16 July 1936
On 16 July 1936, 6,200 pilgrims departed the port of Montreal, embarking on the Vimy Pilgrimage, sailing across the Atlantic Ocean as they had done just two short decades ago. The unveiling of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial was to be a massive event, full of both boisterous revelry and solemn commemoration. We have covered the Vimy Pilgrimage of 1936 extensively in our 100 Days of Vimy posts leading up to 9 April 2017 and they can be read again here: http://www.vimyfoundation.ca/tag/100daysofvimy/ . However, a lesser known story in the history of the Vimy Pilgrimage of 1936 is that of the Canadian Pacific Steamship’s SS Montrose, a namesake of a pre-war ocean-liner that fulfilled a critical humanitarian role in the early days of the war in 1914.
Launched in 1897, the first SS Montrose served as an ocean-liner between England and Quebec before becoming a troopship in the South African Boer War of 1899-1902. In 1903 the Montrose was acquired by the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company (CPS) and again reverted to transatlantic voyages. During the chaotic “race to the sea” in 1914, the Montrose was moored at Antwerp along with the CPS’ SS Montreal as the German Army closed in on the critical port city. The Montreal was loaded with coal, but its engines were not serviceable, while the Montrose was empty of coal, but seaworthy. Captain H. G. Kendall, best known as ship master of the RMS Empress of Ireland, was working in Antwerp in a supervisory role at the time, not having mastered a ship since the Empress’ fateful day in the St. Lawrence River. Captain Kendall, sensing the urgency of the situation, had the coal transferred from the Montreal to the Montrose, and the Montreal taken in tow by the seaworthy Montrose. Working with the British Consulate, Kendall loaded both ships with Belgian refugees and sailed them to safety in England.
The Montrose was later sold to the Admiralty to be used as a blockship at Dover, where it broke loose and was wrecked. In 1920, a second SS Montrose was built and launched by the CPS, serving many years as an ocean-liner, including as one of the esteemed ships of the Vimy Pilgrimage of 1936. Carrying on much like its namesake predecessor, the second SS Montrose would serve in a time of crisis as well, being requisitioned by the Admiralty in 1939 and retro-fitted to serve as the HMS Forfar, an armed merchant cruiser of the Royal Navy. On 2 December 1940, HMS Forfar was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland while joining up with a transatlantic convoy. One-hundred and seventy-two crew members perished in the sinking of HMS Forfar, a sad final chapter in the Montrose saga.
In this recording by Historica Canada’s The Memory Project, HMS Forfar survivor John Grant tells his experiences on that fateful day in 1940 – http://www.thememoryproject.