Seventy-four years ago yesterday, on October 26, 1940, the Canadian ocean liner Empress of Britain, which was then in military service as a troop transport, was spotted by a German bomber off the coast of Donegal, Ireland. The plane came in for an attack, strafing the ship several times and dropping two large bombs. The explosions started a fire aboard the vessel which soon got out of control. Only half an hour after the plane attack, the captain, Charles Sapsworth, ordered the passengers and crew to abandon ship. Despite the raging fire, most of them were evacuated safely. Sapsworth left a skeleton crew aboard in the hopes that the fire could be controlled and the vessel salvaged.
Although a blazing wreck, the Empress of Britain was slow to die. She had stopped sinking and indeed was still afloat, although smoking heavily and listing, 24 hours after the attack. By now a few British ships had come to the rescue and they tried towing the Empress. She was a valuable ship in both peace and war. At 42,000 tons and 720 feet long, she was a bit smaller than the Titanic and would have been able to carry thousands of troops each voyage to any theater of war. Alas, she was the victim of bad luck. While the tow operation was underway a German submarine came along and fired three torpedoes into her hull. At 2:05 AM on October 28, the Empress of Britain sank beneath the waves. She was the largest passenger liner lost in World War II.
In peacetime, the Empress had been a beautiful ship. Entering service in 1931, she was the largest liner owned and run by Canadians, and routinely made the transatlantic run from Halifax to England as well as special cruises. On one such cruise King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) were passengers. Her last peacetime voyage, which began the day after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, was a harrowing one. War was declared while the Empress was at sea, and she had to zigzag furiously to avoid U-boats that were suddenly on the prowl for any British ship. She made it safely to Quebec, then was requisitioned into military service, although she still carried some civilian passengers.
The Empress of Britain was the largest and most luxurious passenger liner owned by Canadians. Here is the first class lounge, as it appeared in the early 1930s.
She may also have been carrying something else. After the war reports circulated that the Empress of Britain was carrying a huge cache of gold bullion. The voyage which ended in disaster had begun in South Africa, where gold mines were busy trying to finance the British war effort. British gold was typically sold to Americans; the US was not yet at war. South African gold usually went across the Pacific which was much safer–the British were not yet at war with Japan–but it was possible that due to delays gold was shipped directly from South Africa to England, then to be re-loaded on another ship for the perilous journey across to the New World. Sketchy reports went out in the press in 1949 suggesting that the wreck of the Empress of Britain had been found and salvage operations were underway to recover the gold thought to be still aboard her. However, no one seemed to know for sure.
The mystery lingered. Then, in 1995, another salvage team found (or rediscovered) the ship. They reported that the Empress of Britain was intact, but upside-down, about 500 feet down. Diving into the wreck, the salvors discovered that most of the decks and bulkheads inside the ship had collapsed, leaving her a huge empty hull. The bullion room, however, was still intact. With mounting anticipation the divers cracked it open. They found no gold–but they did find a human skeleton.
Once these are deposited on the ocean floor 500 feet down, they’re pretty hard to recover–and even harder to keep secret.
What happened to the Empress of Britain’s gold? Was it ever there in the first place? Strangely, it’s impossible to tell for sure. If the ship was carrying gold bullion, Captain Sapsworth would surely have given orders to the skeleton crew he left aboard to salvage it. Unless the fire made the bullion room impossible to access, why would he have left it there? Personally I find it difficult to believe that a salvage operation went on in 1949, recovering the gold, with so little word about it leaking to the public. It’s also possible, however, that some gold was taken off on October 27, the day the skeleton crew was aboard, but they didn’t get all of it, and the British government came back for the rest after the war was over. I tend to think not, but it’s at least possible.
The eeriest part of the mystery is the skeleton found in the bullion room. Who was it? Maybe it was a crew member, killed in the attempt to remove the gold as the ship was burning on October 27, 1940. If there was a salvage operation in 1949 or some other time, it might have been someone on the salvage team who got unlucky, but again I think this unlikely. Probably the person whose life ended there was a casualty of war, like millions during World War II. So too was the Empress of Canada herself, whose empty hull remains on the seafloor off Ireland, still holding on to the solution of the historical mystery that eludes easy resolution.