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The Three Princes: Navy, Part 38


HMCS Prince Robert, April 1941.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, turned a European conflict into a global war. Once again the British Columbia coastline was largely undefended, and the province’s citizens clamoured for action. In early 1942, Japanese citizens were stripped of their possessions and removed from the Pacific coast to internment camps, while a massive expansion of the Royal Canadian Air Force was planned to secure the west coast from Japanese aerial assault. As one British official observed ruefully of the Canadian request for scores of aircraft for home defence, “Vancouver is fighting with its back to the wall!”

The naval establishment on the west coast had been tiny since the war began in September 1939, but it had not been idle. The dispatch of the River class destroyers to the east coast and the war in 1939 left B.C. essentially defenceless. The Canadian government purchase of three small west coast liners for conversion to Armed Merchant Cruisers (AMCs) was intended in part to address this problem. All were designed as small luxury liners to compete with the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Princess ships on the west coast, linking Vancouver and Victoria with Seattle and cruising north to Alaskan waters. The three ships were all basically similar, 385 feet in length, capable of 22 knots, and built at considerable expense for the Canadian National Railway in Birkenhead, England in 1929-30. All were given “Prince” names honouring presidents (past and present) of the CNR: Prince Henry, Prince David and Prince Robert. Their arrival in B.C. just as the Depression hit meant that the Princes were not the financial success that the current president of CNR, Sir Henry Thornton, had hoped. As historian Fraser McKee noted, the combination of the Depression and “criticism of their cost contributed directly to Sir Henry’s resignation in 1932.”

But Sir Henry’s namesake steamed on as she and her siblings travelled far and wide in the 1930s to earn their keep. This included extensive cruises along the Atlantic seaboard and in the Caribbean, cruises to South America and Hawaii, as well as the Seattle and Alaskan routes. In 1938, the CNR cut some of its losses by chartering Prince Henry to Montreal’s Clarke Steamship Company for its St. Lawrence-Maritime-West Indies route. The ship was renamed North Star. The Royal Canadian Navy had its eye on these small liners as potential Armed Merchant Cruisers from the outset, and by late 1939, it was making plans to acquire them.

In March 1940, the vessels were purchased outright from CNR: $700,000 for Prince David and Prince Robert, and $800,000 for Prince Henry. Contracts were let to convert David and Henry—at 5,700 tons slightly larger than their sibling—on the east coast, with the intent that they would serve in the Atlantic. The 5,600-ton Prince Robert was converted in Vancouver and was to be retained on the west coast for duty.

All three underwent substantial conversion. Their upper decks were stripped away and a light cruiser superstructure with a proper naval bridge was built. Decks were strengthened to carry guns and some small internal subdivision added. Large below-decks accommodation and cargo spaces remained, as did the wide-open engine room spaces. These made the ships vulnerable to damage and, as McKee notes, “A torpedo in their forward holds or in the large undivided engine rooms would probably have been disastrous.” Their armament was powerful, but rather antiquated. The six-inch guns provided by the Admiralty were 45 years old, slow, and came with no fire-control equipment. These were mounted on the centre line of the ships, two forward and two aft. Two more modern three-inch guns, some machine-guns and two depth charge chutes completed the armament. The result was a class of vessels similar in armament to the River class destroyers then in service, but with a much greater range and better sea keeping.


HMCS Prince Henry, June 1942.

Work was also done to trunk the three funnels into two larger ones, giving them in McKee’s words, “a rather more handsome and belligerent appearance,” resembling a British Hawkins class cruiser. That appearance probably saved Prince David in the spring of 1941 during an Atlantic patrol, when the heavy mast and upper works of a major warship loomed over the horizon in the morning gloom. Captain W.B. Armit, Royal Canadian Naval Reserve, immediately summoned his executive officer to the bridge to ask what he thought they should do. The Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve commander is reputed to have answered, “I don’t know what you’re going to do, but I’m going aft to my action station, because the first place they are going to fire at is this bridge!” Armit turned Prince David away at her best speed, while the unknown warship did the same. It was later heard from neutral American reports that a German pocket battleship had narrowly avoided contact with a British eight-inch gun cruiser.

The life of AMCs on the west coast was less dangerous through 1940 and 1941, but no less eventful. Prince Robert commissioned on July 31, 1940, at Vancouver with Commander T.C. Beard, RCN, as her captain. Work continued on her over the summer while the RCN and the Royal Navy discussed her employment. The RCN wanted to keep Prince Robert home, guarding the shores of B.C. The British wanted her to join a small squadron of cruisers and AMCs watching a number of German merchant vessels lying in ports along the coast of Latin America. These posed the only serious threat to shipping in B.C. waters. Naval Service Headquarters agreed. “It is greatly in our interests in Canada,” Percy Nelles, the Chief of the Naval Staff, wrote to his minister on Sept. 7, 1940, “to have the White Ensign shown in Central and South American waters.” As Nelles explained, it was conceivable that the German vessels might arm themselves to raid shipping or act in support of other German raiders. Either way, it was better to go after them than to wait.

Prince Robert’s initial target was, therefore, the 9,000-ton freighter Weser lying at Manzanillo on Mexico’s west coast. Weser was known to be making preparations to depart, and so on Sept. 7, 1940, Prince Robert was ordered south to watch for her escape. Ongoing work, including the need to fire her guns for the first time, which constituted her entire shakedown cruise, delayed Prince Robert’s departure until the early hours of Sept. 12. But Weser was still in harbour when she arrived. So, over the next week Beard kept Prince Robert just beyond the horizon in daylight and then slipped inshore at night to watch the harbour entrance. The strategy worked. In the early hours of Sept. 25, Prince Robert’s lookouts reported a suspicious ship clearing the breakwater. Beard moved his AMC in behind the target and the harbour entrance, so Weser could not re-enter, and then waited until they were both in international waters. Prince Robert’s gunners then burst a star shell over Weser. Next, a searchlight was trained on the ship and she was ordered to heave-to. Weser immediately complied, while Beard made it clear via megaphone “that all guns were bearing on her and that I would not hesitate to open fire if she gave me cause.” Meanwhile, Lieutenant-Commander G.B. Hope and a boarding party especially trained for this moment, cleared away in a boat. According to the RCN’s recent official history, “taken by surprise, the German crew proved co-operative and the boarding party was able to secure the ship with little difficulty.”

Weser carried little to offer a merchant raider other than coke and peat moss. However, her capture—the RCN’s first-ever solo capture at sea (the German ship Hanover was captured in the Caribbean by Assiniboine and HMS Dunedin in March 1940)—was a considerable public relations coup for Canada and its navy. Weser was commissioned into the merchant fleet as Vancouver Island and made several crossings of the Atlantic before being sunk—ironically—by a U-boat in October 1941.

In early 1941, Prince Robert was joined in the Pacific by Prince Henry, commanded by R.I. Agnew, RCN. She had been working up off Bermuda when she was ordered through the Panama Canal to reinforce forces in the eastern Pacific. Of particular interest now were the four large German merchant ships lying at Callao, Peru: München, Hermonthis, Leipzig and Monserrate. Prince Henry patrolled off Peru with the British cruiser Diomede through February and early March, before Diomede was called away. On March 24, Prince Henry entered Callao harbour ostensibly to fuel, but in reality to size up her prey, dropping anchor a mere kilometre from the German ships. It was then that Agnew learned of their plans to escape to Japan, of the scuttling charges that were to destroy the ships if they were intercepted and of other preparations, including the cleaning of their bottoms to ensure the highest possible speed. Agnew estimated that they could make “11 knots speed in a breakaway.”

After Prince Henry’s officers made the rounds of the harbour gleaning information, Agnew took his ship back out to sea and soon slipped over the horizon, hoping to convince the German skippers that she had gone home. Instead, Prince Henry lay in wait within striking distance and received word on the evening of March 31, 1941, from British officers in Callao that Hermonthis and München had cleared the harbour: the chase was on.

Captain W.B. Armit, January 1941. [PHOTO: V.J. FLOWERS, DND/LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA104531]

Captain W.B. Armit, January 1941.

Prince Henry was 70 miles south of Callao when the news arrived, and immediately made steam for 18 knots—a little short of her 22-knot best, but sufficient to intercept the much slower German vessels. This time, however, there would be no surprise. München was spotted a half hour before dawn on April 1 at a distance of 15 miles, and she altered course away as Prince Henry closed. The Canadian warship fired one round ahead of München at 0700 hours at a range of 12,000 yards in an attempt to stop her. It was unclear where the round actually landed, but within minutes München was billowing smoke. As the German crew took to their boats, fire leapt from her hatches. When Prince Henry passed within a kilometre of her at 0730 there was little to be done. Neither München nor her crew, now safe in their boats, were going anywhere. So Agnew steamed on in search of Hermonthis.

The second German ship was sighted at 1225 hours. She, too, was soon on fire, with her crew piling into boats. Agnew was nonetheless determined to salvage this prize, and ordered some of the German crew back aboard and sent his own fire fighting crew onto Hermonthis. As they began to battle the blaze, Agnew laid Prince Henry alongside, using between eight and 12 fire hoses on Hermonthis at a time from his own deck. Meanwhile, the two ships bumped and battered against one another in the swell, chewing up Prince Henry’s spare line, fenders and fire hoses. It was all to no avail. By late afternoon, Prince Robert had used up her spare hoses and Hermonthis continued to burn. Accepting the inevitable, Agnew cast off to collect the remaining German crew, who had set sail for Peru, before returning to sink Hermonthis by gunfire. A search for München and her crew ended when the Peruvian cruiser Almirante Grau signalled that she had sunk the burning wreck and recovered the survivors.

Prince Henry resumed her patrols off Peru for three more weeks before heading to Esquimalt to land her prisoners and resupply: a testament to the tremendous range and staying power of the Prince ships. She resumed Pacific patrols over the summer of 1941 before returning to the Atlantic where she was supposed to pair up with Prince David to hunt German raiders. But Prince David was scheduled for a refit and in September Prince Henry was assigned to the inglorious duty of depot ship for Newfoundland Escort Force.

The RCN’s only major presence in the Pacific as war clouds gathered there in late 1941 was, therefore, Prince Robert. She spent three months in the spring and summer assigned to the New Zealand Station patrolling the south Pacific. After her departure from Auckland, New Zealand, at the end of July, she paid a call to remote Easter Island before arriving home in Esquimalt on Aug. 24. Following a refit in September and October, she crossed the Pacific again as escort to the troopship Awatea carrying Canada’s ill-fated garrison to Hong Kong. With the transport full to capacity, Prince Robert hosted 109 officers and men of the Royal Rifles of Canada for the Pacific passage.

Prince Robert’s return trip from Hong Kong took her to the great American Pacific base of Pearl Harbor for a brief layover. She sailed for Canada on Dec. 4 and was north of Hawaii three days later when a signal advised that Canada was now at war with Japan. The same signal noted that the U.S. Army transport Cynthia Olson had sent a distress call from a position only 150 miles away. She searched the area for three hours and found nothing: the Japanese submarine I 26 had sunk the transport with all hands. As the RCN’s official history observed, “RCN operations in the Pacific [now] concentrated on defence of the west coast.”

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