Today, September 20, is an interesting multiple anniversary. Though not likely to make the “today in history” lists on news or social media sites, today is the historical “birthday” of no fewer than three legendary passenger liners of the 20th century. On September 20, 1906, Cunard Line’s Mauretania was launched at Newcastle upon Tyne, England; exactly four years later, the SS France was launched at St. Nazaire, France; and on September 20, 1967, the Queen Elizabeth 2 (“QE2”) was launched at Clydebank, Scotland. All three of these marvelous ships went on to have amazing careers that shaped the history of transatlantic travel in interesting ways.
Before we continue, it’s important to know what the launching of a large ship means. It is not the day the ship starts building; that would be the “laying down” of the keel, nor is it the day the ship enters service. It’s the day the completed structural ship goes down the slipways of the shipyard into the water to float on its own for the first time. The launching is the big showy event where somebody usually smashes a champagne bottle against the hull. After launching, a ship will go to the “fitting-out basin,” where its detailing and internal construction will continue. In some cases this can take a year or more.
Mauretania: The Speed Demon
Here is an original 1935 newsreel of the Mauretania’s last voyage, as she was on her way to the scrap yard.
Cunard’s Mauretania was really an amazing ship. She was built with state of the art technology, at least by 1906 standards, and her engines were mightily powerful. The ship was also decked out to be the most luxurious vessel on the Atlantic at the time, upping the stakes in the speed-and-luxury arms race that was then going on between British ships (Cunard and White Star Lines, mostly) and German ones. On her maiden voyage in November 1907 Mauretania captured the speed record for an eastbound crossing, called the Blue Ribband.
Passengers loved the Mauretania, both for her speed and her comfort. She was quite a profitable ship for Cunard Lines. She also helped win World War I, being commissioned as a troopship which eventually, after the entry of the United States into the war in 1917, helped ferry American “Doughboys” across the Atlantic to France. After Mauretania lost the speed record to a new German liner in 1929, her engines were overhauled and she tried again to recapture the record, but it wasn’t enough. (By the way, the Blue Ribband is currently held by the SS United States, which won it in 1952).
The Great Depression proved fatal to Mauretania. Though still sturdy and beautiful, she was just too expensive to operate in the austere ’30s even after being fitted to oil-firing engines. She sadly went to her doom at a shipbreakers’ in Scotland in 1935.
Mauretania is a prominent “character” in my 2005 novel Romantic, Memoirs of a Great Liner.
France: The Wobbly Beauty
The French national line, CGT, had a rough start into the North Atlantic speed-and-luxury sweepstakes, but they scored a clear hit with the arrival of the SS France. Ironically she made her maiden voyage in April 1912, right before the Titanic went down, which rather grimly lessened the competition on the waves for a while. France was intended to be the most beautiful ship on the Atlantic, and she was. Her interiors were modeled on various landmarks in Paris and other French cities, and the ostentation of her fittings appealed to well-heeled travelers just before the Great War (World War I). She had a problem, though: she was very wobbly at sea, which made many passengers sick and broke crockery all over the ship; this problem was later corrected in a refit.
After the war France had another heyday in the 1920s. During that decade, European liners were popular with American passengers because they served alcohol (Prohibition was in effect in the USA). In 1927, however, CGT’s own Ile de France, a newer and faster ship, replaced her, and France was put to cruising in the Mediterranean. Like Mauretania, the Depression killed her. She was broken up for scrap at Dunkirk in 1935.
QE2: The Link to the Future
Original footage of the launch of the QE2 in 1967. The footage is unfortunately silent.
By 1967, when Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth 2 went into the waters, the era of transatlantic ship travel was thought to be over. Most people now crossed the ocean by jetliner, and competition from planes had already killed off Cunard’s wonderful creations Queen Mary (which first sailed in 1936) and Queen Elizabeth (which sailed in 1940). QE2, then, was something of a vanity project. Great Britain wanted at least one big liner still on the Atlantic, even as squadrons of 747s roared overhead.
QE2 was built for two missions: transatlantic voyages and vacation cruising. This was unusual for big ships, but necessary due to the era in which she operated. Thus, QE2 plied the Atlantic in summer and spent the winter drifting around tropical waters in the Mediterreanan, Caribbean or Pacific. She was quite popular after her introduction in 1969, but perhaps not so surprising because she was, by then, the only liner still sailing from New York to Southampton.
In the 2000s, the QE2, which for decades seemed to be the last lonely survivor of an otherwise extinct species, finally gained a younger sister. Cunard launched the Queen Mary 2, one of the largest passenger liners ever built, in a bold attempt to harness a perhaps re-emerging market for transatlantic ship travel. I sailed on the Queen Mary 2 in 2008, the same year as the QE2 made her last voyage. It was a wonderful trip that proved that yes, transatlantic travel by ship is still a wonderful experience.
These three great liners are gone now, except for QE2 which may become a floating hotel somewhere in Asia, But the luxury, speed and power they represented still echoes today in the history of nautical travel. Happy birthday to these vanished queens.