HMCS Prince Robert
Extracts of time aboard 
HMCS Prince Robert

from September, 1940 - March, 1941, 
as recalled by a Medical Officer, 
Surgeon Lieutenant E. A. Sellers
Lightly edited and transcribed 
from reminisences recorded in 1979

Edward A Sellers joined the RCNVR while still a medical student, and had the rare rank of Surgeon Sub-Lieutenant until his medical degree was awarded. One of the first to be called up by the Royal Canadian Navy in Winnipeg, he was already aboard HMCS Ottawa on the West Coast when war was declared September 10, 1939. 

He served as Surgeon Lieutenant at H.M.C.S. Naden [Esquimalt, B.C.] until September, 1940.  He saw sea duty off the coast of Mexico and South America on H.M.C.S. Prince Robert from September 1940 - April 1941, and was aboard during the capture of the Weser, a German merchant ship off Manzanillo, Mexico September 25, 1940.

Shore duty through to the fall of 1941 began with his appointment as Medical Officer H.M.C.S. Royal Roads, Vancouver Island. Subsequently, he was appointed to the RCN Medical Research Division in Toronto under Charles H. Best.  In January, 1944, he and his US and Canadian naval colleagues conducted trials between Boston and Halifax on LST's gauging the effectiveness of various sea-sickness remedies in preparation for the D-Day landings.

In the summer of 1945, Surgeon Lt. Cmdr Sellers was Medical Officer aboard the frigate HMCS Swansea in the Caribbean undertaking studies in night vision and the effectiveness of air-conditioning on seamen's efficiency in tropical climates. VJ Day ended the urgency of this research.

After the war, his medical career took him away from the Navy, though not the military. Research interests throughout his career included shock in response to burns and cold, and survival in adverse conditions generally.

On a leave of absence from the University of Toronto, he became Chief Superintendent of the Defence Research Medical Laboratories [DRML]  at Downsview, Ontario in the mid-50's. Upon his return to the U of T, he served as Professor and Head of the Department of Pharmacology as well as serving several administrative roles at University of Toronto. He passed away in 1985. The reminisences of the Prince Robert below were recorded in 1979, and remained on tape until they were transcribed and edited by his son in 2005.


September, 1940

. . . One of the things that happened to almost everybody in the Navy was a series of pier head jumps, and HMCS Prince Robert was being  commissioned in Vancouver.  It was one of the CN ships that along with the Prince Henry and Prince David were taken over by the RCN, and turned into what were called auxiliary cruisers. 

HMCS Prince Henry ~ HMCS Prince David
Prince Robert was the first one and I've forgotten the precise reason for my pier head jump to Prince Robert.  I think perhaps it was because it was to go to sea before it was fully ready because there were rumours (they turned out to be honest reports) of German ships that were holed out in South American and in Mexican ports, but at any rate with a day or two's notice I was appointed to Prince Robert and joined her in Vancouver while dockyards people were still aboard. While her main armament, which was four- to six-inch guns, was non-functional, we did take her to sea for trials and found a great many defects, including unfortunate ones to do with the guns being not properly functional. Because of the report of an imminent, or the apparently imminent, departure of a German ship from one of the Mexican ports on the Pacific, we set sail with an untried crew, and as I said, with the ship not having [been] worked up at all, and proceeded to Manzanillo in Southern Mexico and spent the next three or four weeks going up and down the coast outside the harbour. 

In the daytime, we would go out twenty or thirty miles out of sight of land and at night come in quite close to land within two or three miles and there was a heavy ground swell at this particular point because of the continental shelf dropping quite steeply, and the ground swell caused the ship to rock approximately sixty degrees, which was very disturbing to all concerned, especially when it went on week after week and we were of course blacked out at night so that the ship became very unpleasant down below.  On deck was all right except for this persistent rolling.  Well, the reason I'm giving you this long report is that the German ship in question did come out one night and we captured her and during the succeeding ten days
escorted her back to Esquimalt.  I think this was the first action resulting in any sort of successful taking of an enemy ship by the Canadian Navy in World War II.

Capture of the Weser

The reporting from onshore [Manzanillo] was very good and we received messages two or three times a day on what was happening to the German ship, and as I said, we came in every night to within a couple of miles of the mouth of the harbour, sometimes even closer, and one night a ship did come out and our search lights were operating satisfactorily I'm glad to say, and we turned the lights on her and found that she was the German ship that we had expected and over a loud hailer she was told that if she scuttled or if she made any sort of evasive action that we would sink her. 

Weser Caught in the Searchlight ~ September 25, 1940

Well, we could have sunk her all right because a couple of our guns were operational and of course the German ship had been advised that there was no allied warship within a thousand miles--their advice was wrong--so they didn't know what to expect except that they were in the glare of a search light and were advised that they would [be] sunk if they did anything untoward, so we sent a boarding party on board and there was a little bit of fighting but rather mild, and as I said before, we took off about thirty of their crew and had them in a public area of our ship with a machine gun at the entrance to this open area.  Actually the whole thing was difficult because we were not prepared or really trained to take such an action at that time but it worked out very well.

One of the things that shocked us was, on our way north, to hear of our successful capture over the NBC news.  We reported in cipher that we had captured the ship and were escorting her to Esquimalt and so the Admiralty in London and Naval Service headquarters in Ottawa knew very well what had happened, and we thought that they were extremely unwise to make an announcement when were at least a thousand miles from Esquimalt and were operating in a very precarious way . . . our guns wouldn't shoot very well and the ship was not in good shape at all . . . our crew was really untried, we had thirty or forty German prisoners aboard our ship and we had a prize crew aboard the motor ship Weser, which was the name of the German ship, that we were also had reports of other German raiders in the vicinity -- I think incorrect reports, but we didn't know it -- and we were very much afraid that our ship was going to be taken away from us and perhaps our prize recaptured.

October, 1940 - March 1941

[We returned to] Esquimalt and spent a couple of weeks [while the dockyards people] tried to make the ventilation more effective and [repair] the distillers for producing fresh water.  One of the troubles that we had while on our first trip was that there was very little fresh water, but the distillers weren't operating and the water was somewhat salty that we had available for drinking, so but this was corrected and after a few weeks [October 9/10, 1940] we set out again and that time spent almost six months at sea.  Our usual procedure was to spend about a day a month in one of the South American ports like Valpariso or Callao, which is the port of Lima, and during this twenty-four hour stopover in these ports, of course, we had a great deal of relaxation of the usual sort done by sailors, but the time ashore was very short, usually twenty-four hours only at one of the ports. These were all neutral ports and they didn't allow warships to visit for more than I think twenty-four hours.  We also had a holiday, and our holiday was an unusual one: because we had been at sea for long periods, the Admiralty decided that they'd give us a New Years vacation, and our New Year's vacation was in the Darwin Channel [according to log of Charles Anderson, New Year's Day was at Port Yates, 41 degrees S,  not far from Puerto Montt] towards the south part of Chile, and it is a benighted place.

It was foggy and cold and there were no habitations of any note until you got to the Falkland Islands in this part of South America.  There were some farms on the shore but we were carefully sent to as remote a place as possible because the Admiralty didn't want to advertise our exact location.  Now one of the interesting mornings that I remember on our 'vacation' was that going close to shore where there were a few farms and the people on shore seeing a warship of some sort going a mile or two off shore were interested and started to cheer and wave their hands, and we thought this was a very nice welcome from a sparsely settled area. About a month later when we were in Talcahuano, which is a port a little bit further north on the coast of Chile, we learned that the residents there thought that we were a German ship, not a Canadian or British, and the reason they were cheering was that most of that area had been settled by the Germans many years before, so they were naturally pleased to see the Fatherland showing the flag so to speak.  But we felt welcomed even if the welcome was for somebody else. 

Well, our vacation was cut short after a day or so of wandering around this fog-bound coast, and was cut short because we got a signal that one of the German pocket battleships was believed to be holed out a little bit further down the coast, so this didn't sound good news to any of us because, as I said earlier, Prince Robert's guns were almost ineffective and going down to see the vonScheer [Admiral Scheer?] seemed like a kiss of death.  Now fortunately the report proved to be wrong.  We learned later that she was in the Indian Ocean, but certainly the possibility of meeting a pocket battleship with an auxiliary cruiser caused some bad gastrointestinal problems among most of the people on our ship.

Most of the time, as I said, we were on the west coast of South America and went across to Fiji to escort the New Zealand expeditionary force, which went from New Zealand to Victoria and then across Canada by train.We picked up [and escorted] a ship called the Awatea in Suva and from there went back to Victoria. We were looking forward to meeting the Awatea in Suva because we'd run out of most of our provisions and it was impossible to restock very well in the South American ports; but we found to our displeasure that in Fiji they just had a hurricane and all the chickens and things like that had been blown away so our looking forward to this promised land flowing with milk and honey wasn't as quite as satisfactory as we'd hoped.  We also did oil at sea and the oilers that came usually from the Caribbean through the Canal and then down to wherever we were on the coast of South America did bring some provisions, but most of these were tinned goods and things that could be stored well.  There was no fresh food at all except in our infrequent visits to the South American ports, so we didn't eat very well after the first three or four months. 

...As a Medical Officer most of the time was rather boring, but over six months or so you did pick up a number of patients.  The reason for the relative scarcity of patients is that there were only two hundred and fifty men in the ship and most of them were young and healthy, so that it did take a while to build up a hospital practice, but accidents occurred.  We had a few fractures.  I remember one very severe case of diabetes developed apparently secondarily to an infection, and we picked up a fair bit of venereal disease in spite of the infrequent visits to the South American ports: our sailors seemed to get around and I was able to diagnose both gonorrhoea and syphilis... there was also one chap [George Brown, according
to Charles Anderson's log] that had a badly fractured skull and I decided that because of the severity of the fracture that his chances of survival on the ship were poor so he was landed: the accident happened to occur when we were in Valparaiso, so he was landed and went to hospital there and subsequently was interned and later was delivered back to Prince Rupert in a British ship, his whole circuitous trip taking the better part of the year.  The other people regardless of what happened to them had to confront the difficult problem of either getting interned if they went ashore in South America, or being kept in the ship where they probably would eventually get to a British port or even back to Victoria, so I ended up with half a dozen people in the sick bay plus a fair number of people who were on light duty, but this took quite a long time to build up and most of the things weren't too severe anyway. 

About the Armament of the Prince Robert in 1940-41

. . . the Canadian Navy and Canadian Forces were well organized but extremely small.  They were small in number of people but also very small in terms of number of ships or in armament, and the guns that I referred to were [built in] 1897, at least two of them weren't operational--they could be fired but
one of them couldn't be trained, I remember, so it in effect it wasn't an effective weapon. Even the side arms that we had were inadequate, there just weren't enough rifles or machine guns available to take and I remember that I took my own revolver because there weren't service revolvers for all the officers.  I think there were only half a dozen among the twenty-five officers in the ship, and I think that the sailors only had about one rifle per two individuals, but we didn't have any explosive material that could be used for blowing up or sinking a ship if we wanted to do it.  We did have depth charges of course but the whole thing was very, very slapdash, and I guess that many of the other ships that went out were as badly
equipped.  We were amateurs and over the better part of the year we were at sea, the prairie sailors that made up most of the crew turned into sailors, but to start with there was no question about being professionals as navies go, we were all amateurs. 

Most of the ships we were after were merchant ships so that they probably were not any better equipped than we were, but there were extremely well-armed German raiders that were operating in the Indian Ocean, in the South Atlantic, and occasionally in the South Pacific, and we really were not in a good position to put up any sort of a fight against them, and I think your comment we were lucky not to meet them was absolutely right, and of course this pocket battle ship would be just impossible.  You wouldn't even see a pocket battle ship before it had been able to sink you.

The Prince ships underwent quite a few changes and of course were extremely well armed in the numbers of changes that they underwent.  They gradually got anti-aircraft guns and the old, old six-inch guns were replaced with modern 4.7's and they became fighting ships, even though unarmoured, as time went on, but the first few times they went out they were sitting ducks if they'd come across any real opposition. 

...One of the roles that the auxiliary cruisers, and armed merchant cruisers did fill was that they could occupy an enemy ship for awhile, and in convoy duty in the Atlantic the AMC's were sitting ducks to a large extent against any battleship or cruiser, but they did take up quite a lot of time so that any ships that they were escorting had an opportunity to disperse while the enemy ship was occupied with the AMC or auxiliary cruiser: if you're in one of the escort ships or an AMC it doesn't make for high morale because it is a fact of life.

View from the bridge of HMCS Prince Robert


~ Sandy Sellers
Glenburnie, Ontario
Text and Photos© Estate of E. A. Sellers

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