The 70th Anniversary of the Secret Visit of the RMS Queen Elizabeth to Esquimalt BC

by Maureen Duffus 2012

Queen Elizabeth

The Queen Elizabeth in wartime colour scheme. (Photo from the MMBC collection 993.017.1953)

How do you hide a gigantic 85,000 ton ship in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and later drydocked in Esquimalt BC for 13 days? Impossible – but spread the word in wartime that "loose lips sink ships" and you have an entire population pretending not to notice.

Not a word was reported in newspapers or radio broadcasts at any time, even though hundreds saw the Queen Elizabeth from shore, and over 1,000 civilians and military personnel worked around the clock during her stay.

The whereabouts of the Cunard liner had been a subject of world–wide speculation after the unfinished ship was taken over by the British Admiralty during the spring of 1940. She was sent to North America to escape German bombing and eventually arrived off Esquimalt February 23, 1942.

Queen Elizabeth

The Queen Elizabeth entering the Esquimalt Graving Dock (Photo from the MMBC collection P986.60.3)

Notes from the records of the late Edward Izard, General Manager of Yarrows Ltd., tell the remarkable story of the great ship’s conversion to an armed troop carrier in just 13 days.

February 18: Drydock being prepared for the Queen Elizabeth and additional keel blocks obtained and cribbed to provide additional strength.

February 23: Went aboard Queen Elizabeth with Cunard Superintendent Dawson and Engineer Superintendent Duncan.

February 24: The Queen Elizabeth arrived 8:30 a.m. and made bad entrance, paravane chain fouled dock sill and fractured, and on entering dock upset some of the keel and bilge blocks. Ship then had to leave harbour due to falling tide, while drydock was pumped out and blocks re–set.

February 25: The Queen Elizabeth floated into dock 10:00 a.m. and centered, and dock pumped down 10 feet. Two fire engines were then connected to ship’s fire main and two diesel-driven 10 inch salvage pumps connected by 10 inch piping to sea suction of auxiliary condensers of ship’s electric plant for supplying electric power for ship’s services. Dock pumped right down and additional shoring placed. Ship settled two inches.

Three hundred naval ratings were requisitioned for cleaning and painting hull of ship. Sixty specially picked high school boys, in charge of a Master, were employed on cleaning of the boilers, under the supervision of four Leading Hands.

The RMS Queen Elizabeth, 85,000 gross tons. Length 1,035 feet. Beam 119 feet. Draft light 38 feet. Twelve inches clearance over keel blocks when drydocked. $4,000 worth of paint brushes used. 10 tons paint applied. Two and a half times round the deck equals one mile.

On the first three days ratings were employed to direct workmen to the engine rooms and boiler rooms due to the enormous size of the ship and the large number of decks.

Queen Elizabeth

Propellers dwarf maintenance crew. (Photo from the MMBC collection P4064e)

The overhaul consisted of opening up main and auxiliary machinery for inspection, overhauling sea valves and reinforcing them to withstand shock from underwater explosions.

The ship’s accommodation was increased by installing 3,000 extra berths and the necessary additional galley equipment supplied and installed.

Port and centre anchor cables were ranged on dock bottom, each shackle weighing approximately 180 pounds.

Queen Elizabeth

Naval ratings applying paint to the hull. (Photo from the MMBC collection 993.017.1960.02)

March 2: Two coats of underwater paint were applied by hand up to the 40 foot waterline and the dock then flooded up to the 24 foot draft mark. Salvage pumps and fire engines were then shut down. Top sides were spray painted.

March 9: Special guns arrived and were fitted in place and defensive armament completed.

March 10: On March 10 dock flooded right up, 6 a.m., and ship sailed 8 a.m.

Work on the ship was carried out working 2 10–hour shifts and employing approximately 1,000 employees. The total time from ship’s arrival in drydock to undocking and sailing was 13 continuous days.

The secrecy continued through the billing process in payment for the work. An invoice from the Esquimalt Graving Dock to Messrs Yarrows Ltd. lists expenses for a ship referred to as the "S.S. Fall" entering drydock February 24, 1942. Other clues to the identity of the ship in question are the extra pumping fees required February 25th after the first unsuccessful attempt at docking as mentioned in the General Manager's notes. Dockage and wharfage were charged on 85,000 tons, and the Master of the Queen Elizabeth was identified as Captain Ernest Fall.

Queen Elizabeth 1

Army and naval personnel passengers observe the Queen Elizabeth’s departure from Southampton Harbour at the end the Second World War (Photo from John MacFarlane Collection)

Queen Elizabeth 1

View from the Queen Elizabeth’s boat deck while berthing in New York Harbour at the end the Second World War (Photo from John MacFarlane Collection)

Editor’s Note: The RMS Queen Elizabeth was the largest passenger liner ever built at that time and for fifty–six years thereafter. The Queen Elizabeth was used as a troop transport during the Second World War. During her war service as a troopship she carried more than 750,000 troops, and sailed 500,000 miles (800,000 km). The Queen Elizabeth was later designated as a Royal Mail Ship (R.M.S.). With her running mate the R.M.S. Queen Mary, she served as a luxury liner travelling between Southampton, UK and New York City, USA via Cherbourg, France. She was sold to a Hong Kong businessmen Tung Chao Yung who intended to convert her into a floating University cruise ship. In 1972, while undergoing refurbishment in Hong Kong harbour, she caught fire under mysterious circumstances and was capsized by the water used to fight the fire.

Queen Elizabeth Menu

A HMT Queen Elizabeth Christmas Dinner menu 25 December 1945. Photo Nimmo Family Collection)

Queen Elizabeth Menu

A HMT Queen Elizabeth Christmas Dinner menu. Photo Nimmo Family Collection)

QE Funnel

The funnel of HMT Queen Elizabeth with New York City on the background. (Photo from John MacFarlane Collection)

Maureen Duffus was a newspaper writer, columnist and section editor for most of her professional life, Maureen Duffus has also enjoyed a few unrelated occupations, including a summer job in Britain as secretary–driver for the touring Oxford and Cambridge Players. After graduating from the University of British Columbia Maureen began a career in journalism at the Victoria Daily Times and the Ottawa Citizen before spending several years in England while her husband completed his doctorate at Oxford University. After returning to Victoria she worked on both the Victoria Colonist and Times newspapers before they became the Times-Colonist. Her writing career continued as communications officer at the Institute of Ocean Sciences, where she published a newsletter, "Marine Sciences News" and wrote feature articles "translating science into English for non–scientists."

The Nauticapedia Project acknowledges the generous use of images from the collection of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia in this article. The use of the Christmas menu is acknowledged to the Nimmo Family Collection.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2018) The 70th Anniversary of the Secret Visit of the RMS Queen Elizabeth to Esquimalt BC. 2018.

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