In the annals of vanished Atlantic liners, the names of Bremen and Europa are synonymous with rebirth, prestige, and the extraordinary succession of ‘ships of state’ that the post Great War era produced. Yet Bremen herself had only ten years in service for her owners, while her illustrious sister ship went on to a second, post World War Two life as the Liberte.
So why is this fabled German giant, so initially dominant but so soon eclipsed by foreign rivals, still seen as one of the great leaps forward in maritime history? Hopefully, this post will get across just some of her mystique and posthumous allure.
Please note that this is not a concise summation of the ship and her career. Other, more knowledgeable writers have already defined that in far more depth than I ever could.
Simply put, the most miraculous thing about the Bremen is that she was ever built at all. With the German economy a train wreck after the war and the subsequent Treaty of Versailles, even finding the finance to put these two remarkable sister ships together was an astonishing achievement in itself.
The sheer, naked ambition was also undeniable. From the start, the Bremen was intended to snatch back the Blue Ribband of The Atlantic from Great Britain, after an absence of some twenty- two years. There was no subtlety here whatsoever; the Bremen was designed to be a winner first, and a practical passenger ship second.
And the Bremen was brutally, relentlessly modern, as much in design as intent. Her twin funnels were squat, low, oval shaped anomalies; so low, in fact, that they rained soot on the boat deck so much that both had to be doubled in height; an addition that improved her appearance immensely.
She was the first liner ever to have a bulbous bow; a kind of underwater forefoot that helped the ship to gain aerodynamic momentum in the water. So successful was this that almost every liner built thereafter had the same feature. And her forward superstructure was curved, rather than flat, to decrease wind pressure on the forward momentum of the ship. Again, this was a feature that would be widely copied.
In addition, the Bremen had the unbeatable cachet of being the largest liner to be built since the end of the war. She represented a seismic break with the past. Her designer said that she gleamed ‘like a new planet’ when the plans for her were first released.
Not that the Germans were above copying as well as innovating. In their early days, both Bremen and Europa carried a catapult plane, an idea taken from their raffish French rival, the Ile De France. As with the French ship, these proved to be ultimately impractical, and would be subsequently removed.
And her interiors attempted to emulate the Ile De France by making a complete break from the ageing Edwardian showpiecess of Cunard and White Star. But while the Art Deco styling of the Ile De France was sensational and legendary, the Bauhaus interiors of the Bremen gave her a cold, almost sterile stance. One of the first things the French did with the post war Europa was to rip it all out, and replace it with bow to stern Art Deco. Those original interiors were efficient, rather than engaging.
It had been originally intended to sail the two new sister ships on a tandem maiden voyage, so that they could take the record together. But a severe dockyard fire delayed the Europa by a full year. Hence it was the squat, solid Bremen that emerged to throw down the gauntlet to Cunard in June of 1929.
Twenty years of advances in marine technology could not be denied, and the Bremen did exactly what she was built to do, taking the Blue Ribband from the ageing, dowager Mauretania at the first attempt. It was a stunning triumph; a real slap across Britannia’s imperial face.
It also triggered the greatest shipbuilding race in maritime history. Even as the delayed Europa emerged to join her sister on the Atlantic, the hulls that would soon become Rex, Normandie and Queen Mary were already beginning to take shape in their respective home countries. The race was on, and how.
The two sensational new German sisters now indulged in a kind of maritime ping pong with the speed record, beating each other now and again by a fraction of a knot. But their timing was disastrous; within four months of the sensational debut of the Bremen, the Great Depression enveloped the world like poisonous fog. Within two years, passenger numbers on the Atlantic were down by fifty per cent, and even the two new liners were suffering.
Later, when the market had begun to recover, they were unfairly associated with the new Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler, and many people simply would not set foot aboard either of them. Then came bigger, faster ships such as the Rex and the Normandie, which completely outclassed the German ships. All the huge advances they seemed to introduce were set at nought.
In the late thirties, the Bremen made a sensational cruise around South America, becoming the largest ship ever to pass through the Panama Canal. But even this was eclipsed in the public imagination by the legendary Normandie cruise down to Rio Carnival that same year.
A few days before war broke out, the Bremen- painted slate grey, and with her upper deck rigged with explosives- slipped out of New York to avoid the certainty of looming internment. Her crew gave the Nazi salute to the Statue Of Liberty as she slipped past it.
British navy cruisers were lying in ambush for her just outside the harbour, but the Bremen was still fast and nimble enough to avoid these. After a tense few days, she took shelter in the Russian Arctic port of Murmansk. She remained there for three full months.
That December, shrouded in fog, the Bremen battled through a series of howling gales, ghosting down the coast of Norway. The fleeing liner briefly danced into the cross hairs of a British submarine periscope, but not for long enough. By the skin of her teeth, the Bremen made it back to her home port of Bremerhaven.
Here, she joined her long since shackled sister ship, the Europa, to wait out the end of the war. Both ships were painted in dazzle camouflage, and plans were afoot to use them as part of Operation Sealion, Hitler’s ultimately aborted invasion of Great Britain.
Their use would have been insane; such huge targets would have been unmissable for any stray bomber. Though huge ports were cut in their sides to accommodate the mass landing of troops, the idea- much like Sealion itself- was soon quietly abandoned.
In March of 1941, a disgruntled crewman set fire to the Bremen as she lay idly at her berth. In circumstances that have never really been properly explained, the liner burned right down to the waterline, and became a constructive total loss. Her charred, smouldering corpse was scrapped on site.
Without doubt, the barnstorming Bremen deserved better. Not for her the glittering, albeit estranged post war career of her sister ship. And yet, in the parade of lost ocean liners, the spectacular Bremen will always hold a special place.