The German liner Europa, for many years one of the great ‘ships of state’ on the Atlantic crossing. Post WW2, she would go on to a second, stellar career as the French Line’s much-loved SS. Liberte.

Imagine, if you can, a world without commercial air travel. It was not until a full decade after World War Two that the first jet airliners began whispering across the skies. In their vapour trails was written a simple message; it was nothing less than the death warrant of the transatlantic liner as a way of moving between continents.

For a full century, ocean liners were the only way of travelling the Atlantic with any degree of reliability. Only three years elapsed between Louis Bleriot’s first brave, stuttering flight across the English Channel in 1909 and the apocalyptic shock and numbness that followed the sinking of the Titanic. By the time that ship- the ultimate technical pinnacle of her day- had foundered, liners had already been traversing the most relentless stretch of ocean in the world for more than seven decades.

Immigration fulled the era. It fattened the profits of the shipping lines. Between 1890 and 1914, the most desperate mass exodus in the history of humanity poured forth in a human tidal wave. More than twenty million people, of at least twice as many nationalities, fled wars, pestilence, religious persecution and famine- sometimes all four- in an unstoppable flood towards the open, welcoming arms of America, the land of opportunity.  Many literally had nothing but the shirts on their backs.

Final twilight of the Titanic. As she races into the sunset and the passengers savour fine food and wine, the iceberg lies in wait…

The vast profits earned by the steamship lines resulted in a series of ever larger ships. Their first class interiors evolved into palatial spaces, resplendent with ornate wooden panelling,  glittering chandeliers that held sway above swathes of deep, rich carpeting, and random scatterings of plush, upholstered furniture. Palm courts full of wicker seating appeared almost everywhere. Cuisine and service came to resemble levels enjoyed at the Ritz, the Adlon or the Negresco. At least, it did in first class.

The First World War blew all of this out of the water. Quite literally in the case of the Lusitania, the famed Cunard liner that had been one of the ‘Queens’ of the Atlantic in the boom years.

America’s post war imposition of the Volstead Act limited incoming migration to just three per cent of the pre-war levels. Owners suddenly found themselves top heavy with fleets of ageing tonnage, and fewer people to fill them. Necessity led to the invention of tourism.

Former immigrant cabins were spruced up with fancy bed covers and linoleum floors, and the food quality was improved over time. Most ships were converted to oil burning, allowing for massive economies over the old coal burning days. Engine room crew numbers were scythed, and the amount of time needed to turn a ship around was halved.

This all went hand in hand with a burning desire among Americans to ‘see’ Europe. Now no longer the exclusive preserve of the moneyed first class, a whole new generation of young, professional Americans wanted to see the continent so many of them had fought and died for.

The bright lights of Paris were irresistible, as was London, then the capital of the greatest empire in the world. Further afield, the indolent lidos of Sorrento and the spires of Istanbul exerted an almost magnetic pull. Tourism took off like a rocket, and suddenly the liners were full again. Fuller, in fact, than ever.

It was an incredible age; a time of steamships, flapper girls, baseball, prohibition and jazz. Thirsty Americans, travelling abroad by liner, soon discovered that the ocean was wet in more ways than one. It rolled on and on until the Great Depression ushered in the greatest fiscal hangover of modern times.

The crash of 1929 was disastrous for the steamship lines. Passenger numbers plummeted by over fifty per cent in four short years, just as a string of new liners began to emerge to replace the dusty old survivors of the Edwardian era. First out of the blocks came the Germans.

The Bremen and her twin, the Europa, were designed from the start to be world beaters. New, streamlined and gleaming, the two Germans had modern, sterile interiors, and cabin service second to none. For three years, they played ping pong with the Blue Riband of the Atlantic.

The depression hit both of them hard and later, when the Nazis came to power, they suffered again from association with the Hitler regime. And soon they had competition,

The advent of those German giants was a real slap in Britannia’s imperial face, and she picked up the gauntlet with a snarl. In the Clydebank yards of John Brown, work began on a thousand foot long monster, one so vast that she blotted out parts of the skyline. Known as number 534, she was intended to seize back the initiative on the Atlantic. She would be the biggest ship the world had ever seen. But across the channel there lay a slight problem.

The Normandie.

Conceived at the same time as the ship that would become immortal as Queen Mary, Normandie was every bit as huge and impressive, almost as fast and, ultimately, much more brilliant and original. They would be rivals from the day they were laid down in Scotland and France respectively. They were both extravagant to the maximum, and both were sailed with great style and panache. But as a result of financial snarl ups in Britain, the French ship arrived first.

Normandie emerged in the summer of 1935, and thundered across to New York in what remains the single most auspicious maiden crossing in maritime history. More than a quarter of a million people blackened the banks of the Hudson river to witness her triumphal entry into port, surrounded by tugs and fire boats, and flying a thirty metre blue pennant to symbolize her record breaking debut.

A flotilla of biplanes flew over her in salute, as the whole scene was filmed from a blimp that hovered over Manhattan. One of the New York papers put out no less than eight editions that day, covering her progress. Normandie earned media coverage fully equal to that of the first moon landing, some thirty-four years in the future. It remains the most sensational (successful) debut in the history of sea travel.

Inside, she was exquisite, like a Hollywood movie set brought to life. Huge, double height public rooms were lined with exquisite lacquered panels, vast ‘light towers’, and wonderfully obscene amounts of glittering lalique. Those superb, sumptuous interiors would mark out the Normandie as the most beautiful, singularly brilliant ship ever to cut salt water. Even today, she remains very much the ocean liner.

Queen Mary made her debut almost exactly a year later. She was a much more conservative ship; evolutionary rather than revolutionary; a scaled up version of her illustrious predecessors. But she had great style, and a warmth many found lacking amid the glittering, almost overpowering style salons of the Normandie. On her sixth voyage, she took the record from the French ship. For the next two years, they would beat each other now and again by a fraction of a knot, engaging in what remains quite simply the greatest speed race of all time.

From time to time, crews on both ships would glance nervously up at a gleaming, silver grey vision in the sky that ghosted effortlessly past them at a height of several hundred feet. The Hindenburg brought snappy, elegant travel to the skies for the first time. Carrying seventy or more passengers, she could fly to New York in just two days. She had fabulous food and service, and was often wait listed weeks in advance.

Bonfire of the vanities; the Hindenburg bursts into flame at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in May 1937

Only her fiery, still controversial demise at Lakehurst in the spring of 1937 put an end to a string of passenger airships that would have given the liners their first serious challenge. But by then, all of Europe was already twitching nervously at the increasing sabre rattling of Hitler and his Italian lackey, Benito Mussolini. A second global conflagration hung in the skies, one as ominous as the funeral pall of the Hindenburg herself….

Even the sinking of the Titanic did nothing to deter the food of migrants to America in the years prior to the Great War

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  1. Pingback: ENDLESS SAILINGS ON A STARLIT SEA | travelswithanthony

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