Some Reflections on HMCS Prince Robert 1941–1942

by Commander George R. MacFarlane RCN (1985)

HMCS Prince Robert

HMCS Prince Robert (Photo from MacFarlane Family collection.)

I joined HMCS Prince Robert in 1941 in Esquimalt BC. The Prince Robert was a former Canadian National Steamships passenger liner well known on the west coast. She was converted to an auxiliary cruiser in 1939–1940. I was a Petty Officer at the time when I was drafted to the ship having previously served in two armed yachts. My observation was that the management and organization of the ship was different from other RCN ships and operated more like a ship of the First World War era than that of the Second World War.

P.O. George MacFarlane

Petty Officer George R. MacFarlane RCNR (Photo from MacFarlane Family collection.)

There were a number of reasons for this but the most important was that the ship was run by the Executive Officer, Commander Geoffrey Bateman Hope RCN. He was an ex–RN officer (he was released from the RN in 1920) who believed in very strict discipline regime. Rumours of his past were plentiful among the crew and there was much speculation on stories widely in circulation. It was rumoured that he had, while an official in Ireland during the operations of the Black and Tans overseen harsh actions. He had also been hired to break long shoreman’s union strike battles on the San Francisco waterfront. He was both vain and capable. Before the Second World War he operated a Home Oil gas station on Windsor Road in Victoria BC.

HMCS Prince Robert

HMCS Prince Robert (Photo from MacFarlane Family collection.)

A good proportion of the crew were engaged as T–124 men (who had signed up for two years service only) and were later arbitrarily transferred to the RCNR (which meant no release until the war was over) – an act which they deeply resented. The crew were a mixture of experienced merchant seamen and members of the Communist Party who were recently returned as veterans of the Spanish Civil War (the Mackenzie–Papineau Battalion). One of them would not shower with the rest of the crew embarrassed by the scars of the lash marks on his back received for a rape conviction. Another of them had numerous bullet wound scars on his upper body reportedly received when he survived a botched execution by firing squad.

Another large group in the crew were what were derisively referred to as "waterfront riff–raff". There were also a few deserters from the Royal Navy who had voluntarily returned to service and received an automatic King’s Pardon for their crime. There were a large number of alcoholics and ex–convicts among them all. These men could be difficult to control. They lived in the after mess deck. There were RCNR and RCNVR reserves and even a class of Boy Seamen under the excellent tutorship of Petty Officer ‘Doc’ Miles RCN. The RCN and RCNVR younger seamen lived in the forward mess deck.

There was a notice board near the ship’s canteen but I do not recall that daily orders were posted. I understand that there was only one typewriter on board and that was located in the Captain’s office. The main theme in ship life was obedience and punctuality. We always moved at the double and there were highly restrictive dress regulations. We shaved daily regardless of the weather. Uniform dress was the only permitted dress above deck even during painting of ship when working blue or white uniforms were required. No one was allowed to wear sun glasses. The teak decks were holy-stoned every morning. Orders were passed by a bugler who ran through the ship so that all the crew heard the call in rapid order. Anyone who was tardy was put on report. More serious infractions were dealt with harshly and the cells in the fore peak were occupied from time to time. This was quite different from the average Royal Canadian Navy ship.

High level professional performance was demanded at all times. Constant exercises and practices were the norm. Failure to measure up to predetermined standards was considered to be a chargeable offence and the offenders were brought up before the Executive Officer and or the Commanding Officer. A man who made a serious technical mistake could expect to be reduced in rank. Those of the crew who were interested in promotion probably lived under a large degree of apprehension of running afoul of Commander Hope.

HMCS Prince Robert

Sunday Divisions in HMCS Prince Robert 1941 Half Way Between Honolulu and Manila. Captain Hart iis inspecting and the last man in the "Rounds Party" was Regulating Petty Officer Flett. (Photo from MacFarlane Family collection.)

The ship operated in two watches with the off watch working the forenoon. Dawn action stations were scheduled for 0600 by adjusting clocks. Hammocks could not be slung prior to evening rounds at 2000 and this meant that the crew was sleep deprived. Hands fell in on watch change, at 0700 the off watch holy–stoned the deck, at 0800 went on work detail, at 0900 ship’s Divisions, 1600 evening quarters. Lower decks were cleared for all evolutions such as streaming and recovering paravanes, hoisting sea boats etc.

The ship had a very good gunnery organization. The armament consisted of four ancient 1896 six inch breech loading guns, an ancient hand operated portable deflection control clock, two three inch anti–aircraft guns and a few .5 inch machine guns. Gun drill was constant usually at night. While en route from Manila to Hong Kong with the troops on board we watched a Japanese fleet firing star shells from over the horizon attempting to locate us. At the time we were accompanied by HMS Danae and convoying the Australian Troop Ship HMT Awatea with the bulk of the Canadian troops embarked.

Cutter Under Sail

G.R. MacFarlane at the tiller of a 32’ cutter under sail. HMCS Prince Robert (Photo from MacFarlane Family collection.)

There were frequent damage control, search light and sea boat drills (in 32 foot cutters). On occasion sea boats were dropped and their crews left behind. Twenty–four hours later there would be a rendezvous when they and their crew would be picked up again. Paravanes were always streamed on entering and leaving harbour. Standard swimming tests were administered to all crew and consisted of swimming, in uniform, around the ship while it was stopped at sea. Many men studied Canadian Legion correspondence courses. We were all encouraged to write Naval Higher Education Tests (HETs). The result of the training was a well–organized and trained crew.

Petty Officers Mess

Petty Officer’s Mess HMCS Prince Robert (Photo from MacFarlane Family collection.)

The Petty Officers were a visible strength in the ship. They came from both the RCN and reserves with all having average or better experience and training. The Chief Petty Officers were even more experienced and mature. They were lesser martinets than the Commander but were still feared and respected by the ship’s company. The officers appeared to be chiefly engaged in watch keeping. The junior officers were engaged in very demanding training. They seemed to have lesser responsibilities for the crew than normal. In hind sight I realized that the Commander ran everything personally using his Warrant Officers and Chief Petty Officers. Junior officers would stand as lookouts in uniform dress around the clock looking very miserable.

The non–executive officers and their departments took part in all drills and generally held their end up. The engine room had a very good team of Chiefs and Petty Officers. Some of the junior engineer officers caused problems from time to time. For example, one of them negligently closed a valve in the condenser cooling line by mistake causing a series of events that included stopping the main engines, the loss of electric power and the release of the safety valve on the condenser. This forced the engine watch to crawl into the bilge under the main engines to avoid being cooked alive. It was assumed that the main steam line had ruptured.

Scrubbing Hammocks

AB Wilson Scrubbing Canvas Hammocks on the Upper Deck for Sunday Rounds November 1941. (Photo from MacFarlane Family collection.)

Food was always a subject of grumbling. The Chief Petty Officer Victualling Assistant was thought by the entire lower deck to be cheating on the food rations. The menu was at times monotonous and plain. Even potatoes would run out and yams would be served in their place. Tripe was often served which no one liked. Tough old New Zealand mutton was still being served two years after it had first been taken on board. Once, it was all landed in Esquimalt during a dry docking but to everyone’s dismay it was duly returned when the maintenance work was completed. The cooks tried hard to turn the menu into something interesting but they had very little to work with.

We were constantly short of water in the tropics. Water was rationed to one quart per day per man. The water required for cooking was taken from that ration so we were frequently thirsty. Each mess voted to determine whether or not the remainder of the water would be used for tea or as water taken with the meal. The Wardroom had its own menu as was the custom in all naval ships. Most hands did their own laundry in a bucket. Hammocks were scrubbed on the upper deck on Saturday afternoons. There was a private laundry firm on board which catered to the wardroom and was otherwise considered as unreliable.

Commander Hope was the right man for the job considering the composition of the crew. Some of them were difficult to handle and Hope managed them. On one occasion the difficult ones refused to fall in on the upper deck over some issue. He confronted them in the mess deck with a small party manning the fire hoses. He obviously had arranged extra pressure on the system. When they did not respond to his direct order he ordered "switch on" with devastating results to humans and the fittings in the mess deck. That ended the incident.

There were some exceptional men on board. The engine room personnel, led by Chief Engine Room Artificer Robert Lang RCN, were a solid team. The riggers – Levers, Roxborough and Boston were notable for their skill and expertise. The Buffer, later the Boatswain, Harold Moist, was an unforgettable personality. He spent nearly the whole war in the ship and went on to be commissioned and became a community leader after his naval service. There were many others of note. We also embarked Edwin McNally – a Naval War Artist who captured many of the crew in a dramatic series of caricatures.

Shore Patrol

Shore Patrol HMCS Prince Robert These were the most rugged individuals in the ship and generally were much older than the rest: A.B. Jack Levers (Rigger); A.B. Hart (laundryman); P.O. Griffiths (Yeoman Signals); A.B. Roxborough (Rigger). (Photo from MacFarlane Family collection.)

Some of the ship’s characters would steal food from the Chief Steward at times in bold and clever manoeuvres. The Commander made use of these high jinks to create an amusing interest for the ship's company. Some of these characters performed outrageous acts that were not only the talk of the ship but resulted in serious sounding punishments. These in reality were minimal in their impact on the offender. An example was an Able–Seaman Dobie Hart (an ex–RN deserter) who was the Commander’s servant. He borrowed the Commander’s tweed jacket and fedora, which he wore pulled down over his face. In this outfit he went ashore in the officer’s boat in Hong Kong. Later in the evening he was returned to the ship drunk and dishevelled. After much fuss, and being placed on report. he was given a stoppage of leave for a number of days. Later it was revealed that this punishment was timed to expire by the time we reached the next port! Once the sailing of the ship was delayed ten minutes waiting for him – an unheard of consideration for a member of the ship’s company. This same character would act as Master of Ceremonies for the ship’s Sunday afternoon concerts. These events were witty and amusing affairs that poked fun at the hierarchy and would be talked about all week. Simple but effective morale building – but it worked.

Many years later I asked Commander Hope why he suffered so many rascals when he was so demanding of the rest of the crew. He said to me, "Without them there would have been no morale and even worse possible consequences. I had to make it look as though justice was being done and at the same time not kill their spirit so that they would continue their outrageous acts." Perhaps he was a very clever man?

The Captain at that time was Frederick Gordon Hart RCN. He was remote, unfriendly and had a quick temper. We only ever saw him at Sunday Divisions. On return from Hong Kong, and now at war with Japan, Captain Frank L. Houghton RCN was appointed as the new commanding officer and a new Executive Officer, Commander O.C.S. Robertson RCNR took over. The personality of the ship changed dramatically. Captain Houghton frequently communicated with the hands. He took part regularly in Sunday concerts as he was an accomplished magician. Although he was a disciplinarian he was popular with the ship’s company. Commander Robertson discontinued the holy–stoning of the decks and had the decks oiled. He was not a spit and polish type like his predecessor, but ran a practical routine. He relied more on the Chiefs and Petty Officers to run the ship’s organization. He, like his predecessor, seldom used officers for upper deck supervisory duties.

The training we received in Prince Robert certainly befitted everyone even later into their careers. The armament was obviously inadequate but I have no doubt that if the ship had joined battle that we would doubtlessly have gone down, but with guns blazing! Her crew was tough and flinty and were used to having to fight to win, which they would do without any personal regard.

(Editor’s Note: This article was written in 1985 but was never submitted by the author for publication. The author’s intent seems to have been to capture memories interpreted in the light of hind sight. The author, Commander MacFarlane, died in 2000 at Victoria BC. Until the arrival of HMCS Uganda, HMCS Prince Robert was the principal big Canadian ship in the Pacific Theatre. Some readers may not be familiar with the term "holy–stone the deck". This was a process whereby crew members, on their knees, would rub a soft sandstone rock on the teak decks to whiten them. This was done daily and was universally detested by all who participated. (J.M.M. editor))

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, Commander George R. (1985) Some Reflections on HMCS Prince Robert 1941–1942. 2011.

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