EMPRESS OF ASIA
Built : 1913 by Fairfield SB & E Co., Glasgow.
Tonnage: 16, 909g, 8, 883n.
Engines: Quadruple Screw, 4 x Steam Turbines by Builder, 3, 750 NHP, 19 Knots.
Passengers: 1, 180.
Launched 23rd November 1912, Completed June 1913.
Empress of Asia
She made her maiden voyage on
the 14th of June 1913 and sailed from Liverpool bound for Hong Kong via Cape
Town. Asia was requisitioned by the Government for A.M.C. duties on the 2nd of
August 1914 and served with her sister Empress of Russia in the Red Sea in 1915.
She returned to Canadian Pacific on the 20th of March 1916 for service on their
Trans-Pacific route. The Government requisitioned her again in early 1918 and
she made six Trans-Atlantic voyages carrying troops and it wasn't until January
of 1919 that she returned to Canadian Pacific and sailed for Hong Kong from
Liverpool. On the 11th of January 1926 she was in collision with Indo China S.N.
Co.'s Tung Shing at Shanghai the tug subsequently sank. In company with the
Empress of Japan and with 2235 troops in addition to her crew of 416 she left
Liverpool on the 12th of November1941 sailing to Bombay via Cape Town. She
arrived off Singapore on the 4th of February 1942. Asia had the stern position
in the convoy through the Banka Strait on the East Coast of Sumatra. Captain J.
B. Smith, with reference to the Asia's place at the end of the line, reported
somewhat dryly 'We had been allotted this position on account of our steaming
difficulties, the ship almost invariably dropping astern of station when fires
were being cleaned'. In a later interview Captain Smith explained in greater
detail. ' Well trained Chinese Firemen got the best out of the two coal burners
from the Pacific Fleet, but by the time World War II broke out there was a real
dearth of Firemen accustomed to coal and after our Chinese Firemen returned home
we had to rely on what Merchant Seamen's Pool could scrape up'.
on the 4th of February the convoy was sighted by Japanese aircraft and a few
near misses damaged two of her lifeboats. At the same time on the following
morning the official report shows that :
A large formation of Japanese
aircraft passed overhead and disappeared in the clouds. Later they reappeared,
seemingly coming from all directions and flying both high and low altitudes. All
ships in the convoy, including the escorting light cruiser and a sloop opened
fire. Bombs started falling all round Asia and it was evident that the ship had
been singled out to bear the brunt of the attack. A stick of bombs scored the
first hits, one going through the ornate dome over the Lounge. A second bomb
pierced the Lounge and destroyed the radio equipment. Other bombs caused much
damage to the Engine Room, including the Auxiliary Power Plants, fractured pipes
in the interior of the ship and started many fires. The Chief Officer reported
that bombs had penetrated all decks, smoke and flames hindered attempts to
control the fires which by 11.25am were out of control.
Empress of Asia
The Captain's report continues: 'At this time we were
passing between minefields to the North and South of the swept channel. I
decided to swing the ship round and anchor close to the Sultan Shoal Lighthouse.
At the time it was impossible to remain on the Bridge any longer on account of
the smoke and heat. One fortunate feature of the concentration on the Empress of
Asia was that the other less badly damaged ships were able to get small boats
away when the Empress was abandoned, thus keeping the loss of life to a minimum.
The Australian Sloop Yarra came alongside aft and took off well over a thousand
troops and crew. By 1pm all personnel were off the ship. A later check showed
that fifteen Military unaccounted for and one member of the crew dead as a
result of injuries sustained in the bombing. The Deck and Engine Room crew were
later posted by the Naval Authorities to various small coastal ships to help in
the evacuation of Singapore. Many of the Catering staff volunteered for duty in
Singapore hospitals and were later interned by the Japanese. Recognition of her
service by HM The King was expressed in the award of the OBE to Captain J.B.
Smith, the MBE to First Officer L.H. Johnston and a mention in dispatches for
Chief Officer Donald Smith.
After making their way ashore by various
means the Officers and crew of Asia were to go separate ways. On Tuesday the
10th of February at the request of the Director of Civil Medical Services with
the approval of Captain Smith a call for volunteers from members of the Catering
crew Department, including cooks, was made at camp. They were required to work
in hospitals in Singapore under the Director of Civil Services in a civilian
capacity, pending their repatriation. There was a ready response from all the
members of the Catering Department to this call for volunteers, and it was
agreed by the Master Attendant that any remuneration they might receive would be
in the nature of a private arrangement and in addition to their wages as seamen.
He also undertook that compensation, in the event of death or injury, would be
according to the scales laid down by the Ministry of Shipping. This was
satisfactory to the men and arrangements were put in hand at once to have them
brought into town. At the time Captain Smith did not know what arrangements the
Navy were making for the evacuation of the C.M.S. of Singapore this of course
included the Catering Crew of the Asia. The number of crew which volunteered to
stay behind numbered 132 and the ship's Doctor also volunteered to assist in the
undermanned and overstretched hospitals. The Engine Room crew worked their
passage home in Transport ships whilst the reminder boarded three Coasters bound
for Australia. The Coasters, Hong Kwung and Sin Kheng Seng arrived without
incident but the unfortunate Ampang ran out of fuel and had to put into
Palambang, Sumatra for bunkers. On the 16th of February 45 minutes after Ampang
had arrived Japanese paratroopers began to land, Ampang's crew and passengers
were forced to trek overland to Panjang and after crossing the Sunda Strait
reached Batavia, Java where they were fortunate to acquire a passage to
Australia. Back in Singapore a day earlier the Island had been over run by the
Japanese and the luckless crew of the Asia along with many thousands of others
found themselves Prisoners of War.
At one particular hospital, the
Alexandria, the Japanese troops stormed the wards murdering Doctors and patients
alike those remaining were dumped in the grounds of the hospital, in all 306
service men and civilians are buried just inside the entrance of the Singapore
Map of Changi Camp.
Outside View of Changi Camp
Outside View of Changi Camp
Barracks at Changi was the first camp which 50, 000 British
and Commonwealth soldiers found themselves interred and of course their numbers
were supplemented by captured Merchant Seamen whose number included the Asia's
volunteers. Many of this number found themselves working as slave labour for the
Japanese in countries which had been invaded, as an example I cite the Burma -
Thailand Railway. By May of 1943 only 6, 000 prisoners remained and a year later
they were transferred to Changi Jail, the former occupants were moved to
Chief Tourist Steward Charles Cusack
Numbered amongst the crew of Asia were Charles Cusack, Chief Tourist Steward and Peter
Christian, a Plateman who worked in the Galley, Peter had swam ashore from the
Asia whilst Charles used a lifeboat. Most of the crew were from Liverpool and
Peter was walking out, courting, with Charles Cusack's daughter. Copies of
confirmation of Charles' and Peter's internment at Changi are below with cards
which both sent home to their next of kin via the auspices of the Swiss Red
Cross. Charles to his wife, Martha, Peter to his sister, Mrs. D. Moore.
Extracts From Red Cross Lists.
The document which follows announces the liberation of
both Charles and Peter, unfortunately the original telegram has been lost.
From Electra House.
Peter arrived back in Liverpool in the September of 1945 and both were still
extremely emaciated and it was some months before both felt sufficiently
recovered to return once more to the service of Canadian Pacific. On their
arrival home each ex-Prisoner of War received a message from George VI and Queen
Elizabeth which is reproduced below.
Letter from the King and Queen.
Inappropriately there was some query as to the crew of Empress of Asia's right to war risk money but it seems that they had
the Marine Superintendent of Canadian Pacific on their side and a copy of his
letter supporting their claim is also reproduced along with a qualifying note
from the Director of Medical Services.
Qualifying Note from Director of Medical
In March of 1946 Peter Christian married the
daughter of Charles Cusack and it is to their daughter Eileen the site is
indebted for providing information and material contained herein. Eileen states
that both her Grandfather and Father hardly ever spoke about their trials and
tribulations at the hands of the Japanese but she does remember that a hut
adjacent to their's was burned down by their captors for some minor
infringement. The occupants were forced to stand so close to the inferno that
everyone suffered blisters from the intense heat, a little later Charles was the
subject of a severe rifle butting from a Japanese Guard and told his Grand
Daughter that but for the care he received from Peter he doubts that he would
have survived the camp. Having served in the First World War at Paschendaele and
the Somme in the trenches, the Second World War in the Merchant Marine Charles
went on to retire in the early sixties and enjoyed his retirement until he was
viciously attacked in his own home by two thugs who demanded money holding a
sword across his throat to emphasise their point. Both men were later jailed for
four and five years respectively but Charles never felt safe again even after
steel bars were fitted to his windows in an attempt to make him feel more
secure, he died two years later, his Grand Daughter later said that Charles
never really recovered from the mindless attack.
Peter Christian pictured with Catering Staff in happier times aboard Empress of
England where he served as Head Pantryman 1958 - 1968.