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 Ile De France steams down the Hudson in her post war guise; her original trio of funnels have been replaced by a more stocky, substantial pair

It’s a fact that, while many ocean liners achieve fame, few actually achieve immortality. And those that do very often do so on the back of some catastrophic event. Those that actually become immortal over the course of a long career can probably be safely counted on the fingers of one hand.

That point made, I’d argue that if any liner can be called immortal, it is surely the Ile De France.

Why the Ile De France?

At first glance, she might seem a strange choice to some. Viewed externally through the prism of history, she was neither the biggest nor the fastest liner in the world when she emerged in 1927. And the hull, with its knife like bow and three towering, black and red funnels, looked as if it could just as easily have been a product of Edwardian designers. Yes, she was proud and dignified but, from afar at least, she was hardly cutting edge.

But inside, she was a very different lady indeed.

The entire, fabulous interior of the Ile De France was sheathed in bow to stern Art Deco styling, rivalling the greatest and most luxurious hotels ashore. Whereas all of her slowly ageing, sometimes ponderous rivals were decorated in a pre war style that made them resemble so many fusty, Edwardian theme parks, the Ile De France was stunningly, totally modern. Those new interiors were the architectural equivalent of a brick hurled through a frosted up window. They were like nothing ever seen before and, after her, nothing on the Atlantic would ever be the same again.

The French Line insisted that ‘To live is not to copy; it is to create’, and in the concept and completion of the Ile De France, that notion- one that was to become something of a hallowed mantra- was carried through to massive acclaim. In short order, the Ile De France became so popular that veteran travellers were prepared to wait an additional week or more to make sure that they could sail on her. She was new, and she had panache; as such, she was bound to prosper in the early days.

So what, then, explains her extraordinary longevity? Not until 1959 would the veteran liner call down ‘finished with engines’ for the very last time. It had to be something more than could be created by that initial, sensational splash. Something deeper and more grounded. Something far more subtle was at play here.

For sure, she had flair. The first class dinner menu on the Ile De France listed no less than two hundred and seventy five separate items nightly. On her maiden voyage, one particular lady upbraided her captain, saying that the Ile was neither the biggest or the fastest. The captain’s reply was pure class;

‘No, madame. But neither is the Ritz’…..

And that single sentence sums up the Ile De France with more singular brilliance than I ever could. With her all French crew, including the scarlet jacketed little bell boys who were there solely to operate the lifts, the Ile De France took every strand of the hallowed French Line traditions of exemplary service and matchless cuisine, and then wove them into the most internally dramatic and stunning ship ever built.

The result was pure magic. Noel Coward was so enchanted with her that he worked a reference to the Ile De France into the lyrics of These Foolish Things. Even when the far bigger and faster Normandie made her sensational debut in the mid thirties, the Ile De France continued to be one of the most popular ships afloat; one that had, indeed, by that time already developed a true cult following.

And, of course, her war record was nothing less than heroic. Taken over and managed by Cunard Line during the Second World War, the grey shrouded Ile De France carried literally thousands of troops to all the major theatres of war. It took a huge toll on her, both materially and mechanically. Not until 1946 would the battered, grimy trooper make her first return home to France in some seven years.

Already twenty years old, the Ile De France needed drastic rebuilding and refurbishment; a task easier envisaged than accomplished in a devastated, post war France. It would be 1949 before the ‘new’ Ile De France emerged to resume first rate French Line service on the Atlantic.

Though as lavish and loved as ever, and with her three funnels replaced by a pair of stockier, newer models, the Ile De France still had an exterior that was obviously from another era when she arrived back in New York to a fabulous, fire boat and siren welcome. But, with her return to service, the French Line served due notice to the opposition. The legend- and she was already that- was back. And how.

The service and cuisine remained as lavish as ever. On the Ile De Franc, onion soup was offered for breakfast even in tourist class. In those first, post war years, the Atlantic liner trade boomed as never before.

Paired with the reborn Liberte, formerly the rival German Europa, the Ile De France offered the most highly styled and diverse service afloat. No matter that the Cunard Queens were bigger and faster; the French duo had that same effortless, elegant sense of art de vivre that made the French Line the natural first choice of the beau monde. For years, the two ships raked in massive profits for the French Line.

As the fifties picked up pace, the veteran liner finally began showing her age. But in July 1956, the Ile De France made world wide headlines once again, when she rescued most of the 1600 plus survivors of the Andrea Doria, after the beautiful Italian liner- the very emblem of 1950’s built, ocean going modernity- sank after being rammed in thick fog off Nantucket. There was life in the old girl yet.

In the winter season, the Ile De France sailed on leisurely, lavish cruises to the Caribbean from New York; a role in which she was to prove surprisingly popular. During the course of one of these, she ran aground and damaged her keel. Though taken back to Newport News and repaired, the Ile De France was clearly on borrowed time. And, when it came, her end caused uproar across her native land.

In 1959, the thirty-two year old Ile De France was finally sold to a Japanese company for scrapping. But, before commencing the task, the Japanese hired the Ile De France out to a Hollywood movie company. She was about to become the biggest floating film prop in movie history.

Over the course of The Last Voyage, the Ile De France- restyled as the S.S. Claridon for the sake of the film- suffered the indignity of having her forward funnel being toppled onto the superstructure, followed by numerous dramatic internal ‘explosions’. Then, the veteran liner was sunk in shallow water as a climax of sorts. Once raised post filming, her devastated, degraded carcass was patched up, and towed away to be butchered in a scrapyard.

And yet…..

Even that final, degrading barbarism has done nothing to diminish the reverence and sheer awe in which the Ile De France is still held, both in her native land, and by the maritime community as a whole. For the Ile De France had not just panache; she had soul. She was the absolute epitome of finely styled, ocean going finesse and elegance. Of a truth, she was beloved, and in a way that few, more pretentious vessels ever were, or will be.

Those striking, Art Deco interiors marked her out as a true, ocean going game changer; a ship as bold and daring as she was beautiful and dramatic. And, of course, she was fun.

Abreast of her smoke stacks, on either side, giant electric letters used to spell out her name. And, even now, it is all to easy for the mind’s eye to see those same, brilliant letters blazing out across the Atlantic at sunset as the cocktail hour approaches.

At the same time, they were both her epitaph, and the endorsement of her own, immortal legend.



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.


CNV00001When Europa 2 debuts in May, the cruise community will gain far more than just another luxury ship. More than any other significant new build, this is the ship that will very much define the standards and encompass all the modern, high tech style that savvy travellers will come to expect as their birthright. In that respect, she truly is very much the ship of 2013.

Her debut will give the cruise industry only it’s third ever, all balcony suite cruise ship. At 42,000 tons and a maximum capacity of just 516 passengers, Europa 2 will outclass any other ship afloat in terms of the amount of personal space on board. And even her minimum grade balconies come in at a generous seventy five square feet; the largest regulars in the all balcony club by a good way.

CNV00009The ship is obviously meant to build on the style and reputation of her fleet mate, the current, highly styled Europa. That ship is regularly lauded in many quarters as being the best in the world. And, rather than rock the boat, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises have set out to try and enhance on the obviously successful. The difference is, that with a ship one third as big again, the company has more space and options to roll out some unique, signature venues for the nCNV00007ew ship.

The new spa, shown here, will cover something like 620 square metres of prime territory on deck five. With numerous treatment rooms, an expansive whirlpool and views out over the sea, it reflects the light, open palette that will be a trademark of the new ship. Her lines are very clean and cool throughout; whether in the arrangements of the suite furnishings; to the sleek, wedge shaped, external styling of her hull. Perhaps more than any other new build, Europa 2 is a ship that seems to both embrace and celebrate her environment.

The classic example is, without doubt, the mid ship pool area. Located in an expansive sun bowl, it comes complete with the first ever, sliding glass magrodome roof for a ship of this class. Together with the windows on both levels of this complex, it bathes the Europa 2 in natural sunlight, potentially protecting passengers from the elements, while ensuring that they are still in contact with them.

CNV00003Unlike past Hapag-Lloyd Cruises product, there will be a determined and on going attempt to make the Europa 2 more of an international product, rather than one that appeals solely to the German market. All crew members will be both English and German speaking.  With that in mind, she offers an unparalleled range of dining options for a ship of this size; the new ship will feature no less than eight restaurants, all open seating, and showcasing a whole raft of sublime culinary options. The restaurant Weltmeere is the main dining room and, like all Europa 2 venues, the food here will be created under the direction of Executive Chef, Stefan Wilke. Herr Wilke learned from the best; in his case from Harald Wohlfahrt, the only three star chef in Germany. His nous, plus his previous experience aboard the older Europa, should make the offerings aboard Europa 2 a sumptuous voyage of discovery in their own right.

CNV00004Among the raft of other dining options aboard this wonderful new ship is the French accented Tarragon restaurant, with an emphasis on both the simple and sophisticated as far as cuisine goes. The flavour of the room itself is distinctly modern, full of light and accented by elements of dark wood framing around doors and ceiling edges.

There is also a casual, upper deck Yacht Club restaurant for alfresco breakfast, lunches and dinners. Requested food items are freshly grilled to order here, and served with a side order of spectacular outdoor scenery and some of the best wines in any floating cellar anywhere.  There is also Sakura, a sumptuous sushi haven for those with a love of all things raw. Here you’ll find such epicurean delights as nigiri, maki and uramaki. 

CNV00005Throughout all of Europa 2, the emphasis is on creating a ship with a smart casual vibe. The notion of over- dressing for dinner has been deftly consigned to history here. The illustrations show a ship suffused with an aura of quite spectacular, casual luxury; expansive and inviting, not overpowering and intimidating. Europa 2 is a ship that will appeal to sybarites who, in the past, have only ever holidayed at high end vacation resorts. So the creation of Elements, an Asian themed restaurant that  tips it’s hat to a whole raft of imaginative Thai. Chinese and Indian specialities, is an obvious smart move.

The room itself is darker, more elongated, with beautifully back lit panels, and what appear at first glance to be giant pineapples, suspended from the ceiling. The carpet is a rich shade of burgundy.

Europa 2 also features the Spiesszimmer; a special venue available for private dinner gatherings, and ideal for special occasions. It is also planned to use the room as a venue for officer-hosted parties during certain cruises.

As far as crew goes, no less than 370 will look after a maximum of 516 passengers. The smooth running of the hotel side of the Europa 2 will be under the direction of the very well regarded Johann Schrempf, formerly of the original Europa. As on all Hapag-Lloyd Cruises ships, I would expect service on the Europa 2 to be subtle, astounding, and totally consistent.  A ship such as this lives or dies by the quality of the on board product delivery, and it is highly unlikely that the company would drop the ball here. I will be on board the ship at the end of July, and a more up to date report will be online soon after that.

On such a spectacular ship, you would rightly expect a stunning range of suites. All feature Nespresso coffee makers as standard. The main types are shown in the photographs on display below.

CNV00016The Owner’s Suite is a jaw dropping, 1227 square foot apartment, including it’s own, 161 foot veranda. Naturally, it has its own separate whirlpool bath, looking out over the ocean through a quartet of windows.  There’s a shower with a separate steam sauna, a separate bedroom, and a vast amount of personal living space here, too.

This beautiful apartment also offers butler service, full sized, walk in wardrobe, and a bathroom that comes complete with its own TV and day bed. There’s a fully stocked, complimentary mini bar that includes beer and soft drinks. Each also come complete with an in suite set up of complimentary spirits. Europa 2 has two of these apartments.

CNV00019There are two slightly smaller, but no less opulent  Grand Penthouses. These come in at a sumptuous 948 square feet, inclusive of a 108 square foot, fully furnished veranda.

Again, you have the additional services of a butler here, and the same bathroom and sauna set up as in the Owner’s Suite. If you can’t live without your private whirlpool, the good news here is that you don’t have to. And it also enjoys the same stunning views out over the ocean. The bar set up is exactly the same as in the Owner’s Suite, too. In fact, all that is really different is that the living area here is slightly smaller. Something that still does not preclude it from including a full dining table and in suite entertainment set up.

CNV00012With Europa 2 putting the emphasis on families on board, there are a number of commodious, interconnecting rooms that offer both community and privacy. 580 square feet of real estate is divided neatly into two rooms, including the balconies here.

The furnishings are identical throughout both, with loungers on each balcony. Like all Europa 2 rooms, they feature a flat screen TV, a tablet PC, and a portable phone. All rooms on the ship are Wi-Fi enabled.

Both rooms feature separate, full bathrooms and toilets.

All Europa 2 suites feature welcome champagne to capture the exhilaration of being on board.

Living and sleeping areas are artfully separated. Wall to floor glass sliding doors allow easy access to the furnished balcony.

Room service is available 24/7 from a special, in suite menu for all passengers.

And, once again, you have the mini bar option, with complimentary beer and soft drinks. The alcohol can obviously be removed if the parents decide to go down that particular road. Europa 2 offers seven of these interconnecting family apartments.

CNV00018Veranda and Ocean Suites both come in at a lavish 376 square feet, inclusive of the 75 square foot balcony. Each features the same light, easy sense of style and space as the larger accommodations, outlined above. The principal difference is that the Ocean Suites have a bathroom with a sea view.

The ship has 59 ocean suites, and a total of 141 of the standard verandas.

Not shown in this brief intro are the sixteen Spa Suites, which come in at a healthy 560 square feet, and the twenty-four, mid range Grand Suites- very similar to the spa suites. These also come in at a more than welcoming 560 square feet.

CNV00021Night life aboard Europa 2 will be subtle, but highly styled. Live jazz and piano music, plus the occasional disco, will be the main options for passengers wanting to stay out and about after a splendid dinner to make the most out of their evenings on board the ship.

The Jazz Club offers a subtle, sultry vibe that will be instantly appealing to the night owls. Soft, soulful tunes in an intimate, tastefully understated environment creates just the kind of atmosphere that stays with you long after you go home.

Europa 2 will also feature an indoor/outdoor version of Zanzibar, the famous German beach resort on the edge of the Baltic. With a beat that goes on until the early hours, this is one of only two of these fabled venues afloat. Unsurprisingly, you’ll find the other one aboard the original Europa.

For lovers of cognac and cigars, there’s a beautifully evocative Herrenzimmer, located straight across from the Jazz Club on deck four.

And, for those who like their sunsets to come with a little soft piano music and some matchless views, there is the vast, sweeping Belvedere Lounge, offering fabulous views out over the ship’s bow. Savour a mesmerising sunset here with a perfectly crafted cocktail; little else so perfectly captures the subtle magic of being at sea.

CNV00022If big show entertainment is something you like to take in now and again, you’ll find an expansive, full scale theatre all the way forward on deck four. Featuring both a lower and a balcony level, this is still intimate enough for lectures and live recitals.

This beautiful, expansive venue will also play host to a series of scintillating new shows, especially devised for the new ship.

You’ll even find an astonishing cookery school on board, where you can hone your culinary skills with insights from some of the most renowned and savvy professionals on the cookery circuit.

Europa 2 will also host evening deck parties around the swimming pool on certain nights, perhaps under the cover of the magrodome on chillier evenings.

CNV00011Come to think of it, there are only two things really missing on this marvellous new ship. Mediocrity. And you.

The maiden season for Europa 2 encompasses the best of the Mediterranean, on a series of seven night cruises to the very best of the culture, colour and fun spots in the region. Barcelona, Malta. Ibiza and Limassol are just a few of the ports on offer during a very busy inaugural season.

In the autumn, Europa 2 will head out to the magnificent, exotic masterpieces of the Far East, working her way there via Dubai, the UAE and the Suez Canal, before returning to Europe the following spring.


CNV00013Appropriately, Europa 2 will debut in May 2013, on the centenary of the inauguration by Hapag-Lloyd of the monumental, ground breaking Imperator. The first ship in the world to exceed 50,000 tons, Imperator was the line’s stunning response to the Olympic and Titanic.

She was originally to have been named Europa, but Hapag-Lloyd chairman, Albert Ballin, decided that she should be named for his friend, the Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II. She was launched just six weeks after the sinking of the Titanic. The first aim of the champagne bottle missed; only for it to be deftly caught by the Kaiser, who smashed it nicely against the ship that now carried his name.

The Imperator was a stupendous brew of marble, wood panelling and deep, rich carpeting. Albert Ballin possessed an eye for detail and a taste for the spectacular, perhaps matched only by that of Cesar Ritz. The Imperator was his dream ship; the first of a stunning trio that would have given Hapag- Lloyd dominance of the North Atlantic, but for the Great War.

Imperator was followed by two equally stupendous sisters. Of these, the 1914-built Vaterland was in New York when the war broke out. Seized by America in 1917, she became the Leviathan. After trooping duties, she sailed for the United States Lines until 1934.

The third ship was Bismarck. Launched just before the war, she was incomplete at the end of hostilities. She was completed instead for the White Star Line, who renamed her the Majestic. From 1922 through to 1935, the Majestic was the largest ship in the world. White Star advertised her as ‘The Queen of the Western Ocean’. Ironically, she ran in competition with her two sister ships.

After the war, the Imperator herself was given to Cunard as a replacement for the sunken Lusitania. Renamed the Berengaria, she became the most popular ship on the North Atlantic for almost two decades. In her last years, she even ran in company with the brand new Queen Mary, before being finally sold for scrap in 1938.

NOTE: All photographs and images featured in this article are courtesy of, and remain the copyright of, Hapag Lloyd Cruises.



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