Royal Canadian Navy Armed Troopships: HMT Empress of Canada, HMT Queen Mary, RMS Olympic and Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS), 1931-1949

RCN 1931–1949, Armed Troopships and Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS)

Armed Troopships

(City of Vancouver Archives Photo, Bo N80)

RMS (HMT) Empress of Canada, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1 June 1936.  

RMS Empress of Canada was an ocean liner built in 1920 for the Canadian Pacific Steamships (CP) by Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Company at Govan on the Clyde in Scotland.  She was 653 feet long.  This ship was the first of two CP vessels to be named Empress of Canada, and regularly traversed the trans-Pacific route between the west coast of Canada and the Far East until 1939.

Following the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, she was converted for use as a troopship.  Her defensive arrmament consisted of a 6-inch gun right aft with a 3-inch AA gun sited above it.

She was one of the ships in the first Australian/New Zealand convoy, designated US.1 for secrecy, destined for North Africa and at that time not yet fully converted for full troop capacity with few ships of the convoy carrying more than 25% more than their normal passenger load.  Empress of Canada departed Wellington on 6 January 1940 with the New Zealand elements, joined the Australian ships and arrived in Aden on 8 February from where the convoy split with all ships heading for Suez.

She continued to transport ANZAC troops from New Zealand and from Australia to the war zones in Europe until sunk.  The return voyage from Europe was not less dangerous than the trip north had been.  On 13 March 1943, while en route from Durban, South Africa to Takoradi carrying Italian prisoners of war along with Polish and Greek refugees, the SS Empress of Canada was hit on the starboard side by a torpedo from the Italian submarine Leonardo da Vinci, and quickly developed a list and lost all power.  She was struck at midnight approximately 400 miles (640 km) south of Cape Palmas off the coast of Africa.  Within an hour another torpedo hit and she sank soon after.   Of the approximate 1800 people on board, 392 died.  The final casualty toll was 44 crew, 8 guards and 340 passengers, ironically many of them Italian prisoners of war.  An SOS had been transmitted and a Catalina flying boat found the lifeboats the next day.  Rescue boats finally collected 1,360 survivors and took them to Freetown.

(City of Vancouver Archives Photo, CVA 371-1053)

RMS (HMT) Empress of Canada.

(City of Vancouver Archives Photo, CVA 447-2190.2)

RMS (HMT) Empress of Canada.

(City of Vancouver Archives Photo, CVA 99-1619)

RMS (HMT) Empress of Canada.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3331327)

A Canadian machine gun crew aboard His Majesties Troopship (HMT) Empress of Canada, taking part in Operation GAUNTLET, the Spitsbergen raid, en route to Spitsbergen, ca. 19-24 August 1941.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3331328)

A Canadian crew aboard His Majesty's Troopship (HMT) Empress of Canada, taking part in Operation GAUNTLET, the Spitsbergen raid, en route to Spitsbergen, ca. 19-24 August 1941.

HMT Queen Mary

(William Carey Photo)

HMT Queen Mary.  Although not in service with  the RCN, she carried many Canadian soldiers to Europe after being converted to serve as a troopship during the Second World War.  The RMS Queen Mary was an ocean liner that sailed primarily on the North Atlantic Ocean from 1936 to 1967 for the Cunard Line when the vessel entered service.

In late August 1939, Queen Mary was on a return run from New York to Southampton.  The international situation led to her being escorted by the battlecruiser HMS Hood.  She arrived safely, and set out again for New York on 1 September.  By the time she arrived, the Second World War had begun and she was ordered to remain in port alongside the Normandie until further notice.

In March 1940, Queen Mary and Normandie were joined in New York by Queen Mary's new sister ship Queen Elizabeth, fresh from her secret dash from Clydebank.  The three largest liners in the world sat idle for some time until the Allied commanders decided that all three ships could be used as troopships.  Normandie was destroyed by fire during her troopship conversion.  Queen Mary left New York for Sydney, Australia, where she, along with several other liners, was converted into a troopship to carry Australian and New Zealand soldiers to the United Kingdom.

In the Second World War conversion, the ship's hull, superstructure, and funnels were painted navy grey.  As a result of her new colour, and in combination with her great speed, she became known as the "Grey Ghost".  To protect against magnetic mines, a degaussing coil was fitted around the outside of the hull . Inside, stateroom furniture and decoration were removed and replaced with triple-tiered (fixed) wooden bunks, which were later replaced by "standee" (fold-up) bunks.

Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were the largest and fastest troopships involved in the war, often carrying as many as 15,000 men in a single voyage, and often travelling out of convoy and without escort. Their high speed and zigzag courses made it virtually impossible for U-boats to catch them.

After the war end and after delivering a load of war brides to Canada, Queen Mary made her fastest ever crossing, returning to Southampton in only three days, 22 hours and 42 minutes at an average speed of just under 32 knots (59 km/h).

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3399036)

HMT Queen Mary at Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1946.

(British Library, PD)

RMS Olympic with splinter camouflage, 1919.

RMS Olympic. Although not in service with  the RCN, she carried many Canadian soldiers to Europe after being converted to serve as a troopship during the First World War.  She was a British ocean liner and the lead ship of the White Star Line's trio of Olympic-class liners.  Unlike the other ships in the class, Olympic had a long career spanning 24 years from 1911 to 1935. Her service as a troopship gained her the nickname "Old Reliable".  She returned to civilian service after the war, and served successfully as an ocean liner throughout the 1920s and into the first half of the 1930s, although increased competition, and the slump in trade during the Great Depression after 1930, made her operation increasingly unprofitable.  The Olympic was withdrawn from service and sold for scrap in 1935; demolition was completed in 1937.

RMS Olympic with splinter camouflage.

RMS Olympic with splinter camouflage.

War artist Arthur Lismer captured the return of the troopship RMS Olympic to Halifax harbour following the First World War. RMS Olympic's multi-coloured dazzle camouflage, added in 1917 at the height of the German U-Boat threat, was intended to make the ship more difficult to identify and target.  The painting also provides a glimpse of the busy Halifax dockyard, Canada's principal First World War naval base.  Pressed into service in 1915, RMS Olympic became one of the war's most famous troop ships.  Affectionately known as "Old Reliable," Olympic would carry over 200,000 British, American, and Canadian troops to and from the fighting fronts.

In the early hours of 12 May 1918, while en route for France with U.S. troops under the command of Captain Hayes, RMS Olympic sighted a surfaced U-boat 500 m (1,600 ft) ahead.  RMS Olympic's gunners opened fire at once, and the ship turned to ram the submarine, which immediately crash dived to 30 m (98 ft) and turned to a parallel course.  Almost immediately afterwards Olympic struck the submarine just aft of her conning tower with her port propeller slicing through U-103's pressure hull.  The crew of U-103 blew her ballast tanks, scuttled and abandoned the submarine. RMS Olympic did not stop to pick up survivors, but continued on to Cherbourg.  Meanwhile, USS Davis had sighted a distress flare and picked up 31 survivors from U-103.  RMS Olympic returned to Southampton with at least two hull plates dented and her prow twisted to one side, but not breached.  It was subsequently discovered that U-103 had been preparing to torpedo RMS Olympic when she was sighted, but the crew were not able to flood the two stern torpedo tubes.  For his service, Captain Hayes was awarded the DSO.

In August 1919 Olympic returned to Belfast for restoration to civilian service.  The interiors were modernised and the boilers were converted to oil firing rather than coal burning.  This modification would reduce the refuelling time from days to hours; it also gave a steadier engine R.P.M and allowed the engine room personnel to be reduced from 350 to 60 people.  During the conversion work and drydocking, a dent with a crack at the centre was discovered below her waterline which was later concluded to have been caused by a torpedo that had failed to detonate.  The historian Mark Chirnside concluded that the faulty torpedo had been fired by the U-boat SM U-53 on 4 September 1918, while the RMS Olympic was in the English Channel.

Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS)

DEMSs were not ships of the RCN, but did have RCN gunners as part of their gun crews.

Albert Park, Beaverford, Bowness Park, Dorval Park, Beaton Park, Dunlop Park, Goldstream Park, Highland Park, Jasper Park, Lakeside Park, Liscombe Park, Liverpool Loyalist, Mohawk Park, Nemiskam Park, Princess Alice, Princess Joan, Queens Park, Rio Branco, Sapperton Park, Selkirk Park, Simmonstown, Stanley Park, Tipperary Park, Windermere Park and possibly a few others not yet confirmed.

DEMS SS Beaverford

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3400038)

The SS Beaverford was a Canadian Pacific Steamship Company cargo liner.  Beaverford was the first of five cargo ships built by Canadian Pacific in 1927 and 1928 including sister ships Beaverdale, Beaverburn, Beaverhill and Beaverbrae.  Designed to carry 10,000 deadweight tons of cargo as well as 12 passengers, they were fitted with 80,000 cubic feet of insulated cargo space and 20,000 cubic feet of refrigerated cargo spaces for meat and fruit.  Their twin screws were powered by six Parson steam turbines and were among the most efficient steam engines of their time. Their boilers were fitted with Erith-Roe mechanical stokers, the first automatic stokers in the British merchant service.

With the onset of war, the fast and modern beaver ships were requisitioned by the British Admiralty to carry high-value stores.  Beaverford was fitted with two guns for self-defence, a four-inch gun on the stern and a three-inch gun on the bow.  She remained owned by Canadian Pacific with a Merchant Navy crew, along with two with two DEMS gunners.  Beaverford sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia on 28 Oct 1940 as part of Convoy HX-84.

Convoy HX-84 was half way across the Atlantic when it was located and attacked by the German heavy cruiser Admiral Scheer on 5 Nov.  The attack began at 17:15.  The convoy’s only escort, the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Jervis Bay ordered the convoy to scatter.  In an engagement that won the commander of HMS Jervis Bay a posthumous Victoria Cross, the escort steered directly towards Admiral Scheer.  Hopelessly outgunned, HMS Jervis Bay was set afire and sank 22 minutes later.  The Admiral Scheer now began to attack the convoy, first sinking the SS Maidan with all hands.  The tanker San Demetrio was set on fire, but did not sink.  The Admiral Scheer next sank the freighters Trewllard and Kenbane Head.

Captain Pettigrew aboard Beaverford had begun to scatter but as he watched the Admiral Scheer close on Kenbane Head, he ordered Beaverford to turn and engage the German heavy cruiser.  Beaverford opened fire with her 3-inch bow gun.  The first shot landed unexpectedly close to the German heavy cruiser.  The Admiral Scheer turned all its attention to this unexpected challenge firing star shells to illuminate Beaverford as darkness had now fallen.  Beaverford turned to bring both of its two small guns to bear and fire at the German cruiser although neither gun was in range.  Beaverford sent out a wireless message as it engaged the German cruiser, “It is our turn now. So long. The captain and crew of SS Beaverford”.

The Admiral Scheer opened fire on Beaverford with its 11-inch guns.  However Beaverford used the reserve power of its turbine engines to quickly turn and evade the fire as the shots landed in the water, missing Beaverford although the shrapnel started small fires on amidst her deck cargo.  The ships of the dispersing convoy had laid a thick smoke screen from floating smoke floats and Beaverford was able to disappear into the smoke screen.  The Admiral Scheer, its radar broken from the prolonged bombardment of HMS Jervis Bay had difficulty in locating the new challenger in the smoke and darkness.  Beaverford, one of the faster ships in the convoy, had a chance to escape in the darkness, but for reasons unknown, Captain Pettigrew stayed to fight it out with the Admiral Scheer.  For the next four hours, Beaverford played a cat-and-mouse game, emerging from the smokescreen to fire at the Admiral Scheer and then seeking cover into the smoke.  Captain Theodor Krancke in command of the Admiral Scheer had identified Beaverford as “Target No. 9” and thought he had destroyed the freighter, only to find the ship reappearing to confront him again.

However, every time Beaverford emerged from cover, the ship was hit by the Admiral Scheer's firepower.  In all, the Admiral Scheer fired 83 shells at Beaverford, 71 from its 5.9-inch guns with 16 hitting the unarmoured freighter, and 12 from the cruisers massive 11-inch guns with three making hits. Beaverford began to take on water and slow.  Fires spread on the freighter making it easier for the enemy guns to find their mark.  Finally at 22:45, the Admiral Scheer was able to destroy Beaverford with a torpedo.  The torpedo hit the fore part of Beaverford, lifting the bow and detonating the ammunition in her hold.  The ship blew apart and the stern was last seen sliding into the ocean.  All aboard were killed in the sinking.  Beaverford had taken up the fight with the Admiral Scheer for almost five hours.  Delayed by Beaverford, the German cruiser was only able to find and sink one more ship from the convoy, SS Fresno City.  Of the 38 ships in the convoy, the Admiral Scheer had only succeeded in sinking six.  (Wikipedia)

DEMS SS Jasper Park

(Roger Litwiller Photo)

SS Jasper Park (Canadian Government) was torpedoed by U-177, Indian Ocean, west of South Africa on 6 Jul 1943. She was the first Park Ship lost to enemy action in the Second World War.  

U-177 Action Report:  At 10.05 hours on 6 July 1943 the unescorted SS Jasper Park (Master William Buchanan) was hit by two of three torpedoes from U-177 south-southwest of Cap Sainte Marie, Madagascar.  The ship had been attacked with a spread of two torpedoes at 21.25 hours the day before, but one malfunctioned and the other probably detonated in the deployed torpedo nets without damaging the ship.  At 11.04 hours, a coup de grâce was fired which either missed or was a dud, so the U-boat surfaced to sink the vessel by gunfire but just then she sank.  The Germans then questioned the survivors in two lifeboats before leaving the area.  Of her crew of 55, four were lost.  The master, 44 crew members and six gunners were picked up by HMAS Quiberon (G 81) (Cdr G.S. Stewart, RAN) and HMAS Quickmatch (G 92) (LtCdr R. Rhoades, DSC, RAN) and landed at Durban. (The U-boat Net)

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3222588)

Wartime shipbuilding at Pictou, Nova Scotia.  This is a completed ship with gun on deck near a wharf, 2 January 1942.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3222595)

Wartime shipbuilding at Pictou, Nova Scotia. This is a completed ship with gun on deck near a wharf, 2 January 1942.

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