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 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
By the beginning of March 1940, Queen Elizabeth was ready for her secret voyage. Her Cunard colours 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, who presented sealed orders directly to the captain. Captain Townley discovered that he was to take the untested vessel directly to New York without stopping, without dropping off the Southampton harbour pilot (who must have been very mad!) 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.
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.
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, foremostly 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 she also sailed some 500,000 miles (800,000 km). Her captains during this period were the aforementioned John Townley, Ernest Fall, Cyril Gordon Illinsworth, Charles Ford, and James Bisset
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.
The ship ran aground on a sandbank off Southampton on 14 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; 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. For this new tropical purpose, the ship received a major refit in 1965, with a new lido deck added to her aft section, enhanced air conditioning, and an outdoor swimming pool. With these improvements, Cunard intended to keep the ship in operation until at least the middle 1970s. 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 ship’s 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. The Elizabeth, as it was now called, actually opened to tourists before the Queen Mary (which opened in 1971) but it was not to last. 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. 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.
Near the completion of the £5 million conversion, the vessel caught fire on 9 January 1972. 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 was completely destroyed by the fire, and the water sprayed on her by fireboats caused the burnt wreck to capsize and sink in Hong Kong Victoria Harbour. The charred wreck was featured in the 1974 James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun, as a covert headquarters for MI6. The vessel was finally declared a shipping hazard and dismantled for scrap between 1974 and 1975. Portions of the hull that were not salvaged were left at the bottom of the bay and later incorporated into landfill for the new Hong Kong International Airport. However, the keel and boilers remain at the bottom of the harbour still and the area is marked as “Foul” on local sea charts warning ships not to try to anchor there. It is estimated that around 40–50% of the wreck is still on the seabed alongside the large Hong Kong container port. Parker pens produced a special edition of 5,000 pens made from material recovered from the wreck in a presentation box and these are highly collectable. Two of the ship’s fire warning system brass plaques were recovered recently by a dredger and these are now on display at The Aberdeen Boat Club in Hong Kong within a display area about the ship. The charred remnants of her last ensign were cut from the flag pole and framed in 1972, and it still adorns the wall of the officers’ mess of marine police HQ in Hong Kong. Following the demise of Queen Elizabeth, the largest passenger ship in active service became SS France, which was longer but had less tonnage than the Cunard liner.
|Name:||RMS Queen Elizabeth|
|Owner:||Cunard White Star Line|
|Operator:||Cunard White Star Line|
|Port of registry:||United Kingdom|
|Ordered:||6 October 1936|
|Builder:||John Brown and Company
|Yard number:||Hull 552|
|Laid down:||4 December 1936 |
|Launched:||27 September 1938|
|Christened:||27 September 1938|
|Maiden voyage:||3 March 1940|
|Identification:||Radio Callsign GBSS|
|Fate:||Fire damaged and partially dismantled, vessel’s remains covered over on seabed in Hong Kong Harbour by 1975|
|Tonnage:||83,673 gross tons|
|Length:||1,031 ft (314 m)|
|Beam:||118 ft (36 m)|
|Height:||233 ft (71 m)|
|Draft:||38 ft (12 m)|
|Installed power:||160,000 horsepower driving four propellers|
|Propulsion:||Steam Turbine (Single Reduction Gear)|