Sinking of RMS. At around 9:20am on 26 October 1940, travelling about 70 miles northwest of Ireland along the west coast, the Empress of Britain was spotted by a German Focke-Wulf C 200 Condor long-range bomber, commanded by Oberleutnant Bernhard Jope. Jope’s bomber strafed the Empress three times and hit her twice with 250 kg bombs.
Only after Jope returned to base in northern France was it discovered which ship he had attacked. A telex was sent to German Supreme Headquarters. Realising the significance, a reconnaissance plane went to verify; and the German news agency reported that the Empress of Britain had been sunk
“The Empress of Britain was successfully attacked by German bombers on Saturday morning within the waters of Northern Ireland. The ship was badly hit and began to sink at once. The crew took to their boats.”
Despite the ferocity of Jope’s attack and the fires, there were few casualties. However, bombs started a fire that began to overwhelm the ship. At 9:50am, Captain Sapworth gave the order to abandon. The fire was concentrated in the midsection, causing passengers to head for the bow and stern and hampering launching of the lifeboats. Most of the 416 crew, 2 gunners, and 205 passengers were picked up by the destroyers HMS Echo and ORP Burza, and the anti-submarine trawler HMS Cape Arcona. A skeleton crew remained aboard.
The fire left the ship unable to move under her own power, but she was not sinking and the hull appeared intact despite a slight list. At 9:30am on 27 October, a party from HMS Broke went on board and attached tow ropes. The oceangoing tugs HMS Marauder and HMS Thames had arrived and took the hulk under tow. Escorted by Broke and HMS Sardonyx, and with cover from Short Sunderland flying boats during daylight, the salvage convoy made for land at 4 kn (7.4 km/h; 4.6 mph).
The German submarine U-32, commanded by Hans Jenisch, had been told and headed in that direction. He had to dive due to the flying boats, but that night, using hydrophones (passive sonar), located the ships and closed on them. The destroyers were zigzagging and U-32 positioned herself between them and the Empress of Britain, from where she fired two torpedoes. The first detonated prematurely, but the second hit, causing a massive explosion. It appears that the crews of the destroyers thought the explosion was caused by the fires aboard the liner reaching her fuel tanks. Jenisch manoeuvred U-32 and fired a third torpedo which impacted just aft of the earlier one.
The Empress of Britain began to fill with water and list heavily. The tugs slipped the tow lines and at 2.05am on 28 October, Empress of Britain sank northwest of Bloody Foreland, County Donegal (off Ireland at 55-16N 09-50W).
It was suspected that she had been carrying gold. The United Kingdom was at the time attempting to ship gold to North America in order to improve its credit. South Africa was a gold producer, and the Empress had recently berthed in Cape Town. Most of the consignments of gold were transported from Cape Town to Sydney, Australia, and from there to America; there were not enough suitable ships and the gold was frequently held up in Sydney. It is possible that, as a result of this delay, the Empress was transporting gold from South Africa to England, where it could then be moved to America.
On 8 January 1949, the Daily Mail reported that a salvage attempt was to be made in the summer of that year. There were no follow-ups, and the story contained errors. In 1985, a potential salvager received a letter from the Department of Transport Shipping Policy Unit saying gold on board had been recovered.
In 1995, salvagers found the Empress upside-down in 500 feet (150 m) of water. Using saturation diving, they found that the fire had destroyed most of the decks, leaving a largely empty shell rising from the sea floor. The bullion room was still intact. Inside was a skeleton but no gold. It is suspected the gold was unloaded when the Empress was on fire and its passengers evacuated. The body inside the bullion room may have been someone involved in salvage.