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THE FRENCH LINE – SS LIBERTE – 1950s

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Cruising the past: The SS Europa was the pride of Norddeutscher Lloyd Line in the 1930s. She was the sister ship of the SS Bremen.

Sadly the Second World War caused an end to her years in German hands and she was handed to the French as war reparations.

As SS Liberte, the ship became the stop gap flagship for CGT French Line as a replacement for the legendary SS Normandie that had been lost during the Second World War.

She was transformed into the pride of France and finally was retired in 1961 after serving two great nations.

THE FRENCH LINE – SS LIBERTE – 1950s – Here are some wonderful vintage home movies shot aboard a crossing on the Liberte. The photographer even tried to shoot a few poorly lit interiors.

The French Line’s Liberte.

Snaphots of two women passengers aboard the Liberte.

SS LIBERTE (formerly the German liner EUROPE)

If the time before the Second World War is indexed within the annals of history for its aspirations of achievement and advancement of technology and design, then, the period following the great turmoil should be looked upon as a testament to the longevity of that vision and drive.

In the frenzy and misery which is war, the great passenger fleets of the Atlantic trade were reduced to a mere ghostlike representation of life before the War. The superliners of the decade before, the Normandie, the Rex, and their brethren lay in ruin. The few great ships which survived for the duration found themselves sorely lacking in competition and silently alone on the vast expanses of the Atlantic seas.

S.S. Europa – Norddeutscher Lloyd Line (1930 – 1946)

It is during this period which the shipping companies, both European and American, found themselves clamouring to rebuild their diminished fleets. The French Line, having lost it’s fabled Normandie, was suddenly out of the fierce competition it had enjoyed prior to the War, when rival nations had struggled not to best each other in weaponry or strength but in who could master the seas and prove the fastest on the North Atlantic.

As Germany submitted itself in disgrace to the American and British invasion forces, its national assets and treasures would soon be confiscated as war reparations to those nations who had fallen under Hitler’s assaults. The Europa, having been siezed by American troops in May of 1945 as they advanced into Bremen, was to be turned over to the French.

Renamed Liberte, the former North German Lloyd flagship would now fly the French flag. In the days preceding the war, Europa had represented Germany as one of the fastest ships on the North Atlantic, having captured the Blue Riband in 1931 with a record crossing of 27.91 knots. Now though, as the Liberte, she would find her place as a flagship successor of the Normandie.

With her funnels repainted in French Line red and black the ship was moved to Le Havre for refitting of her interior finery into the tasteful decor consistent with those ships of the French Fleet. Before work could commence, she would suffer a great indignity in December of 1948 as the dormant ship was torn from her berth in a violent gale and thrown into the nearby wreckage of the Paris. The Liberte sank in place and would not be refloated until the following spring.

Towed to St. Nazaire in 1948, Liberte received a 19 million dollar refit and refurbishment and was slowly given new life as work began on stripping her German water-damaged interiors. With the refit already behind schedule due to the Le Havre mishap, work would fall yet even further behind as French shipwrights soon found themselves battling a fire which threatened to consume the ship at its dock.

With the fire subdued and pressures to bring the ship into service mounting, work started immediately on reclaiming her already new interiors. The ship would quickly be put right and in August of 1950, would make her maiden debut, five years after being siezed by American troops in Bremen.

For a time, the Liberte would enjoy being third to none. Her only comparisons were those flagships of the British Cunard Line, the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary.

Teamed with the Ile de France, the Liberte would give the world a small glimpse of what the French Line had to offer before the Second War.

With crisp white linens and deft French service, the standards which rose Normandie to acclaim remained in place aboard Liberte.

Now paired with the Ile de France rather than the Bremen, it was in reassuring comfort that passengers who could recall the prewar era, would find solace in the atmosphere and familiarity present aboard the two ships. It would remain thus for far too brief a time.

Sarah Vaughn sails to Europe aboard the SS Liberte.

Many African-American celebrities sailed aboard the French Line because the French were far less prejudiced and much more welcoming than the US Lines and Cunard.

Following the launch of the characteristically American SS United States, the ship underwent a major refit both interior and exterior. The ship’s funnels were fitted with domed tops in an attempt at modernity, and the internal accommodations were altered in their numbers. With more modern ships on the near horizon, the refit was not a new lease on life, but rather an extension of the old. Indeed, it was only two years later in 1956, that the new France was ordered, signaling the end for the French liners of old.

American humorist James Thurber w. cigarette in hand, indoors aboard SS Liberte.

The Ile de France would first fall under the stroke of time and age, making her final voyage in November of 1958. Then, three years hence, the Liberte herself would find her career for the French Line at a close. Departing New York for the final time under the celebratory plumes of fireboats, she made her final crossing to Le Havre where, ironically, she would tie up alongside the new flagship France, with preparations for her maiden voyage already underway.

With the liner dormant and her fate uncertain, much speculation arose as to the proposed fate of the Liberte. There was talk of her use as a hotel at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, but spared the undignified fate of her former running-mate, the Liberte would decidedly be scrapped before suffering a similar end. On January 30, 1962 she made passage to La Spezia, Italy where she would be broken up. Six months later, nothing but memories and scattered relics would remain of the liner which had served as flagship for two nations.

Du Bois, W. E. B., and Shirley Graham Du Bois aboard the S.S. Liberte, 1958 August.

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About Michael L. Grace