Tag Archives: HMCS Earl Grey

I’ll take the North-East Passage: Earl Grey – the Russian Years

From White to Red

When the Dominion Government Steamer Earl Grey was commissioned as the HMCS Earl Grey in August 1914 its fate could hardly be imagined. Having served as an icebreaker on the winter route to Prince Edward Island and as a summer yacht for the Governor General its role in the middle of an international war was far from clear. Purchased by the Imperial Russian Government to keep the supply lanes through the frozen White Sea open it was one of dozens of ships converging on the northern coast of Russia, the normal routes west through the Baltic having been blocked by the German navy.


Rare photo of the vessel bearing the name Kanada ca. 1918. Note the wheel barrows with coal and supplies.

The Grey (which had been renamed Kanada) and other icebreakers helped guide 146 British transport ships with military supplies through the ice and extended the shipping season to the end of January 1915. She also worked through 1916 but in January 1917 she sank following a collision. She was raised and repaired in England, returning to become part of the White Russian fleet after the October revolution when Arkhangelsk remained in government hands. However when the city fell to the Reds in February 1920 the crews of the Kanada and the Ivan Susnian (formerly the DGS Minto) aligned themselves with the Bolsheviks. The ship, now armed, became involved in a battle with an icebreaker under White Russian control. This is probably the only sea battle in history to take place between icebreakers. The Kanada was forced to withdraw with damage to her hull. Under the Bolsheviks the name of the ship was changed to III International and later to Fyodor Litke.

Litke VCCG 3Icebreaking and science

Fyodor Litke was a 19th century geographer, arctic explorer and navigator who contributed to the mapping and exploration of Arctic Russia and Russian Alaska. The name assigned to the ship was particularly apt as in many ways her activities over the next thirty years extended knowledge of the area. Based in Leningrad in 1923 she was transferred to the Black Sea  in 1925 and to Vladivostok  in 1928.

In 1929 the ship was dispatched to rescue a scientific expedition which had traveled to Wrangel Island, north of eastern Siberia, which had been trapped on the island by ice for three years and was unlikely to survive a fourth winter. Sometimes making only a few hundred metres a day the ship battered its way to the island rescuing the exploration party. The ship was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labour for its success.

During the winter of 1932-33 the Litke conducted a convoy of six transport ships, a motor schooner and 26 smaller craft carrying 867 passengers from Vladivostok to the Kolyma river where a new settlement serving gold mines was to be established. Owing to damages fighting the ice the Litke was forced to overwinter in the area.  In fighting her way out of the ice in the fall of 1933 she was badly damaged, lost propeller blades and warped one shaft effectively reducing her power by half.

After being refitted in Japan in 1934 the Litke achieved fame being the first vessel to complete the Northern Sea Route (North East Passage) from East to West in one season. The following year she traveled the same route from west to east. She served as an escort for a number of Northern Sea traverses in the following years.

Stamp commemorating the F. Litke. Part of a series depicting Russian icebreakers

Stamp commemorating the F. Litke. Part of a 1976 series depicting Russian icebreakers

With the outbreak of World War II she was armed and assigned to the White Sea flotilla. As in the Great War, shipping of material to the northern ports such as Murmansk was essential to the war effort however this time the German air and naval forces in northern Norway made the work more than just smashing ice. The Litke helped a number of convoys through the dangerous ice-filled waters throughout the war as well as supporting vessels carrying essential raw materials from ports in northern Russia to Arkhangelsk and Murmansk. She successfully dodged a number of German attempts to disrupt the trade.

In 1947-48 the ship had a major refit in England and returned to arctic exploration , mostly detailing the hydrography of the Arctic Sea. In 1955 she set a world record for the furthest north by a surface ship at 86 degrees, only 440 miles from the North Pole. In 1958, just shy of 50 years of service  her work came to an end and she was towed to a Murmansk scrap year where she was broken up two years later. Several reports indicate that owing to her service record her wheelhouse and radio shack are preserved in the maritime museum in Moscow however this has proven difficult to confirm. There is a fine model of the ship and other information regarding her at the State Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic in St. Petersburg.

The Earl Grey / Kanada / III International / Fyodor Litke in pictures

There are a large number of images from Russian sources available, most from the web page referenced below. Click on any image to see the slide show.


An extensive series of posts (in Russian)and photos detailing the history of the Fyodor Litke can be found at http://www.polarpost.ru/forum/viewtopic.php?t=677.  The pages also reference a 1934 Russian newsreel showing the provisioning of the ship, its officers and a few seconds of the ship underway . The video can be found at YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRpoxUQo_xE


The Steamer Earl Grey – The Canadian Years

APOPKAPCSHOPPE317229The new ship was very stylish  but was a bit of a throwback. With its clipper bow it had something of the appearance of a private yacht rather than the ice fighting ferry connecting Prince Edward Island with the mainland.  To be fair however the vessel came with a long list of requirements. It had to be a mail and passenger steamship capable of carrying more than a hundred passengers as well as several rail cars worth of freight. It also had to be a suitable craft to carry the Governor General on official cruises. Oh, and by the way, it also had to be a powerful ice breaker fighting the jams between Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia that had played havoc with the Stanley and the Minto and made a mockery of the requirement for “continuous steam communication” referenced in the agreement which brought Prince Edward Island into Canada.

Earl Grey on sea trials 1909

Earl Grey on sea trials 1909 before crossing the Atlantic

Like its immediate predecessors the new ship was named for the Canadian Governor General of the day. The Earl Grey was launched in June 1909 from the Barrow-in-Furness yard of Vickers Sons and Maxim. It had an overall length of 279 feet, was 46 feet wide and drew 18 feet of water.  The steel hull was reinforced for ice. Accommodations included  a first class dining saloon forward on the promenade deck with seating for 60 and first class staterooms amidships. The several staterooms included berths for one, two, or three persons. The aft section of the upper deck held the mail room and storage. The freight was found on the main deck as were the accommodations for second class passengers (sofa seats with folding backs which could form 20 beds), engineers, firemen and trimmers.

The Earl Grey at the Marine and Fisheries Wharf, Charlottetown

The Earl Grey at the Marine and Fisheries Wharf, Charlottetown

The design was the work of Charles Duguid, naval architect for the Dominion Government.  However attractive the vessel may have been it was not at the forefront of icebreaker design which had evolved to produce ships which rode up in the floes and used the weight of the ship to crush the ice.  The Earl Grey was of the older design and relied on her speed and strength to ram and cut the ice. It was later suggested that Duguid had made the design just wide enough so that it would not fit in the St. Lawrence locks so that Canadian shipbuilders on the Great Lakes could not bid for the contract. It also emerged that Duguid had been employed by Vickers-Maxim before taking the Dominion position.

Earl Grey 2

One of a large number of postcards showing the Earl Grey in the ice.

The vessel had a rough trip across the Atlantic. After 20 days she had exhausted her fuel, even burning the planking from the lower deck. Changing course for Newfoundland she neared Baccalieu Island when the fuel gave out completely and members of the crew had to row to shore for help. Prevented from re-fueling because of heavy seas she had to be towed into St. John’s. Transferred from the builders to the Dominion government in 13 October the ship went into service on Northumberland Strait on 30 December 1909.


Earl Grey to the relief of the Minto. The two steamers often worked together.

Islanders were relieved that she  gave satisfactory performance being rarely delayed by ice on her regular trips between the Island and Nova Scotia. In the summer of 1910 the ship was sent to Hudson’s Bay where at Port Nelson it picked up the Governor General and party who had traveled to the Bay from Lake Winnipeg by canoe and returned them to Quebec. The pattern was established with winter service in Northumberland Strait and use by the Governor General for official tours in the summer. In 1911 the ship with the dignitaries aboard went aground in Labrador which resulted in an official inquiry (probably because of the embarrassment).   A more serious event took place in April of 1912 when the ship, traveling  in fog at speed went aground off Toney River, about 5 miles east of Cape John, Nova Scotia.  She was only 400 feet from the shore and at low tide the tips of her propellers were two feet out of the water.  It was not until her cargo and most of her coal were offloaded that she was able to be hauled off. A commission of inquiry found Capt. Brown at fault for the grounding and his masters ticket was suspended.

Later that year the ship was brought to Quebec for repairs from the grounding damage and to outfit the ship for use of a new Governor General in a Maritime tour.  New quarters for the Governor General were constructed and the officers rooms on the upper deck were converted to a Royal saloon. For the tour the vessel, commissioned as the HMCS Earl Grey, was manned by a special crew of naval officers and men.

Earl Grey at Marine Wharf Charlottetown ca. 1912. S>S Brant (1) ahead of her.

Earl Grey at Marine Wharf Charlottetown ca. 1912. S>S Brant (1) ahead of her. Photo PARO

The ship continued to serve in maritime waters, visiting Charlottetown a number of times in addition to her winter service. However she was not destined to remain much longer in Canada. The Dominion government  was committed (again) to solving the transportation issue once and for all. Instead of the succession of seasonal ice-breaking steamers dispatched to other duties in the summer a huge new railcar ferry, the S.S. Prince Edward Island, coupled with the widening of the Island rails to standard gauge was in the works.  The Earl Grey, as well as the Stanley and the Minto  would be made redundant with the launch of the S.S. Prince Edward Island in the spring of 1914.  But for other circumstances the Earl Grey might be expected to be transferred to other Dominion Government duties.

PANS Accession 1983-310 #20947

HMCS Earl Grey, most likely in Halifax 1914 prior to her journey to Russia. Note the White Ensign on the stern. Photo – PANS Notman Collection Accession 1983-310 #20947

The other circumstances included the outbreak of the Great War. Cut off from the rest of the allied forces by the German army the Russian government relied more and more on the northern ports to bring in war supplies. The Russians went on a spending spree purchasing steamers and icebreakers capable of keeping the supply route to the White Sea port of Arkhangelsk open.  One of the purchases was the Earl Grey. The four-year old ship had cost Canada about $500,000 and was sold to the Russians for $494,000.  On 1 August she came under control of the Canadian Navy and on 4 August Capt. Murchison transferred command to Capt. Trowsdale of the Royal Navy. An offer was made to the crew to proceed with the vessel to Russia but as the offer was not made to the deck officers the crew declined and the ship was manned by sailors from HMCS Niobe. She left Halifax by 12 October and was reported in Arkhangelsk by 24 October when she was turned over to the Russians. She had been a Canadian ship for less than five years.

The transfer was not the end of the ship but was a new beginning and her subsequent adventures over more than fifty years of service eclipsed anything that has happened in Canadian waters. They will be the subject of a later posting which can be found by clicking here.

[In spite of being a Canadian ship for only a little more than four years there are a large number of photos of the vessel. One of the best sources of these is the Vintage Canadian Coast Guard Facebook site album found at their Facebook album page . The site also has a wealth of photos of other Coast Guard ships and is well worth a visit]