Like most of the major shipping lines, Cunard emerged from the Great War as a very much truncated version of it’s former self. Losses had been appalling right across the fleet, and the sinking of the Lusitania deprived the company of one third of it’s express service to New York at one fell swoop.
That meant that Cunard was right at the top of the pecking order when it came to making claims on surrendered German prizes of war. The company was gifted the proud, lumbering Imperator- a ship half as big again as the lost Lusitania- as compensation. Like all of the surviving post war Cunarders, she was converted from coal to oil burning.
Oil was not cheaper than coal as such; but it did permit a mass cull of the numbers needed to feed fuel to these monster liners. The legendary ‘black gangs’ of old were consigned to history, along with the tea clippers. Oil was also cleaner to use and load, and permitted quicker turn around times in both New York and Southampton.
Cunard moved it’s first string of express liners from Liverpool to Southampton after the war, to compete directly with their great rivals, the White Star Line. By 1922, each had a first rate trio once more working on the famous old New York run. The Imperator was renamed Berengaria and, by one of those inexplicable, random quirks of fate, she became the most popular and fashionable liner on the Atlantic, until the arrival of the French Line’s stunning new Ile De France in June,1927.
She was joined by the proud, stately Aquitania and the the immortal Mauretania, still the holder of the Blue Riband. One of the three would leave Southampton each Saturday, bound for New York. A second ship would then leave Manhattan every Tuesday, heading for Europe. The third ship would always be at sea, heading in one direction or the other. In this way, Cunard could manage a smart, well balanced weekly service across the Atlantic. It was a pattern that continued more or less right up until the Second World War.
White Star ran a variation on the theme, with sailings from Southampton on Wednesdays, and New York sailings each Saturday, Their flagship service was maintained by the Olympic, the twin sister ship of the Titanic, which proved tremendously popular post war. She was joined by another war prize; a staunch, graceful twin stacker that the line named Homeric. The third ship was the Majestic, another ex-German that was the largest liner in the world for thirteen years. She was another proud three stacker- the sister ship of the Berengaria, in fact. The White Star Line advertised her as ‘The Queen of the Western Ocean’. She was the flagship of the line and, as such, she carried enormous prestige.
These two services were in more or less direct competition. But the Homeric found it hard work keeping pace with her faster sisters, and the White Star service never had the same smooth, even balance as that offered by their Cunard rivals. But as the twenties boomed, all these huge steamers prospered in a brave new world. Each line offered a call at Cherbourg in both directions, so that passengers could embark directly from mainland Europe if it suited their travel plans better. For both, it was a popular move.
The rebound in passenger numbers was really surprising, considering that the Volstead Act of the early twenties choked off the vast westbound flow of immigrants that had filled steamer company coffers for decades. Luckily for the lines, the same era coincided with a phenomenal rise in tourism, Americans now wanted to see the old continent that so many of them had fought and died for. And come to see it they did. In droves. Within a year or two, the Atlantic liners were fuller than ever before.
It was an incredible time; an era of flapper girls, baseball, steamships and jazz. The new, adventurous American tourist class were dazzled by the bright lights of Paris, the historic lore of London, and the indolent lifestyles of the French and Italian rivieras. With Prohibition kicking in back at home, thirsty young Americans soon found that the Atlantic was wet in more ways than one; Atlantic crossings became five and six day marathon house parties. The good times seemed set to roll forever.
This dual hegemony was rudely interrupted in June of 1927, when the dazzling new Ile De France made her debut. She was the first large, purpose built liner to emerge since the Great War. Rather than copy the old Edwardian decor so prevalent on the competition, the ‘Ile’ was swathed from bow to stern in the bold, new Art Deco style that was all the rage. With fabulous food and service, she suddenly made every other ship at sea look completely outdated. Neither Cunard or White Star had anything quite like her. But worse was soon to come.
Rebounding with incredible zeal from the post war loss of her merchant marine, Germany had begun construction of a pair of streamlined new giants, designed with the express purpose of recapturing the Blue Riband of the Atlantic for the Fatherland. They, too, were fast, streamlined and bold. Their designer said that they gleamed ‘like new planets’,
The second of these ships- Europa- was delayed for a full nine months by a dockyard fire that nearly destroyed her. But the Bremen emerged on time in the summer of 1929 to throw down the gauntlet to Cunard.
Twenty years of steady advances in marine technology could not be ignored, and the Bremen did exactly what she had been built to do, taking the Blue Riband at the first attempt, and finally ending the amazing reign of the ageing Mauretania as the speed queen of the Atlantic crossing.
But even worse was still to come. Cunard and White Star would soon find themselves confronting a far worse storm than anything their big ships had ever ridden out at sea. The first signs of the Great Depression were already stirring, like some long dormant Kraaken. Soon, all of the great liners would be fighting for their very survival.