The Company’s war began immediately. On the 1st of August the Admiralty issued instructions for the requisition of merchant ships. To the dismay of P&O, and nation’s ship owners, ships were ‘commandeered’ - there was simply no time to set charter rates.
A day before war was formally declared the Company’s first ships were requisitioned. The passenger liner MACEDONIA was needed as an Armed Merchant Cruiser and work to convert her began immediately at Tilbury. By the 4th August, five more P&O ships - MARMORA, PESHAWUR, PLASSY, SOUDAN and PALMA - were in government hands. Within weeks the war effort had claimed half the P&O fleet.
For those ships that remained in commercial service, schedules and routes went awry as the Admiralty intervened, directing movements of all steamers 'to avoid the risk of capture.'
Sir Thomas Sutherland, like so many others, hoped the war would be over by the end of the year. But as he rose to address the Company’s shareholders for the last time, after 34 years at the helm, the talk was all of war:
'There is, believe me, one trade and one trade alone in this country which is better than usual, and that is the supply of war material for the purpose of war.'