A Participants Description of The Voyage of HMCS Prince Robert to Hong Kong in 1941

by the late Commander George R. MacFarlane RCN and John MacFarlane (1941 and 2016)

Prince Robert

HMCS Prince Robert at anchor in Hong Kong harbour. (Photo from MacFarlane Family collection.)

I recently found a tiny diary with entries made by my father, Commander George R. MacFarlane RCN, who served as a Leading Seaman and Petty Officer in HMCS Prince Robert. He also had a tiny camera with which he took photographs of the historic voyage to Hong Kong. I am sharing the diary and photographs because I am sure that he would have wanted this record of details to be better known.

Even before the start of the Second World War naval planners were investigating solutions to the lack of ships facing the navy’s requirements. Three passenger vessels owned by the Canadian National Railway (the Prince Robert, Prince Henry and Prince David) presented conversion opportunities to create Armed Merchant Cruisers suitable for protecting merchant vessel convoys. Experts considered them less than optimal for this purpose (limited range, moderate top speed and poor water supply).

Two of the vessels (Prince Robert and Prince David) were selected for conversion and arming. Plans were developed by Lambert, Germain and Milne. Burrard Dry Dock in Vancouver was selected to convert the Prince Robert and she was commissioned on July 31, 1940.

Prince Robert

50 calibre machine gun. (Photo from MacFarlane Family collection.)

The top two decks were removed (including the boat deck, cabins and lounges). She had large compartments that crossed the vessel with minimal compartmentalization. This major weakness would have been revealed had she ever been in action and suffered a hit below the waterline.

Four six inch guns (which had been stored in Canada by the Admiralty) were installed (two forward and two at the stern). The big guns manufactured in 1896 were already obsolete by the the First World War. To train the guns crews attached rigging and blocks which were hauled by hand. Two three inch guns were fitted on the upper deck which were more modern although manufactured in 1916. Some 50 caliber machine guns were installed as well as two depth charge racks at the stern.

Prince Robert

Upper deck of HMCS Prince Robert (Photo from MacFarlane Family collection.)

She carried a crew of 241 and was instantly the most powerful Canadian naval ship in the Pacific. She provided an early victory when she captured the German merchant vessel Weser in international waters off the coast of Mexico. After this she was involved in patrols off the coast of South America. Following up on intelligence of a German raider at Easter Island yielded nothing. In the Spring of 1941 she was detached to protect a convoy carrying airmen coming to Canada from New Zealand for training.

Prince Robert

Boy Seamen in HMCS Prince Robert Youngsters who were barely teenagers were recruited and incorporated into the crew. They became Ordinary Seamen when they turned 18. (Photo from MacFarlane Family collection.)

After a refit in Esquimalt she sailed on October 27th as the escort for the HMT Awatea carrying Canadian troops to Hong Kong. Prince Robert carried four army officers and 106 ranks of the Royal Rifles of Canada (as well as the Regimental Mascot – a large dog). The HMT Awatea carried the rest of the Regiment along with the Winnipeg Grenadiers. Known as Force C they numbered 96 officers and 1,877 other ranks. They sailed via Honolulu and Manila where they were joined by HMS Danae.

October 26, 1941 (Sunday) "I have been on the ship three weeks tomorrow. We left for Vancouver this morning. When we arrived the Torpedo party leave was stopped until we took the static out of the Captain’s radio. I eventually got over to Aunt Eva’s (Henderson) (in North Vancouver BC). Went to music recital and ended up presenting the flowers. Stayed there all night. Wrote to Kay before we left. Lower deck L.T.O. "

October 27, 1941 (Monday) "Left Vancouver. Anchored off William Head at dark. I had a letter typed to Mother. It was just about allotments. Thick fog as we were leaving Vancouver. "

October 28, 1941 (Tuesday) "Left William Head this morning. Lovely weather. Had the afternoon off. Picked up our ship. "

October 29, 1941 (Wednesday) "Made a mistake about the date the other day and started off wrong."

October 30, 1941 (Thursday) "Little windy. Starting to get warm. The water is a beautiful deep blue and where the propellers churn it up it is white with turquoise in it. Can’t see anything but water, water, water. "

October 30, 1941 (Friday) "Still good weather. Starting to get hot. Got paid today. Stopped for a few minutes this afternoon to bury a soldier who died on the Awatea. Got caught eating a lemon pie we stole. Got away with it though. Wrote to Kathleen tonight. Lots of flying fish. "

November 01, 1941 (Saturday) "No news. Wrote another page today to Kay. Wrote to Mother. Pretty warm. Can’t see anything but water. "

November 02, 1941 (Sunday) "Arrived Honolulu early morning. No leave. The US Army Transport Hugh L. Scott arrived later. Went swimming off the stern in the afternoon. A band and hula dancers entertained us in the afternoon. Left in the evening. Japanese ship there taking away Japanese citizens. Lots of ships there. Swell looking place. Didn’t get a very good look at it, Pearl Harbor or Waikiki Beach. Radio reception was good. Heard Charlie McCarthy. Started Lime juice today."

Prince Robert

Hawaiian Concert on Pier for soldiers on HMT Awatea (in background) and crew of HMCS Prince Robert (in foreground). No shore leave would have been depressing for morale. (Photo from MacFarlane Family collection.)

Note: The "LJ" notation stands for "lime juice" ration and indicates Tropical Pay Allowance (10 cents per day).

November 03, 1941 (Monday) "At sea again. Sighted a ship this morning but it was a US Army Transport. It seems there was a big bunch all coming back from Manila. Today a breeze keeps it cooler. Hawaiian music today. LJ. "

November 04, 1941 (Tuesday) "Kicked up a little last night. More swell and breeze today. Had a couple of bad rolls today. No news. LJ. "

November 05, 1941 (Wednesday) "2000hrs whilst changing over circulating pumps inlet valve was shut off on auxiliary condenser. Vacuum lost in condenser. Heat from safety valve on condenser blowing heat. [Temperature] was terrific 190 degrees. All pumps stopped. Main boiler feed, force feed back for main engines. Dynamo turbines checked, etc. Fix auxiliary lighting. Baffle plate was burned out in condenser. It was found out later. All watch, turbine kept jumping governor on dynamo. Kept busy regulating voltage. LJ. "

November 06, 1941 (Thursday) "Lost today. Crossed the Date Line last night. We get paid for today, tropical pay too. LJ. "

November 07, 1941 (Friday) "From Wednesday to Friday seems funny. Saw a movie tonight – two pictures. The Silver Horde and The PX&VD Railroad. Really enjoyed it. "

November 08, 1941 (Saturday) "We went to Action Stations at 0245 this morning. I was turned in. After I found out it was an American submarine. Lots of excitement for a while.Had a .5 HA practice today. Attended "requestmen" to sit for a Petty Officer board. LJ. Wrote to Kay."

November 09, 1941 (Sunday) "Attended Sunday Divisions. Had a concert this afternoon. See whole schools of flying fish. Hottest day yet. "

Prince Robert

Crew about to be inspected by the Captain at Sunday Divisions. (Photo from MacFarlane Family collection.)

November 10, 1941 (Monday) "No news. Very hot. "

November 11, 1941 (Tuesday) "Armistice Day. There was no mention of it. Very hot. LJ. "

November 12, 1941 (Wednesday) "No news. Very hot. LJ. "

November 13, 1941 (Thursday) "Another inoculation. Another sea burial, a sailor on HMT Awatea. Very hot. Sighted land – Philippines this afternoon. Beautiful night. Islands are very green. Plenty of lightning. Lots of big and small sail boats with outriggers. Odd looking. Odd looking tow boats. Lots of ships and shipping."

November 14, 1941 (Friday) "Arrived Manila this morning. Left 4 o’clock in afternoon. HMS Dane, 2 mother ships, over 20 US submarines. 2 heavy cruisers, US Navy destroyers, MTBs, Army transports, planes, and many auxiliary US craft. No shore leave, very hot. Tow boats. A British cable ship. An ocean going salvage or tow boat. Manila population 800,000. Differs from Honolulu in that back of Honolulu is high hills and here is miles of low flat land. Mountains come straight up and well in rear. Both have water front towers. Cars drive on left side of street. Bigger by far from Vancouver or Honolulu. LJ."

Prince Robert

US freighter being unloaded into lighters. The ship has a large US flag painted on the side, proclaiming to Japanese submariners her neutrality. Within three weeks this was no longer necessary. (Photo from MacFarlane Family collection.)

November 15, 1941 (Saturday) "Cooler. Kicking up all day and night. Lots of wind. Chased two ships and turned out to be US freighters. Two Japanese cruisers followed us 20 miles astern in night. HMS Danae is accompanying us. Went to Action Stations on sighting star shells. LJ last day."

They reached Hong Kong on November 16th. The convoy arrived in Hong Kong with no previous public announcement. The population was jubilant. Led by two military bands the troops marched with fixed bayonets to their new barracks. Now we know that those not killed in the fighting were all taken prisoner by the Japanese Army.

Prince Robert

HMT Awatea in Hong Kong. (Photo from MacFarlane Family collection.)

November 16, 1941 (Sunday) "Arrived Hong Kong this morning. Leave ashore – port or 2 watch. Stayed at South China Seas Club. Wonderful place. Rode all day in rickshaws. Lots of excitement about HMT Avatea arrival. Cars drive on left hand side. City built on side of very high hills. Lots of big houses on hills. Cable railway running up top. Many refugees sleep on street. Sanpan and dockyard girls. Rig of Day #2 with hats. Went Upper Deck LTO today. Relieved Dickson. "

November 17, 1941 (Monday) "Duty Watch aboard. Showers. Cooler. This Si–Kiang (sic) River is full of sampans, junks, ferries, naval craft, big ships, etc. Sanpan personnel allow only 3 hours ashore each day. Kowloon across river is quiter than Hong Kong. In the Chinese parts streets are narrow and there are millions of Chinese. They have 2,000 funerals a week. "

Prince Robert

A.M.S. Brown enjoying Hong Kong (Photo from MacFarlane Family collection.)


Souvenir Certificate from Hong Kong (Photo from MacFarlane Family collection.)

Prince Robert

Junks in Hong Kong harbour. (Photo from MacFarlane Family collection.)

November 18, 1941 (Tuesday) "Went ashore today with Jack. Went up the Peak Railway. Went over to Kowloon. Ate dinner in YMCA – very good. Kowloon was very clean more Americanized. Slept at South China Seas Club again. "

A week later she began the return voyage. She departed Honolulu on December 3rd, four days ahead of the infamous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Four hours after the attack on Pearl Harbour she received a report that the US Army transport Cynthia Olsen had been torpedoed 130 miles south. She diverted but no survivors were found and the crew was told that a US cruiser had picked up the survivors.

November 19, 1941 (Wednesday) "Tropical rig again. Hot. Left Hong Kong at 4 o’clock in afternoon. Thick fog in patches coming out. No sea.Got the middle with Dawn Action Stations. "

November 20, 1941 (Thursday) "Sea absolutely flat. Hot sun. Slow speed. LJ. No news. Last shot in my arm. Headache. "

November 21, 1941 (Friday) "Arrived. Manila this morning. No leave. This place is full of ships. Very hot. A big Japanese liner here. Among the ships was an ugly duckling (freighter). Left at 4 o’clock in afternoon. LJ. "

November 22, 1941 (Saturday) "We were among the islands practically all day. The water is a bright green. Lots of flying fish. The islands are very green. Last sight of the Philippines at sunset. Water is now deep bright blue again. Not so hot today. A light wind but sea nearly smooth. LJ."

November 23, 1941 (Sunday) "Well we were going home via Honolulu. But we turned around. The Captain told us at Divisions this hot Sunday morning what we were involved in something in the South China Seas and that we wouldn’t be home for Christmas.I think a German Raider is operating around there. We are just going about 4 or 5 knots. Ah! About 3 o’clock we turned around and speeded up. We are going home again.Later I heard it was a French tramp we were after. She was in Indo–China. A supply ship for the Turpitz in Shanghai. {In 1982 GRM discovered that they were actually briefly going to head to Singapore with HMS Danes).

November 24, 1941 (Monday) "No news. Freshening wind kicking up a bit. Cooler though. "

November 25, 1941 (Tuesday) "No news. Still quite a wind kicking up. Cooler. Saw a cowboy picture last evening. LJ. "

November 26, 1941 (Wednesday) "14 days tropical pay. Still in the trades. Lots of spray over the bows. Temperature about the same. No news. "

November 27, 1941 (Thursday) "No news. Everything is about the same as yesterday. LJ. "

November 28, 1941 (Friday) "Saw a picture show last evening "Thin Ice" and "The Phantom". The wind is freshening. It doesn’t look good. No other news. Showers. Cooler today again. Dawn Action Stations every morning. "

November 29, 1941 (Saturday) "Kicked up last night but going down today. Rained hard all day. Cooler. Paid this afternoon. There is a buzz that there will be leave in Honolulu, also mail. Heading out the clocks were always going back but now they are going ahead. Days and times seem to get very mixed up. I think we crossed the Date Line today but they are going to have two Mondays instead. LJ. "

November 30, 1941 (Sunday) "Unsettled weather. Heavy showers all day. Wind has changed direction. Chopped up seas.We only had half our Divisions this morning due to heavy shower. In spite of all the wind and rain its quite warm.We are still in Tropical Rig. Also we are pretty low on oil which makes us pretty light in the face of the swells. No LJ today. "

December 01, 1941 (Monday) "10th day out of Manila. Today is not December 1st it is Meridian Day. Its an extra day due to crossing the Date Line. The government is a day up on us going out. Heavy seas today, the odd shower. Still warm though. Lots of cigars aboard. "

Prince Robert

US PBY Flying Boat Intercepting the Ship West of Hawaii. (Photo from MacFarlane Family collection.)

December 01, 1941 (Monday) "Sun shone all day today. An American Amphibian plane {Note: actually a PBY flying boat, not amphibious} spotted us yesterday afternoon and flew around us a few times. Today at noon I went Upper Deck Leading Hand. Sommerill relieved me. Only temporary though. "

December 02, 1941 (Tuesday) "Hotter again today. No news. Still in the trades. Expect to arrive Honolulu tomorrow. I’m foc’s’le now, changed from top. "

December 03, 1941 (Wednesday) "Arrived Honolulu today at about 1300 hours. There was leave but I was on the duty watch. Its cooler here this time and there are showers now and then. We are here overnight. Eight bags of mail came aboard today and nine more are expected tomorrow. Its good to see land againafter 14 days at sea. During that time we sighted nothing except a plane from the Midway Islands. Temptation is right here."

December 04, 1941 (Thursday) "Left about noon. Took a beating coming out. Jack Levers and Rosie were hurt in the foc’s’le. I got my share up there too. Still kicking up. Another two passengers. One pongo [army] and one pigeon [air force]. It was sure grand getting mail. We took green waves over the bow going around Diamond Head. The Captain wouldn’t slow down for a few minutes while we secured the anchor cables etc. "

Prince Robert

Heading into heavy seas with engines Full Ahead! (Photo from MacFarlane Family collection.)

December 05, 1941 (Friday) "Sea easing down. Sunnu again today. "

December 06, 1941 (Saturday) "Saw a picture last night "The Third Alarm" with Jean Hersholt and Anita Louise. Cloudy and cooler. Sea gone down. Five days from home. Still in Tropical Rig. "

On the 7th of December a vessel was sighted but not identified. After the war it was revealed that the Prince Robert had been within 500 miles of the Japanese task force headed to Hawaii but of course neither group knew it at the time. Again on the 7th smoke was sighted to the stern. a red flare, which turned out to be from a US submarine.

December 07, 1941 (Sunday) "Sunday divisions this morning in #2s. The Captain said that we would be home Wednesday night at sunset. But we turned around again. We intercepted an SOS from the Virginia Olsen [Cynthia Olsen?] which read "intercepted by submarine". Travelling at full speed. Went into two watches at 1400 hours. Heard that the Hawaiian Islands were attacked about 4 o’clock. Searched until about midnight, then turned around and headed back again. Still full speed. "

The significance of the attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy on Pearl Harbor (and Hawaii) does not seem to have registered in the diary entries. There is a distinct lack of jingoism in the entries. Canada had already been at War for two years in Europe. The Captain must have had a keener sense of the impending risk (perhaps advised by intelligence briefings) but the crew seem to have taken the events in stride. The Captain communicated nothing to the crew about the current events who were left to surmise from rumors spreading throughout the ship. Only the fact that this would interfere with Christmas leave. It took a couple of days for them to realize the fact that they had narrowly missed being attacked themselves. This obviates the need for an information campaign to Canadian forces which appeared later in the war explaining –why we fight– to ensure support.

December 08, 1941 (Monday) "Still in two watches. Heard Roosevelt speak.Canada and Britain and others declare war on Japan. Two days from home but probably no leave now. We were to get long leave for Christmas. We didn’t get the survivors of the Virginia Olsen, but they were picked up we believe. We must have been in a hot bed for days and didn’t know it. The Olsen was only 170 miles away when she was torpedoed. "

December 09, 1941 (Tuesday) "Still in two watches. Had the first and morning watches. Nearly froze. Heard Roosevelt speak on the radio. Expect to be in tomorrow. "

On the 10th the US vessel West Cressey was sighted. Later in the day an RCAF aircraft was sighted followed by a US flying boat and then they were challenged by the USS Gilmer (DD–233/APD–11) at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

December 10, 1941 (Wednesday) "Still in two watches. Very cold. Heard that HMS Repulse, HMS Prince of Wales were lost to Japanese attacks. In today I hope! " [entries end]

The ship carried on in various roles and configuration throughout the war serving Canada well considering her humble origins. For more information on how the ship was run see the Nauticapedia article Some Reflections on HMCS Prince Robert 1941–1942.

Prince Robert

The author of the journal, George MacFarlane, as an Leading Seaman RCNR (age 19) while serving in HMCS Prince Robert. (Photo from MacFarlane Family collection.)

Author’s Note: The "LJ" notation stands for "lime juice" ration and indicates Tropical Pay Allowance (10 cents per day).

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2016) The Voyage of HMCS Prince Robert to Hong Kong 1941 Nauticapedia.ca 2016. http://www.nauticapedia.ca/Articles/Prince_Robert_Diary_1941.php

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