From sea to shining sea….
Aquitania. A ship whose very name is wrapped in romance, legend and maritime lore. She sailed for thirty six years, establishing a continuous service record only recently bested by another Cunard aristocrat, the Queen Elizabeth 2. Though Aquitania was dishevelled and worn out in her final days, he track record is still one of imperishable glamour.
She was built on the Clyde, to be a bigger running mate for the record breaking sisters, Lusitania and Mauretania. Cunard needed this bigger, far more opulent ‘third wheel’ to run a weekly service from Liverpool to New York.
In terms of scale, design and execution, the Aquitania had far more in common with the rival Olympic than with her smaller siblings. Like the Olympic, Aquitania was meant to emphasise scale, steadiness and sheer, opulent splendour. The Blue Riband was something she never aspired to; she was intended to be a spectacular floating palace, a Palladian bordello writ large. For decades, her proud, four funneled silhouette would be a byword for style and sophistication at sea.
Her initial timing was disastrous. The Aquitania sailed from Liverpool on her maiden voyage only days after the Empress of Ireland had capsized in the Saint Lawrence Seaway, with the loss of over a thousand souls. The lost liner was very much a ‘Liverpool ship’, and the entire city was in mourning when the palatial new Cunarder arrived.
Aquitania managed just three round trips before the Great War decimated the liner trade. Both Aquitania and Mauretania were requisitioned as the most improbable, fuel guzzling armed merchant cruisers ever, a role quickly terminated when they consumed every last bit of reserve coal in South Eastern England between them. Both ships were quietly laid up until some more practical role could be found for them.
She re- emerged to be used in a more realistic guise as a hospital ship, ferrying thousands of casualties back to the United Kingdom in the wake of the horrific, ill thought through catastrophe of the Dardanelles campaign. Later still, she ferried American troops across the Atlantic to the charnel houses of the western front. Despite frequently sailing through areas known to be infested with German U-boats, the Aquitania emerged from four years of war without any physical combat damage.
But her machinery had been all but worn out, and a massive reconditioning was needed to bring the Aquitania back to her brief, pre war glory. At the same time, Cunard took the opportunity to convert the ship from coal to oil burning and, in this guise, she joined the Mauretania and the giant Berengaria on the newly established, post war express service from Southampton to New York.
Cunard’s fabled ‘big three’ in the 1920’s. L to R: Mauretania, Berengaria, and Aquitania
This Cunard ‘big three’ service soon settled down to become the most reliable and consistent operation on the Atlantic. Each week, one of the three ships would sail from Southampton on a Saturday, bound for America. A second ship would leave New York each Tuesday. The third ship would be at sea, heading in one direction or the other.
With very little variation, the Aquitania maintained this pattern of sailings through most of the 1920’s, and well into the next decade. The Great Depression of 1929 combined with the advent of new, cutting edge, state of the art French and German liners to put the Aquitania and her pre war, Edwardian ilk on notice. Time for all of these ships was clearly running out.
The Cunard/White Star shotgun marriage of 1934 saw the Aquitania relegated more and more to short cruises, from New York to Bermuda, and even up to Nova Scotia. With two huge new sisters on order- the Queen Mary and the future Queen Elizabeth- it was clear to one and all that the doughty old Aquitania was on borrowed time.
Aquitania even made a cruise in 1938 down to Rio de janeiro for the Carnival, where she shared the harbour with much more modern masterpieces such as the Normandie and the Rex. If anything showed her advancing age and limitations, it was this mutual proximity to these two transatlantic speed queens.
Ironically, the outbreak of a second global conflict saved her. As Hitler’s panzers slammed into Poland, it became evident that the British Empire needed every last single potential troopship, no matter how old or jaded. For the second time in her incredible career, the Aquitania acquiesced to the grey guise of an ocean trooper.
In this second stint, the veteran Aquitania ventured to some amazingly unlikely places. Early in 1940, she formed part of an incredible convoy of liners that included the Queen Mary, Nieuw Amsterdam and Ile De France, ferrying virtually an entire Australian army corps from Sydney to bolster General Wavell’s paper thin forces in North Africa. The likes of it would never be seen again.
Tired and yet priceless, the gallant old liner ended up back on the North Atlantic, ferrying American and Canadian troops to Britain in the build up to Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. Once again, she managed to make her own unique contribution without ever kissing the edge of a U-boat’s cross hairs. All things considered, the Aquitania was, indeed, a very lucky ship.
At wars’ end in 1945, the Aquitania was returned to Cunard White-Star, and it was clear that she was almost totally worn out. But so desperate still was the shortage of tonnage that the liner spent four final years operating what was, in essence, an austerity service, ferrying both troops and a tidal wave of GI brides across the Atlantic to both America and Canada.
Cunard and the Atlantic are like Rogers and Astaire
Though her funnels were repainted in Cunard colours, very little else was done to recondition Aquitania. Her days were obviously numbered and, with both Queens back in profitable service on the Atlantic by the summer of 1947, the end was rapidly approaching for the Edwardian wonder ship.
She was an anachronistic sight indeed when she finally sailed off to a Scottish breaker’s yard for demolition in January of 1950. Sailing from Southampton for the last time into a thick fog bank, the Aquitania looked like nothing less than her own ghost.
Yet the Aquitania left behind an unequalled service record, both in terms of her peacetime luxury sailings, and through the course of the two most ghastly and destructive conflagrations on the face of the planet. As a ship built for ‘comfort first, speed second’, she represented at that time a complete, radical change to the entire ethos of the Cunard Line.
Unlike Lusitania and Mauretania, the Aquitania was known throughout her long life as a good, solid, steady sea boat, and this also helped to make her hugely popular. In fact, those two words- ‘solid’ and ‘steady’- both work as singularly wonderful descriptive words in recalling the career, the achievements, and the sheer allure of that sumptuous, wonderful ship- the amazing Aquitania.