In the Jet Age, it seems unfathomable to remember that, only eight decades ago, commerical travel between Europe and North America was almost strictly a seagoing businees. Week in and out, over a dozen of the world’s largest liners would sail from ports like Southampton, Le Havre, Bremerhaven, Rotterdam and Genoa, bound west for a fast, four day crossing before the first sight of that fabulous New York skyline.
In the meantime, perhaps another dozen or so prestige liners would be heading in the other direction, laden with passengers bound for the hot spots of a continent already twitching more and more uneasily at the bellicose sabre rattling of the fascist dictators, Hitler, Mussolini and, from 1936, Francisco Franco as well. But, with the depression finally fading away, for the Atlantic liners it was more or less business as usual.
These were the days of the so called ‘Ships of State’, when almost every major nation had it’s own flag carriers on the Atlantic crossing. Each of these vessels was intended to embody all of the best characteristics- both real and fondly imagined- of the mother country. And, for many booking on the Atlantic crossing in the thirties, these traits often played a big part in their decision of which ship to book.
For instance, the great Italian sisters, Rex and Conte Di Savoia, sailed from Genoa to New York and back, via Cannes and Gibraltar. A large part of their voyages were spent in calm, sunny waters, and so the two ships sported vast, umbrella strewn outdoor lido decks, with swimming pools surrounded by real sand. They offered that quintessentially Italian ‘dolce vita’ lifestyle afloat. For many contemplating the voyage to or from Southern Europe, these two great Italian ocean goddesses were the natural choice.
From Germany, the marvellous twin miracles known as Bremen and Europa continued to make the crossing to and from North America with almost military precision. It was an Atlantic proverb that German liners always offered the best cabin service of any line. Crisp, modern, and suffused with almost brutally chic Bauhaus interiors, the Bremen and Europa first suffered from the effects of the depression. Later, when the market had recovered somewhat, they again suffered unfairly by their associations with the nascent Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler. In an act of supreme irony, the bodies of the Hindenburg crash victims, bedecked in swastika flags, were returned to the fatherland on board the eastbound Europa in May of 1937.
Few ships were as true to their national traits as the 1938 built Nieuw Amsterdam. She was small by the standards of the day- only 38,000 tons- and had no intention of running for the Blue Riband. But she was immaculate both inside and out- a spotless, splendid high point of maritime styling and elegance. It was bruited by the great Basil Woon that ‘a speck of dirt on a Dutch ship would be enough to make the Chief Steward commit suicide’ and, while that might be slightly over the top, it certainly went a long way to describing the atmosphere that existed on this marvellous ship. Defying time, tide, and even war, the ‘Darling of the Dutch’ would sail on until the 1970’s; a quite incredible feat.
Of course, the two great ‘front runners’ of the 1930’s were the Queen Mary and the Normandie. They were of similar size- 80,000 tons- and speed. Both ships could cross the Atlantic in four days and, for four years, they played ping pong with the speed record, as it passed back and forth between the two. But, ultimately, there were only minutes’ difference in the crossing times each racked up in those heady days. Eventually, it came down more to the national characteristics that each ship was perceived to offer.
Second out of the blocks after her French rival, the Queen Mary was panelled in literally hundreds of different kinds of beautiful woods. She was all chunky armchairs, linoleum flooring and feverish lighting, with Odeon and Art Deco motifs and overlays. A direct, dignified yet obvious descendant of the Mauretania and Aquitania, she was at once both stately and familiar, but on a scale never seen before on a British passenger liner.
Beore the war, she was mainly the ship of choice for the right of centre crowd; the sort of people that were said to prefer to do business with Hitler rather than Stalin. In those days, she was never famed as a late night party ship.
The Normandie could not have been more different. Internally, she was an Art Deco temple on a lavish, unparalled scale. She was unrealistic, uneconomic, and utterly magnificent.
In first class, the evening dinner menu routinely listed some three hundred and twenty five separate items. Table wine was always free aboard the Normandie, where it was considered an important part of the meal. And, though the great bulk of her passengers were American, announcements on board were first made always in French.
The Normandie attracted a passenger load that was the polar opposite of her great rival. It was a mostly left wing crowd, leavened out with a regular, eminent roster of Hollywood movie stars. They could, and often did, party through until the early morning hours.
One passenger- English as it happened- summed up the two great ships with matchless brevity; “In my opinion, the Queen Mary is a grand Englishwoman in sportswear, and the Normandie is a very pretty French girl in an evening gown.”
These, then, were the great, palatial paragons that dominated the North Atlantic in those last, uneasy years of peace. The firestorm that would follow would put all but three of them to the sword. And the post war shape of ocean travel- glamorous as it was- would never be quite the same again.