A New Queen
Cunard Line, having secured the Blue Ribband with their speedy twins Lusitania and Mauretania, ordered up a third liner that would round out their Liverpool – New York service. She was not to be as fast but far more luxurious and larger than White Star’s Olympic or Britannic. It was not enough that Cunard owned the fastest British ships on the Atlantic. They simply had to own the largest and most luxurious.
Aqutiania was built by John Brown & Company; the same firm that had built Lusitania. Launched in 1913, she weighed 45,647 tons and was 901 feet long by 97 feet wide. Her steam turbines powered four screws at 23 knots. She could carry 3,230 passengers (618 First Class, 614 Second Class and 1,998 Third Class). Her design, based loosely on that of her smaller sisters, was a break of sorts from Cunard’s usual design. Her profile was similar but her superstructure was several decks higher and squared off as opposed to the rounded leading edge found on Lusitania and Mauretania.
Aquitania was launched on 21 April, 1913 by the Countess of Derby in front of a crowd of over 100,000 people. Lifeboat accommodations were more than adequate, in light of the Titanic disaster almost exactly a year before. It was announced in February 1914 that Captain William Turner would be her first captain (Turner would later be Lusitania’s master when she was sunk).
Aquitania departed Liverpool for her maiden voyage on May 30, 1914. The previous day had seen Empress of Ireland sink in the St. Lawrence river in Canada and high spirits were surely tempered with grief. The new Cunarder’s first trip across the Atlantic went without incident, and with its completion Cunard was the first to have a three-ship service in operation. By design, either Aquitania, Lustitania or Mauretania sailed from Liverpool every Saturday. That ship would return 17 days later, having made the six-day journey to New York with five days turnaround and another six days back. This always brought the ships home on a Tuesday. The rest of the week in Liverpool was spent coaling and cleaning the ship for its Saturday departure. Such was the life of an ocean liner. This schedule that Cunard was more than happy to settle into was to be rudely interrupted in August of 1914 when war erupted in Europe. Aquitania only made two more trips to New York before war was declared and she requisitioned by the Admiralty for service as an auxiliary cruiser.
In Service of Her King
Converted to an armed merchant cruiser in Liverpool, Aquitania was commissioned by the Royal Navy on August 7th. Her first assignment was a patrol of the Western Approaches. She returned to the Mersey on August 16tsh. On the next trip out, Aquitania was caught in thick fog on August 22nd and collided with the Leyland liner Canadian and was forced to return to Liverpool for repairs. It was decided that the liner was too large to be effective as a cruiser. She was repaired by December of 1914 and mothballed until June 18th 1915 when she was assigned troopship duty.
On June 25th she left Liverpool with over 5,000 troops on board. After only three voyages as a troop transport, Aquitania was converted into a hospital ship and resumed service in December 1915. After only a month as a hospital ship she was again mothballed. On April 10th 1916, she was decommissioned by the Admiralty and returned to Cunard. Harland & Wolff refit the ship for passenger service. By November 1916 work was nearing completion when she again drafted for duty as a hospital ship. A year later she was back in storage. In December 1917 the United States entered the war and Aquitania was used to transport American troops. When the war ended she brought home Canadian troops.
In November 1919, Aquitania came home to Cunard for good. With the war over, Cunard confidently refit her as a passenger ship. Her coal burning days were over; oil was now the choice fuel. In June 1920 she underwent sea trials off the coast of Scotland. Her second maiden voyage was on July 17th, 1920. Her debut cut short, Aquitania now dazzled and charmed everyone who boarded her.
Following the War, Cunard was awarded the North German Lloyd’s Imperator as reparation for the sinking of Lusitania in 1915. The German liner was renamed Berengaria and became Cunard’s flagship by virtue of her size. Mauretania, with the Blue Ribband secured, was by far the fastest ship. Aquitania was, without a doubt, the most beautiful of Cunard’s trio.
Accommodations aboard “the Ship Beautiful” were far superior to anything seen on the North Atlantic before. Her interiors were plush and extravagant, echoing an era thought by many to have been extinguished by years of war. Aquitania held fast to the ideals of the early floating palaces, though, even as the Roaring 20’s ushered in the era of art deco. Liners began to cast aside the heavy oaks and velvets of the Edwardian era in favor of the bright vivid hues of the new age.
Despite her “antiquated” styling, Aquitania proved to be one of the most popular liners ever to grace the Atlantic and year after year loyal Cunard customers flocked to her. During winter refits in 1926, 27 and 28 the passenger accommodations were extensively modernized. In 1930 Aquitania served as an art gallery at sea for one voyage. In 1932 she was used as a cruise ship for the first time. Leaving New York on February 3rd, she cruised the Mediterranean. Later that same year she made another Mediterranean cruise and a cruise to the Bahamas as well. In November the ship underwent considerable internal reconstruction. First class accommodation was reduced, while tourist class (a replacement for steerage) was expanded and improved. All public rooms were renovated and a movie theatre was added. Aquitania retained her pre-war charm but was modernized out of Cunard’s need to keep pace with other lines whose newer ships were beginning to steal buisiness.
During the 20’s and 30’s, the Silver Screen presented to the public a new generation of aristocracy. This one was not born of wealth, but on movie screens around the world the beautiful women and dashing handsome heroes of Hollywood captivated the imaginations of millions. When these stars traveled on ocean liners, they were sure to travel on the largest, fastest and/or most beautiful. Consequently, Aquitania had more than her share of celebrities aboard. This continued well into the 1930’s as Cunard booked her for both Atlantic crossings and tropical pleasure cruises. As the 30’s came to an end, however, the ominous cloud of war hung low over Europe. As the Nazi party rose to power in Germany, a fragile peace hung by a thread and Cunard’s fears of once again losing their most prized liners to the Admiralty. Worse than that, Germany’s new submarines were even more deadly than those of the Great War and posed far greater a danger to merchant ships. Cunard’s fears were realized when war was declared in 1939. Aquitania was requisitioned as a troop transport on 21 November 1939.
At first she was used to transport Canadian troops to Europe. During 1940 she underwent a refit in the United States and was armed with six-inch guns. From March on she was based in Sydney transporting Australian and New Zealand troops to the battlefields of France, also making two passages between Pearl Harbour and San Fransisco to bring home wounded and evacuees. After 1941, Aquitania returned to the Atlantic serving as a troopship. After the war she brought home thousands of Canadian and American troops.
On April 1st 1948 she was released by the Admiralty and once again wore her Cunard colors. After a quick refit for passenger service, the Canadian government chartered the ship to carry emigrants from Southampton to Halifax. Fleeing the war-torn cities of Europe, thousands of people fled Europe to seek a new life in Canada.
When the contract was fulfilled in December 1949, Cunard announced that Aquitania was to be withdrawn from service. She was the last four stacker left, having been the last built for the Atlantic; she was truly the last of her kind. Having served her company and country proudly for 35 years, Aquitania’s engine telegraphs rang down for the last time on January 9th, 1950 and Messers Hampton & Sons Ltd auctioned off her furnishings and equipment. Stripped of her glory and pride, she was sold a few weeks later to the British Iron & Steel Corporation Ltd for £125,000 and towed to Faslane, Scotland where she was broken up. When the last of her keel had been demolished, the Golden Age of Ocean Travel edged ever closer to sunset. Only a few more Atlantic liners were to be built as people took to the sky rather than the sea. Jet liners replaced the Ladies of the Sea as the floating palaces were no longer “the Only Way to Cross…”