SOME HISTORY OF THE EMPRESS OF AUSTRALIA
In September 1, 1923 with Captain Robinson in command she just was putting to sea at Yokohama an earthquake struck the port. The pier was shattered by the quake and she was swirled through the harbour. Brought under control she lowered boats to rescue those seeing her off who had been pitched into the water. Burning fuel began to spread across the water as her screws became entangled in anchor chains of STEEL NAVIGATOR lying astern of her. Unable to maneuver she collided with a Japanese freighter LYONS MARU twice, then began drifting toward a burning oil field with over 2,000 people aboard. Gale force winds prevented her from getting her head around, again she had no room to maneuver. Her SOS was answered by a Dutch tanker IRIS which was anchored outside the harbour. Despite her flammable cargo, at great risk IRIS hove to and made fast to the EMPRESS. IRIS pulled the EMPRESS's bow around so she was able to steam out through the smashed breakwater. Once outside she anchored, meanwhile her boats were bring survivors out to her. She remained in place for a week acting as a hospital ship. Her efforts contributed to the saving of 3,000 lives and she earned her undying gratitude in Japan. Underwriter in London distributed 2,152 pounds among the crew as reward.
Following the dramatic role she returned to service but in 1926 Candian Pacific were forced to deal with herpoor performance and chose to re-engine and re-boiler the ship. After 20 voyages across the Pacific, she sailed to Govan Fairfield at Govan arriving September 9, 1926. The vastly complex work was made more difficult by her divided uptakes offeringno central space to remove machinery. Old boilder were sliced up and removed in pieces, the whole job lasted many months and cost over half a million pounds. When it was completed she was virtually a new ship. Now driven by Parsons turbines with sixdouble-ended boilers. On trials the ship made 20.34 knots and required 50 tons a day less oil.
It was decided to place her on Atlantic service and she sailed from Southampton for Quebec on her First voyage June 25, 1927 with the Prince of Wales aboard for Diamond Jubillee celebrations in Canada. She was now in service with EMPRESSES OF SCOTAND and FRANCE.In 1928 she began to cruise in the off season and to sail on round the world voyages. After the EMPRESS OF FRANCE was withdrawn from the service AUSTRALIA and SCOTLANDcarried on a two ship service with white hulls with dark blue riband and green boottopping.
In 1938 she went to Harland & Wolff at Southampton for an overhaul returning for the 1939 season, but after only three cruisesshe was selected to act as the Royal Yacht to take King George VI and the Queen to Canada. She sailed from Portsmouth May 6, 1939and arrived two days late in Quebec due to dense fog. She continued on the Quebec run until the outbreak of War whereupon she became a troopship.It was in this role that she would remain for the next 13 years. EMPRESS OF AUSTRALIA worked world wide in trooping in every theatre of war. In 1946 while anchoring off Liverpool her anchor tangled with that of a cargo liner DEBRETT, the two ships collided and seven tugs were needed to separate them. In December of 1946 she was altered for peace-time trooping, offering better accommodations, however she was never repainted from the wartime grey. She continiued to carry troops up to another overhaul in Liverpool in 1951. The following year after her 70th trooping voyage she was sold. Bought for scrap, she sailed from the Mersey to Inverkeithing, May 8, 1952.
Sources: GREAT PASSENGER SHIPS OF THE WORLD, Volume 2; Arnold Kludas, Steamers of the Past; J.H. Isherwood
SUEZ CANAL SIDEBAREncyclopedia of the Orient
Information accredited to: Artificial waterway in Egypt connecting the Mediterranean Sea to Gulf of Suez and then to the Red Sea. The canal is 163 km long, and its width varies, and 60 metres at its narrowest. Along most of the length, there is only one lane for traffic available, though there are a handful of passing bays.
Transmits yellow fever and dengue, a rapidly spreading viral disease that causes excruciating joint and muscle pain (it’s dubbed "breakbone fever") that can, in some forms, progress to a deadly hemorrhagic syndrome.
Distribution: Tropical and subtropical regions across the globe.
Breeding habitat: Water-containing trash and water storage vessels.
Feeding: Like Anopheles gambiae, it strongly prefers human hosts.
Diseases: Also transmits Chikungunya and Sindbis viruses, both of which cause severe fever, rash, and arthritic pain.
Buster Sisley & Jack Horton enjoying our first Monsoon. Sek Kong Camp Kowloon Hong Kong 1949
Bill with Pensioner Sgt Walsh in 2002. Sgt Walsh aided the KSLI troops to re-erect their monsoon deluged tents.
The Battalion had now arrived at the docks ready to board the troopship ‘The Empress of Australia’. The ship was quite an enormous big thing, but old, very old. We were led to believe that this was to be it’s last voyage and that it was in fact on it’s way to the scrap yard. Not very encouraging for a young fellow like me who had never been on such a vessel before? I was not very good at geography but I knew that we had to sail across some pretty vast expanses of ocean, and although I was a pretty competentswimmer I did not relish the thought of being dumped into something like the Indian Ocean. Pretty negative thoughts you might think, but I was only a young lad going out on an experience of a lifetime. The average sort of travel in those days for most people of my age was limited to rides on trains and buses. Times have changed, and today’s traveller seldom even sees a ship let alone goes aboard one.
We were ushered up the gang plank, and led up and down corridors, up and down flights of stairs and eventually arriving in what they called the ‘mess deck’, It was just a very great big room with huge long wooden tables and benches all of course firmly fixed to the floor. This we were told was where we would eat and sleep for the length of the voyage. Sleep! Where were the beds we wanted to know? No beds on this ship we were told. We would each be issued with a blanket and a hammock, which we could suspend from hooks located above the mess tables. Great, we thought, this is going to be interesting.
It did not seem long before the boarding was complete and the time had come to set sail. You couldn’t believe it but some guys were actually leaning over the ships side being seasick and at this stage the mooring lines had not even been dis-connected. What the hell was it going to be like once we actually got out to sea?
The anchor was lifted the mooring ropes taken away, even more guys leaning over the side depositing their breakfast, and we were off. It seemed ever so slow at first, but then it was a bloody great big ship to manoeuvre But once we were headed for the open sea it seemed to hurtle along.
I had laughed at the guys being sea sick, but I wished I hadn’t, because once we hit the Bay of Biscay I couldn’t believe that such a big ship could be tossed around so much, and my stomach started to churn, and I knew my turn was coming shortly. I had one false tooth, which I promptly took out and put, in a safe place in my pocket. There was a special reason for this as I remembered when I had been given my first false tooth by an Army Dentist whilst at the School of Music, and had gone out for a night on the beer, made myself sick through over indulgence and lost said tooth down the bog! The result of which I was actually put on a charge for losing Army Property! I had managed to convince the C.O. By Lying that my sickness was not due to drinking, and luckily got away with it, with no threat to the Long Service Medal. Anyway it wasn’t going to happen again.
We all soon got over the initial bouts of sea sickness and started to explore the ship to find out where everything was, but there was not much really to find. The ‘Galley’ was at the end of the mess deck where we all had to queue up to get our meals. The meals were all right I suppose but being cramped down below decks, and with very little fresh air, it seemed that the smell of the food was not quite right somehow. Or was it the fact that the smell of seasickness was mingling with that of bacon and egg, or stew? We will never really know the answer, but even now some many years later, I’ll swear I can still smell that terrible aroma.
We were soon well out to sea and it was time for our first nights sleep aboard. All over the mess deck were soldiers slinging their hammocks on the hooks provided. That was easy. Then you should have seen the antics of them trying to get into the damned things. People were swinging up into them from one side and promptly shooting out of the other side. There were bodies all over the place, cursing and swearing, rubbing the bruises that were being caused by crashing on to the tables and benches, and some bouncing off those on to the deck itself.
We soon realised that sleep was going to be impossible unless we slept on the tables or on the floor, which, with only one blanket and the canvas hammock was not very comfortable nor conducive to a good nights sleep. The smell of so many sweaty bodies didn’t help much either, there must have been at least a hundred and fifty of us on each mess deck, and that’s a lot of smelly sweat I can tell you.
Early morning arrived, most of us up at about five thirty just to get away from the smell. The galley was already open for early morning tea and biscuits which we took with us to the upper decks where we could enjoy a breath of fresh air, and it was fresh, as now we were heading out into the Atlantic Ocean. Never mind, it wouldn’t be long before we got a bit closer to the equator and the warmer weather.
There were still lots of bodies hanging over the side and it didn’t take us long to make sure we were not down wind from them. In fact you could often hear voices shouting things like "Piss off down the back end of the ship" or "why don’t you jump overboard" all this and we hadn’t been at sea for twenty-four hours yet.
We were all kept fairly busy each day with our military duties, and we in particular as bandsmen doing first aid and stretcher bearing training. We also had to give band concerts out on the open decks, and the dance band provided regular evening entertainment in the bars and recreation rooms.
It didn’t seem long before we hit the warmer weather, and we were instructed to change into our Jungle green uniforms. What a sight we were, everyone had to wear the uniforms exactly as issued, and in my case that really was a laugh.
The shorts were much too long and in fact came down well below my knees. We had to wear ‘Hose Tops’ which were just long socks without the feet, and either gaiters or puttees, and our boots of course. When I put this combination on you could only see about an inch or so of my legs, and I really took some ribbing from my mates who wanted to know what had happened to my legs. The jackets were not so bad because we were allowed during the day to roll the sleeves up, and in the evening the sleeves were rolled down and it was quite permissible to move the buttons so that they didn’t slip right down and cover your hands.
Our first port of call was ‘Port Said’, and we were able to go ashore for a few hours, which was very interesting, but we had to be very careful as there were more thieves crooks and pick pockets per square foot than anywhere else in the whole world, well that is up till now anyway.
Some of the lads were conned out of their pocket money by tricksters with a wide variety of devious methods of downright robbery, but it was surprising how quickly we learned to look after ourselves and our personal belong
Those couple of hours ashore were very refreshing and it was nice to have your feet on dry land again even though it was only for a short time. Back on board heads were counted, roll calls made over and over to make sure nobody had been left behind. But there were still a few hours before it was time to set sail again which gave the natives time to come alongside in what were commonly known as ‘Bum Boats’ from which they tried to sell their wares by throwing up a rope with a basket attached to the end and this was used to haul up the goods for inspection and if purchased, take the money back down. There were now crooks on both ends of the rope, because some of the lads who had been duped whilst ashore decided they would get their own back by taking goods from the traders and not sending the correct amount of money back down with the basket, in a few cases no money at all. This they did from the safety of the ship knowing that there could be no form of retaliation. The language and abuse that came from below was quite educational. Those guys used swearwords that I had never heard before and plenty of them too.
Once again the anchor was lifted and we were on our way again, this time painfully slowly on our way through the Suez Canal. It was really amazing just how narrow the canal was and how such a massive great ship could navigate down there without grounding. The sides of the canal seemed to be almost within touching distance and the Arabs walking along the roadside could be seen quite clearly. There were a big gang of them shouting at us, we couldn’t understand what they were saying so most of the lads just shouted back at them with a few choice phrases.
The Arabs then lifted their loincloths and started to display their man hoods, shaking them about presumably for the benefit of some pretty young nurses who were standing on the upper decks. Our lads responded verbally with some pretty choice phrases and threats of what they would do to the wares being displayed by these dirty blighters if only they could get off the ship and reach them. I don’t think the nurses were too upset; they probably enjoyed the support they received from our lads, and just treated the incident with the disgust that it deserved.
We carried on up the Canal the ship being really steady at this slow speed much to the delight of those who had suffered so much with seasickness. We eventually came out into the Red Sea and could not believe how big it was, and how calm. The water seemed to have no ripples at all only in the wake of the ship. Now it was beginning to get really hot, and we were allowed to strip to the waist but warned that if we got sun burn it would be treated as self inflicted wounds and we could therefore be subject to military discipline so we naturally took heed of this warning.
Suez Canal, Birds' Eye View. PD 19th century image. Scanned from engraving in "Appleton's Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art", 1869.
Just imagine, lying out in the sun too long could deprive you of your entitlement to the Long Service Medal! Out of the Red Sea and we were on our way across the Indian Ocean to our next Port of call, Colombo. I can’t think of anything worse that ever happened to me ever again since that crossing, that is except when I was to cross it again twice more later on in my service. The sea was so rough, and practically everyone was sea sick, and violently so.
This time though it was not possible to hang over the side of the ship because the sea was so rough, if you were on the starboard side when it lurched to that side it went over to such a degree that all you could see was water, and when it lurched back the other way to the port side, all you could see was the sky. And in addition to that, first of all the bows of the ship would be thrown up out of the water and then come crashing down again with an almighty thud, then the stern would be thrown up, the propellers shaking the ship as they came out of the water. We all thought the end of the world was on its way, but we survived, then after recovery laughed.
That was certainly an experience never to be forgotten, and I in particular am so glad I didn’t decide to join the Royal Navy. The current day soldiers should think themselves very lucky that are now are transported everywhere mainly by aeroplane, they might of course get airsick, but that wouldn’t last very long. Being kept busy with our military training whilst on board certainly helped the time to appear to fly by, for although it was a five week long voyage, it seemed to pass by very quickly.
We now were approaching Hong Kong, and we were all up on deck watching for the coastline to appear. We were told that there had been some pretty severe weather there, and the tail end of a typhoon had hit the island apparently blowing down all the tents that had been erected for us by the members of the Middlesex Regiment who were stationed not far from where our camp was to be. It was decided that we would have to stay on board for the rest of that day and night whilst our tents were re-erected.
I bet the Middlesex lads really loved that. It would not have been an easy job, with all the canvasses soaked through, and working in a really muddy situation. But they did it, fine bunch of chaps, and it was not long before we were disembarked and loaded onto trucks on our way out to the ‘New Territories’ area of Kowloon, the mainland part of Hong Kong.
It was a nice feeling being on dry land again, no more sea sickness, and now a whole new experience, looking out on the new type of landscape, watching the local people going about their business, trying to imagine what our new home was going to be like.We soon found out. It didn’t take us very long to reach our destination, and what a sight to greet us! It seemed an enormous flat barren area surrounded by great big hills, barren that is except for the rows and rows of tents, covered in mud and still obviously very very wet. And we had thought that living in old Nissen huts twenty to a room had been basic! Well you couldn’t get much more basic than what was presented to us now. They were not big tents, just big enough to house eight men at a squeeze. Iron beds were placed on concrete slabs, four on each side of the tent with about two feet in between each bed. Not much room for manoeuvre, and very little space to put your kit. In fact all we had was just a wooden box at the foot of the bed.
Mosquito nets were provided, this was to be a novelty, trying to keep out those mosquitoes, which at this stage were an unknown quantity to us, as we had not seen one yet. We had been warned that they would bite and that it was possible to catch malaria from them, and to this end we had been started on a course of treatment in the form of anti malaria tablets some two weeks before actually arriving in Hong Kong. We didn’t know what to expect, were they little things, big things, or bloody great monsters? None of us could ever remember being taught about them at school, so we were totally ignorant at this stage. But it was not long before we found out. They seemed to creep in beside you without making the slightest sound, wait until you were well tucked in and just dozing off, then they would dive down on you like some sort of Kamikaze insect, the only difference being that they didn’t die on landing. No fear they would start taking great bites at you, and in the darkness you were left flailing your arms about like a demented lunatic trying to stop them.
Another thing that we had not given thought to was the lighting system. There was no electricity supply to the tents so we were issued with one oil lamp for each tent. Not much light really to be shared between eight of us, so we imagined that there was not a lot that could be done at night. The first night in camp seemed to arrive very quickly, because we had been so busy getting ourselves settled in. We were all looking round for these mosquitoes that we had been told to expect, and made our beds ‘mossie proof’ with our new nets. Well we thought they were new but soon found out that some of them were old and had holes in them much to the delight of the ‘mossies’.
Because of the bad light and the fact we needed a drink some of us went in search of the N.A.A.F.I. canteen which we found was situated fairly central in the camp, and it was a large Nissen hut staffed by a canteen manager and several Chinese staff. We soon found out that this was the place to be in the evenings. The beer was mainly locally brewed and it appeared to be quite strong judging by the state some of the lads got into in a very short space of time. The end of the first evening came very quickly and we were on our way back to our tents, stumbling over the rough ground, which was so new to us. It was dark and one of the lads fell straight down into one of the monsoon drains that ran through the camp. It was about four or five foot deep and still had plenty of water in it after the recent typhoon. We of course all thought this was very funny at the time.
All we could hear was this chap cursing and swearing, shouting for help and splashing about in the water, and very muddy water at that. We got him out, he was in one hell of a state and it was then that we realised it could have been quite serious, had he been really drunk and on his own, he might not have been able to get out unaided. We took this as a lesson and made sure we all knew the exact location of these drains for the future. We eventually found our tent and of course there was no light. Someone fumbled for matches to light the oil lamp and no sooner had this been done it had to be put out again because the bugle was now sounding ‘Lights out’. Everyone made a dash to get into bed quickly making sure the edges of the mosquito nets were firmly tucked in. We were all tired or well influenced by the new type of beer that we had just sampled so sleep came fairly easily, that is until someone shouted out "there’s a bloody mossie buzzing round inside my net". "Kill the damned thing then quick before it bites" came advice from one of the other lads. "Don’t talk so daft" came the reply, "I can’t see the bloody thing, I can only hear it buzzing".
"Then wait till it bites you then you’ll know where it is then belt it one and get to sleep." This sort of banterwent on for some time but eventually the chap with the intruder shouted out "I’ve got him, I’ve got the little swine". "Good, now lets get some sleep then". Everything went quiet and it wasn’t long before everyone was flat out. It seemed that we had only just gone to sleep and the damned bugler started playing ‘Reveille’ and the orderly Sergeant was stomping up and down the rows of tents banging his stick on the canvass and bellowing out "Wakey Wakey rise and shine, come on you lazy sods get out of those flea pits, muster parade in half an hour" "Hell sarge we’ve only just got to bed" someone dared to say. "I said out of it, Now, or do you want me to come and throw you out"?
Nobody was prepared to argue, so out we got, feet on the cold paving slabs made everyone jump a little bit, as we had always been used to at least a wooden floor, and in our most palatial of barracks, we even had a little bedside mat. Someone said, "don’t forget the creepy crawlies" and that caused everyone to start banging their boots onthe floor to see if anything had crept in them during the night, although I couldn’t see any living creature surviving in some of those boots which smelled bloody awful to say the least. That little performance over left everyone getting dressed as quickly as possible to make a dash for the wash rooms which were just as basic as the ones we used to have back home in mount camp. A few wash bowls and some showers that could only produce cold water, and even though we were in a warm climate that water felt like ice at that time in the morning. The latrines, (toilets) were just as basic, a set of cubicles with doors, no locks, and loo paper that was smooth and stiff. There was a six inch gap at the bottom of the door and a pair of boots showing enabled you to see if it was occupied or not.
All washed and shaved, we were ready for the first parade of the day, muster parade, where a head countwas taken to make sure nobody had fled during the night. We were also given anti malaria tablets, which had to be taken there and then in the presence of the officer taking the parade. We had already been told whilst on board ship that it could be a punishable offence if any one caught malaria as a result of not taking these tablets. This prompted the guy who had been doing battle with the ‘mossies’ during the night to ask straight away if he could report on ‘sick parade’ (military jargon for going to see the Doctor) as he was covered in mosquito bites. They only seemed to be little red blotches, but as there so many of them he was complaining of being really uncomfortable. He didn’t look a pretty sight and it made the rest of us very sure that we were not going to allow ourselves to get bitten like that.
The Roll call over we were then set for our first complete days work in our new environment. We had of course never had to put up tents before, so one of our first tasks was to take our tents down and then re-erect them several times in the quickest time possible. Well. if you could see some of the antics that ensued you would have thought you were watching an episode from Dad’s Army. There were bodies scattered all over the place as some tried to hold the main centre poles in place whilst others were trying desperately to put in the tent pegs in the right place for the guy ropes to be attached. We did however soon get the hang of it and soon became proficient enough to put up four man tents using only three pairs of hands, and much larger marquees with a minimum of five men.
It really was quite simple when working as a team, and using a bit of common sense, so don’t get the idea that the Army was full of idiots, we were just a bunch of very young men learning new tricks as we went along. We were warned that if it rained heavily the guy ropes of the tents would become quite taut and very quickly pull the tent pegs from the ground allowing the canvasses to collapse around you. We were soon to find out exactly what that meant, as monsoon type rains fell around us, and hell, didn’t it rain. We had never experienced any thing like it before.
The monsoon drains and ditches referred to earlier were soon full to overflowing, and many of the tents whose ropes had not been slackened did just had been forecast, yes, they collapsed all right, and the language which could be heard from the occupants of those tents were certainly not meant to be included in this book. We could see now what had happened to our tents just before our arrival, there being nobody there to slacken the ropes and the job of re-erecting them being left to the troops already in the area.