An Historical Look at Cunard Line’s RMS QUEEN ELIZABETH… The first in a line of QE liners.


Sailing on the RMS QUEEN ELIZABETH in the 1950s… when “Getting There Was Half The Fun”!

(Left: Captain docks the great Cunard Liner in New York) The RMS Queen Elizabeth was an ocean liner operated by the Cunard Line and was contracted to carry Royal Mail as the second half of a two-ship weekly express service between Southampton and New York City via Cherbourg.  She was followed by the QE 2 and the new Cunard liner Queen Elizabeth.

At the time of construction in the mid-1930s by John Brown and Company in Clydebank, Scotland, the RMS Queen Elizabeth was known as Hull 552, but she was later named in honor of Queen Elizabeth, Queen Consort at the time of her launch on 27 September 1938, and in 1952 became the Queen Mother. Queen Elizabeth was a slightly larger ship with an improved design over her running mate, Queen Mary, making her the largest passenger liner ever built at that time, which was a record that would not be exceeded for fifty-six years.

She first entered service in February 1940 as a troopship in the Second World War, and it was not until October 1946 that she served in her intended role as an ocean liner. Together with Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth maintained a two ship weekly transatlantic service from Southampton to New York for over twenty years. With the decline in the popularity of these routes, both ships were replaced by RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 in 1969.

The Captain’s Table – 1950s…

She was retired from service in November 1968, and was sold to a succession of buyers, most of whom had adventurous and unsuccessful plans for her. Finally she was sold to a Hong Kong businessmen who intended to convert her into a floating University cruise ship. In 1972 whilst undergoing renovations in Hong Kong harbor, she set on fire and capsized. In 1973, her wreck was deemed an obstruction, and she was scrapped where she lay.

(Left: The Duke and Duchess of Windsor aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth – waving and being interviewed.)

On the day RMS Queen Mary set sail on her maiden voyage, Cunard’s chairman, Sir Percy Bates, informed his ship designers that it was time to start designing the planned second ship, which unlike Queen Mary, whose name was kept secret, was to be called Queen Elizabeth. The official contract between Cunard and government financiers was signed on 6 October 1936.

The new ship was to be an improved design of Queen Mary, with sufficient changes including a reduction in the number of boilers to twelve boilers instead of Mary’s twenty-four, which in turn meant that the designers could discard one funnel which would increase deck, cargo and passenger space. The two funnels would also be braced internally to give her a cleaner looking appearance than her sister, at the same time the forward well deck was omitted and a sharper raked bow was added for a third bow anchor point, which also gave the new vessel an extra ten feet in length over her sister. The ship also boasted a more refined hull shape.
Queen Elizabeth, growing on the stocks.

(Rex Harrison, Peggy Cummins and Mrs. David Niven aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth…)

Queen Elizabeth was built on Slipway Four at John Brown & Company in Clydebank, Scotland. During her construction she was more commonly known by her shipyard number, Hull 552. Cunard’s plan was for the ship to be launched in September 1938, with fitting out intended to be complete for the ship to enter service in the spring of 1940. The Queen herself for whom the ship was named, performed the christening ceremony on 27 September 1938, with the ship sent for fitting out. It was announced that on 23 August 1939 the King and Queen were to visit the ship and tour the engine room and 24 April 1940 was to be the proposed date of her maiden voyage. Due to the outbreak of the Second World War, these two dates were postponed.

(The Captain inspects the RMS Queen Elizabeth…)

Queen Elizabeth sat at the fitting out dock at the shipyard in her Cunard colors until 2 November 1939, when the Ministry of Shipping issued special licenses to make her seaworthy. On 29 December her engines were tested for the first time, when they were run from 0900 to 1600 with the propellers disconnected to monitor her oil and steam operating temperatures and pressures. Two months later Cunard received a letter from Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, ordering the ship to leave Clydeside as soon as possible and “to keep away from the British Isles as long as the order was in force”.

(Series of Photos… Joseph Cotten, Rosalind Russell, Gregory Peck, Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh and Lawrence Olivier aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth…)

At the start of World War II, it was decided that as Queen Elizabeth was so vital to the war effort that she could not have her movements tracked by German spies operating in the Clydebank area. Therefore, an elaborate ruse was fabricated involving her sailing to Southampton to complete her fitting out. Another factor prompting Queen Elizabeth’s departure was the necessity to clear the fitting out berth at the shipyard for the battleship HMS Duke of York,[6] which was in need of its final fitting-out. Only the berth at John Brown could accommodate the King George V-class battleship’s needs.

One major factor that limited the ship’s secret departure date was that there were only two spring tides that year that would see the water level high enough for Queen Elizabeth to leave the Clydebank shipyard, and German intelligence were aware of this fact. A minimal crew of four hundred were assigned for the trip; most were signed up for a short voyage to Southampton from Aquitania. Parts were shipped to Southampton, and preparations were made to drydock the new liner when she arrived. The names of Brown’s shipyard employees were booked to local hotels in Southampton to give a false trail of information and Captain John Townley was appointed as her first captain. Townley had previously commanded Aquitania on one voyage, and several of Cunard’s smaller vessels before that. Townley and his hastily signed-on crew of four hundred Cunard personnel were told by a Cunard representative before they left to pack for a voyage where they could be away from home for up to six months.

(Left: James Mason sailing with his wife and dog) By the beginning of March 1940, Queen Elizabeth was ready for her secret voyage. Her Cunard colors were painted over with battleship grey, and on the morning of 3 March she quietly left her moorings in the Clyde where she proceeded out of the river and sailed further on down the coast where she was met by the King’s Messenger,[6] who presented sealed orders directly to the captain. Whilst waiting for the messenger the ship was refueled, adjustments to the ships compass and some final testing of the ship equipment was carried out before she sailed to her secret destination.

Captain Townley discovered that he was to take the untested vessel directly to New York without stopping, without dropping off the Southampton harbor pilot who had embarked on Queen Elizabeth from Clydebank and to maintain strict radio silence. Later that day at the time when she was due to arrive at Southampton, the city was bombed by the Luftwaffe. After a crossing taking six days, Queen Elizabeth had zigzagged her way across the Atlantic at an average speed of 26 knots avoiding Germany’s U-boats, where she arrived safely at New York and found herself moored alongside both Queen Mary and the French Line’s Normandie. This would be the only time all three of the world’s largest liners would be berthed together.

Captain Townley received two telegrams on his arrival in New York, one from his wife congratulating him and the other was from the ship’s namesake – Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, who thanked him for safe delivery of the ship that was named for her. The ship was then moored for the first time along side Queen Mary and she was then secured so that no one could board her without prior permission. This included port officials. Cunard later issued a statement that it had been decided that due to the global circumstances, it was best that the new liner was moved to a neutral location and that during that voyage the ship had carried no passengers or cargo.

Queen Elizabeth left the port of New York on 13 November 1940 for Singapore for her troopship conversion after two stops to refuel and replenish her stores in Trinidad and Cape Town. She arrived in Singapore Naval Docks where she was fitted with anti aircraft guns and her hull was repainted black but her superstructure remained grey.

As a troopship, Queen Elizabeth left Singapore on February 11th and initially she carried Australian troops to operating theatres in Asia and Africa. After 1942, the two Queens were relocated to the North Atlantic for the transportation of American troops to Europe.

Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary were used as troop transports during the war. Their high speeds allowed them to outrun hazards, fore-mostly German U-boats, allowing them to typically travel without a convoy. During her war service as a troopship Queen Elizabeth carried more than 750,000 troops and also sailed some 500,000 miles.[3] Her captains during this period were the aforementioned John Townley, Ernest Fall, Cyril Gordon Illinsworth, Charles Ford, and James Bisset.

(The Wheelhouse – during the 1950s…)

Following the end of the second world war, her running mate Queen Mary, remained in her wartime role and grey appearance; except for her funnels that were repainted in the company’s colours. For another year she did military service, returning troops and G.I brides to the United States. Queen Elizabeth, meanwhile, was refitted and furnished as an ocean liner at the Firth of Clyde Drydock in Greenock by the John Brown Shipyard. Six years of war service had never permitted the formal sea trials to take place, and these were now finally undertaken. Under the command of Commodore Sir James Bisset the ship travelled to the Isle of Arran and her trials were carried out. Onboard was the ship’s namesake Queen Elizabeth and her two daughters, the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.

During the trials, her majesty Queen Elizabeth took the wheel for a brief time and the two young princesses recorded the two measured runs with stopwatches that they had been given for the occasion. Bisset was under strict instructions from Sir Percy Bates, who was also aboard the trials, that all that was required from the ship was two measured runs of no more than thirty knots and that she was not permitted to attempt to attain a higher speed record than Queen Mary. After her trials Queen Elizabeth finally entered Cunard White Star’s two ship weekly service to New York. Despite similar specifications to her older sister Queen Mary, Elizabeth never held the Blue Riband, as Cunard White Star chairman Sir Percy Bates requested that the two ships not try to compete against one another.

(A turbulent crossings…)

The ship ran aground on a sandbank off Southampton on 14th April 1947, and was re-floated the following day.

Together with Queen Mary, and in competition with SS United States, Queen Elizabeth dominated the transatlantic passenger trade until their fortunes began to decline with the advent of the faster and more economical jet airliner in the late 1950s;[7] Queens were becoming uneconomic to operate with rising fuel and labour costs. It was documented that on one transatlantic crossing the ship crew compliments of 1,200 outweighed the 200 passengers the ship was carrying. For a short time, Queen Elizabeth (now under the command of Commodore Geoffrey Trippleton Marr) attempted a new dual role to make the aging liner more profitable; when not plying her usual transatlantic route, which she now alternated in her sailings with the French Line’s SS France, the ship cruised between New York and Nassau.

(Left: The Captain gets a haircut in the barber shop.)

For this new tropical purpose, the ship received a major refit, with a new lido deck added to her aft section, enhanced air conditioning, and an outdoor swimming pool. However, this did not prove successful due to her high fuel operating costs, deep draught (which had prevented her from entering various island ports) and being too wide to use the Panama Canal.

Cunard retired both ships by 1969 and replaced them with a new, single, smaller ship, the more economical RMS Queen Elizabeth 2.

In 1968, Queen Elizabeth was sold to a group of Philadelphia businessmen from a company called The Queen Corporation (which was 85% owned by Cunard and 15% by them), at the same time the ships name was also altered as Cunard removed the word “Queen” from the bows and stern. The new company intended to operate the ship as a hotel and tourist attraction in Port Everglades, Florida, similar to the use of Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. Losing money and forced to close after being declared a fire hazard, the ship was sold at auction in 1970 to Hong Kong tycoon C.Y. Tung.

(Sad end for a great liner.)

Tung, head of the Orient Overseas Line, intended to convert the vessel into a university for the World Campus Afloat program (later reformed and renamed as Semester at Sea). Following the tradition of the Orient Overseas Line, the ship was renamed Seawise University, as a play on Tung’s initials. 1972: The wreck of Seawise University, the former Queen Elizabeth.

Near the completion of the £5 million conversion, the vessel was destroyed by a massive fire on January 9, 1972.[3] There is some suspicion that the fires were set deliberately, as several blazes broke out simultaneously throughout the ship. The fact that C.Y. Tung had acquired the vessel for $3.5 million,and had insured it for $8 million, led some to speculate that the inferno was part of a fraud to collect on the insurance claim. Others speculated that the fires were the result of a conflict between Tung, a Chinese Nationalist, and Communist-dominated ship construction unions.

The ship capsized in shallow water in Hong Kong Victoria Harbor on 9 January 1972.

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About Michael L. Grace

MICHAEL L. GRACE is part of the award winning team that created the internationally performed award winning musical SNOOPY, based on PEANUTS by Charles M. Schultz. SNOOPY continues to be one of the most produced shows (amateur & stock) in America/Worldwide and has had long running productions in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and in London's West End. There are over 100 individual productions every year. He has written movies for TV, including the award-winning thriller LADY KILLER, various pilots and developed screenplays for Kevin Costner and John Travolta. Besides co-writing and co-producing SNOOPY, he wrote and produced the one-man play KENNEDY. He produced P.S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD by pulitzer prize winning author James Kirkwood. He wrote the stage thriller FINAL CUT which had productions in the UK, South Africa and Australia. His one-man play, KENNEDY - THE MAN BEHIND THE MYTH, was developed for HBO and has starred Andrew Stevens, Gregory Harrison and Joseph Bottoms. He has recently been involved in European productions with CLT-UFA, Europe's leading commercial television and radio broadcaster. He wrote MOWs THE DOLL COLLECTION, THE BOTTOM LINE and LAST WITNESS for German television. While in college and graduate school he worked as a foreign correspondent for COMBAT, the famous leftwing Paris daily, and as a travel writer. He visited more than 50 countries. He struggled as an actor, then joined the enemy and entered the training program at William Morris. He became a publicist and worked for Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's manager, at Paramount and MGM. He followed with a brief stint as a story executive, working in the frantic horror genre period of the early 80s and wrote THE UNSEEN. He went onto write for episodic television and develop series pilots. He was a continuing writer on such series such as LOVE BOAT, PAPER DOLLS, and KNOTS LANDING. He developed screenplays for such major award winning directors as Nicolas Meyers, Tony Richardson and J. Lee Thompson. He has written for all the major networks and studios. He has been hired numerous times as a script doctor, doing many uncredited rewrites on TV movies and features. He is currently writing A PERSON OF INTEREST, a thriller novel, and, IT'S THE LOVE BOAT... AND HOW IT CHANGED CRUISING BY SHIP a non-fiction book dealing with how the hit TV series as a major cultural phenomenon and altered the style of cruising by ship. He was raised in Los Angeles. He attended St. Paul's, USC and the Pasadena Playhouse. He received a B.A from San Francisco State University where he majored in theatre arts and minored in creative writing. He is listed as a SFSU leading alumni. He also apprenticed at ACT - The American Conservatory Theatre. For a brief period he had intentions of becoming an Episcopal(Anglican) priest and attended seminary at Kelham Theological College in the UK. When "the calling" wasn't there, he left seminary and did graduate work at the American University of Beirut. He has guest lectured at USC, UC San Diego, McGill, Univ. of London and the Univ. of Texas on the business aspects of making a living and surviving as a writer, focusing on development hell, in the Hollywood entertainment industry. Grace is a lifetime member of the Writers Guild of America, the Dramatist Guild and former regional chairman of the Steamship Historical Society of America. He resides in Palm Springs.

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