RMS Empress of Britain – the glory of the Atlantic

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The RMS Empress of Britain is another of the famous shipwrecks to be found in the waters around Ireland and Northern Ireland. Completed in 1931 she was the largest, fastest and most luxurious liner of her time to serve in routes between Britain and Canada. After a glorious career in which she set several world speed records for crossings to Canada, she was sunk by a German submarine in 1940 off the coast of Ireland with 45 casualties. Here we remember this glorious ship.

The RMS Empress of Britain on the St. Lawrence River, Quebec, Canada. Photo Scource: Public Domain.

The Beginning

Construction of the RMS Empress of Britain began in November 1928, in the shipyards of John Brown and Co at Clydebank near Glascow, Scotland, for the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company. Another ship by the same name and operated by the same company had served well from 1906, had survived World War I and was about to be scrapped (1930). The new ship was to be her replacement. The new RMS Empress of Britain was built in 18 months on June 11, 1930, while her builders too another twelve months to fit her out with luxury fittings. On May 27, 1931 she set out on her maiden voyage between Southampton and Quebec. She displaced over 42,000 tons, was nearly 232 meters long (760 feet), and had a speed of 24 knots. She could carry 1,195 passengers and over 700 crew.

Royalty and Speed Records

On her first trip she set a speed record for crossing to Canada, four days, 22 hours and 26 minutes. Subsequently, she improved on her own record. Between her first trip and 1939 she served well as a liner traveling nearly a million miles in speed and safety. She also served as a luxury cruise ship. Perhaps the high point of her career was in June 1939 when she sailed from Halifax, Canada to Southampton, England. On board were only 40 passengers: King George VI of England, his wife Queen Elizabeth (later known as Queen Mother, the mother of the current Queen Elizabeth II), thirteen lords and ladies, 22 household staff, two reporters and one photographer.

The War

Soon after this highlight in the career of the RMS Empress of Britain, World War II broke out. Her glorious white paint was replaced by grey, more appropriate to protect her in wartime, and she became a troop transport. She continued to travel across the Atlantic carrying troops and even went as far as New Zealand.

The Sinking

In October 1940 she embarked on what was to be her last trip. Onboard were 418 crew, including two gunners for guns that had been added for her protections, and 205 passengers composed of military personnel and their families. As she was sailing along the west coast of Ireland she was attacked by a German FW 200 Condor long range bomber. Two bombs hit her and started a fire. The captain gave the order to abandon ship and most of the crew and passengers were picked up by other ships nearby.

The ship was in good order and a skeleton crew remained on board to try to salvage her. Escorts soon arrived and tied ropes to bring her to land. However, the German submarine U-32 began to shadow the slow moving convoy and fired three torpedoes of which two hit the target. RMS Empress of Britain began to take water and list. The ropes were loosed, the remaining crew removed and in the morning of October 28, 1940 she sunk north west of Bloody Foreland in County Donegal. All in all, 25 crew members and 20passengers died in the two attacks.

Finding the Wreck and Rumors of Gold

There have been rumors that the Empress carried gold as with the case with many ships traveling at that time towards America. The rumors were probably true. However, when the wreck was eventually discovered and explored in 1995, there was no gold in the bullion room. Whatever gold might have been on board, it would surely have been removed in the time between the initial bombing attack and the sinking of the ship two days later.

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About the author

Originally from Scotland, Colin now resides near the beautiful seaside town of Portstewart on the Causeway Coastal Route. By day he works in IT and by day off he spends much of his time travelling around the Island with his young family, writing about his experiences for many sites both locally and nationally.