Empire Ocean SS

empire ocean tow4 5aug42
empire ocean tow4 5aug42

Wreck Information

Date Lost: 5 August 1942

Fate: Grounded, refloated and sank under tow.

Year Built: 1941

Nationality: British

Type: Catapult-Armed Merchant (CAM) Cargo Steamship

# Onboard:

# Died: 2

Location: Ferryland

For centuries Newfoundland’s history has been defined by the ships that sail off its coast. The island’s fertile waters and position at the most easterly point of North America have long made it a prominent site for ships of all kinds, whether they be fishers or merchant vessels journeying across the North Atlantic. However, its long history of shipping also includes a long history of shipwrecks. Newfoundland’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 Empire Ocean, still lies under the waters of Ferryland today, 80 years since 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 (Mitchell and Sawyer vii), signalling the crucial role these vessels played in supplying the country during the war. Travelling in convoys across the Atlantic the Empire ships were depended upon to bring 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 that were outfitted with catapults designed to launch Sea Hurricane fighter planes. These ships, known as Catapult-Armed Merchantmen (CAM), would launch their embarked planes to provide air cover if the merchant convoy was attacked. This air cover was invaluable to ships crossing the 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. Across these voyages 8 catapult launches were made, 6 enemy aircraft were shot down by CAM-launched fighters, and one Royal Air Force pilot died. However, without a runway on the ship a plane could not land once launched. The pilots had to eject from their planes and land in the ocean where they would hope to be picked up by a nearby ship, a necessity which led some to dub the Sea Hurricanes “suicide planes” (Wells). The resulting waste of planes and pilots led the CAM-ships to be superseded by the Merchant Ship Aircraft Carriers (MAC) in 1943, which were equipped with runways for landing planes (Mitchell and Sawyer 166). But the Empire Ocean would not operate long enough to see the day that its catapult mechanism became obsolete.

Under the command of W.J. Tomkins the Empire Ocean left Belfast on July 25th, 1942, to journey across the Atlantic on what would be its final voyage (Collisions and Groundings 1). The Empire Ocean traveled in convoy ON-115 (Mitchell and Sawyer 63) with a group of 42 other merchant ships and 12 Destroyer escorts to ward off U-boat attacks (Convoy ON.115). 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 30th 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 managed to repel the first attack on the convoy, but as the assault continued one merchant vessel was hit on July 31st and eventually sunk. From then on, the fighting only grew in intensity as the convoy came closer to land (Wells).

The Empire Ocean fared well throughout 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 thirty-six Allied ships travelling from Sydney to Britain. The large number of ships may have provided a sense of security for the merchant vessels, but it also provided the U-boats with an irresistible target. The pack of U-boats soon converged on the allied convoy and late in the night of August 2nd began the fiercest assault yet (Wells). Master Tomkins would later report three submarines attacking the Empire Ocean that night, scattering the convoy’s formation as it struggled to avoid the swarm of torpedoes (Collisions and Groundings 1). Perhaps thanks to the cover provided by its catapult-launched Sea Hurricane the Empire Ocean managed to weave its way between both U-boats and Allied ships to reach safer waters.

As the Empire Ocean escaped its attackers the crew found themselves in dense fog. The ship lost sight of the other vessels in the convoy, but with no sign of danger nearby the master ordered the Empire Ocean to return to its regular course early in the morning of August 3rd. As the fog cleared there was no sign of either 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 in Newfoundland. Master Tomkins accepted the escort offer, although it went against his better judgment. While preparing to alter their 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 then steered its way down the coast of Newfoundland towards Argentia under the Galt’s escort. On the night of August 3rd dense fog once again settled over the water, forcing the ship to cut its engines to half speed in spite of 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 towards Argentia. After a day of pursuit, it seemed that 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 where it was found that over twenty feet of water had rushed into the forepeak. Despite the damage most of the Empire Ocean remained afloat and the engines were reversed to push the ship off the rocks. However, the engines alone could no longer 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 August 4th the shifting tides presented their own share of dangers to the stranded ship’s crew. The Empire Ocean drifted closer to the 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. Around 11a.m. the salvage tug Foundation Franklin approached the Empire Ocean in an attempt 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’s finally slipped off the rocks at 5:15p.m. With time to salvage the ship quickly running out the masters knew they must act against their better judgement and give the order to begin towing towards 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 latter ship and the spirits of its crew sank further. At 10:30p.m. on August 4th the order to launch the lifeboats was finally given and the crew made their way off the broken vessel. At 1:05a.m. on August 5th the crew watched from the 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 where it remains to this day (Collisions and Groundings1-4).

The sinking ship took with it the lives of two gunners, John Collins and George Sisterson, who missed the call to abandon the Empire Ocean with the rest of the crew. The cost of lost lives had to be added to the cost of the lost ship, an all too common occurrence in World War Two. The fifty surviving crew were picked up by a Fairmile motor launch (HMCML Q-060), which took them to St. John’s. Despite being constructed and equipped for war-time transportation the Empire Ocean was ultimately sunk not by battle but simple human error, a testament to the natural dangers of sea faring. Eighty years later the ship’s remains still lie under the seas of Newfoundland’s coast, one among thousands of shipwrecks accumulated over the island’s long history.

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, of which one component involved seabed mapping over abandoned oil wells. The need to test the team’s multibeam echosounder on a subsea target presented an exciting 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 their heading towards 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 Neil Burgess, president of SPSNL. 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 archaeology report. The recent survey undertaken by Kirk Regular will provide the groundwork for the planning of further applications of ocean technology such as remote operated vehicles and towed sidescan sonar to reveal more of what lies on the ocean floor.

Written by Nicholas Hamilton

  • Historical Photos

  • Shipwreck Photos

Historical Photos

Specifications / Other:

Dimensions: 127.8 x 17.3 x 10.3 (m), 6765 Gross Tonnes

Owned by Ministry of War Transport (MoWT)

Located with Sonar Survey

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