Hospital Ship



Hospital Ship Prince George

Courtesy of Roger Litwiller

Click on the above photo to view a larger image


Commissioned: 11 Aug 1914


Paid off: 09 Sep 1914

Fate: Returned to Grand Truck Pacific Railway. Caught fire and burned on 22 Sep 1945


Jon Johnson reports (2015) that "The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) led the world in commissioning the first WWI naval hospital ship, His Majesty’s Canadian Hospital Ship Prince George. The female nurses receiving RCN naval appointments for war service on Prince George were the first women in the RCN, first female officers in the RCN and first female naval officers to serve at sea. These Canadian naval achievements have quietly disappeared. Just days prior to the start of WWI the RCN began a search for a tender (fleet auxiliary) to support HMCS Rainbow. Rainbow, based at Esquimalt, BC, was the sole Allied warship in the north east Pacific Ocean when WWI was declared August 4, 1914. The nearest German warships were at Mazatlan, Mexico. A week later, the German Bremen class light cruiser SMS Leipzig visited the neutral port of San Francisco, CA, only one day after Rainbow had left the Farallone islands, 20 miles off San Francisco, for Esquimalt. Prompted by Naval Service of Canada in Ottawa to obtain a tender quickly, Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve (RNCVR) Lieut. G.H. Lifton with his party of armed bluejackets on CGS Galiano boarded Blue Funnel cargo liner SS Protesilaus at sea off Victoria, BC, and requisitioned her on August 4. Protesilaus was arriving from the Orient with passengers and freight, including silk. Upon posting a bond to ensure the ship’s return to Esquimalt Protesilaus was permitted to sail to Seattle, WA, to empty the ship prior to her naval service. She was under the control of RCN Lieut. A.M.K. Saul who had joined the RCN a few hours earlier. It was estimated that Protesilaus could be ready to operate as a tender by August 18. Within a few days there was concern that Protesilaus was unsuitable. She was twice the size of Rainbow. Consideration was then given to the suitability of the Canadian Pacific Railway coastal steamer SS Sophia. However, in the August 7, 1914, edition of The Vancouver Sun newspaper there was a notice that the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTP) coastal steamer SS Prince George was being withdrawn from service and would be interned at Seattle, WA. Protesilaus was released from requisition and Prince George became the tender. Upon returning to Esquimalt from Seattle Lieut. Saul was placed in command of Prince George as he had his master’s certificate. The ship arrived at 0800 hours on August 8 and by 2000 hours was declared ready for naval service, as she was manned and provisioned. A telegram had arrived from Ottawa at 0400 that very morning stating: “Absolutely necessary tender be ready as hospital ship immediately. Expect action near Flattery [125km west of Victoria] within 48 hours. You must do all you can. If no stores ammunition on board can hoist red cross.” A hospital ship flying a Red Cross flag is exempt from attack which is not the case for a tender. One of Ottawa’s requirements for the tender was that she have good hospital accommodation implies something more than a basic sick bay found on naval ships. After a surgery was installed in the forward lounge and the elevators were modified to handle stretchers Prince George moved to Vancouver to obtain fuel oil and additional supplies. At Vancouver began the transformation to a naval hospital ship under the Geneva Convention. The hull was painted white with a broad green horizontal stripe. A red cross that had to be prominently displayed was put on the central funnel. And a Red Cross flag was to be flown from the forward mast. A ship has to be commissioned specifically as a hospital ship, a special designation within naval auxiliary vessels. In addition, hospital ship status was not complete until the belligerent nations are advised of the name of the hospital ship and its location. Prince George was commissioned August 11 and the notice to belligerent nations advising of her existence and location was sent August 12 making Prince George the first hospital ship to become operational after war began. Three British hospital ships, HMHS St. Andrew, St. David and St. Patrick were operational a week later. Lieut. Saul, was provided with a copy of the Geneva Convention relating to hospital ships. He was given orders to stay in touch with Rainbow, which he was able to do most of the time. When they met in person two weeks later Rainbow’s captain, Commander W. Hose, told Lieut. Saul “it was too gruesome to be followed about by a hospital ship all the time and [she] had better remain in Prince Rupert until she was required”. Manning Prince George under Lieut. Saul were 30 RNCVR seamen under a petty officer and three signalmen under a leading hand. RNCVR Lieut. H.G. Jarvis, purser, was in charge of supplies. Per the ship charter terms, GTP Captain Dan Donald stayed on as Master with his entire crew to operate the ship. Principal Medical Officer on Prince George was RNCVR Surgeon C.B. Wainwright. The hospital staff consisted of six RCN female Nurses, two RCN Sick Berth Stewards (SBS) and two RCN Ordinary Seamen as assistants to the SBSs. Elizabeth Pierce was appointed Acting Sister (army rank Acting Matron). Appointed Nurse (army rank Nursing Sister) were: Mabel Lindsay, Penelope Mellen, Annie Dover, Bessie Irving and Emma Black. Their appointments for war service on HMCHS Prince George were signed by Vice-Admiral C.E. Kingsmill, Director of the Naval Service of Canada. Interestingly, Lieut. Saul’s appointment was for war service on HMCS Shearwater, the Esquimalt naval base depot ship. The SBSs were H.S.H. Jones and D. Jones with R.E. Bush and F.O. Pattison as their assistants. Due to a lack of fuel oil at Prince Rupert on August 24 Prince George sailed to Ketchikan, AK, then Juneau, AK, in an unsuccessful attempt for more fuel oil. Then she was ordered to return to Vancouver to refuel then return to Esquimalt. On September 1, Prince George treated her only patient, a sailor with a broken leg from the Japanese armoured cruiser IJN Idzumo. The same day, after inspecting Prince George Vice-Admiral Kingsmill announced that her services were no longer required and she would be returned to the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. Confirmation that belligerent nations had been notified the Prince George was no longer a hospital ship was received September 9, 1914 


On September 22, 1945 she suffered a fire while berthed at Ketchikan AK USA. The fire started in the engine room and quickly spread to the rest of the ship. An hour later she was towed to Pennock Island and beached to burn out.  (Source: The Nauticapedia. References: Transportation Safety Board of Canada (1993); Canada List of Shipping; Archie H. Willis in the Victoria Times Colonist 13/07/1969 (Hobo, Spy, Mystery Man of Submarine Deal; List of Shipping Casualties Resulting in Total Loss in British Columbia and Coastal Waters Since 1897 (undated manuscript document); Wilson, Hill (2005) The Marine Pilots of Canada's West Coast; The Province (Vancouver BC) Saturday September 22, 1945 page 1;)