific Empresses, shows Empress of Asia as she looked in 1937 at the time of the Shanghai evacuations. She and her sister ship, Empress of Russia -- both completed in 1913 -- were built to sail between Vancouver, B.C., and the Orient. Both of the Empresses served as armed merchant cruisers in WWI and as troop transports in WWII. The Russia survived WWII, but she was destroyed by a fire in dry-dock one month after the war ended. Click Here for Photo

Later in 1942 the CPR lost two more of its troop transports. On August 17th, during the North African Campaign, Princess Marguerite was en route from Port Said, Egypt to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus with around 1,000 troops on board. (Click for Map) In spite of the vigilance of her escort of three destroyers and the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Antwerp, the Marguerite was torpedoed by U-83. The fires which resulted were soon out of control and Princess Marguerite's master, Captain Leicester, gave the order to "abandon ship". Blazing fuel in the water made the abandonment difficult and hazardous, but the aptly-named British destoyer HMS Hero (later transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy and renamed HMCS Chaudiere), managed to rescue a very high percentage of those aboard the liner. Fifty-Five lives were lost.

Princess Marguerite

This photo shows the lovely Princess Marguerite in her pre-war days when she and her sister ship, Princess Kathleen serviced the northwest coast of North America. During the 1939 Royal Tour, Marguerite had the honour of carrying King George VI and Queen Elizabeth from Vancouver to Victoria, B.C. For the story of Princess Marguerite's part in the 1939 Royal Tour, see: "A Princess Carries Royalty" by Captain Hugh D. Halkett in The Daily Colonist (Islander), July 21st, 1968: p. 2, Victoria, B.C. Photo Source: Robert D. Turner's The Pacific Princesses: An Illustrated History of Canadian Pacific Railway's Princess Fleet on the Northwest Coast, published by Sono Nis Press, Victoria, 1977.

This dramatic photo from the B.C. Provincial Archives, shows Princess Marguerite on fire after she was torpedoed and abandoned off Port Said on August 17th, 1942. During their time as troopships, Princess Marguerite and Princess Kathleen served mainly in the Mediterranean theatre of war.

Princess Marguerite on Fire

Princess Kathleen was one of the celebrated ships which supplied the besieged island of Malta during the war. She survived the hostilities but was lost to stranding near Juneau, Alaska in 1952. Click for Photo

Another fine passenger liner from CPR's Atlantic Fleet, Duchess of Atholl (Click for photo) was the next to fall victim to the enemy on October 10th, 1942 when she was returning from Suez to Britain via Cape Town. Along with her own crew of 296, the liner was carrying 831 people -- among them 58 women, 34 children, 12 crew members from the unlucky Princess Marguerite, and 37 survivors from the SS Gazcon -- when she was torpedoed by U-178, 200 miles off Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. (Click for Map) Four of the Atholl's engineers were killed by the first of three torpedoes and one more person died as a result of the attack. Duchess of Atholl remained upright as she began to sink which allowed Captain Moore and his crew to get all the other passengers safely into lifeboats before they too abandoned the vessel. Fortunately, the Atholl's radio operator had managed to send off an SOS message following the first torpedo, and although the signal had not been answered, it had been received. The next morning all 826 Duchess of Atholl survivors were found by HMS Corinthian, a former Ellerman Lines ocean boarding vessel, which had sped to their rescue from the British naval base of Freeport, Sierra Leone.

For the first three and a half years of the war, one CPR liner, the beautiful Empress of Canada, had escaped enemy detection so successfully that the Germans referred to her as "the Phantom". In March of 1943, she was en route from Durban, South Africa to Takoradi, on the Gold Coast of West Africa, with 1,346 passengers. The group of passengers was very mixed and included Italian POW's, various military personnel from the German-occupied countries of Poland, Norway and Greece as well as a smattering of British government officials. Just before midnight on March 13th, the ship was torpedoed by the Italian submarine, Leonardo da Vinci. The Canada started to sink quickly, and her master, Captain George Goold, gave the order to abandon ship. The process was made more difficult by all the different languages, but in spite of communication difficulties and a second torpedo, the crew mangaged to get everyone off in just over an hour. The first rescue ships, the destroyer HMS Boreas and the corvettes HMS Crocus and HMS Petunia arrived from Freetown, Sierra Leone, on the evening of the 15th, followed by HMS Corinthian -- rescuer of the Duchess of Atholl survivors -- the next morning. Although it was thought that there had been very little loss of life in the initial attacks by the da Vinci, by time all the rescue ships had completed their widespread search for survivors, exposure and the vicious attacks of barracuda and sharks had taken a large toll of lives. Tragically, a total of 392 people, 44 of them crew members, had perished.

Empress of Canada

This photo from George Musk's Canadian Pacific, shows Empress of Canada in her glamorous pre-war days. Before she was sunk, her trooping duties had taken her all over the world. In August 1941 she took part in a raid on the Norwegian island of Spitzbergen, and travelled as far north as Archangel on the edge of the Arctic Ocean.

Four months after Empress of Canada was torpedoed, the CPR lost the second of its four Duchesses, Duchess of York. A veteran of the 1940 evacuations from Norway and France, the York had travelled widely on hazardous routes and been a lucky ship. During one of her six voyages to North Africa she had survived a near miss from an unexploded bomb which had been pushed over the side by courageous volunteers from her crew. Duchess of York sailed again for the Mediterranean at the beginning of July 1943. By this time in the war, the Allies had secured North Africa and were completing preparations for the July 10th landings in Sicily. The York was part of a small convoy escorted by the Canadian Tribal destroyer, HMCS Iroquois, the British destroyer HMS Douglas, and the British frigates HMS Moyola and HMS Swale. Unfortunately, the convoy had not been provided with any air cover as it approached the British stronghold of Gibraltar on July 11th, and it was attacked by some Luftwaffe Focke-Wulf Condor bombers. All the ships in the convoy did their best to shoot down the enemy aircraft, but, Duchess of York and the Anchor Line transport, California, were both hit and set ablaze. The fires on Duchess of York became uncontrollable very quickly and her master, Captain Busk-Wood had to order the vessel to be abandoned. Survivors were picked up by HMCS Iroquois and the two frigates. A total of 34 people aboard Duchess of York perished. She was the last CPR ship to be sunk by the Axis powers during the war.

Duchess of York

This photo from G. Musk's Canadian Pacific, shows Duchess of York, which like her sister ships, Duchesses of Atholl, Bedford, and Richmond, had a flatter keel for travelling up the St. Lawrence River to Montreal. Because their design caused them to roll, the ships were lovingly dubbed "the drunken duchesses"! The two surviving ships, the Bedford and Richmond , were renamed Empress of France and Empress of Canada, respectively, after the war.


By the end of World War Two, the CPR had lost a total of 12 ships to enemy fire. When Beaverhill and Empress of Russia -- lost to accidental stranding and fire -- were added, the total came to 14 out of their original 22 ships. There were only 8 survivors, and two of them -- the liners Montcalm and Montclare, had been purchased by the Admiralty in 1942, and did not return to their pre-war routes. When the totals were all tallied, the CPR ended up having the largest property loss of any private company within the Allied countries.

CPR ships and men had made significant countributions to the war effort. CPR passenger liners carried hundreds of thousands of troops, as well as evacuees of all ages, prisoners of war, wounded combatants, and equipment and supplies. They sailed all over the world and took part in landings at Spitzbergen, Madagascar, Casablanca,and Sicily. One liner, the graceful Aorangi, acted as a hospital ship and engine repair shop for more than 1200 vessels during the Invasion of Normandy. Another, the plucky Duchess of Bedford, managed to sink a U-boat in the North Atlantic in 1942 -- an amazing feat for a troopship and a great tribute to her skilled gunners! CPR's "Beaver" freighters played a vital role in the early years of the Battle of the Atlantic and delivered over five hundred thousand of tons of equipment and supplies to Britain. In addition to CPR's own ships, the company also managed and operated a number of other ships for the British Ministry of War Transport (MOWT). These included a variety of British "Empires" and new Canadian-built "Parks" which along with the Canadian-built "Forts" and American-built "Liberty Ships" were so essential to replacing U-boat losses. Over the course of the war, 85 CPR marine employees won decorations for gallantry or were mentioned in dispatches. Some were wounded. 236 were killed. Others suffered years of maltreatment in barbaric Japanese prison camps. Certainly these brave men and their gallant ships played a vital role in winning the war, and they deserve to be remembered by us all.


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