Empress of Britain bombed at sea

The liner Empress of Britain

A pre war image of the 42,000 ton Canadian Pacific luxury cruise liner Empress of Britain, the fastest ship of her class at the time. She became the largest civilian ship lost in the war when she was bombed on 26th October

At 9.20am on the 26th October a German FW 200 Condor emerged from the clouds and dropped two bombs on the liner Empress of Britain. The liner had been requisitioned in 1939 and was now a troop transport.

As well as the bombing the Empress was subjected to a series of machine gun attacks from the aircraft. Her crew fought back with machine guns mounted on deck and there were relatively few casualties at this stage. However the bombs started large fires which soon crippled the ship. Many crew were trapped below deck by the fires, some forced to escape through portholes into the sea.

George Larkin, a crew member later recalled:

The first I heard was machine gun fire, a moment later a bomb hit the ship. We were trapped and had to go right forward again through black choking smoke and fumes. Two men collapsed through suffocation before we reached safety by climbing to the upper deck

The Liverpool Daily Post carried a full report of the attack on 29th October:

A graphic description of the bombing was given by one of the seamen. It was overcast in the morning, he said, and the German plane came out of low cloud without warning.

It shot down in a deep dive dropping its bombs and raking the deck with machine-gun fire, very soon the vessel was an inferno.

James DEAN of St Andrews St, Edge Hill, Liverpool, said he was below when the bombing started and rushed on deck to see the bomber flying low over the ship. Despite the ruthless machine-gun fire and the raging flames along the whole of the deck, there was no panic. An anti-aircraft gun was put out of action so the ship was unable to reply effectively.

He feared some were trapped below deck, he got away in a lifeboat and was picked up by a rescue vessel. A steward, said, a single enemy plane suddenly came out of the clouds, machine-gunning the decks and the crew as it went. Some bombs dropped wide of the mark and the plane continued to circle the ship before dropping bombs which set the deck ablaze.

“It was like an inferno, although I have been on the ship for a long time and know every exit from the kitchen, I could not find my way out. All the staircases were ablaze, my only means of escape was through a porthole which I scrambled through and flung myself into the sea.”

“The water was icy cold and I kept swimming to prevent myself from becoming frozen. There was a heavy sea and it was impossible to reach the boats against the swell, while, those in the boats were unable to pull to members of the crew any distance away in the water. I and a colleague who followed me through the porthole, were in the water nearly an hour before we were picked up.”

Among the rescue vessels were two warships and three trawlers, who quickly answered the vessels SOS. Another survivor, said, there was no panic, the bombing was over in less than half an hour, occurring at 9.30am and many of the crew were unable to escape for some hours, but, conducted themselves with exemplary coolness and obeyed orders despite the rapid extension of the flames and the bursting of ammunition.

Read the whole of the original Liverpool Daily Post story at Old Mersey Times.

Almost all of the crew and passengers were rescued and the liner, still ablaze, taken in tow by Royal Navy destroyers. She was making slow progress so it was relatively easy for the U-Boat U-32 to reach the position and track her for 24 hours before torpedoing her on the 28th October. U-32 was on her ninth and last patrol, two days later she was herself sunk by depth charges by the destroyers HMS Harvester and HMS Highlander.

Oberleutnant Bernhard Jope (centre). At around 9:20am on 26 October 1940, travelling about 70 miles northwest of Ireland along the west coast, Empress of Britain was spotted by a German Focke-Wulf C 200 Condor long-range bomber, commanded by Oberleutnant Bernhard Jope. Jope’s bomber strafed Empress of Britain three times and hit her twice with 250 kg bombs.

Oberleutnant Bernhard Jope (centre).
At around 9:20am on 26 October 1940, travelling about 70 miles northwest of Ireland along the west coast, Empress of Britain was spotted by a German Focke-Wulf C 200 Condor long-range bomber, commanded by Oberleutnant Bernhard Jope. Jope’s bomber strafed Empress of Britain three times and hit her twice with 250 kg bombs.

Attack on the transport Empress of Britain 42,000 Gross Register Tons. Front Line Intelligence Newssheet of the Luftwaffe No. 26, Sheet 213

Attack on the transport Empress of Britain 42,000 Gross Register Tons. Front Line Intelligence Newssheet of the Luftwaffe No. 26, Sheet 213

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