‘The rescue ship had the best water polo team in the fleet and they went over the side like flies to rescue men from the torpedoed liner.’
Victoria lost an old friend, Aug. 17, 1942.
But, because of wartime censorship, it was two years before they learned that the beautiful B.C. coaster SS Princess Marguerite had been sunk by an enemy torpedo in a foreign sea.
Built in 1925 by the famous Scottish firm, John Brown & Co., the 5,875-ton younger sister of SS Princess Kathleen gave deluxe passenger service on the famous triangle run between Victoria, Vancouver and Seattle for 15 years.
Then the speedy sisters proved invaluable to the Allies; but only Kathleen came home.
By October 1965, Capt. Anthony B. Appleyard was with the B.C. Pilotage Authority, a far cry from his having served as third officer on the Marguerite when she and Kathleen were called to war duty. Marguerite, he told me, “was converted at Yarrows, and the Kathleen simultaneously at Victoria Machinery Depot. At that time, they were to be used for supplying personnel and aviation gasoline to aircraft carriers. The scuttles forward were removed and hatches put in for loading the petrol, and the necessary conversions made.”
The crews were British, having been sent to San Francisco to man two ships purchased there as the U.S. was yet neutral. Because these vessels hadn’t been completed, the seamen were reassigned to the Princesses; the skippers, navigating officers and engineers were CP Steamships coastal veterans.
Among Marguerite’s officers were third officer Appleyard and third engineer Edward E. Stewart, both of whom graciously consented to my interviewing them. Final orders were issued Marguerite’s Capt. Richard Avery Leicester and Kathleen’s Capt. L.C Barry as the ships lay at anchor in Royal Roads. At 4:35 Nov. 7, 1941, their black and white peacetime colours a uniform drab battleship grey, they set course for Honolulu.
Squalls and near hurricane force gales battered them throughout the voyage, flooding the Marguerite’s after quarters.
Beyond Honolulu, the weather moderated but trouble erupted with the British seamen. After having cautiously avoided Japanese warships after the attack on Pearl Harbour, Captains Leicester and Barry determined to change hands at first opportunity.
As it happened, the company’s Empress of Russia was paying off her Chinese crew, enabling the skippers to replace theirs with long-service, trusted CPR employees. Years later, Capt. Barry confided that the night of the exchange was the first since beginning the voyage that he and his officers had slept without clubs under their beds.
“On arrival at Alexandria,” recounted Capt. Appleyard, “the Ministry of Transport officers…found both ships totally inadequate for what they had been fitted out for, and we therefore laid at anchor for a period of three weeks with absolutely no use to anyone.
“Fortunately, or unfortunately as the case may be, two cross-Channel ships came out at that time, as troop transports. On their arrival it was found that they had been cut down and were flying the White Ensign as armed merchant cruisers. Due to an Italian frogman attack in Alexandria Harbour, they were employed as escort vessels, and we in turn fulfilled their role.”
Subsequently, the Princesses transported troops through the Suez Canal to reinforce General Wavell’s force. When Rommel’s army almost overran the Canal, Marguerite embarked the British and Maltese administrations’ families which had been evacuated from beleaguered Alexandria. With her precious cargo of women and children, she slipped down to Suez and lay offshore.
“Each day was hotter than the last,” recalled Stewart, “and we were plagued by flies. Every night an air raid alert would bring all our passengers out into the ship’s public spaces with lifebelts, ready for the worst. Trying to fit a lifejacket onto a four- or five-year-old tot is quite a trick.
“Needless to say, at the end of the week everyone’s nerves were frayed, what with lack of sleep and the constant fear of the consequences should one of the attacking planes have a hit, although they seemed to be dropping torpedoes and mines…”
When Rommel retreated and the crisis passed, Princess Marguerite performed “various services,” Capt. Leicester coming to believe that, for merchant ships, the Mediterranean was the toughest theatre of war by far, with many of the troop embarkations occurring at “top speed in the darkness of moonless nights”.
On the morning of Aug. 17, 1942, Marguerite took aboard her last load of soldiers, men of the 8th Army, bound for a rest camp in Cyprus. Her escort consisted of three destroyers and the armed merchant cruiser Antwerp, formerly a fast English ferry.
It’s thought that the strong escort may have given her troops a false sense of security, as many didn’t remove their heavy boots as instructed. This factor accounted for an unknown number of deaths when the order came to abandon ship.
The convoy steamed in arrowhead formation, one destroyer leading, the others flanking Antwerp, with Marguerite following close astern. The official CPR history credits the unknown submarine captain as having been an “expert to be able to hit a ship zig-zagging at 18 knots”.
Third Mate Appleyard was lying down when the torpedo struck with devastating force. Hurrying on deck, he found the ship already engulfed by flames. Engineers Stewart and Harris were at their posts in the engine room when “a terrific blast shook the ship,” the engine room was plunged into darkness, and ruptured pipes filled the compartment with clouds of scalding steam.
Capt. Leicester, about to make an observation, was “flung across my room… I went on the bridge immediately; the officer on watch informed me we had been hit on the port side, about admidships. He had already signalled ‘stop’ on the engine room telegraphs and was attempting to give emergency signals on the bells and the steam whistles. These, however, had been put out of action by the explosion…”
Somehow Engineer Stewart worried his way through the blackness and debris to the steering throttle. Reaching for it, he found Harris’s hand already there. They brought Marguerite to her final halt, their prompt action saving many of the troops already in the water who otherwise would have been ringed with burning oil.
Meanwhile, on deck, the fire was raging out of control and greedily racing aft where the ship’s officers still on board were clustered on the boat deck. Capt. Leicester put his confidential sailing orders and documents into weighted bags and dropped them over the rising side. By the time engineers Stewart and Harris, who’d become separated in the maze of machinery below, eventually made it to the boat deck, the Marguerite was a massive blister, her steel deck plates buckled, cabin doors blown off their hinges and her list to port steadily increasing.
Mate Appleyard saw to the Sikh troops. “We had a great deal of difficulty with them, even though they were well disciplined,” he said. “They had a religious abhorrence of water… Because of this so many were lost.”
Previously, he’d tried lowering the port boats but they held fast in their davits; only 10 of the ship’s 16 were launched.
Destroyer HMS Hero manoeuvred as close as she could alongside to pick up survivors. Appleyard ended on the boat deck with Stewart and Harris, and they teamed to lower starboard lifeboats and rafts. The latter stripped to his underwear and dove over the side, Appleyard following.
Recalled Stewart: “I can still see Appleyard jumping off in whites, holding his life jacket down to keep it from ripping his ears off when he hit the water.”
Due to poor eyesight, Stewart couldn’t jump for fear of losing his glasses. He solved this problem by dropping a fire hose over the side and sliding down, safely reaching the water without getting his head wet.
He’d lost his own lifejacket in the explosion and was wearing an “ill-fitting” spare. Harris had no jacket but was a strong swimmer. Once safely aboard the Hero, he returned to the water to aid five men who were having difficulties.
“But,” he said, “you should have seen the men from the destroyer. They had the best water polo team in the fleet, and they went over the side like flies to rescue men from our ship.”
The result was 55 men lost of 1,200 on board. Stewart, Appleyard and Harris were later credited with having helped about 100 men to safety.
By then the sea was an inferno of burning fuel oil. Princess Marguerite, pride of the Pacific Northwest, went under 40 minutes after she was struck by the torpedo. That evening, all survivors were returned to Port Said where each of the liner’s crew was given size 46 pyjamas, razor, soap, writing paper and pencil — and a chocolate bar. They returned to Victoria one year to the day since they sailed.