Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

When the White Star Line introduced it’s brand new Oceanic in 1899, the company broke the mould of traditional Atlantic voyaging in one spectacular respect.

It was not so much in terms of size- the Oceanic represented natural evolution rather than a seismic advance. It was not even in terms of her beautiful, elegant interiors that the new ship really made a splash.

With Oceanic, White Star instead went against the single prime tenet that had governed Atlantic steamships for decades. For here was a ship that, almost uniquely, was designed to steam at a slightly more economical speed than her British and German rivals.

The unspoken rule had always been that liners should be ever swifter, with the in built possibility of making record speed crossings. But with Oceanic, White Star formally opted out of the speed race, never to return.


Firstly, fuel was very expensive. Each additional knot over the first twenty attained cost as much as that original twenty. And the potential wear and tear on hulls pushed at flank speed could be considerable.

Instead, White Star chose to concentrate on building larger, more economical ships that would emphasize comfort and luxury over bone shattering speed. And it was a policy that worked admirably right up to the outbreak of the Great War.

And I think that it is worth remembering that this comfort-before-speed policy was enshrined in the White Star playbook before the formal takeover of the line by J.P.Morgan’s IMM. And the fact that Morgan allowed this mindset to stand shows that he was in agreement with that direction of travel.

I think by that stage that White Star was not so much keeping an eye on it’s age old rival, Cunard, as watching developments across the channel, in Germany.

Here- just like in Britain- two great shipping lines fought tooth and nail for the lion’s share of the travelling trade.

North German Lloyd dominated the turn of the century era, with a quartet of long, lean four funneled racers. Each in succession took the Blue Ribband (except for the Kronprinzessen Cecile) on their Atlantic debuts.

Their main German rival, Hamburg Amerika Line, replied with a speed record champion of their own, in the shape of the very similar Deutschland.

That ship almost shook herself to pieces in her ambitious grab for the crown. And she proved to be a profligate, hideously expensive fuel guzzler right throughout her career.

In Germany, company chairman Albert Ballinn looked at the new White Star liner Oceanic, and decided that the British company was on to something. He, too, decided to go down the ‘comfort is more, speed is less’ route.

Their first toe in the water came in the stunning form of the Amerika of 1905, a ship so opulent and luxurious that she immediately became the most successful ship on the Atlantic. Slower but steady, and complete with marvellous cabins and a hugely popular, separate a la carte restaurant in first class, the Amerika drew passengers in droves. In many ways, she was just as epochal a ship as the Oceanic, if subsequently a much less well remembered one.

Meanwhile, over in Britain, Bruce Ismay, chairman of White Star, found himself confronted with the imminent, looming reality of a pair of record breaking new vessels from the rival Cunard Line. Lusitania and Mauretania would be half as large again as any other ships afloat and, inevitably, they would be far faster, too. These two liners would reduce the time on the Liverpool to New York run by several hours.

But Ismay’s eyes were not just on Cunard; they were also on the continent of Europe. And, even as Cunard contemplated it’s new pair of crown jewels, the White Star chairman acted.

In 1907, White Star took the unprecedented strep of transferring it’s first run transatlantic liners- the so-called ‘Big Four’- from Liverpool round to Southampton.

The Hampshire port had a far superior harbour to the Mersey in many ways, but it was convenient access to continental ports that was the key factor behind Ismay’s decision.

In a chilling echo of current times, Europe was awash with a human tidal wave of people on the move; streams of refugees fleeing war, poverty, and prejudice trekked the length of the continent to board transatlantic liners, hoping to find a new life in the promised land of Canada and, more especially, the USA.

This trade was so vast that tapping into it made simple, logical sense. From Southampton, a White Star liner could reach Cherbourg in six hours to embark passengers from the continent. Steaming overnight along the English Channel, that same liner could arrive in Queenstown to pick up Irish emigrants- just as their Cunard rivals did- before beginning the westbound crossing proper to the new world.

Thus, White Star ships could fill up their empty cabins at two ports rather than just one, as well as picking up passengers almost directly from London via the better rail links that existed to the Hampshire port. Once achieved, their ships could then steam westward at a more stately, fuel conservative speed that made them slower, yet more comfortable, than their Cunard rivals.

And, in planning it’s response to the Cunard wonder ships, White Star refused to be pushed back into an arms race in terms of speed. Instead, they opted for a pair of colossal ocean liners, later to be followed by a third. Each would be half as big again as the new Cunarders. From the start, these giants were intended to be ‘Southampton ships’ and, as a result, massive infrastructure upgrades were initiated across that port. Upgrades that Cunard, ironically, would benefit from significantly after the Great War.

While the design of the new ships was in theory a response to Cunard, White Star still kept it’s other eye locked on the progress of Hamburg Amerika and it’s chairman, the savvy, fastidious Albert Ballinn. It was, incidentally, a compliment that Ballinn himself duly reciprocated.

These new White Star ships would offer stunning, expansive luxury and largesse in first class, while also offering a wealth of cheap, utilitarian but extremely practical accommodation for the desperate hordes of migrants flooding into European ports. While they were intended to take a full day longer to cross the Atlantic than the speedy Cunarders- six days as opposed to five- they would be jam packed with a wealth of time killing amusements and diversions for the wealthy, moneyed travelling elite.

Of course, those two ships were the Olympic and the Titanic. But, as this article hopefully attests, their eventual genesis owed as much to the opulent German vessels of Ballinn as to their fabled Cunard rivals.


ImageThe Imperator was a ship of many firsts; the first to weigh in at over 50,000 tons; the first to exceed more than nine hundred feet in length. The first of a world beating trio that was intended to dominate the lucrative Atlantic passenger trade like nothing ever had before. Even  one hundred years later, the sheer, spectacular scale of the towering, Teutonic three stacker is impossible to deny.

She was laid down for the Hamburg-Amerika Line (now known as Hapag-Lloyd) as a direct, dramatic response to rival British liners such as Olympic, Titanic, and the upcoming Cunarder,  Aquitania. She was the brainchild of the brilliant Albert Ballin, a man of uncompromising taste and style. Ballin had an eye for detail and a grasp of the truly sybaritic, perhaps equalled only by that of Cesar Ritz himself. Ballin was way ahead of his time.

That is probably why he hired the London Ritz architects, Charles Mewes and Arthur Davis, to create the fairy tale interiors of the Imperator. Ballin was determined to outclass all opposition, at every level. One example of this materialised just weeks before the ship’s maiden voyage.

News had somehow leaked out that the new Aquitania would actually be a few feet longer than the Imperator on her forthcoming 1914 debut. Within days, a huge crate arrived at the German liner’s fitting out dock.

It contained a monstrous, gilt trimmed, giant golden eagle, clutching a globe of the world in it’s talons. It was bolted like a figurehead of old onto the prow of the Imperator. And it did, indeed, have the desired effect of making her longer than her British rival.

The bird did not last. A howling Atlantic storm literally clipped the eagle’s wings within a few weeks of the Imperator’s entry into service. The rest of the largely unloved, scowling brute was discreetly removed soon afterwards.

The Imperator was launched in 1912, just six weeks after the apocalyptic sinking of the Titanic. The original, intended name was Europa but, with an entire continent now increasingly on edge at the sabre rattling in the royal houses of Europe, Ballin opted to name the ship Imperator, after his friend and mentor, the erratic, unstable Kaiser Wilhelm II. It was jingoistic sleight of hand of the first order.

The first swing of the champagne bottle somehow failed to connect with the prow of the biggest man made object on the planet. The inbound bottle was deftly caught by the Kaiser himself, who smashed it neatly against the ship that now bore his name. Amid much pomp and ceremony, the huge hull slid sedately into the waters of the Elbe.

The inquiries into the Titanic disaster in both England and America resulted in a whole raft of new maritime legislation; none of which had been in force when the Imperator had first taken shape on a drawing board. The most obvious of these was a mushrooming of literally dozens of extra lifeboats, many of them stowed in impromptu bays, carved out of the lower superstructure. These unplanned, yet necessary changes upset her original centre of stability quite a lot.

Ballin sheathed her incredible, unmatched interiors in a byzantine brew of marble, gilt, and deep, rich carpeting. Potted palms flanked her vast, vaulting staircases in a series of triumphant cascades. Those sublime interiors were a cake rich confection of stunning old masters, over the top statuary, and vast chandeliers that held sway above a sea of deep, clubby sofas and chairs. It was, indeed, the ambiance of the Ritz afloat, and the overall look was quite simply stunning.

And it all conspired to make her hugely unstable. On her maiden arrival in New York, she leaned ominously to port as thousands of passengers rushed the railings to get a first glimpse of the Statue Of Liberty. New York harbour pilots promptly nicknamed her the ‘Limperator’. The tug boat captains there said that she never came in on an even keel.

What Ballin could do with her, he did. Thousands of tons of pig iron were added to her as ballast; some nine foot was cut from the top of each of her trio of towering smoke stacks. Inside, a token reduction was made in the opera house style, overblown splendour. It all helped but, to the very end of her days, both she and her two sisters would remain ‘tender’ ships at sea.

But the Imperator was an instant, immediate success. In her first year of service, she was one of the most popular and profitable liners on the Atlantic. The outbreak of the Great War found her safely at home in Hamburg, where she would remain for the duration of the conflict.

Her brand new sister was not so lucky. The Vaterland, second of the Ballin trio, was in New York, in the middle of her third round trip, when the war descended. Ordered to remain put, she was seized as a war prize by the Americans in 1917, outfitted as a troopship, and renamed the Leviathan. She never sailed under the German flag again.

And neither did the poor, proud Imperator. The 1918 armistice surrendered the entire German merchant marine- the largest in the world- to it’s former enemies. And, as the largest ships in the world, the Ballin trio were by far the biggest prizes of all. The only question was; who would get them?

Leviathan stayed with the United States Lines, who put her into passenger service in 1922. Prohibition crippled her from the start. Wet outside and largely dry on the inside, she never had a chance. She was withdrawn from service in 1934, and finally scrapped in 1938.

Third of the class, Bismarck was launched just weeks before the war broke out, and all work was stopped on her for the duration. She was completed for the White Star Line in 1922. Renamed the Majestic, White Star marketed her as ‘The Queen of the Western Ocean’. She was the largest ship in the world until the debut of the Normandie in 1935. Ultimately converted into the cadet ship Caledonia, she burned and sank at her pier just prior to the outbreak of another global conflict in September, 1939.

The Imperator went to Cunard, as a replacement for the torpedoed Lusitania. She was converted to oil burning, painted in Cunard colours and renamed the Berengaria, before being put back into service on the Atlantic ferry from Southampton to New York.

The Berengaria was, in fact, the first Cunard liner to be actually named after an English queen; the lady in question had been the wife of Richard the Lionheart.

Cunard had the good sense to leave her plush interiors pretty much as they were, apart from some subtle rearranging of the first class public rooms. Her vast, beautiful Pompeiian swimming pool had been modelled after one that can still be seen at the Royal Automobile Club in London. Even today, it is still considered by many to be the most beautiful ever crafted on any ship.

The Berengaria sailed the gilded Atlantic run with her former rivals and new fleet mates, Mauretania and Aquitania. She became the Cunard line flagship and, by some inexplicable whim, she also became the most popular ship on the crossing. For several years, she was very much the ship to be seen on. In that incredible age of steamships, baseball, flapper girls and prohibition, the Berengaria was the brightest jewel in the company’s crown. As such, she was immensely profitable to boot.

That all changed with the 1927 debut of the splendid new Ile De France. Swathed in a stunning new Art Deco look, the swanky new French liner was an instant, spectacular success. Next to her, all the older, pre war liners suddenly looked dowdy, outdated, and hopelessly behind the times. And worse was to come.

The 1929 stock market crash, and the Great Depression that followed, decimated the liner trade on the Atlantic by almost half within four years. At the same time, a string of new, government subsidised, Italian and-ironically, German- ships began to appear on the run. State of the art and sleek, they were soon snapping at the heels of the doughty old timers still being operated by both Cunard and White Star. Soon, both premier British shipping lines were in deep trouble.

The Berengaria and her ilk survived by offering five and six day ‘booze’ cruises from New York, up to Halifax, and down to Bermuda. With her bars open around the clock, the iconic Cunarder earned the nickname of the ‘Dead and Bury’er’. It was the equivalent of expecting  Audrey Hepburn to appear in pantomime. Cruising eked out her life, at the expense of her soul and reputation. But time was still running out.

On Clydebank, the incomplete, rust shrouded hulk that would one day be the Queen Mary sat, deserted by everyone save the birds that nested in her. As a condition for lending the money to finally complete her, the British government forced the shotgun wedding of those age old rivals, Cunard and White Star.

With Cunard holding a 62-38 per cent majority shareholding in the new amalgam, the inevitable disposal of suddenly redundant, surplus tonnage hit White Star especially hard. It also largely explains why the Majestic  went to the block, while the Berengaria earned a reprieve.

By 1936, the ageing diva was still making the Atlantic crossing, but now in company with the brand new Queen Mary. Hopelessly outclassed by flash, new foreign tonnage like the Rex, the Normandie and-irony of ironies- the new Europa, her end was hastened by a rash of small, electrical fires that started to break out all over through the summer of 1938. She was finally sold for scrap that same December. Her eventual replacement would be the second Mauretania of 1939.

Her story had many ups and downs, but ultimately, Ballin’s dream ship endured for almost a quarter of a century. Her triumphs, style, and sheer splendour are undeniable; the stuff of true ocean going legends. One hundred years after her launch, the Imperator has truly earned her berth in the Valhalla of vanished North Atlantic nobility.