Jason Ponic works in the exciting world of Hollywood film and television by day and writes by night.
The Forgotten Queen
Today's huge cruise ship is actually the third Queen Elizabeth to sail the waves. Before her, there was the legendary QE2 who's career spanned nearly forty years and is now a hotel in Dubai. Then there was the first, the RMS Queen Elizabeth, the now all but forgotten queen.
Sailing as Cunard White Star's flagship for more than twenty years, RMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship RMS Queen Mary ruled the world's oceans. In a time that killed off relic liners like RMS Olympic (Titanic's sister ship) and RMS Mauritania, the Queens were easily adaptable to a changing shipping market. From World War II until air travel ended the Age of Ocean Liners, the queens shaped those decades.
After retirement, RMS Queen Mary became immortal as a float hotel in California where it survives today. The RMS Queen Elizabeth on the hand, faded into obscurity and ruin.
On the day of RMS Queen Mary's maiden voyage, the announcement came for a second, even greater liner, the RMS Queen Elizabeth. This new ship would be bigger and better, a total improvement on RMS Queen Mary. Financed by the British government after agreeing to a merger with longtime rival White Star, the Cunard Queens were to be the backbone of the tourist express trade.
Risen from the keel up in the shipyards of John Brown & Co. from 1936 to 1938, the ship was christened by her majesty, Queen Elizabeth, Queen consort of the United Kingdom on Sept. 27, 1938. Curnard's big plans for their newest and biggest vessel included a royal tour of the ship in 1939 and its maiden voyage to be in the following spring in 1940. Then war broke out and everything changed.
For several months, she sat at dry dock, seaworthy, just not on paper. It wouldn't be for another two months were her engines finally tested and the necessary license issued to declare her ready for the ocean. The turn of the year, Winston Churchill issued a letter to Cunard ordering the RMS Queen Elizabeth to leave the British Isles for her own protection.
RMS Queen Elizabeth's final outfitting was a top secret circus that involved a juggling of false leads and cover stories to keep the Germans in the dark about her status and capabilities. With war now underway in Europe, the Queen Elizabeth would be a prime target for Nazi Germany. German spies were everywhere and the British government was determined to prevent any tip off. Germany did know that Southhampton was the only harbor with a dry dock large enough to fit the new ship.
The elaborate deception kicked off with an announcement that the vessel would sail to Southhampton for its final outfit. A skeleton crew of 400 were assigned to the ship for the voyage, pulled from the old RMS Aquitania, and Captain John Townley assigned as her commanding officer. Hotel accommodations were arranged in Southhampton for those crew members and parts for the ship were shipped to the harbor. The captain and crew were kept on a need-to-know basis and were only given instructions by Cunard to pack for six months. The ship was painted battleship grey and in the predawn hours of March 3, 1940 she quietly departed the shipyard and started towards Southhampton. There she was met by the King's Messenger who had sealed orders that were given directly to Captain Townley.
Phase II of the secret plan had begun. From the sealed orders given to him, Townley was told to change course, maintain full radio silence, and sail the untested RMS Queen Elizabeth directly to New York City. She was not to stop in Southhampton, not even to drop off the Southhampton harbor pilot.
For six days, the RMS Queen Elizabeth zig-zagged across the Atlantic and arrived safely in New York harbor. There she found herself docked alongside her older sister, RMS Queen Mary, which had been held in New York since the outbreak and french liner SS Normandie, seized by the US government as an asset when France fell to German occupation. This would be the only time the three largest liners in the world would be moored side-by-side.
World War II
RMS Queen Elizabeth would remain in New York for several months as her final outfit was carried out, installation of vital electrical equipment and the removal of her launch gear that road on the ship from Europe. Requisitioned by the Ministry of War Transport, she finally set sail on November 13, 1940 for Singapore to be converted into a troop ship. Outfitted with anti aircraft guns and enough bunks to carry 5,000 soldiers. When completely transformed, she became known as the "Grey Ghost".
Joining her converted sister ship RMS Queen Mary in Sydney, Australia, the RMS Queen Elizabeth set sail for the middle east with 5,000 troops bound for the European Theater. For the next five months she would run troops from Sydney to Suez. The southern oceans were far warmer climates than what the vessels were designed for. The lack of air conditioning and cramped space on board made traveling on the ships rather unbearable. By the end of 1941, both Queens had carried over 80,000 men to and from the theater, including troops and POWs.
When the United States entered the war in December 1941, RMS Queen Elizabeth set sail for Canada to begin transporting American and Canadian forces. She would undergo modifications that would increase her capacity. She was stripped of all luxury fittings and bunks placed in every conceivable space, the RMS Queen Elizabeth could now carry a staggering 10,000 troops. By war's end she would transport 750,000 troops some 500,000 miles.
When the war officially ended in 1945, RMS Queen Mary would remain as a troop ship for another year, transporting forces back from the theaters. RMS Queen Elizabeth on the other hand, was sent back to shipyard to be converted back into a civilian liner.
Despite having over 500,000 miles under her belt, the ship never had formal sea trials performed. These were finally carried out in 1947. Onboard her during the trials where her namesake, Queen Elizabeth, Queen consort and her two daughters Princess Elizabeth and Margaret. She was not permitted to break RMS Queen Mary's speed record despite having the capabilities to do so. Cunard White Star did not want the two ships to complete with one another. RMS Queen Elizabeth finally entered civilian service as part of Cunard's two ship trans-Atlantic express.
For the next 10 years, RMS Queen Elizabeth, RMS Queen Mary and new super liner SS United States would dominate the Atlantic Ocean. Two refits in 1952 and 1955 made her more stable in rough seas and added air conditioning for the very first time. She would even made an appearance in the 1959 movie The Mouse That Roared and even had a collision with an American cargo vessel later that year. The downfall of the Queen came from the skies.
The faster and cheaper airliners were something ships could not compete with. A four day voyage across the Atlantic now took less than a day by air. As profitability plummeted, Cunard began alternating the RMS Queen Elizabeth to Bahaman cruises alongside SS France.
In 1965, she would undergo a $3.7 million refit aimed at this market including a lido deck, outdoor swimming pool and enhanced air conditioning. Cunard hoped this would keep the ship in service through the mid-1970s but this failed. Turned out the ship was simply too inefficient to fuel and her size prevented her from using the Panama Canal and most of the ports in the region.
Cunard announced on May 8, 1967 that the Queens were to be retired. RMS Queen Mary was pulled later that year, the first casualty of a changing age. She was sold to the City of Long Beach to be converted into a floating hotel. RMS Queen Elizabeth was pulled a year later in 1968 and sold for $7.7 million to a trio of business men who founded The Queen Corporation.
Floating Hotel & Convention Center
Despite having a less than auspicious business record, the triumvirate had big plans for the Largest Liner Ever Built. They envisioned a 100+ acre tourist attraction with the RMS Queen Elizabeth as their centerpiece floating hotel, museum and convention center.
Originally they wanted this destination along the shores of the Delaware River at Philadelphia's Hog Island. It quickly became apparent that the river wasn't deep enough for the massive liner. The idea was scrapped and the owners pitched it instead to the governing bodies of Port Everglades, Florida. Eager for the tourist revenue, they agreed.
Hopes were high as the deal was signed on August 16, 1968. Almost immediately, however, problems surfaced. This should have been an omen. The company hemorrhaged money just with RMS Queen Elizabeth's maintenance costs not including planning or construction. With no money coming in, the Queen Corporation appealed to Cunard itself for help. In exchange for $1 million advance, Cunard repurchased an 85% ownership stake in the ship. Queen Corporation would then pay Cunard $2 million per year for the next decade and then ownership would return solely to Queen Corporation.
The name 'Queen' was dropped as a clause and the ship was marketed heavily as 'Elizabeth: the Largest Liner the World Has Ever Seen' in Florida newspapers and magazines.
When the ship arrived in Florida, it was met by huge crowds and fanfare. Tug boats eased the ship into its newly dredged birth. Her engines powered down for the last time time. Conversion into her future began.
Problems & Bankruptcy
The ship's current birth was temporary. Her intended future home had yet to be built. In the dreams of the owners, a 209 ache super center complete with monorails, tennis courts, and a beach club. The RMS Queen Elizabeth would be a 700 room hotel and convention center facility. Almost immediately, however, the business venture was plagued with yet even more problems.
Where RMS Queen Mary was, and still is, owned by the City of Long Beach and had multiple sources of substantial funding at its disposal for its conversion and maintenance, RMS Queen Elizabeth was strictly privately owned with few funding options. RMS Queen Mary's conversion wasn't problem free, ballooning from a budgeted $9 million of over $68 million in four years as unexpected costs and setbacks arose while converting the 34-year-old vessel into a hotel. This drew major criticism and outcry which stained its reputation for decades after. Faced with a near identical prospect, RMS Queen Elizabeth's sketchy owners began to cut corners while the ship's permanent home was being built.
In 1969, the ship was officially opened to the general public for tours. Self guided, the tours took visitors to nearly all major rooms and ended in the cabin class restaurant now converted into a huge souvenir shop. Despite 2,000 visitors a day, Queen Corporation's money problems only grew worse.
RMS Queen Mary had her internal power plant and boilers removed during conversion, her water, sewage and electrical systems tapped directly into the city's. No longer able to generate her own power, she was officially reclassified as a building and no longer under the care of a crew nor seaworthy. RMS Queen Elizabeth, on the other hand, was still a seaworthy vessel even though she was officially retired. She was still generating her own power from her own steam boilers and maintained by her own Cunard skeleton crew of approximately 100. The inefficient fuel burning rate that ended her career in the first place was now bleeding her owners dry before her conversion could even begin.
Meanwhile Cunard, the majority owner, had its own troubles in 1969. Engine trouble with RMS Queen Elizabeth's direct replacement, the brand new Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2), left the Line little choice but to sell its portion of the RMS Queen Elizabeth to the highest bidder and recoup its mounting losses. Several bidders came and went without a sale and Cunard threatened to repossess and sail the ship back to Southhampton for scrapping if the partners didn't buy them out. The partners still believed the ship profitable. Armed with additional investors and funds, they reorganized the company into Queen Ltd. and purchased Cunard's portion for $8.6 million. RMS Queen Elizabeth had finally left Cunard's ownership, 29 years after she was built.
Now the plan was to again convert the ship into a floating hotel with convention center rooms, a yacht club and a marina. The owners' goal was to have the ship moved to her permanent home by June of 1970. One of the first cost cutting measures Queen Ltd. did was layoff all 118 officers and crew that were maintaining the RMS Queen Elizabeth. They instead hired a small local staff to run the ship's power generation efforts and tend to maintenance.
The inexperience of the tiny staff to maintain such a massive ship became apparent in the coming months. Many of the ship's lower decks were left completely unattended allowing for things to go wrong and troublemakers to take advantage. In August 1969, a mentally disturbed security guard attempted to start several fires below decks. In October another electrical fire started and was quickly extinguished by staff before the fire department was alerted.
Eleven days after that, the Port Everglades Fire Chief made a surprise inspection of the RMS Queen Elizabeth during one of her public tour days. There he found over 2,000 tourists wandering nearly every deck of the ship unsupervised. When he asked staff members about fire prevention and evacuation procedures, he found there were none in place. RMS Queen Elizabeth was henceforth declared an extreme fire hazard and ordered closed indefinitely until Queen Ltd. created safety procedures for tourists and addressed a total lack of fire safety.
This was financially devastating, the final deathblow. While Queen Ltd. did bring the ship up to the new safety standards, the company never recovered financially. A last ditch attempt to take the company public in January 1970 collapsed when the US economy declined that year. The ship remained open until May 1970 and the company filed for bankruptcy. Finally out of money, Queen Ltd was liquidated and the ship herself went up for auction.
Chinese millionaire C.Y. Tung got wind of the RMS Queen Elizabeth's auction and purchased the ship for just over $3 million. His plan was to convert the ship into a floating university. Upon purchasing the ship, Tung renamed her the Seawise University and began making preparations to sail her to Hong Kong.
Intended to be both a floating university and luxury cruise ship, the RMS Queen Elizabeth was completely stripped down. The ship's interiors were modernized, equipment and safety systems updated. The ship was scheduled to sail to Japan for final outfitting and her maiden voyage as Seawise University but this would never happen.
The cause of which has been never been officially determined but in the afternoon of January 9, 1972 five separate fires broke out onboard the former RMS Queen Elizabeth. The fire protection system had not yet been completed so there was nothing to fight the blaze with until fireboats arrived. The flames quickly spread and within hours, the entire ship was engulfed. The water the fire boats sprayed on the ship to fight the blaze sent her listing to the bottom of the shallow Hong Kong harbor, ending her career forever.
Once the flames died away, all that remained of the RMS Queen Elizabeth was a half sunken hulk of twisted, melted steel. Within the next several months, the ship would sit, rusting while the insurance company sought scrapped bids.
Over 40% of the ship, containing the keel and boilers was left to rot on the bottom of the harbor. They would remain there until the 1990s when land reclamation efforts forever buried the wreckage in millions of tons of rock and concrete.
RMS Queen Elizabeth would remain the world's largest passenger shipwreck for more than 30 years until the 2012 sinking of the Costa Concordia in Tuscany.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Mike Machin on May 13, 2020:
I grew up in the 1960s in Netley, alongside Southampton Water just outside the city limits of Southampton. Both the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary, together with SS United States and SS France were seen every couple of weeks, in fact as kids we could sometimes watch them go past as we were having lunch at home!
In September 1968, shortly before RMS Queen Elizabeth was retired, my father took me to visit the liner in port in Southampton. It seems incredible now, but there was no security, and we were allowed to roam freely around all areas the ship for several hours - and even enjoyed some tea in one of the restaurants!
I also enjoyed a trip with dad to visit the USS Little Rock when she visited Southampton a couple of years earlier in September 1966 - a ship that is happily still with us thanks to the efforts of the good people of the Buffalo Naval & Military Park.
Greetings from the UK
HUGH COHEN on April 27, 2020:
I actually sailed as a child with my parents and siblings in November 1963 to Nassau for a Thanksgiving Cruise. We left NYC on Nov. 23rd. My parents decided that with the assasination of JFK we should still go. We had a great time and we even saw the happenings in D.C. while on the ship. It was a beautiful ship and had a wonderful staff. There was plenty for everyone to do day and night!
N D Rees on April 21, 2020:
As an undergrad 1957-58 at UC Santa Barbara, I returned to New York on the Queen Elizabeth after five months traveling in Europe. We sailed into NY harbor at 12:01 am on my 21st birthday 27 Jan 1958.
In 1964, after a year teaching math in Switzerland, our family of four sailed from Cherbourg, France to NY on the Queen Mary. Our 'new' VW van was in the hold, ready to drive Route 66 home to Santa Barbara.
Also we did two Trans-Atlantic sailings on the QE2 in summers of 1969 and 1988.
liverpool john on January 04, 2020:
I came from England 8/15/47 on board Elizabeth. I still have the passenger list and food menus. Also, several pictures that were taken. Needless to say, i don't remember much but i do remember sitting at the dinner table and a giant wave came through the porthole, sending al to the floor.
john petro on January 04, 2020:
came to America 8/17/47 aboard queen Elizabeth. i still have the passenger listing booklet and food menus.
Dr. H. C. Lloyd on December 26, 2019:
photographed her in dry dock Southampton for last time
Zane M VanDerWerff on December 25, 2019:
The only Cunard Queen That died.....imagine if she was also purchased by Long Beach, that would be a sight....just to have the two sisters as museums/hotels
James M Clarke on December 10, 2019:
Yes, I remember her well. My Father, Frances N Clarke, worked for Cunard for about 30 years and was Manager of Cunard's Detroit office. After his death in 1951 my Mother and I visited New york and were the luncheon guests of Mr. Jesse Austin who was General Manager in New York. We dined in the First Class Dining Room and were served and treated like royalty. After lunch we were treated to a tour of the Ship. A magnificent Palace She was! I have visited the Queen Mary in California and shared part of a Round the World Cruise on the Queen Mary 2. My mother, to be, and my father, to be, met when both worked in the Cunard, Detroit Office and were married in 1928. Yes, I believe that makes me a Cunard Baby!
Otto Z on October 02, 2019:
Me and my mom immigrated from UK to America on the QE in February 1952. We arrived In NYC 4 days before I was a year old. Dad came across first on the Queen Mary to find a place to live and secure a job.
ARTHUR SEVIGNY on August 20, 2019:
I have the berthing card for the Aug 1943 crossing to the UK from a member of the 20th Fighter Group and some interior photos
Steve on June 25, 2019:
Toured her while she was in Maimi, Florida
Janet on March 06, 2019:
I immigrated to the US and arrived in New York on May 3rd 1952. I was 18 years old. So exciting!
Peter Melia on October 06, 2018:
I sailed in the QE for several years. During that time she dry-docked in Glasgow. A ship in dry dock tends to be festooned with numerous cables, hoses, vent ducts, all essential for proving essential services during the docking. It can easily be imagined that during that docking we, the Cunard crew, took extraordinary measures to ensure that there was no such thing as an errant spark.
It was a really worrying situation to be in, the corridor lengths were about 1,000 feet long. Anyone who travels nowadays in Queen Mary should make a point of going down a few decks and making it to the foremost or aftermost ends of those long, long corridors. The ships are (were) so long that the corridors can (could) be seen, from the chosen vantage point, to rise up into the distance, and then down again the further away one’s view can see.
The cause is that in the midships, with a large cross section, the buoyancy raises the body of the ship higher than at the ends, which have narrower sides (bow and stern) and thus has less buoyancy, and so, sag.
This small digression is the emphasise the length of the corridors.
In normal sea-going conditions, those long corridors are interspaced by numerous, working, frequently tested, fireproof doors, all of which could be closed at the touch of a button. But in dry dock, or any repair period, the ship’s crews were responsible, and to be sure they watched those corridors like hawks.
So when the Queens, and their French and American peers repaired, they never had fires, simply because of the diligence of the crews.
I remember being in Japan when the news broke of the QE being converted into Seawise University, and thought of all of those pipes, cables, conduits, ducts, along those long corridors, exactly as we had experienced, but without our dedicated crews. I figured that the laid up ship could never have such crews as we had.
I thought then that my old ship had been converted into a classical “accident awaiting an accident”.
Which it did.
Up to recently the hulk could be seen in Hong Kong harbour, and I do not know if the authorities have by now removed what was left.
If not, perhaps the remains could be left, as a pointer to the stupidity of commercial man.
Jools Cesar on September 28, 2018:
I served as a Radio Officer on her in the mid 60's.
Call sign was GBSS
David McCall on July 31, 2018:
I sailed from Southampton to NY in the summer of 1966. I was 11 years old. I have both a plastic model of QE as well as a die cast model I bought in London that same summer. One of the best memories of my life. So sad to see the old liners gone. I like fast planes and fast cars, but nothing beats a leisurely cruise across the pond! We have forgotten the lost art of relaxation.
Barrie John Dent on November 11, 2017:
Very sad Ending for two of the most famouse liners in the world, same for the caronia.
BJD one of both the ships Officers
Alan Holbrook on August 25, 2017:
I emigrated from England to Canada via New York with my mother, father and sister in April 1952. It was quite a trip, particularly passing by the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.
Malcolm Brown on July 05, 2017:
I sailed from Southanpton to New York on this ship in September 1967. Fantastic!!!
Bill Green on April 15, 2017:
I cruised on this ship from New York to the Bahamas in Dec. of 1967. I standard ticket for passage was $250.00!!!!!!!!!!