As Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth arrived at the John Brown shipyards to launch
the new Queen Elizabeth on September 27th 1938, a great war seemed inevitable.
But before smashing the bottle against the bows and sending the new vessel into
the water, the Queen chose to speak of peace instead of war. The launch was a
success, and soon afterwards the Queen Elizabeth was towed to her fitting-out
berth on the River Clyde. With war coming closer every day, work had to be suspended
as many of the nation's naval vessels needed refurbishment. Then, on September
1st 1939, the first day of war came. Hitler marched into Poland, and thereby made
enemies of Great Britain and her allies.
As the conflict grew, the Queen Elizabeth lay unfinished and waited for a decision
to be made about her future. Many suggestions were made, and one of those quickly
dismissed was that she would be sold for scrap. Some proposed to sell her to the
United States or convert her into an aircraft carrier, but in the end it was decided
that she would be put to best use as a troopship. Any action had to be taken fast.
Being the great ship that she was, the Queen Elizabeth was a prime target for
German Luftwaffe-pilots. To have this great ship sunk would have been a serious
blow to the allied forces. However, conversion into a troopship could not be done
in the UK, because of the threat of German bombers and saboteurs. The engines
of the great liner were installed, and in February 1940, she left her berth and
headed out to open waters. But with what destination? False rumours had been spread
that Queen Elizabeth would go to Southampton to be fitted out as a trooper, but
only the crew of the ship knew that it was not so. Some guessed that she would
head for Halifax, but at this stage very few knew of her destination. Once out
at sea, Captain John Townley opened his sealed orders that told him to head for
New York, which he did at full speed with a crew of only 400. Later that day,
a squadron of Nazi bombers were spotted over the Solent, where the Queen Elizabeth
would have been travelling if she was going to Southampton. The deception of the
enemy had worked.
After a four-day combined maiden voyage and sea trials, the grey-painted Queen
Elizabeth arrived in New York harbour, and was moored alongside her sister and
the Normandie. For two weeks they lay together, the three largest vessels in the
world. But on March 21st, the Queen Mary left New York bound for Sydney, Australia.
There she would be transformed into a trooper, capable of carrying 5,000 soldiers.
In the meantime, the Queen Elizabeth remained in New York to be fitted out with
some basic equipment such as electric wiring and light fittings. The launch gear
that had still been attached to her hull during the dramatic maiden voyage was
removed and the bottom of the ship was refurbished as it had been in water for
two whole years. After this, she too left for Sydney harbour. In February 1941,
the Queen Elizabeth arrived in Sydney. The conversion into a trooper was soon
underway, and when finished the Queen Elizabeth joined the Queen Mary in transporting
troops between Sydney and Suez. Unfortunately, this route was in much warmer climate
than the two ships were constructed for cold climates. With no air-conditioning and very little
ventilation, the two Queens were not a very comfortable means for the soldiers to
be shipped. In these harsh conditions, it was not uncommon that fights broke out
among the troops. But by the end of 1941, an event occurred that would put the
Queens back on the North Atlantic where they belonged.
On December 7th 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. As the United States
entered the war, great carrying capacity was needed to transport their forces.
What could be better suited for this than the two mighty Cunarders? The two Queens
were sent to America, where their carrying capacity was greatly increased from
5,000 to 15,000 people. Throughout the duration of the conflict, the Queens contributed
to the war effort by transporting massive numbers of troops. Each ship usually
carried a whole division, with the record set by the Queen Mary on July 25th,
1943 with 16,683 souls on board. During these voyages, the ships were carrying
lifeboat accommodation for only 8,000 people. This was a serious matter, but it
was also one that had to be overlooked - it was a true case of total war. In November
1942, the Nazis announced by radio that the German U-boat U-704 had torpedoed
the Queen Elizabeth and sunk her. Naturally, this was all a propaganda ploy, but
on many of these trooping voyages, rumours were circulating that one of the Queens
had been sunk. But every time, this was proved to be false when the mighty vessels
arrived at their destinations in their grey wartime livery. Soon, they were both
nicknamed 'The Grey Ghost'.
Finally, the day of victory came. On May 7th 1945, peace reigned in Europe, and
four months later, on September 2nd, the Japanese forces surrendered. By now the
merchant vessels of the world had transported a vast amount of people across the
globe. The Queens alone had ferried more than two million to the war zone. During
1946, while the Queen Mary was busy shipping war brides and soldiers back to their
homes, the Queen Elizabeth was put into dry dock at Southampton. There, 30 tons
of paint was used to dress her in the Cunard livery which she had never worn before;
Black hull, white superstructure and red funnels with black tops. Her wartime
interiors were ripped out to be replaced with what she was intended for - comfortable
and luxurious passenger amenities.
On October 16th 1946, the Queen Elizabeth finally set out from Southampton on
her maiden voyage as a passenger liner. The crossing was booked solid, and several
famous names could be found in the passenger list, for example Russia's foreign
ministers Molotov and Vishinsky, travelling to the first session of the new United
Nations. Commanding the ship was Commodore James Bisset, who 34 years earlier
had been second officer on the Carpathia when she raced to rescue the survivors
of the Titanic. By now Queen Mary was finished with her war bride crossings, and
had been put into dry dock to be transformed into the great passenger liner she
was supposed to be. The world that emerged after the war was a different one,
and the two Queens had been modified to meet it according to the company's new
slogan 'Getting there is half the fun'. Ballrooms had been turned into cinema
theatres and new artwork had been incorporated in the interiors. Every space of
the ships, it seemed, had been meticulously refurbished and on the Queen Mary,
even the officer's quarters were completely renovated. On board the younger Queen,
one could find art by many renowned artists such as Bainbridge Copnall, Dennis
Dunlop and George Ramon to mention a few. It is also worth noting that artist
Norman Wilkinson, who almost 40 years earlier had provided the two paintings 'Approach
of the New World' and 'Plymouth Harbour' for the White Star liners Olympic and
Titanic, had painted the two works 'Elsinore' and 'Dover Harbour' for the Queen
Elizabeth's Promenade Deck smoking room.
During the high season, on July 31st 1947, the Queen Mary left Southampton on
her first peacetime commercial crossing. The following day Queen Elizabeth departed
from New York harbour and thereby Cunard's old dream of a two-ship weekly transatlantic
express service had at last become a reality. Now was a golden time for the old
Cunard Line, since they were operating the two greatest ships on the route. The
only worthy rival, the Normandie, had been destroyed by a fire in February 1942,
and so the two Queens ruled the Atlantic waves alone. Not every arrival was an
easy one though, since at times the tugboats were on strike, and docking had to
be done without their assistance. Normally, a tug-assisted docking took about
35 minutes, but with no such help, it could take over two hours. Only once did
a mishap occur, when the Queen Elizabeth was turning into the slip between piers
90 and 92 in New Your harbour when suddenly a strong wind caught hold of her and
pushed her bow against the dockside bending a catwalk beyond recognition.
As the 1940s came to an end and before entering the 1950s, Cunard managed to erase
their old rival's name from the company as Cunard White Star ceased to exist on
December 31st 1949, and emerged as Cunard Steam Ship Co. Ltd. And so the only
traces left of the once proud White Star Line were the Britannic and the Georgic,
both in Cunard service, but still in White Star livery. The new decade continued
to be a profitable one for the Cunard Line and their two Queens, and at first
it seemed as if the next decade would be equally successful. But in 1952, the
brand new United States, which took the Blue Riband from the Mary on her maiden
voyage, gave them healthy competition. But that was equal competition.
By the end of the 1950s, the technology in air travel completely changed the situation.
In 1954, one million people had crossed the Atlantic by sea and some 600,000 by
air. When asked if this was worrying, a director of the Cunard Line responded
'Flying is but a fad. There will always be passengers to fill ships like the Queens'.
But only three years later, the two ways of travel had one million passengers
each and by 1961 the tables had turned completely with 750,000 going by ship and
two million by plane. The world had evolved swiftly after the war, and with the
demand of speed and economy, the airlines offered a crossing in a few hours that
by sea took between three to five days, thereby making air the way to travel.
As the situation worsened, the words of the confident Cunard director were proved
wrong when on one crossing the Queen Elizabeth carried only 200 passengers and
1,200 crew. An intolerable situation indeed.
In 1965, the Cunard Line decided to build a new ship to replace the now thirty
year-old Queen Mary. The new ship was at first planned to be one of traditional
design and divided into three classes, but as this would have been financial suicide,
Cunard decided to build a ship with almost no class distinction that would serve
on the North Atlantic during the summer months and spend the off-season cruising
in warmer waters. She would be the QE2. The Queen Elizabeth was dry docked and
given a major refit. She was given a new lido deck and an outdoor swimming pool
on the stern - all to make her capable of cruising. She was also fitted with complete
air conditioning for the same reason. After the refit she began serving in her
new role, as a combined transatlantic liner and cruise ship. But even in this
guise she could not make profits. And in addition, the now ageing Queen Elizabeth
was not suitable as a running mate to the new QE2. Therefore, Cunard Line revised
their plans for the two old Queens. The Queen Mary would be retired in 1967, and
her younger sister would stay in service for another year, while the new Queen
Elizabeth 2 was being built.
On October 31st 1967, Queen Mary left Southampton on her 516th and last voyage.
Sold to the city of Long Beach, California for $3,400,000, she would be turned
into a dockside hotel. She arrived at her final port of call on December 9th,
and was officially removed from the British registry and handed over to her new
owners two days later. A year later, in October 1968, the time had come for the
Queen Elizabeth to leave the Cunard fleet, when she left New York harbour dressed
in flags. She had been sold for $7,750,000 for use as a floating hotel and museum
in the Port Everglades, Florida. But as such she would never be used. As her new
owners ran into financial difficulties, the Queen Elizabeth was not given enough
attendance and started to suffer from the harsh climate. Two years later, when
her owners could see no other way out, she was auctioned off to the highest bidder,
namely the Taiwanese shipping tycoon C. Y. Tung. He wanted to turn her into a
floating university that would tour the world but before he could do so, the ship
had to be laid up in Florida to have her engines repaired, as they had been damaged
when water had entered the deteriorating hull. Finally, she left Florida bound
for Hong Kong, but during the voyage she had many problems with her machinery.
Once in Hong Kong, work started on turning her into a floating university. Renamed
Seawise University, the old Queen Elizabeth was stripped down and then built back
up. She was given new equipment in order to bring her up to modern safety standards,
and her interior was given a new, more oriental look. Soon, she would set out
on her maiden voyage in this new guise. On January 9th 1972, five mysterious fires
broke out through the ship. The fire protection system was still not complete,
and there was not much the workers could do to fight the raging blaze. The great
superstructure eventually melted in the extreme heat and finally caved in on itself.
Fireboats arrived at the scene and started pumping water onto the burning hulk,
but as the water filled the vessel, she began listing over on her starboard side.
As with the Normandie thirty years earlier, the sheer weight of the water had
now spelled doom for the ship. As night fell over the now dying vessel, she was
listing at a greater angle. By the next morning, she had rolled over and was now
lying on her side on the bottom of the harbour. To salvage the devastated vessel
would not be much use, and it was decided that she would be sold for scrap. But
before that she would stand in the spotlights one last time.
This was taken in July 1972
In 1974, Queen Elizabeth briefly appeared in the James Bond-movie 'The Man with
the Golden Gun', where she served as the secret Hong Kong headquarters of the
MI6. Filmed in 1973, the Queen Elizabeth had already been removed from Hong Kong
harbour by a Japanese scrap firm at the time of the film's premiere in late 1974.
So ended the glorious days of the Queen Elizabeth, the largest passenger vessel
for 57 years, not surpassed until the arrival of the Carnival cruise ship Destiny
at 101,000 tons in 1997. She was also the ship on which my wife and I (Rodney
Hall) honeymooned in 1966!
Length: 1031Feet (314.9m)
Beam: 118 Feet (36m)
Draft: 39 Feet (11.9m)
Gross Tons: 83,673
Engines: 4 Steam Turbines to 4 propellers
Service Speed: 28.5 Knots