Courtesy of The City of Vancouver Archives
RMS Empress of Russia was built in 1912-1913 by Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Company at Govan on the Clyde in Scotland for Canadian Pacific steamships (CP). The ship regularly traversed the trans-Pacific route between Canada and the Far East.
Cornelius Van Horne
She sailed from Liverpool on 1 April 1913 on her maiden voyage via the Suez Canlal via Hong Kong and Vancouver. Thereafter, she sailed the Hong Kong – Shanghai – Nagasaki – Kobe – Yokohama – Vancouver route. In 1913, she broke the record for the fastest trans-Pacific crossing formerly held by RMS Empress of Japan. Her sister ship, the RMS Empress of Asia broke that record in May 1914, crossing the Pacific in nine days, two hours, and fifteen minutes. The popularity of the short route from Vancouver to the Orient was so great that these two additional CP Empress ocean liners were necessary.
Empress of Russia arriving at Rithet Piers in Victoria’s Outer Harbour
The 16,810-ton vessel had a length of 570 feet (170 m), and her beam was 68 feet (21 m). The ship had three funnels, two masts, quadruple screws and an average speed of 19-knots. The ocean liner provided accommodation for 284 first-class passengers and for 100 second class passengers. There was also room for up to 800 steerage-class passengers. This was the first liner to have a straight stern like a warship; and the advantages of this type of stern were revealed in terms of speed, vibration, steering and seagoing qualities.
World War I
The Empress was requisitioned by the British Admiralty twice during the First World War. Initially, the ship was refitted as an Armed Merchant Cruiser at Hong Kong; she was attached to a squadron blockading German merchant shipping in Philippine waters and retained her Chinese crew, but took on French sailors to man her guns. Later, she was transferred to the Indian Ocean.
In November 1914, the highlight of this Indian Ocean tour-of-duty followed from a rendezvous at sea with the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney. In what was called the Battle of Cocos, Sydney had engaged the German cruiser SMS Emden, forcing the raider to beach herself on North Keeling Island to avoid sinking. Some 230 of the Emden survivors were transferred from the Sydney to the Empress for transport to Colombo. At this point, the Empress was sailing in a convoy of troop ships carrying 30,000 ANZACs from Albany, Australia to Suez and Europe.
In December 1914, the Empress was moved from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea, where she continued through October 1915.
In one incident, the guns of the Empress were brought to bear on Hodeidah in what is modern Yemen. Bluntly, the Turks were told that if British and French counsels, who had been kidnapped, were not brought back, the port city would be demolished.
Shortly afterwards, the Empress was released by the Admiralty for a return to civilian service. The ship was refitted at Hong Kong, and the Empress of Russia returned to its familiar trans-Pacific route in February 1916. Amongst those sailing with the Empress in this period was Sumner Welles, who was to become one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policy advisers.
In April 1917 the Empress of Russia brought 2,056 members of the Chinese Labor Corps (CLC) from Weihaiwei in China across the Pacific to Williams Head on Vancouver Island. After quarantine the CLC were then transshipped to Port Moody on the Canadian mainland and transported by the Canadian Pacific Railway in guarded cattle trucks across Canada to the Atlantic Coast, where other Empress ships took them to Dunkirk.
The British Admiralty called the Empress to wartime service for a second time in early 1918. She was to be used in transporting American troops to Europe.
The Empress‘s last wartime voyage began from Liverpool on 12 January 1919. She sailed to Le Havre where Chinese labor battalions boarded the Empress for the return voyage via Suez to Hong Kong. From the Far East, she sailed across the Pacific to Vancouver for re-fitting.
This ship remained a coal-burner after the Great War, even though many liners at that time were being converted to oil.
Between the wars
Between the wars, the Empress resumed regular trans-Pacific crossings. Her first post-war voyage began on 10 April 1919; and the pre-war route was somewhat modified on this trip. On this occasion, she sailed from Vancouver to Manila outward bound; and she stopped at Vladivostok on the return voyage to North America from the Far East to pick up Canadian soldiers who had served at part of the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force during the Russian Revolution. In this period, the Empress transported Philippine Senator Manuel L. Quezon on his return to Manila from the first Independence Mission to the U.S. Congress in 1919. These trans-Pacific sailings continued up through December 1940.
During this peacetime period, she completed 310 crossings. Amongst the famous passengers who traveled on the Empress, were Chinese Nationalist leaders Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek, who sailed from Hong Kong to Shanghai in 1922; and American humorist Will Rogers who sailed to Japan in late-November 1932.
World War II
The Empress was again commissioned by the British Admiralty as a troop transport. Initially, she carried Australian and New Zealand Air Force recruits to Canada for flight school training. In March 1941, she was refitted at dockyards on the River Clyde in Scotland.
The Captain of the Empress in 1941-42 would only realize many years later that he had had a VIP aboard—a young Midshipman Philip Mountbatten (later to become Duke of Edinburgh) is remembered for having helped stoke the boilers in 1941.
The Empress was involved in the North Africa landings in 1943. In October 1943, she made a special trip to Gothenburg to exchange prisoners of war. This was followed by seven trips to Reykjavík for the RAF.
In early 1944, she was used as an accommodation ship at Rosyth for Russian crews who were to take over a number of British warships. In June, she was moved to Spithead where she was used as a depot ship for tugs after the D-Day landings.
In October 1944, she sailed to Gareloch where she was laid up until June 1945. Work was begun on the refitting the Empress for service transporting Canadian troops from Europe to North America; However, she was gutted by fire on 8 September 1945 at Barrow. The extensive damage caused the ship to be scrapped; and she was broken up by T. W. Ward & Sons.