The historical background to ‘Empress’

It’s been a while, but I have been busy. After the usual busy Dordogne summer, I got back into writing with ‘Empress‘, a novel inspired by a true story.

While researching a project about the history of Glasgow, my hometown, I came across the tragic and enigmatic story of the ‘Empress of Britain‘.

Launched by renowned Clyde shipbuilders, John Brown & Co. in 1931, the Empress of Britain was commissioned by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company to serve the route from Canada to Europe during the summer season, and the emerging market for luxury world cruises in the winter, when the St Lawrence River was frozen over.

In 1939, the UK government requisitioned the Empress of Britain as a troopship. In August 1940 she transported troops from Liverpool to Egypt via Cape Town. On her return journey she stopped in Cape Town.

At 9:20 a.m. on Saturday, October 26th, 1940, when she was off the NW coast of Ireland and thus almost home, the ship was spotted and bombed by a long-range German weather reconnaissance plane. An uncontrollable fire ravaged her entire mid section and within half an hour the signal to abandon ship was given. In extremely difficult circumstances, around 600 of the 647 passengers and crew were saved and a few hours later the still burning ship was taken in tow in an effort to bring her to where she might be repaired.

However, around 2 a.m. on Monday the 28th, a U-boat fired three torpedoes at the stricken liner. One was a dud, one narrowly missed and one was a direct hit. In less than ten minutes, the Empress of Britain turned on her side and slid beneath the waves, finally coming to rest upside down in over 500 feet of water. She was the largest civilian ship sunk in World War II.

In the years after the war, rumours persisted that the Empress of Britain had been carrying gold from the mines in South Africa. In fact, between 1939 and 1942, dozens of shipments of gold were sent across the Atlantic to Canada to pay for food and munitions. And gold was only a small fraction of what was the greatest movement of wealth in human history, as all of the negotiable financial instruments of the United Kingdom were transported in complete secrecy.

Rumour characterises everything that follows in the tale of the legendary liner.

In 1949 the Daily Mail ran a story announcing that there was to be a salvage attempt to recover millions of pounds in gold from the ship. No other newspaper carried the story, and it was never followed up. Only naval divers and an exceeding small number of commercial dive teams were capable of recovering materials from deep inside a wreck in 500 feet of water.

In 1985 a prospective salvor was apparently advised by the UK government that any gold that may have been aboard had been recovered.

Finally, in 1995 a reputable salvage company cut through to the bullion room of the wreck and entered it. It was completely empty.

Except for a skeleton.

No one knows how or when the skeleton got into the strongroom. No one can even confirm that the skeleton was really there.

Recall that the ship stayed afloat for around 40 hours after being bombed. The post-war testimony of Hans Jenisch, captain of the U-boat that sunk the Empress of Britain, reported that he saw lights moving on the liner when he found her being towed. Yet the official Admiralty reports insist that there was no one on board at that time.

So, it seemed to me that this was fertile ground for a tale that imagined just how the skeleton got there, and what transpired next.

Empress‘ begins in the shipyards on the River Clyde and tries to convey something of the community that built the bulk of the world’s shipping before the War. The story moves on to the halcyon period of luxury cruising where the great and the not-so-good traveled the oceans in decadent luxury until the events of 1939 came along to spoil the party. The climax is set against the beautiful people attending the Cannes Film Festival in the 1960s.

You can read the first two chapters here.

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