Seventy years ago today, Cunard’s reconditioned Queen Elizabeth began her much delayed maiden voyage to New York. At exactly the same time, many of the main henchmen of the late Adolf Hitler were waiting for a final appointment with an American hangman in their cells in the Place of Justice at Nuremberg.
That latter, epochal event in world history had the effect of relegating the much delayed maiden voyage of the Queen Elizabeth to the inside pages of much of the world press. And, in a way, it had always been thus for the storied Cunard liner.
The Queen Elizabeth was launched on September 27th, 1938, into a world already twitching ever more nervously at the sabre rattling antics of both Hitler and his Italian vassal, Benito Mussolini. Just one month earlier, her companion ship- Queen Mary- had finally wrested back the Blue Riband from her great French rival, the Normandie. Even from the start, these events conspired to put the launch of the new ship very much on the back burner of world news.
Of course, the Queen Elizabeth never ran for the speed record. One record holder was enough for the line, and of course, that honour was left with the Queen Mary. Even after the barnstorming debut of the United States in 1952, the younger, seemingly more subdued of the Queens was never let off the leash to see what she could really do.
There was always something kind of melancholy, almost hang dog, about the Queen Elizabeth in the post war years when compared to the Queen Mary. And the real tragedy here is that, in almost every way, the Queen Elizabeth was the better ship of the two, both from a technical and passenger standpoint.
The Queen Elizabeth was sleeker and more aerodynamic than the Queen Mary, with a brace of fully formed, free standing funnels and a sharply raked prow. Her upper decks were largely free of the forest of vents and guy wires that mushroomed everywhere about the older ship’s trio of smokestacks. In every aesthetic respect, she was an obviously more modern ship than the earlier liner and, from the point of view of both crew and passenger comfort, a far better ship.
And yet she never really endeared herself to either passengers or crew in the same way that the Queen Mary did, both before and after the war. A war in which she played every bit as vital and heroic a role as the earlier ship, lest we forget.
Why? There will never be a definitive answer to that question, simply because it is so hard to be rational about vessels that essentially draw a purely emotive, largely illogical, response from those that live in them and sail them. But my guess is that the public- both at home and the travelling kind- had three full years before the war to get used to the ideal of the Queen Mary, and what she actually represented. The Queen Elizabeth- the actual, truly named ‘Grey Ghost’- seemed to appear, not quite fully formed, from the fog of war, performed magnificently, only to emerge into the new, peacetime era as an unknown, largely unheralded debutante. She never had time to create her own pre war legend, that bond with both crew and travelling public, that is the foundation on which any successful commercial career is built.
Of course, she did phenomenally well on the hugely lucrative Atlantic crossing right up until 1960. And it was the Queen Elizabeth that was so expensively converted for part time cruising in the mid Sixties, at a time when both the ageing dowagers were sailing on a rising tide of red accountants’ ink. Cunard obviously saw more potential and adaptive ability in their second, prodigal child, even after almost two decades of service.
Her end- tragic and almost certainly preventable- was a kind of mirror image of her life; sensational and dramatic, but soon forgotten by those not directly affected by it. By then, she was an idea and a concept whose time was obviously gone.
As ocean liners go, the Queen Elizabeth and her service record were largely eclipsed by that of a truly beloved, yet quite inferior companion ship which, against all the odds, still somehow contrives to exist in Long Beach, California, to this day. One whose very name has come to symbolise all that is enduring and immortal about ocean liner travel.
Who knows? Perhaps ocean liner history is not deep and expansive enough to allow for the burnishing and preservation of two such gigantic legends at the same time.