I WAS DELIGHTED to read the articles by Andrew Bell concerning the RMS Empress of Russia in the June and July issues of Sea Breezes.
She was one of four ships that I had travelled in as a child prior to, during and soon after WW2. The other three vessels could well fit into the same category of ‘Ships We Forget to Remember’. Before reading the articles I had limited success in obtaining much information or a worthwhile photograph of the ship.
In 1938 my mother and I sailed from Liverpool to Port Said in ss California of the Anchor Line. We were joining my father in Cairo where he had been posted for a three year term. WW2 and Hitler’s North Africa ambitions soon impacted on Egypt and our stay there. In June 1941, when the German Army was less than 70 miles from Cairo, my father managed to secure berths aboard the Empress of Russia for my mother, sister and myself for the voyage from Suez to Durban with other passengers and 1,500 Italian POWs. I understand our voyage was uneventful unlike that of the following passenger ship that was bombed and set on fire.
My father was able to join us in South Africa in mid 1942. He flew to Durban in a BOAC Flying Boat with the journey taking four days. Each leg was covered in daylight and nights were spent ashore after landing on a convenient lake. In September 1943, my father was posted to Melbourne, Australia and this voyage was aboard ss Themistocles of the Shaw, Savill & Albion Line. This passage had its moments which included outrunning an axis submarine – I do not know whether it was German or Italian. The happily unsuccessful chase lasted four days and must have been very harrowing for my parents having three young children in tow.
The next bit of excitement occurred when the ship was well down into the Southern Ocean and hit a whale broadside on to the stem. The carcass remained stuck across the bow for several days. This was followed by an albatross landing on the deck and quickly becoming sea sick and unable to take off again. Eventually and protected by thick working gloves, one of the 11 passengers who was a Norwegian shipmaster, managed to keep a hold of the very grumpy bird and successfully launched it into flight over the ship’s side. That passage from Durban to Fremantle took 18 days. Little wonder the stokers took full advantage of the bars in Fremantle after arrival and delayed our sailing for Adelaide.
In 1946 we were able to return to Britain aboard the mv Stirling Castle. She was returning to the UK for a complete refit from troopship back to Union Castle passenger ship. During that voyage from Melbourne to Southampton she provided children with a wonderful adventure playground.
K A MACKENZIE