British ship ran aground at Cape Race, sunk off Ferryland under tow to St. John's
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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Nicholas Hamilton Special to SaltWire Network
For centuries, Newfoundland’s fertile waters and position at the most easterly point of North America have made it a prominent site for ships of all kinds, and it has a long history of shipwrecks.
The island's jagged, foggy shores have claimed many boats over the years, including many of the merchant ships that crossed the Atlantic to bring supplies to Britain during the Second World War.
In the campaign known as the Battle of the Atlantic, conflicts between Allied merchant convoys and German U-boats were a common sight on the seas surrounding Newfoundland. But even in times of war, the danger of the island’s shore could not be ignored.
One vessel, the SS Empire Ocean, lies under the waters off Ferryland, 80 years after its final voyage, testifying that Newfoundland’s coasts are as deadly as any fighting ship.
The Empire Ocean was constructed in West Hartlepool, England, in 1941 as part of the country’s wartime merchant fleet.
The prefix “Empire” was given to all ships built in Britain to government account after 1939, signalling the crucial role these vessels played in supplying the country during the war. Travelling in convoys across the Atlantic, Empire ships brought valuable goods from North America to Britain’s western seaports.
To provide additional protection from enemy attack, the Empire Ocean was one of 35 ships outfitted with catapults designed to launch Sea Hurricane fighter planes. These ships, known as catapult-armed merchantmen (CAM), launched planes to provide air cover if the merchant convoy was attacked — invaluable to ships crossing 500 miles of open ocean that land-based planes could not defend.
Over their period of service, 175 voyages were made by the CAM ships. Eight catapult launches were made, six enemy aircraft were shot down by CAM-launched fighters and one Royal Air Force pilot died.
Without a runway on the ship, a plane could not land once launched. Pilots had to eject from the planes and land in the ocean, hoping to be picked up by a nearby ship, which led some to dub the Sea Hurricanes “suicide planes.”
The resulting waste of planes and pilots led the CAM ships to be superseded by merchant ship aircraft carriers (MAC) in 1943, which were equipped with runways for landing planes.
The Empire Ocean did not operate long enough to see the day its catapult mechanism became obsolete.
Under the command of W.J. Tomkins, the Empire Ocean left Belfast on July 25, 1942, to journey across the Atlantic on what would be its final voyage.
The Empire Ocean was travelling in convoy ON-115 with a group of 42 other merchant ships and 12 destroyer escorts to ward off U-boat attacks. The convoy met no resistance as it began its journey into the open ocean, and for several days, all was well.
Danger first rose from the water on July 30, when the convoy was spotted and attacked by lurking U-boats, which pursued the Allied ships as they approached the coast of Newfoundland.
The destroyers repelled the first attack on the convoy, but as the assault continued, one merchant vessel was hit on July 31 and eventually sank. From then on, the fighting grew as the convoy came closer to land.
The Empire Ocean fared well in the first days of the U-boats’ attacks, although the convoy struggled to evade its pursuers. Off the coast of Newfoundland, the Empire Ocean encountered another group of 36 Allied ships travelling from Sydney to Britain. The large number of ships may have provided a sense of security for the merchant vessels, but also provided the U-boats with an irresistible target.
The pack of U-boats soon converged on the Allied convoy and, late on the night of Aug. 2, began a fierce assault.
Tomkins later reported three submarines attacked the Empire Ocean that night, scattering the convoy’s formation as ships struggled to avoid the swarm of torpedoes. Perhaps thanks to the cover provided by its catapult-launched Sea Hurricane, the Empire Ocean managed to weave its way between U-boats and Allied ships to reach safer waters
After the Empire Ocean escaped its attackers, the crew found themselves in a dense fog. The ship lost sight of the other convoy vessels, but with no sign of danger nearby, the master ordered the Empire Ocean to return to its regular course early on the morning of Aug. 3.
As the fog cleared, there was no sign of Allied or enemy vessels in the vicinity, so the ship maintained its course. Approaching Cape Race, the Empire Ocean came into contact with the corvette Galt, which offered an escort to the port of Argentia.
Tomkins accepted the escort offer, although it went against his better judgment. While preparing to alter course again, the crew of the Empire Ocean received another message from the Galt: “Are you aware that an enemy submarine is in the vicinity?”
Plagued by the lurking threat of the U-boat, the Empire Ocean steered its way down the coast toward Argentia under the Galt’s escort. On the night of Aug. 3, dense fog once again settled over the water, forcing the ship to cut its engines to half-speed, despite its pursuer.
The ship crept through the dark until early morning, when a fog signal was heard in the distance. Identifying their position off the coast of Cape Race, the crew of the Empire Ocean returned their engine to full speed, eager to finally put the threat of the U-boats behind them.
Pushing through the fog, the ship rounded the coastline and altered its course toward Argentia. After a day of pursuit, it seemed the Empire Ocean had reached safety, when suddenly the ship was rocked by a hull-shattering impact.
The sound of a foghorn and breaking surf told the crew that the source of the impact was not a U-boat, but a miscalculation: the Empire Ocean had run aground.
Taking soundings overside, the crew realized they had misjudged their position in the fog, driving the ship into Cape Race instead of around it. All hands immediately set about assessing the state of the ship. More than 20 feet of water had already rushed into the forepeak.
Despite the damage, most of the Empire Ocean remained afloat and the engines were reversed to pull the ship off the rocks. However, the engines alone could not move the ship. All the crew could do was wait for rescue.
There were no longer signs of U-boats, but as the sun began to rise on Aug. 4, shifting tides became dangerous for the stranded ship’s crew. The Empire Ocean drifted closer to shore, striking a rock on its starboard side and taking on water in holds two and three.
The crew set up pumps in an attempt to control the inflow, buying precious time for help to arrive.
About 11 a.m., the salvage tug Foundation Franklin approached the Empire Ocean to pull the ship off the rocks, but the ships’ masters were hesitant to begin moving without additional pumps to drain the flooded holds. The crew continued waiting as the Empire Ocean’s plating was stripped by the rocks and pounding waves. More water flowed into the holds as the afternoon wore on, until the ship finally slipped off the rocks at 5:15 p.m.
With time to salvage the ship quickly running out, the masters knew they must act against their better judgment, and they gave the order to begin towing toward St. John’s. As the Empire Ocean began moving, the lifeboats were lowered in preparation to abandon the ship if necessary.
With each hour the Foundation Franklin hauled the Empire Ocean, the ship and the spirits of its crew sank further. At 10:30 p.m. on Aug. 4, the order to launch the lifeboats was finally given and the crew made their way off the broken vessel.
At 1:05 a.m. on Aug. 5, the crew watched from lifeboats as the Empire Ocean could take on no more water, its stern rising steeply into the air. Moments later, the steamer snapped in two, slipping under the waves off Ferryland’s coast.
Two gunners, John Collins and George Sisterson, were lost when they missed the call to abandon the Empire Ocean with the rest of the crew.
The 50 surviving crew members were picked up by a Fairmile motor launch (HMCML Q-060) and taken to St. John’s.
Despite being constructed and equipped for wartime transportation, the Empire Ocean ultimately sank not by battle but simple human error, a testament to the natural dangers of seafaring.
In October 2022, hydrographer Kirk Regular, from the Marine Institute’s Centre for Applied Ocean Technology, was invited to participate in a science cruise led by Fisheries and Oceans Canada onboard RS Marine’s vessel Patrick and William. The purpose of the cruise was ecosystem stressors research, which included seabed mapping over abandoned oil wells.
The need to test the team’s multibeam echosounder on a subsea target presented an opportunity to survey the wreck of the SS Empire Ocean. The shipwreck was on the Shipwreck Preservation Society of Newfoundland and Labrador’s (SPSNL) investigation wish list, and only slightly off the science cruise's heading toward the southern Grand Banks.
Initial research on the wreck was done by Bill Flaherty, a member of Ocean Quest and a founding member of the SPSNL. Additional research into naval records and photographs of the Empire Ocean for this article was conducted by SPSNL president Neil Burgess.
The location of the Empire Ocean was investigated some years ago with an advanced fisheries sounder onboard a vessel operated by Gerard Chidley Jr., but more evidence was required for the marine archeology report.
The recent survey will provide the groundwork for planning further applications of ocean technology, such as remote-operated vehicles and towed side-scan sonar, to reveal more of what lies on the ocean floor.
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