In September of 1939, Adolf Hitler’s panzers slammed into Poland, igniting the time bomb that mushroomed into the most destructive war in history. By its end six years later, millions would be dead, and the ranks of famous Atlantic liners would be decimated.
The outbreak of war found both the Normandie and Queen Mary in New York, shackled to their piers. They would be joined the following March by the brand new Queen Elizabeth, after the incomplete new Cunarder made a spine tingling dash across the Atlantic. Converted for trooping duties, both Queens would go on to make an indelible contribution to human history.
The Normandie was not so lucky. A catastrophic fire, started in the last phase of outfitting her as a trooper, would be compounded by a disastrous ingress of slowly freezing water that eventually capsized her in the middle of New York harbour like a beached whale. Her scarred, gutted remains were refloated in 1943, but by then she was useless. The most brilliant and original ocean liner of all time could have shaved another six months from the end of World War Two. Instead, her carcass was butchered in a New Jersey shipyard. For all her magnificence, she never earned a penny in profit.
Of the German liners, the Bremen escaped the Royal Navy by the skin of her teeth at war’s outset, only to be burned to waterline level by a disgruntled crew member in 1941. The two Italian beauties, Rex and Conte Di Savoia, both succumbed to bomb and rocket attacks in shallow home waters. Only the Europa survived to become a prize of war, awarded to France as a makeshift replacement of sorts for the fallen Normandie.
But it was the two Queens, Mary and Elizabeth, that were the real game changers. Sailing alone, at high speed and painted grey, they often wafted up to fifteen thousand troops each across the Atlantic to swell the ranks of the D-Day invasion force. Between them they carried more than 1.2 million men, without the loss of a single life. It was the greatest single troop lift in history, and it ultimately decided the outcome of the war in Europe.
No less a person than Winston Churchill recorded that the two ships between them shortened the European war by at least a year. Adolf Hitler was no less aware of their potential; he offered a quarter of a million reichsmarks to the U-boat commander that sank either of them. None even came close.
After the war, the two proud but grimy Queens were completely refurbished. By 1947 they were offering the most spectacular and successful two-ship service ever seen on the Atlantic. Despite their size, both were sold out more than six months in advance. Anyone who was anyone travelled on them, and Cunard was profiting as never before.
Stunned by the loss of Normandie, the French Line resumed service with the sassy, legendary Ile De France. Just over a year later, she was joined by the Liberte. This was nothing less than the heavily powdered, art deco suffused Europa. She arrived in New York to a grand welcome in August 1950 as virtually a new ship. With fabulous food and service, she quickly, quite inexplicably. became the most popular ship on the Atlantic.
Up above, commercial air travel across the Atlantic had now begun. Fledgling airlines like TWA, Pan Am and BOAC used propeller driven planes that were usually derivatives of heavy, four engined, World War Two Allied bombers, converted for passenger service. The flights were noisy, often shaky affairs. And they were also very expensive. A one way flight from Europe to America typically took around twelve hours, and often necessitated a fuelling stop on some barren Canadian airfield en route.
But, while the vast majority of the travelling public continued to prefer the fun and frivolity of crossing by sea, those flights were still a warning shot that the shipping companies closed their ears to. It would prove to be a fatal mistake.
Meanwhile, the old Atlantic run boomed like never before. When America got in on the act and introduced the brilliant, barnstorming SS United States in 1952, more than 1.2 million people were crossing the Atlantic by sea each year, either on business or pleasure. In high summer, even the biggest and most prestigious ships- the Queens, the Liberte and the Ile De France- were sold out many months in advance.
The United States was built for rapid conversion into a trooper, and outfitted with engines designed for fast aircraft carriers in the Pacific war. It was a power plant without equal; one displayed to dazzling effect in her July 1952 debut, when she swept the board in the Atlantic speed stakes. For some years, the ‘Big U’ carried the cream of American society, though the Brits continued to favour the clubby Queens, and more cosmopolitan types swore by the French Line.
It was an incredible time. It became common for the liners to sail from their New York piers at midnight, wreathed in technicolor showers of streamers and ablaze with light from bow to stern. On board farewell parties would continue until the last possible minute, and sometimes beyond. It seemed that the good times were here to stay.
There were occasional salutary reminders of who was really the boss. In July 1956, the sumptuous, state of the art Andrea Doria sank off Nantucket, after being rammed in thick fog by the small Swedish liner, Stockholm. This was despite both ships being radar equipped. Some fifty-six passengers and crew lost their lives.
Then, in October 1958, the first Pan Am jet airliner flew from New York to Paris in just six hours, and the death knell of the ocean liner screamed overhead at thirty thousand feet. Within two years, the jets had seventy per cent of the travelling public on board. Soon, the once crowded Queens were often compared to deserted seaside resorts. An irreversible decline had begun. Even the United States was suffering, and badly at that.
There were attempts to use all these ships for warm weather cruises, especially in the quieter winter months. But the Queens, especially, were woefully ill suited to this kind of a role. One somewhat akin to expecting a professional footballer to adapt to playing top level, championship rugby. The attempt eked out their careers for a while, but often at the expense of their fading dignity. The United States fared better, but her deep draft meant that she could dock at very few of the more attractive cruise ports. She, too, was on borrowed time.
So it was with bemused amazement that thousands lined the banks of the Hudson in February, 1962, to witness the maiden arrival of the brand new SS. France. Built to be a ‘second Normandie’, she embodied all the style, grace and panache that the French Line had proudly excelled at for almost a century. Food and service aboard her were as impeccable as ever. Her owners called her ‘the last refuge of the good life’.
She was the longest passenger ship ever built. The American press called her an eighty million dollar gamble yet, for years, she averaged more than eighty per cent occupancy. She was joined in 1969 by the new Queen Elizabeth 2, a radically modern replacement for the venerable Queens. For the Elizabeth, that retirement ended with her destruction by fire in Hong Kong in 1972. The more beloved Queen Mary remains a proud, petrified relic of sorts in Long Beach to this day.
From Italy, a pair of lithe, white swans called the Michelangelo and the Raffaello were briefly able to buck the airborne assault. Highly styled and snappily served, they were ultimately to fall prey to the jets. Ironically, both were destroyed by bombers while serving as static Iranian garrison ships in the 1980’s.
The United States fell by the way in 1969, leaving the France and the QE2 to struggle on. Then, in 1974, the French government finally guillotined the $24 million operating subsidy for the France. Unwanted and abandoned, the great French liner was laid up to await an uncertain fate. The QE2 was alone,
A scheme to convert the France into a floating casino sank without trace. For five dark and silent years she sat alone and unloved. And then, even as scrapyard owners around the world opened their cheque books and sharpened their knives, there came a sudden, fantastically implausible reprieve….
Against all the odds, the beloved liner France was converted over eight months into the Norway, the largest, most staggering and revolutionary cruise ship ever created. Her new Norwegian owner, Knut Kloster, envisaged a bright future for her as a Caribbean cruise ship; one three times larger than her nearest rival.
His rivals thought the idea mad, and not without reason. But Kloster had the last laugh. The first thing he did was close down the forward of her two engine rooms, reducing her speed to a level more suited to leisurely cruises than fast ocean crossings. In her French Line days, the France had guzzled fuel like so much cheap table wine. At one stroke, Kloster slashed her fuel bill by a full two thirds.
With a vast amount of open deck space superimposed on board and a pair of new swimming pools added, the Norway went ‘back to the future’ with a total art deco refurbishment from bow to stern. Two vast, 400 passenger tenders were shipped on board for ferrying duties in the Caribbean. On board came the first television station ever to go to sea, an indoor promenade with eleven different shops set along a pair of window walled boulevards, and the first Broadway style shows ever to go to sea.
It went on and on. The Norway loaded aboard a fifteen piece big band, embarked a thousand passengers, and then set off on a nostalgic crossing to New York and her new home port of Miami. She became a resounding success, paving the way for every modern cruise ship that would follow her. She would dominate the Caribbean for years.
Leaving New York, she passed the incoming QE2, and the air reverberated with their whistles as the two great ships saluted each other for the first time in six years. A massive mural of that meeting was displayed on the walls of New York’s Grand Central Station for years.
And here, with that moment and those two ships, is where the story of my sea travels truly begins…….