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.

The Atlantic crossing in the 1930's was the greatest commuter highway in the world

The Atlantic crossing in the 1930’s was the greatest commuter highway in the world


World War Two was nothing less than a second sunset for the German merchant marine

World War Two was nothing less than a second sunset for the German merchant marine

Just as in the previous war, the conflict of 1939 through 1945 would be incredibly hard on the German merchant marine. Rebuilt at almost superhuman cost in the doldrum years of the Weimar Republic, it was to become the tool of a totally nihilistic regime that neither valued it, nor really knew how to use it. What followed was depressingly predictable.

“On land I am a hero; at sea I am a coward.”

This untypical bit of critical self analysis from the mouth of Adolf Hitler gave proof of where his priorities- and zone of malign expertise- really rested. Throughout the war, the German Navy and it’s civilian counterpart would remain very much the beggar at the feast as far as materials and priorities for the German armed services were concerned.

Of the two great pre war, North German Lloyd speed champions, the Europa was safely in Germany, but the Bremen was in New York, with only hours to escape before the formal declaration of war. Unwilling to see the ship interned just like her Great War predecessors, her crew sailed her out of New York without passengers, but with her decks rigged with explosives. Her crew gave a collective Hitler salute to the Statue Of Liberty as she sailed past it,

Outside territorial waters, a Royal Navy cruiser lay in wait for the Bremen, but the big liner confounded it, with her crew painting her grey as she made a headlong dash for the totally implausible port of Murmansk, in Russia.

In December, after three months as a ‘guest’ of Hitler’s temporary allies, the Bremen took advantage of darkness and fog to sneak down the coast of Norway on her way home. A British submarine actually sighted her, but was forced to dive by a German patrol aircraft. To the relief of her crew, the Bremen somehow made it home in one piece.

Painted in zig zag camouflage for the scheduled Operation Sealion, the planned invasion of Great Britain, the Bremen was left idle when that plan was aborted. In June of 1941, a disgruntled member of her skeleton crew set fire to the mammoth liner. Somehow, the 50,000 ton Bremen burned down to the waterline, in circumstances that have never been fully explained. Her gutted corpse was ripped apart after the war.

In December of 1939, the 32,000 ton, 1924 built Columbus, the third ship in the same line’s service to America, was intercepted off Cape Hatteras by a Royal Navy cruiser, HMS Hyperion. At the outbreak of war, the Columbus had headed for Cuba, where her cruise passengers were forcibly disembarked. Then, with her decks rigged with explosives just like the Bremen, she also attempted to run for home.

Her position was betrayed to the Royal Navy by a neutral American warship. Unable to outrun her heavily armed foe, the Columbus was scuttled by her crew. She was the first major liner casualty of the war on the Axis side. Events would prove that she would not be the last.

By January 1945, Germany had instituted Operation Hannibal, the evacuation by sea of as many civilians and soldiers as possible from East Prussia back to the interiors of the terminally contracting Reich. The approaching Red Army was unstoppable, and about to wreak a hellish vengeance for German atrocities committed across Russia itself.

On January 30th, the 28,000 ton Wilhelm Gustloff, a former ‘Strength Through Joy’ cruise ship built especially to cater to German workers and their families in peacetime, staggered out of the port of Gotenhafen, carrying anything up to an estimated ten thousand fear fuelled refugees and soldiers. The exact number was never recorded in the desperate haste of those times.

Emerging into the teeth of a howling gale, the wallowing liner became detached from her sole escorting warship. Just hours later, the Wilhelm Gustloff blundered into the cross hairs of a Russian periscope.

A trio of torpedoes from the Russian submarine S-!3 slammed into the liner. In little under an hour, amid scenes of indescribable horror, she capsized to port and sagged under the freezing Baltic waters. Just over 1300 survivors were plucked from the ice strewn seas, making for a never to be correctly ascertained death toll anywhere from six to nine thousand souls. To this day, the loss of the Wilhelm Gustloff remains the worst maritime disaster in history.

But in some ways, the sinking of the Cap Arcona on May 5th was even worse.

Hitler was already five days dead, but the war was not yet officially over, when RAF Typhoon fighter bombers discovered the three stack, pre war pride of the Hamburg-South America Line at anchor in the Baltic port of Neustadt, They promptly proceeded to fire rockets into the big liner, turning her into a huge, floating fireball,

Unknown to the British pilots, the Cap Arcona was actually loaded with over five thousand former concentration camp inmates, displaced from camps already overrun by the Allied advance. Within sight and sound of safety, most of these poor, emaciated souls would become unintended victims of the last great sea tragedy of the war. The bodies were still being washed up ashore for months afterwards.

This list, while depressing, is sadly by no means exhaustive.



The Leviathan in post war service for US Lines

Of all the great liners to emerge unscathed from the carnage of the Great War, I think the Leviathan had perhaps the saddest commercial career. In view of her high birth and her heroic war record, there’s something wistful and just damned wrong about her fate on the Atlantic. She was a flower that never seemed to fully bloom.

Designed and launched as the Vaterland, the second of the great Hamburg Amerika Line trio created by the brilliant Albert Ballin, she was in New York harbour, in the midst of her third round trip, when the war broke out. Shackled to her Hoboken pier, she was first interned, before suffering the ultimate indignity of becoming a troopship for the enemies of the Fatherland.

It was a role she performed beautifully. On one trip, she carried almost 15,000 doughboys over to General Pershing’s fledgling army in France, the largest amount of men ever to be ferried over any ocean at any time. At war’s end, she was awarded to the United States Lines as a prize. In all, she had carried an estimated 120,000 American troops.  After trooping duties, the huge liner went down to Newport News, Virginia, for a long, protracted restoration to civilian service.

Here, the huge vessel was converted to oil burning, and a complete new set of blueprints for her was produced from scratch by William Francis Gibbs, a man later to achieve everlasting fame as the designer of both the America and the United States. While much of her original glut of Edwardian elegance was restored, some Art Deco touches were dotted around the ship. By June 1923, the reborn Leviathan, with her funnels painted red, white and blue, was ready to re-enter service on the Atlantic crossing.

She never really had a chance.

In the prohibition era, American liners on the Atlantic were dry in more ways than one. Though an enterprising passenger could always acquire a stash of booze on board, her official moniker as a ‘dry’ ship hurt the Leviathan from the start.

Secondly, the high labour costs inherent in running with an all American crew bit into her potential profit margins. And United States Lines simply had no experience of running such a large and extravagant ship. While rivals such as Cunard and White Star operated a balanced, three ship service across the Atlantic, the proud, doughty Leviathan had no comparable running mate.

Despite that, she was a very prestigious liner, right up there with her sister ships and commercial rivals. the Berengaria and the Majestic. She was certainly the fastest of the ex-Ballin trio. But in many ways, the Leviathan was essentially a ‘not quite as’ ship. Not quite as large as the Majestic. Not quite as fast as the Mauretania.

It was an incredible time; the ‘Roaring Twenties’ was an age defined by steamships, gangsters, flappers, baseball and jazz. And, in her day, the Leviathan was as prestigious and newsworthy as any of her rivals.

Then, in 1927, the arrival of the stunning, Art Deco suffused Ile De France signalled the beginning of the end for the armada of ageing Edwardian theme parks still crossing the Atlantic. Her debut was sensational; within weeks, she became the most striking, newsworthy and successful liner on the Atlantic by a mile. Veteran Atlantic travellers were prepared to wait a full week or more just to be able to sail on her.

The Leviathan was particularly hard hit. Then- irony of ironies- the advent of a new German champion- in the shape of the Bremen- made matters worse still. The onset of the Great Depression in October of 1929 almost finished her. Only a generous government subsidy kept the Leviathan sailing at all.

Even the end of Prohibition did nothing to ease the pain. By now, the Leviathan was being sent on short, five and six day ‘booze cruises’ just to make ends meet. By 1934, she was making only five transatlantic crossings a year, often carrying more crew than passengers. Her grand, ghostly salons, dotted with just handfuls of stoic, die hard passengers, would prove to be an eerie harbringer for the deserted ocean liners of the Jet Age, some thirty years later.

The Leviathan never made another commercial voyage. For four years, she remained shackled to her pier, slowly wasting away. In 1935, she was crowded to capacity for the first time in years, used as a giant viewing gallery for the maiden arrival in New York of the Normandie.

Finally, in January 1938, the great liner was sold for scrap. For the last time, her propellers kicked into life, and she limped across the Atlantic to her own destruction in Rosyth, Scotland. It was a sad, laboured, and undignified end for such a magnificent liner.

That final voyage was her 301st in all. In her years of service for the United States Lines, she carried something like 250,000 passengers. She never earned a cent in profit.

Poor, proud Leviathan never inspired the same awe and affection as her two sister ships. Yet she was every bit as magnificent and glamorous. Fate dealt this fabulous, posthumously fabled ship a series of lousy hands in rapid succession. They were storms she could not weather, sadly.


Bremen and Europa were world beaters when first built

Bremen and Europa were world beaters when first built

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.


CNV00198In the history of ocean liner disasters, the same three names are constantly chanted like some ghastly, undead mantra; Titanic. Lusitania. Empress of Ireland. All lost within three years of each other; each with a death toll well over a thousand.

Everybody knows the stories of at least two of them. The Empress of Ireland is not so widely remembered; perhaps because the bulk of her victims were mainly ordinary, blue collar people, as opposed to the top ten per cent of the New York social register. And yet, incredibly enough, there is another disaster, almost unknown outside of Germany, that claimed more lives than the three ships named above put together.

The Wilhelm Gustloff.

The Wilhelm Gustloff was one of two ships built by the Nazis as dual flagships of a movement called ‘Strength Through Joy’. Having crushed their trade unions in the same style that he would later crush most of Europe, Adolf Hitler realised that he would have to provide some kind of incentive for ordinary German workers to retain faith in both himself, and his public works programme.

The result was the first two true, one class cruise ships ever built; the Wilhelm Gustloff and the slightly larger Robert Ley. They were relatively modest affairs when compared to transatlantic icons like the Bremen and Europa, at around 28,000 tons each. Uniquely, they featured a uniform standard of accommodation for both passengers and crew alike. Prices were kept deliberately low, and subsidised by the Nazi government.

From 1938 onwards, both ships were sent on cruises to the Mediterranean and Scandinavia, carrying thousands of budget German tourists on trips that they might otherwise never have taken. They were seen as the more egalitarian, benevolent face of the Third Reich. But with the invasion of Poland in 1939, that mask slipped irrevocably in full view of the entire world.

For the first year of the war, the Wilhelm Gustloff served as a hospital ship. But, with the Baltic a virtual German lake after 1940, that role became redundant.

Painted slate grey, the Wilhelm Gustloff was then sent to the port of Gdynia in occupied Poland, which the Germans renamed ‘Gotenhafen’ for the duration of the conflict. There, she served as a static base and recreation centre for U-boat crews, engaged in working up exercises in the Baltic. She remained pretty much tied up at the same pier, albeit in full working order, until January of 1945.

By that time, the war had turned irretrievably against Germany. The Red Army had sliced right through to the edge of the Baltic, a vengeful, unstoppable host, fully intent on paying the Germans back in full for the atrocities they had committed all over the Motherland. Fully aware of what the arrival of the Red Army would mean, millions of terrified Germans and their helpers prepared to begin the biggest mass exodus in European history.

A frozen, fear fuelled trek to freedom began as far back as October of 1944 but, as the Russian noose tightened, the land routes were cut off, one by one. A tidal wave of terrified humanity now began to descend like storm clouds on the handful of Baltic ports still in Wehrmacht hands. And every single ship that could float or move- from warships to fishing smacks- was commandeered into service to evacuate this human mass.

After years of being shackled to her pier, the Wilhelm Gustloff was pressed into service, too. A minimum estimate of seven thousand civilians, redundant naval personnel, and around a thousand wounded soldiers were shoe horned into every last inch of the ship; even the indoor pool was emptied, and filled with makeshift cots. Hopelessly overloaded, and with only one torpedo boat to escort her, the Wilhelm Gustloff put to sea for the first time in five years, and lumbered straight into the teeth of a howling winter gale.

And the Baltic was no longer a German lake. Once the siege of Leningrad had been finally lifted a year earlier, Russian submarines of the Red Banner Fleet had begun to move into these formerly uncontested sea lanes. Now, at the end of January 1945, there were more of them on station than ever.

One of these was the S-13, under the command of Captain Alexander Marinesko. On the evening of January 30th, 1945, the wallowing Wilhelm Gustloff sailed right across the cross hairs of his periscope. By now, she had lost her escort in the foul, freezing weather. Marinesko promptly slammed three torpedoes into what was an all too easy target.

What followed was entirely predictable. There had been no lifeboat drill of any sort, and the hopelessly crowded liner fell gradually onto her side like a slaughtered animal. A panic too hideous and complete to adequately quantify erupted on board, with thousands trapped in a desperate, heaving throng of humanity on the promenade decks. People trampled each other underfoot in desperate attempts to reach the lifeboats, only to find that most could not be launched because of the ship’s abrupt list to port.

The Wilhelm Gustloff sank in less than an hour, leaving thousands that had survived the torpedo impacts and the horrific crush on board to freeze to death in icy water less than -18 centigrade. Thrashing and gasping for life in stormy seas dotted with ice floes, they died in their thousands.

German escort ships that raced to the area managed to pluck a total of 1,232 people from the scene of the attack. As the Wilhelm Gustloff had been carrying anti aircraft guns, the Germans had not classified her as a hospital ship, despite the large numbers of wounded she was carrying. In any event, such distinctions would probably have been academic; both sides had routinely been shooting holes in the Red Cross flag since 1941. For the Russians, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff was a legitimate act of retribution, nothing more or less.

The true death toll will never be exactly known. In the desperate haste to get the Wilhelm Gustloff out to sea, no accurate passenger manifest was taken. The pre departure quayside was a scene of heartbreak and indescribable horror; mothers trapped ashore literally threw their babies to relatives on the ship. Estimates of those lost on board run from as relatively low as 6,000, right up to half as many again.

Because she was a casualty of the war against the Russians, the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff is largely unknown in the west. All told, the German navy and merchant marine lifted more than two million people to safety in those last few months of the war, in what amounted to nothing so much as a German Dunkirk.

The Wilhelm Gustloff was the greatest and biggest casualty of that massive movement of people. Almost as tragically, she has been every bit as much a casualty of maritime and wartime history, too.


CNV00015Like 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.

CNV00014She 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.

CNV00013It 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.

CNV00023Twenty 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.


ImageIn September of 1939, Adolf Hitler’s panzers slammed into Poland, igniting the time bomb that mushroomed into the most destructive war in history. By its end six years later, millions would be dead, and the ranks of famous Atlantic liners would be decimated.

The outbreak of war found both the Normandie and Queen Mary in New York, shackled to their piers. They would be joined the following March by the brand new Queen Elizabeth, after the incomplete new Cunarder made a spine tingling dash across the Atlantic. Converted for trooping duties, both Queens would go on to make an indelible contribution to human history.

The Normandie was not so lucky. A catastrophic fire, started in the last phase of outfitting her as a trooper, would be compounded by a disastrous ingress of slowly freezing water that eventually capsized her in the middle of New York harbour like a beached whale. Her scarred, gutted remains were refloated in 1943, but by then she was useless. The most brilliant and original ocean liner of all time could have shaved another six months from the end of World War Two. Instead, her carcass was butchered in a New Jersey shipyard. For all her magnificence, she never earned a penny in profit.

Of the German liners, the Bremen escaped the Royal Navy by the skin of her teeth at war’s outset, only to be burned to waterline level by a disgruntled crew member in 1941. The two Italian beauties, Rex and Conte Di Savoia, both succumbed to bomb and rocket attacks in shallow home waters. Only the Europa survived to become a prize of war, awarded to France as a makeshift replacement of sorts for the fallen Normandie.

But it was the two Queens, Mary and Elizabeth, that were the real game changers. Sailing alone, at high speed and painted grey, they often wafted up to fifteen thousand troops each across the Atlantic to swell the ranks of the D-Day invasion force. Between them they carried more than 1.2 million men, without the loss of a single life. It was the greatest single troop lift in history, and it ultimately decided the outcome of the war in Europe.

No less a person than Winston Churchill recorded that the two ships between them shortened the European war by at least a year. Adolf Hitler was no less aware of their potential; he offered a quarter of a million reichsmarks to the U-boat commander that sank either of them. None even came close.

After the war, the two proud but grimy Queens were completely refurbished. By 1947 they were offering the most spectacular and successful two-ship service ever seen on the Atlantic. Despite their size, both were sold out more than six months in advance. Anyone who was anyone travelled on them, and Cunard was profiting as never before.

Stunned by the loss of Normandie, the French Line resumed service with the sassy, legendary Ile De France. Just over a year later, she was joined by the Liberte. This was nothing less than the heavily powdered, art deco suffused Europa. She arrived in New York to a grand welcome in August 1950 as virtually a new ship. With fabulous food and service, she quickly, quite inexplicably. became the most popular ship on the Atlantic.

Up above, commercial air travel across the Atlantic had now begun. Fledgling airlines like TWA, Pan Am and BOAC used propeller driven planes that were usually derivatives of heavy, four engined, World War Two Allied bombers, converted for passenger service. The flights were noisy, often shaky affairs. And they were also very expensive. A one way flight from Europe to America typically took around twelve hours, and often necessitated a fuelling stop on some barren Canadian airfield en route.

But, while the vast majority of the travelling public continued to prefer the fun and frivolity of crossing by sea, those flights were still a warning shot that the shipping companies closed their ears to. It would prove to be a fatal mistake.

Meanwhile, the old Atlantic run boomed like never before. When America got in on the act and introduced the brilliant, barnstorming SS United States in 1952, more than 1.2 million people were crossing the Atlantic by sea each year, either on business or pleasure. In high summer, even the biggest and most prestigious ships- the Queens, the Liberte and the Ile De France- were sold out many months in advance.

The United States was built for rapid conversion into a trooper, and outfitted with engines designed for fast aircraft carriers in the Pacific war. It was a power plant without equal; one displayed to dazzling effect in her July 1952 debut, when she swept the board in the Atlantic speed stakes. For some years, the ‘Big U’ carried the cream of American society, though the Brits continued to favour the clubby Queens, and more cosmopolitan types swore by the French Line.

It was an incredible time. It became common for the liners to sail from their New York piers at midnight, wreathed in technicolor showers of streamers and ablaze with light from bow to stern. On board farewell parties would continue until the last possible minute, and sometimes beyond. It seemed that the good times were here to stay.

There were occasional salutary reminders of who was really the boss. In July 1956, the sumptuous, state of the art Andrea Doria sank off Nantucket, after being rammed in thick fog by the small Swedish liner, Stockholm. This was despite both ships being radar equipped. Some fifty-six passengers and crew lost their lives.

Then, in October 1958, the first Pan Am jet airliner flew from New York to Paris in just six hours, and the death knell of the ocean liner screamed overhead at thirty thousand feet. Within two years, the jets had seventy per cent of the travelling public on board. Soon, the once crowded Queens were often compared to deserted seaside resorts. An irreversible decline had begun. Even the United States was suffering, and badly at that.

There were attempts to use all these ships for warm weather cruises, especially in the quieter winter months. But the Queens, especially, were woefully ill suited to this kind of a role. One somewhat akin to expecting a professional footballer to adapt to playing top level, championship rugby. The attempt eked out their careers for a while, but often at the expense of their fading dignity. The United States fared better, but her deep draft meant that she could dock at very few of the more attractive cruise ports. She, too, was on borrowed time.

ImageSo it was with bemused amazement that thousands lined the banks of the Hudson in February, 1962, to witness the maiden arrival of the brand new SS. France. Built to be a ‘second Normandie’, she embodied all the style, grace and panache that the French Line had proudly excelled at for almost a century. Food and service aboard her were as impeccable as ever. Her owners called her ‘the last refuge of the good life’.

She was the longest passenger ship ever built. The American press called her an eighty million dollar gamble yet, for years, she averaged more than eighty per cent occupancy. She was joined in 1969 by the new Queen Elizabeth 2, a radically modern replacement for the venerable Queens. For the Elizabeth, that retirement ended with her destruction by fire in Hong Kong in 1972. The more beloved Queen Mary remains a proud, petrified relic of sorts in Long Beach to this day.

From Italy, a pair of lithe, white swans called the Michelangelo and the Raffaello were briefly able to buck the airborne assault. Highly styled and snappily served, they were ultimately to fall prey to the jets. Ironically, both were destroyed by bombers while serving as static Iranian garrison ships in the 1980’s.

ImageThe United States fell by the way in 1969, leaving the France and the QE2 to struggle on. Then, in 1974, the French government finally guillotined the $24 million operating subsidy for the France. Unwanted and abandoned, the great French liner was laid up to await an uncertain fate. The QE2 was alone,

ImageA scheme to convert the France into a floating casino sank without trace. For five dark and silent years she sat alone and unloved. And then, even as scrapyard owners around the world opened their cheque books and sharpened their knives, there came a sudden, fantastically implausible reprieve….

Against all the odds, the beloved liner France was converted over eight months into the Norway, the largest, most staggering and revolutionary cruise ship ever created. Her new Norwegian owner, Knut Kloster, envisaged a bright future for her as a Caribbean cruise ship; one three times larger than her nearest rival.

His rivals thought the idea mad, and not without reason. But Kloster had the last laugh. The first thing he did was close down the forward of her two engine rooms, reducing her speed to a level more suited to leisurely cruises than fast ocean crossings. In her French Line days, the France had guzzled fuel like so much cheap table wine. At one stroke, Kloster slashed her fuel bill by a full two thirds.

With a vast amount of open deck space superimposed on board and a pair of new swimming pools added, the Norway went ‘back to the future’ with a total art deco refurbishment from bow to stern. Two vast, 400 passenger tenders were shipped on board for ferrying duties in the Caribbean. On board came the first television station ever to go to sea, an indoor promenade with eleven different shops set along a pair of window walled boulevards, and the first Broadway style shows ever to go to sea.

It went on and on. The Norway loaded aboard a fifteen piece big band, embarked a thousand passengers, and then set off on a nostalgic crossing to New York and her new home port of Miami. She became a resounding success, paving the way for every modern cruise ship that would follow her. She would dominate the Caribbean for years.

ImageLeaving New York, she passed the incoming QE2, and the air reverberated with their whistles as the two great ships saluted each other for the first time in six years. A massive mural of that meeting was displayed on the walls of New York’s Grand Central Station for years.

And here, with that moment and those two ships, is where the story of my sea travels truly begins…….



The German liner Europa, for many years one of the great ‘ships of state’ on the Atlantic crossing. Post WW2, she would go on to a second, stellar career as the French Line’s much-loved SS. Liberte.

Imagine, if you can, a world without commercial air travel. It was not until a full decade after World War Two that the first jet airliners began whispering across the skies. In their vapour trails was written a simple message; it was nothing less than the death warrant of the transatlantic liner as a way of moving between continents.

For a full century, ocean liners were the only way of travelling the Atlantic with any degree of reliability. Only three years elapsed between Louis Bleriot’s first brave, stuttering flight across the English Channel in 1909 and the apocalyptic shock and numbness that followed the sinking of the Titanic. By the time that ship- the ultimate technical pinnacle of her day- had foundered, liners had already been traversing the most relentless stretch of ocean in the world for more than seven decades.

Immigration fulled the era. It fattened the profits of the shipping lines. Between 1890 and 1914, the most desperate mass exodus in the history of humanity poured forth in a human tidal wave. More than twenty million people, of at least twice as many nationalities, fled wars, pestilence, religious persecution and famine- sometimes all four- in an unstoppable flood towards the open, welcoming arms of America, the land of opportunity.  Many literally had nothing but the shirts on their backs.

Final twilight of the Titanic. As she races into the sunset and the passengers savour fine food and wine, the iceberg lies in wait…

The vast profits earned by the steamship lines resulted in a series of ever larger ships. Their first class interiors evolved into palatial spaces, resplendent with ornate wooden panelling,  glittering chandeliers that held sway above swathes of deep, rich carpeting, and random scatterings of plush, upholstered furniture. Palm courts full of wicker seating appeared almost everywhere. Cuisine and service came to resemble levels enjoyed at the Ritz, the Adlon or the Negresco. At least, it did in first class.

The First World War blew all of this out of the water. Quite literally in the case of the Lusitania, the famed Cunard liner that had been one of the ‘Queens’ of the Atlantic in the boom years.

America’s post war imposition of the Volstead Act limited incoming migration to just three per cent of the pre-war levels. Owners suddenly found themselves top heavy with fleets of ageing tonnage, and fewer people to fill them. Necessity led to the invention of tourism.

Former immigrant cabins were spruced up with fancy bed covers and linoleum floors, and the food quality was improved over time. Most ships were converted to oil burning, allowing for massive economies over the old coal burning days. Engine room crew numbers were scythed, and the amount of time needed to turn a ship around was halved.

This all went hand in hand with a burning desire among Americans to ‘see’ Europe. Now no longer the exclusive preserve of the moneyed first class, a whole new generation of young, professional Americans wanted to see the continent so many of them had fought and died for.

The bright lights of Paris were irresistible, as was London, then the capital of the greatest empire in the world. Further afield, the indolent lidos of Sorrento and the spires of Istanbul exerted an almost magnetic pull. Tourism took off like a rocket, and suddenly the liners were full again. Fuller, in fact, than ever.

It was an incredible age; a time of steamships, flapper girls, baseball, prohibition and jazz. Thirsty Americans, travelling abroad by liner, soon discovered that the ocean was wet in more ways than one. It rolled on and on until the Great Depression ushered in the greatest fiscal hangover of modern times.

The crash of 1929 was disastrous for the steamship lines. Passenger numbers plummeted by over fifty per cent in four short years, just as a string of new liners began to emerge to replace the dusty old survivors of the Edwardian era. First out of the blocks came the Germans.

The Bremen and her twin, the Europa, were designed from the start to be world beaters. New, streamlined and gleaming, the two Germans had modern, sterile interiors, and cabin service second to none. For three years, they played ping pong with the Blue Riband of the Atlantic.

The depression hit both of them hard and later, when the Nazis came to power, they suffered again from association with the Hitler regime. And soon they had competition,

The advent of those German giants was a real slap in Britannia’s imperial face, and she picked up the gauntlet with a snarl. In the Clydebank yards of John Brown, work began on a thousand foot long monster, one so vast that she blotted out parts of the skyline. Known as number 534, she was intended to seize back the initiative on the Atlantic. She would be the biggest ship the world had ever seen. But across the channel there lay a slight problem.

The Normandie.

Conceived at the same time as the ship that would become immortal as Queen Mary, Normandie was every bit as huge and impressive, almost as fast and, ultimately, much more brilliant and original. They would be rivals from the day they were laid down in Scotland and France respectively. They were both extravagant to the maximum, and both were sailed with great style and panache. But as a result of financial snarl ups in Britain, the French ship arrived first.

Normandie emerged in the summer of 1935, and thundered across to New York in what remains the single most auspicious maiden crossing in maritime history. More than a quarter of a million people blackened the banks of the Hudson river to witness her triumphal entry into port, surrounded by tugs and fire boats, and flying a thirty metre blue pennant to symbolize her record breaking debut.

A flotilla of biplanes flew over her in salute, as the whole scene was filmed from a blimp that hovered over Manhattan. One of the New York papers put out no less than eight editions that day, covering her progress. Normandie earned media coverage fully equal to that of the first moon landing, some thirty-four years in the future. It remains the most sensational (successful) debut in the history of sea travel.

Inside, she was exquisite, like a Hollywood movie set brought to life. Huge, double height public rooms were lined with exquisite lacquered panels, vast ‘light towers’, and wonderfully obscene amounts of glittering lalique. Those superb, sumptuous interiors would mark out the Normandie as the most beautiful, singularly brilliant ship ever to cut salt water. Even today, she remains very much the ocean liner.

Queen Mary made her debut almost exactly a year later. She was a much more conservative ship; evolutionary rather than revolutionary; a scaled up version of her illustrious predecessors. But she had great style, and a warmth many found lacking amid the glittering, almost overpowering style salons of the Normandie. On her sixth voyage, she took the record from the French ship. For the next two years, they would beat each other now and again by a fraction of a knot, engaging in what remains quite simply the greatest speed race of all time.

From time to time, crews on both ships would glance nervously up at a gleaming, silver grey vision in the sky that ghosted effortlessly past them at a height of several hundred feet. The Hindenburg brought snappy, elegant travel to the skies for the first time. Carrying seventy or more passengers, she could fly to New York in just two days. She had fabulous food and service, and was often wait listed weeks in advance.

Bonfire of the vanities; the Hindenburg bursts into flame at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in May 1937

Only her fiery, still controversial demise at Lakehurst in the spring of 1937 put an end to a string of passenger airships that would have given the liners their first serious challenge. But by then, all of Europe was already twitching nervously at the increasing sabre rattling of Hitler and his Italian lackey, Benito Mussolini. A second global conflagration hung in the skies, one as ominous as the funeral pall of the Hindenburg herself….

Even the sinking of the Titanic did nothing to deter the food of migrants to America in the years prior to the Great War