At 11.03 on the morning of June 3rd, 1935, the French Line’s brand new SS. Normandie thundered past the Ambrose Lightship. just off the coast of North America. As she did so, a thirty metre long blue pennant was unfurled at her mainmast, and her steam whistles let out a single, triumphant scream. Normandie, newest and greatest of all ocean liners, had taken the North Atlantic speed record at the first attempt. And now she was letting the world know about it.
Of course, she had not been openly trying for the speed record. No blue blooded ocean liner ever did. But there’s no doubt that the French desperately wanted the Blue Riband; France had never held it before.
The fallacy was exposed when every single one of the maiden voyage passengers was presented with an engraved silver medallion to commemorate the event, complete with the date. As for the actual Blue Riband pennant; that just ‘happened’ to be on board at the time. A happy coincidence, indeed.
That barnstorming maiden voyage of the Normandie was unquestionably the most successful in the history of ocean liner travel. More than a quarter of a million people blackened the banks of the River Hudson to witness her triumphal entry into Manhattan. Her debut attracted newspaper and media coverage fully equal in scale to the first Moon landing, some thirty four years later. And yet, even at the height of all the hoopla and celebration, the French Line directors back in Paris were casting nervous eyes over in the direction of Clydebank, where the Queen Mary was rapidly nearing completion for Cunard White Star.
One commentator summed it up perfectly when he said; ‘The coming of the Queen Mary will inaugurate the greatest speed race of all time. Which ship will be the faster; the Normandie or the Queen?’ It was a question that vexed people all over Britain and France alike. Nothing less than national pride was at stake.
In truth, the two liners had been rivals ever since they were laid down on their respective slipways in Scotland and France, right in the depths of the greatest financial depression that the world had ever known. They were of around the same size- 80,000 tons- and they were the first ships in the world ever to exceed a thousand feet in length. Each was designed to cross the Atlantic in around four days.
Normandie and Queen Mary were, essentially, vast, swaggering, sea going cathedrals, designed to showcase the greatest attributes and merits- both real and imagined- of their host nations. But, while work on the Queen Mary came to an agonising halt in the midst of the Great Depression, the French ploughed ahead with Normandie. She emerged in the late spring of 1935, and immediately swept the board on the Atlantic crossing. There had never been a ship like her and, in all truth, there has never been one quite like her since.
If the French were nervous about the coming debut of the Queen Mary, then their English rivals were equally jittery. The Normandie had taken every possible honour that the new British liner could hope to aspire to. If Britain was to regain its pre-eminent place as the number one maritime nation in the world, then the Normandie had to be beaten, and decisively at that.
It started well enough. On May 27th, 1936, the Queen Mary sailed on her maiden voyage from Southampton, high on jingoism and laden down with the weight of national expectation. Once clear of the English Channel, Commodore Edgar Britten put his foot down, and the big British liner thundered out to the westward. Then, two days out from New York, she hit the fog.
For eleven straight hours, the Queen Mary slowed to a crawl in the middle of a typical Atlantic sea of fog. When she finally cleared it, the big liner poured on power. She soon began to make up time.
But not enough time….
Queen Mary arrived in New York to a stunning, superlative welcome fully the equal of that accorded to her rival. But the next day, when the eastbound Normandie docked in Le Havre, she was still flying her Blue Riband pennant.
That same August, the Queen finally beat her French rival, taking the pennant in both directions. There was an air of general satisfaction back in Britain; the natural order of things seemed to have been restored.
Then, In March of 1937, the Normandie took back the eastbound record in the teeth of a ferocious storm. That same August, she also retook the westbound record as well. Game on.
Finally, in August of 1938, the Queen Mary won back the record in both directions. Yet the British ship had always been the more powerful of the two. Her engines could generate 200,000 horsepower, compared to the 160,000 of her French rival. In theory, that gave the Queen an advantage of around twenty five per cent.
The actual speeds varied by only a fraction; both ships routinely ran at over thirty knots. Each in turn brought the crossing time down to a little under four days.
The Normandie benefited massively from her radical new hull design; sleek, clean, sweeping and modern, she was like a space ship compared to the doughty, conventional Cunarder. Her bulbous underwater bow and sharp, tapered prow combined with a broad waist and vast, soaring flanks to create a magnificent, aerodynamic dream of a hull, one as practical and successful as it was bewitching to behold.
By contrast, the Queen Mary was a bigger, updated version of earlier, proven Cunard mainstays such as the Mauretania and Aquitania. Evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. For all of her considerable warmth and grace, she simply did not have the style, boldness and panache of the French ship.
But the Normandie was not quite the French masterpiece that her owners claimed. In fact, her hull was designed by a Russian emigre by the name of Vladimir Yourkevitch. Before the 1917 revolution, he had been an architect working for the Imperial Russian Navy. Leaving Russia seemed a smart move at that turbulent time. And it was he who came up with the stunning hull design for the Normandie.
Yourkevitch was by no means prepared to work solely for-or with- the French. As specifications for both Normandie and Queen Mary were being worked out, Yourkevitch touted his revolutionary designs to both Cunard White Star and the French Line. The British sidelined the Russian refugee; the French did not.
And, in the most exquisitely agonising twist of all, Yourkevitch had to stand back and watch his great creation burn and die in front of his own eyes. As she slowly flooded and capsized at her Manhattan Pier in February of 1942, Yourkevitch begged the American admiral in charge of the scene to let him go on board.
He knew the Normandie blindfolded; better than anyone else. Yourkevitch could have opened the flood valves that would have ensured that the ship settled on an even keel. But this insignificant seeming little man was rebuffed. Admiral Adolphus Andrews told Yourkevitch that it was ‘a navy job’.
The result? The needless, total destruction of the Normandie. With her went the chance of shaving up to six months from the end of World War Two.
Of course, the Queen Mary went on to a fabled, illustrious career that straddled both war and peace. She finally lost the Blue Riband to the barnstorming SS. United States in 1952. The new American liner had turbines developed for fast attack aircraft carriers in the Pacific theatre, and a hull shape that owed more than just a nod or two to the Normandie.
Both ships- Queen Mary and Normandie- have rightly become immortal. They were designed, built and sailed with great style and panache. Everything about them was front page news at the time. Both survive after a form; the Queen Mary as a dilapidated, yet still dignified hotel cum tourist attraction in Long Beach, California. And as for Normandie, her reputation as the most beautiful, brilliant and daring ocean liner of all time is safe; cherished and inviolable, the magnificent French Line flagship remains the absolute epitome of luxury, style and glamour to this day.