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SS Empress of Australia

By: Daniel H. Jones

The EMPRESS OF AUSTRALIA was one of four Canadian Pacific liners, one sailing every two weeks, on regular transpacific crossings from Vancouver to Yokohama during the early twenties. The ship was originally built for the Hamburg Amerika Line by Vulcan Shipyard, Stettin, (now Szcecin in Poland), as yard number 333. The hull was launched on December 20, 1913, and named ADMIRAL VON TIRPITZ after the pragmatic officer who had been largely responsible for the creation of the German High Seas Fleet. Her appointments were to be magnificent and she was to begin service in the North Atlantic in late 1914. In February of 1914 her name was changed to TIRPITZ. She would never sail under the Hamburg Amerika flag because of the war. Construction and fitting out continued until August, when all work was halted in favor of war needs. Although the ship was nearly complete, pressures for new submarine construction and ship repair work curtailed further work on the TIRPITZ until very late in the war.

There is an interesting story, not substantiated, concerning the TIRPITZ. Kaiser Wilhelm supposedly chose the TIRPITZ as his reviewing vessel for the anticipated victory cruise after the defeat of the allies. In late 1914, German armies were nearing Paris in the West, and destroying the Russian armies in the east. Victory seemed certain, and for a man as vain as the Kaiser, the TIRPITZ would certainly have been a good choice. If the story is true, it would probably have been at this time, late 1914, that such an optimistic proposal would have been made. However, the offensive in the West ground to a halt and stagnated in the trenches that stretched across the width of Europe. The worsening war situation brought to a halt almost all ship building activity except for U-Boat constraction. Victory, for either side, now seemed remote.

After the Armistice, work resumed in earnest, under allied control. Completed in November, 1919, the ship was turned over to Great Britain on December 1st, as part of German war reparations and was then used as a troop ship under P & O management. The Canadian Pacific purchased the ship in July, 1921, naming her EMPRESS OF CHINA, and began modifications. This included conversion to oil firing, to make her rnore suitable for service in the Pacific. Most of this work was done at Hamburg, with completion work by John Brown & Company, Clydebank. Her interior appointments were very luxurious. Three classes of passenger accommodations were incorporated in the fmal layout. In total, 1,500 passengers could be carried, and in August of 1921 her name was changed to EMPRESS OF AUSTRALIA.

The machinery was unusual, consisting of Fottinger transformer equipment, which replaced the more common gearing, connecting the turbines to the propeller shafts. This arrangement never proved satisfactory and the problems were never resolved until the ship was reengined after her withdrawal from Pacific service years later. She was designed to maintain 17 knots, but because of the machinery, she was hard pressed to make 16. This made it difficult for her to maintain schedules.

Overhaul and refit was completed by June, 1922, and the EMPRESS OF AUSTRALIA sailed from Greenock to the Pacific via Panama. Apart from her troublesome machinery, she appeared to be a fine addition to the Canadian Pacific fleet. Her first voyage across the Pacific went without incident, but her second was aborted by turbine damage. Repairs were effected by Todd Shipyards at Bremerton, Washington, and she resumed her schedule, having only missed one voyage. No other major problems developed in her Pacific service, but her high fuel consumption coupled with her slow speed made her less than satisfactory.

On Saturday, September 1, 1923, at 11:55 a.m. 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. Thgs were about to ease the ship away from the dock when, without warning, the happy scene was transformed into catastrophe. 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. Winds rose to 70 mph. From the city a heavy rumbling sound could be heard as hundreds of buildings collapsed into rubble.

This was the Yokohama earthquake of 1923, one of the worst 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 AUSTRALIA 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 AUSTRALIA was able to carefully move the freighter, the STEEL NAVIGATOR, enough to pull away. When she went forward, her port propeller fouled in the anchor cable of the freighter. Fortunately the liner was now about 60 feet away from the flames, and the winds had shifted, blowing the fires away from the ship.

By 3 p.m. 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 ships boats were lowered and manned by members of the crew and passenger volunteers who formed rescue parties to help those ashore. They worked 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 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 EMPRESS OF CANADA arrived on her regular schedule and was able to provide the AUSTRALIA with more stores, and to take most of the refugees on to KOBE, where the Japanese government had set up a relief center. On Tuesday, the Japanese battleship YAMASHIRO arrived at the harbor. The AUSTRALIA was unable to proceed with her 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. It was found to have suffered no damage. The ship 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 AUSTRALIA reentered the 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 Harbor on September 12, 1923. She then returned to her routine duties, but her services were not forgotten. Captain Robinson received numerous awards in recognition of his actions, including investment with 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 AUSTRALIA was scrapped, the bronze tablet was rescued and presented to Captain Robinson, then aged 82, in a special ceremony in Vancouver.

Back in service, the unorthodox machinery continued to give trouble. In August of 1926 EMPRESS OF AUSTRALIA departed from Hong Kong, after her twenty first and final Pacific voyage, bound for the U.K. She was berthed at Fairfields for conversion to Parsons geared turbines. This refit raised her speed to 18 knots. Interiors were refurbished and she was re-assigned to the North Atlantic. Her first voyage in the new service was on June 25, 1927, running from Southampton to Quebec. She continued on the North Atlantic run until September of 1939, when she became a troopship, serving in this capacity throughout the war without incident. After the war she was retained as a trooper until being sold for scrap in May of 1952, purchased by the British Iron and Steel Corporation and broken up at Inverkiething.

Color scheme - at Yokohama. Hull - black with white riband. Boot topping - green. Upperworks - white. Funnels - buff. Hatch covers - buff. Ventilators - buff - red inside. Boats - white w/buff tovers. Skylights & tops of casings - buff. Masts and derricks - buff.

Alternate color scheme. 1926-1939 Hull - white with blue riband. Other details remained the same.

NOTE: the funnels are not evenly spaced. Why this was done is a mystery. It does give the AUSTRALIA a unique look.

1/700 Scale Drawings

Empress of Australia 1919

This article originally appeared in Plastic Ship Modeler 1996/2 and is reprinted here with the permission of the author and editor.

Copyright © SMML 2003