RMS Empress of Australia (1919)

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Empress of Australia
Name: 1913-1921: SS Tirpitz
1921: SS Empress of China
1922-1952: RMS Empress of Australia
Owner: 1913-1919: 22x20px Hamburg America Line
1920-1921: United Kingdom P&O Line
1921-1952: United Kingdom Canadian Pacific Steamships
Port of registry: 1913-1919: German Empire
1920-1921: United Kingdom
1920-1929: Canada
Builder: Vulcan AG shipyard, Stettin (now Szczecin), Poland
Yard number: 333
Launched: 20 December 1913
Maiden voyage: 1 December 1919
Fate: 1952: scrapped at Inverkeithing, Scotland
General characteristics
Class and type: Ocean liner
Tonnage: 21,861 tons
Length: 187.45 m (615 ft)
Beam: 12.8 m (42 ft)
Propulsion: DE and 6 SE boilers
Two sets of steam turbines, turning twin propellers
Speed: 19 knots (35 km/h)
Capacity: 400 1st-class, 150 Tourist-class, 635 3rd-class
Crew: 520 officers & crew

RMS Empress of Australia was an ocean liner built in 1913-1919 by Vulcan AG shipyard in Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland) for the Hamburg America Line.[1] She was refitted for Canadian Pacific Steamships; and the ship -- the third of three CP vessels to be named Empress of China[2] -- was renamed yet again in 1922 as the Empress of Australia.[3].

In trans-Pacific service, the ship garnered fame for her part in rescue efforts at Tokyo following the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923.[4]

In trans-Atlantic service, she earned distinction in 1927 by bringing the Prince of Wales from England to the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in Canada. She was honored to serve as Royal Yacht during the Royal tour of Canada in 1939.[4]

Service history

The ship was originally built for the Hamburg America Line by Vulcan AG shipyard, Stettin, Germany (now Szczecin, Poland), in 1912, as yard number 333.[1]

Pre-Canadian Pacific ownership

File:RMS Admiral Von Tirpitz.jpg
The Tirpitz during fitting out at the Vulkan shipyards of Stettin.

The partially completed hull was launched on 20 December 1913. During this period, it was the intention of the Hamburg America Line to name the completed ship the SS Admiral von Tirpitz in honour of Alfred von Tirpitz. Later, the prospective name of the ship was shortened to simply the SS Tirpitz, but final outfitting was held up during World War I.

In 1916, Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered her to be completed as his royal yacht, in which he envisioned receiving the allied naval fleets when they surrendered. Her first trip, however, was under seizure as a war prize when she sailed from Hamburg to Hull on 1 December 1919. She was then used as a troop ship under P & O Line management.

Canadian Pacific ownership

Tirpitz was one of two German-built vessels purchased by Canadian Pacific Railway in 1921 which were both confusingly re-named RMS Empress of China;[5] the first vessel SS Prinz Friedrich Wilhelm having briefly carried the name Empress of China before being renamed RMS Empress of India in advance of CPR's acquisition of the Tirpitz.

File:Ship Plan Australia.jpg
Technical drawings of the SS Empress of Australia

Thus Tirpitz became the third CPR vessel to carry the name Empress of China, however this honour would only last a matter of months.[5] She was refitted by John Brown & Company, Clydebank, and renamed by CPR yet again to become RMS Empress of Australia in August 1921. By 1922 she sailed from Greenock to the Pacific via the Panama Canal.

After 20 voyages across the Pacific, Canadian Pacific were forced to deal with her poor performance and chose to re-engine and re-boiler the ship. She sailed to Govan Fairfield at Glasgow, arriving 9 September 1926. The vastly complex work was made more difficult by her divided uptakes, offering no central space to remove machinery. Old boilers were sliced up and removed in pieces, the whole job lasting many months and cost over half a million pounds.

When completed she was virtually a new ship, now driven by Parsons turbines with six double-ended boilers. On trials the ship made 20.34 knots (37.67 km/h) and required 50 tons a day less oil. Three classes of passenger accommodations were incorporated in the final layout; in total, 1,500 passengers could be carried in luxurious interior appointments, the ship having been fitted out to a very high specification. The dining room was in the French Regency style. There was a spacious Lounge designed in the Empire style, which included a dance floor. The writing room was fitted in the style of Louis XVI, with tinted walls and mahogany furniture, as was the smoke room which had oak panelled walls. There was also a swimming pool and fully equipped gymnasium.

From near disaster to great distinction

On Saturday, 1 September 1923, at 11:55 am, the Empress of Australia was making ready to depart from the docks at Yokohama, Japan. Several hundred people were on the docks, catching streamers and confetti from the passengers lining the rails, and waving their farewells. Tugs were about to ease the ship away from the dock when, without warning the 23,000 ton liner was flung violently from side to side. The earth trembled under several violent shocks and sections of the dock collapsed under the feet of the panic stricken crowds. The land and remaining dock structure began to roll in wave like motions as high as six to eight feet. In minutes the worst shocks were over, but after-shocks, some quite heavy, continued for some time, while winds rose to 70 mph (110 km/h). From the city a heavy rumbling sound could be heard as hundreds of buildings collapsed into rubble. This was the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake, devastating Tokyo and Yokohama and the entire Kantō region of central Honshū. This was one of the worst earthquake disasters in recorded history.

The Empress of Australia was in a very dangerous position. Crowded with passengers, she was still alongside the remains of the dock, with a freighter moored close behind so she could not clear without the aid of tugs. Meantime, the Lyons Maru, moored to the east, had lost her cable and drifted across the harbor, colliding with the Empress at her stern. She then hit amidships, shattering a lighter loaded with lumber that had drifted alongside. This small vessel acted as a buffer between the two large ships and prevented serious damage. Tugs had disappeared in the confusion and fires were started on the docks and were spreading rapidly. Available crew and passengers were put to work hosing down the ship to put out sparks and embers that were falling on the decks. Ropes and ladders were lowered over the side so that people trapped on the dock could climb aboard. Captain Robinson then tried to push the freighter moored astern with his ship, to allow enough room to maneuver away from the flaming docks. The Empress was able to carefully move the nearby freighter, the Steel Navigator; and then the Empress slowly pulled away.

File:Empress of Australia in Yokohama in 1923.jpg
RMS Empress of Australia after the earthquake.

When the Empress of Australia moved forward, her port propeller fouled in the anchor cable of the freighter. Fortunately the liner was now about 60 feet (18 m) away from the flames, and the winds had shifted, blowing the fires away from the ship. By 3pm the fires had died down and the wind dropped off to a light breeze; the ship was immobile but safe for the moment. In the distance vast fires could be seen in the city. The ship's lifeboats were lowered and manned by members of the crew and passenger volunteers, who formed rescue parties to help those ashore, working through the night.

The next morning, the ship was again in danger from a large mass of burning oil that was moving across the harbor. The Empress could not steer because of the damaged propeller, but was able to avoid the oil fire long enough to get assistance from the tanker Iris. Her captain agreed to tow the bow of the Empress of Australia around, and she was then able to move out to sea and a safer anchorage. When taking a count on Sunday, there were over 2000 refugees on board.

On Monday, the RMS Empress of Canada arrived on her regular schedule; and she was able to provide the Empress of Australia with more stores. Then the Empress of Canada transported a large number of refugees on to Kobe, where the Japanese government had set up a relief center.

On September 4th, the Imperial Japanese Navy's second Fusō-class battleship Yamashiro arrived at the harbor. The Empress of Australia had been unable to proceed due to the fact that she had a fouled propeller. Arrangements were made for a diver from the Yamashiro to inspect the damage and effect repairs. The cable was unwound and the machinery was tested; and the fouled propeller was found to have suffered no damage.

The Empress of Australia was now free to leave, but at the request of the British Consul, she remained as long as needed for continued relief work. Each morning, for the next several days, the Empress of Australia re-entered the devastated harbor and sent her boats ashore manned by a combination of crew, local residents, and passenger volunteers. Refugees were brought aboard, transferred from the ship to other vessels, or taken to Kobe. To aid the victims, the ships officers and most of the passengers donated everything they could spare. She finally departed Yokohama on 12 September 1923, returning to her routine duties; but her services were not forgotten. Captain Robinson received numerous awards in recognition of his actions, including the CBE, and award of the Lloyds Silver Medal.

A group of passengers and refugees who were aboard during the disaster commissioned a bronze tablet and presented it to the ship in recognition of the relief efforts. When the Empress of Australia was scrapped in 1952, the bronze tablet was rescued and presented to Captain Robinson, then aged 82, in a special ceremony in Vancouver.

Atlantic crossing and royal patronage

File:SS & RMS Empress of Australia.jpg
The Empress of Australia in her prime.

On 12 September 1923, the Empress of Australia returned to her routine duties. In August, three years later, the Empress of Australia departed from Hong Kong, after her twenty first and final Pacific voyage.

Canadian Pacific decided to transfer the Empress of Australia to Atlantic service. She sailed from Southampton for Quebec City on her first voyage on 25 June 1927, with the Prince of Wales and Prince George, the Duke of York. The Royal princes and Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin were bound for Diamond Jubilee celebrations in Canada.[6] In this new Atlantic route, she was teamed with two other ships -- the Empress of Scotland (originally the SS Kaiserin Auguste Victoria) and the Empress of France.

In 1928, the Empress of Australia began to cruise in the off season and to sail on round the world voyages.

After the Empress of France was withdrawn from the service, the Empress of Australia and the Empress of Scotland carried on a two-ship service with white hulls with dark blue ribbon and green boot topping.

In 1938, she went to Harland & Wolff at Southampton for an overhaul, returning for the 1939 season.

After three Atlantic crossings she was chosen to act as the royal yacht for King George VI and the Queen Elizabeth for their Royal tour of Canada.[4] In 1939, HMY Empress of Australia, sailed from Portsmouth 6 May 1939 and arriving in Quebec on 17 May 1939, two days late due to dense fog on the Atlantic.

She continued on the Quebec run until the outbreak of World War II; and the Empress of Australia was modified to play her part in the war effort.

Second World War service

The Empress of Australia was sent to Southampton, where she was to be converted into a troopship; painted in grey, fitted with a three-inch (76 mm) gun and with a carrying capacity of 5,000. It was in this role that she would remain for the next 13 years. The Empress of Australia left on her first wartime voyage to Ceylon and Bombay on 28 September 1939. Following this task, the ship then went across the Atlantic to Halifax, from where she joined a large convoy carrying Canadian soldiers to the battlefields of Europe.

During the entire war, the Empress of Australia enjoyed very good luck. In 1941, it was widely reported that she'd been torpedoed off the coast of Africa, but she survived that brush with disaster.[7] She was only seriously damaged once, when she was holed by the Orient Line's 14,982 ton Ormonde during the North Africa campaign in January 1943. Her final wartime voyage was from Hong Kong with ex-prisoners of war and internees.

Post-war service

After World War II the Empress of Australia worked world wide as a troop ship in every theater of war, including carrying military personnel to Pusan during the Korean War.

In 1946 while anchoring off Liverpool her anchor tangled with that of a cargo liner Debrett; the two ships collided and seven tugs were needed to separate them. In December of that year, she was re-fitted for peace-time trooping, offering more comfortable accommodations for the troops; however she was never repainted and remained in the wartime grey color scheme. She continued to carry troops up to another overhaul in Liverpool in 1951. The following year -- after her 70th trooping voyage -- she was sold.

She sailed from the Mersey to Inverkeithing, 8 May 1952, where the long-serving vessel was scrapped.[4] Her fine oak carved panelling and ship's furniture are now installed in the splendid Ships Room in the Visitor Centre of Glenfarclas Distillery at Ballindalloch on Speyside.


Power plant and propulsion system

  • Engines: Two sets of steam turbines; 20,000 shaft horsepower (15 MW); by Fairfield Co., Glasgow.
  • Boilers: 6 DE and 6 SE boilers, 220 lbf/in² (1.52 MPa) steam pressure; 600 degrees Fahrenheit of super heated steam. Oil fuel, forced draught to furnaces.



See also

External links