The Ladies of War

In June of last year, I did a blog post on the Lady Hawkins titled “Death of A Lady”. She was one of five Lady Boats that were built as luxury liners, yet ended up partaking in World War Two. I wrote about that one Lady Boat in particular because my great-grandfather, Ervin Oscar Allen, was one of the many people who perished when that boat was sunk by a U-boat in World War Two. I mentioned the other Lady Boats, yet only fleetingly.

-Lady- Liner Voyages

Advertisement for the “Lady Liners”.

However, in doing more research, not only on the Lady Hawkins, but the five Lady Liners in general, I realized that it doesn’t seem right to focus on only one of the ships, when the other four also took part in the war, and suffered losses as well. So here, I want to focus on the other four Lady Boats; I will not go into much detail about the Lady Hawkins as I have already written about her, and anyone who is interested may go back to that particular blog to read about her.

All five boats were named for the wives of Elizabethan British admirals that had a connection to the West Indies. They were owned by Canadian National Steamships Co. Ltd, and built by Cammel Laird & Co.

The Lady Liners were built for Canada-West Indies service, and consisted of two different lines: an eastern-route one and a western-route one. Three of the five ships, Lady Nelson, Lady Hawkins, and Lady Drake were the three eastern-route ships. They could each carry 130 first-class passengers, 32 second-class, 56 third-class, and 120 deck passengers. They also had 4,179 square feet available for general cargo, with an additional 554 square feet for refrigerated cargo.

On the western route were the Lady Somers and Lady Drake. Both weighed 4,665 tons and could accommodate the same number of  cabin passengers as their sister ships, yet carried no deck passengers. Their general cargo space was 4,760 square feet, with 594 square feet for refrigerated cargo.

Lady Somers

HMS Lady Somers.

The five ships shared roughly the same overall dimensions; 437 feet long and 59 feet wide. They had four oil-fired boilers that propelled them along at the speed of 15 knots. The total cost to build the five ships was $8,106,542.32.

Lady Nelson at 7,970 tons, was the first ship built and was launched on her maiden voyage out of Halifax on Dec. 14, 1928; Lady Hawkins (7,988 tons) and Lady Drake (7,985 tons) soon followed her.

All five ships served as luxury liners from their launch until the war began. Flags were raised and lowered everyday in a formal ceremony. Captains and service officers wore uniform frock coats when sailing and when arriving at a home port. Dinner was a full-dress affair, and was announced by a cornet playing “The Roast Beef of Old England”. A two-week, roundtrip cruise, typically ran at $95. Lady Somers offered a “honeymoon special” during one summer, for $85. Liquor was plentiful and cheap; one captain became legendary when he appeared on the bridge of his ship while at sea, demanding to know where his ship was.

However, the Lady Boats entered into service just as the Great Depression sat in, which dramatically affected their revenues. Nonetheless, their futures were assured by the outbreak of WWII, and their sparkling white had to be painted in a duller wartime gray.

Lady Hawkins

HMS Lady Hawkins.

For the first year of the war, the Lady Boats were unaffected. However, in October 1940, the Lady Somers was requested by the Canadian government, who converted her to an auxiliary armed cruiser. She became the first Canadian merchant ship to go to war, and she assisted in enforcing the blockade against occupied Europe. Less than a year later though, she was sunk in the Bay of Biscay,on July 16, 1941.

The Lady Hawkins, under the command of Captain Huntley Osborne Giffen, was the next one to meet her unfortunate fate, when she was sunk on January 19, 1942. Commanded by Kapitänleutnant Richard Zapp, U-66 torpedoed Lady Hawkins off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. She set sail on January 16th with 321 passengers and crew; 71 of them survived after spending five days adrift in the only remaining lifeboat, whose maximum capacity was 63.  Seventy-six of the survivors made it into the lifeboat, yet five of them lost their lives before they were rescued by the S.S. Coamo.

Lady Nelson

HMS Lady Nelson.

Two months later, in March 1942 the Lady Nelson was torpedoed by U-161, under the command of Kapitänleutnant Albrecht Achilles, alongside the coast of Castries, St. Lucia. Like the Lady Hawkins, Lady Nelson was struck by two torpedoes. The first one struck  Lady Nelson, while the second struck a British ship. The first torpedo sunk the Lady Nelson immediately, and killed 15 passengers and three crewmen. She sank in a shallow harbor and was eventually refloated and repaired. In April 1943, the Lady Nelson was converted into Canada’s first hospital ship; she was commissioned on April 22, 1943, carrying 515 beds and completing 30 unscathed voyages by February 1946, bringing home 25,000 wounded men.

Lady Nelson hospital ship

HMS Lady Nelson fitted as a hospital ship.

Lady Drake was now under the command of Percy Ambrose Kelly, who only four months earlier had survived the Lady Hawkins catastrophe. Kelly commanded the lifeboat and rationed the little bit of food and drink available to them. He was later hailed by the other Lady Hawkins survivors as a hero and they credited him with saving their lives. For his bravery and leadership after the sinking, Kelly was subsequently awarded the Lloyd’s Medal For Bravery, and he was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

On May 8, 1942 Kelly would relive the tragic events of the Lady Hawkins sinking, though on a lesser scale. Whilst traveling from Bermuda to St. John,  Kapitänleutnant Hermann Rasch’s U-106 struck the vessel. Lady Drake sank slowly; twelve people lost their lives, yet 260 made it to the lifeboats. One survivor would later recall that, “Nobody even got their feet wet.”  A liner was spotted coming toward the lifeboats the next morning at dawn. It came toward them at a high speed, before sailing away just as quickly. It was the Queen Mary sailing on her way to New York. She had been pressed into service as a fast troopship, and could not stop for the survivors because of the danger posed by lurking submarines. As she sailed away however, her lamp repeatedly signaled, “I will report…I will report.” On the third morning, an American  minesweeper, USS Owl, picked up the survivors and took them to Bermuda.

HMS Lady Drake.

By now, four of the five Lady Boats had been sunk, thus convincing the Canadian Royal Navy that there was a need for escorts. Now, when the Lady Rodney sailed, she was accompanied by an RCN corvette. She remained the only Lady Boat not sunk during the war, even though she did have a few narrow escapes when spotted by U-boats. By the end of the war, Lady Rodney had safely transported nearly 60,000 troops and 66,000 passengers.

She was captained by Edward LeBlanc and had quite an ordeal when it came time to paint the ship gray. While traveling south from Montreal, a radio message announced that war had been declared against Germany, thus the crew began to paint the ship gray. However, when they reached Bermuda, they were told that Canada was not at war and that no changes were to be made, so the crew painted the Lady Rodney back to her original white while en route to the Bahamas. But when they reached Nassau, they were informed that Canada was now at war and that the ship would have to be painted gray.  Captain LeBlanc was not very pleased about the third repainting of his ship in the short period of only a few days.

HMS Lady Rodney.

In the end, Lady Nelson and Lady Rodney were the only Lady Liners to survive the war. Postwar, in 1946, they were used to bring war brides and their children home from Britain to Canada through Halifax. These expeditions were called Diaper Specials and they continued for one year. They were sold to Egypt in 1952 for $750,000. In Alexandria, they were refitted and repainted, and then used to carry passengers in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

Lady Nelson was renamed Gumhuryat Misr, for Alexandria’s Khedivial Mail Line. In 1960, and for the same company, she was renamed again, this time she was called Alwadi. She was broken up in Egypt in 1968.

Lady Rodney was renamed Mecca, and then was ultimately scuttled in 1967.

Gumhuryat Misr

Gumhuryat Misr, formerly Lady Nelson.


Mecca, formerly Lady Rodney.