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Whatever Happened to the RMS Queen Elizabeth, RMS Queen Mary's Sister Ship?

Updated on December 27, 2016
RMS Queen Elizabeth, flagship of the Cunard White Star Line.
RMS Queen Elizabeth, flagship of the Cunard White Star Line.

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. Then there was the first, the RMS Queen Elizabeth, the 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 Mauritania, the Queens were easily adapted to the ever 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.

Hull 552

On the day of RMS Queen Mary's maiden voyage, the announcement came for a second great liner, the RMS Queen Elizabeth. This new ship would be bigger and better, an improvement on RMS Queen Mary. Financed by the British government after agreeing to a merger with longtime rival White Star, the 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 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 it's 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.

Construction of the RMS Queen Elizabeth in Scotland.
Construction of the RMS Queen Elizabeth in Scotland.
RMS Queen Elizabeth arrives in New York after her secret maiden voyage.
RMS Queen Elizabeth arrives in New York after her secret maiden voyage.

Maiden Voyage

RMS Queen Elizabeth's final outfitting was a top secret circus that involved a juggling of false leads and cover stories to throw the Germans off. With war now underway in Europe, the Queen Elizabeth would be a prime target. German spies were everywhere and the British government was determined to prevent tipping them 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 RMS Aquatania 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 by the King's Messenger, 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 shop in Southhampton, not even to drop off the Southhampton harbor pilot. This decision saved the ship from destruction as the Germans were fooled by the cover story and bombed Southhampton at the precise moment RMS Queen Elizabeth was scheduled to arrive.

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 when France fell. This would be the only time the three largest liners in the world would be moored side-by-side.


SS Normandie (left), RMS Queen Mary (center), RMS Queen Elizabeth (right). The only time the three largest liners were together.
SS Normandie (left), RMS Queen Mary (center), RMS Queen Elizabeth (right). The only time the three largest liners were together.
RMS Queen Elizabeth with 10,000 troops on board.
RMS Queen Elizabeth with 10,000 troops on board.

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.

Post War

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 completed 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.

RMS Queen Elizabeth converted back to civilian service alongside RMS Queen Mary still as a troopship.
RMS Queen Elizabeth converted back to civilian service alongside RMS Queen Mary still as a troopship.
RMS Queen Elizabeth's new lido deck, installed to make the ship more modern.
RMS Queen Elizabeth's new lido deck, installed to make the ship more modern.

Golden Years

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 appearing 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 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 1970s but this failed. Turned out the ship was 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 to a company called The Queen Corporation.

SS United States behind RMS Queen Elizabeth in the 1960s just as the Age of Liners was coming to an end.
SS United States behind RMS Queen Elizabeth in the 1960s just as the Age of Liners was coming to an end.

Floating Hotel & Convention Center

The new owners, Queen Ltd, envisioned a floating hotel, convention center and tourist attraction in Port Everglades, Florida. The name 'Queen' was dropped and the ship was marketed heavily as 'Elizabeth' 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 new rocked off berth and conversion began. Believe it or not, Elizabeth opened to the public in 1970, before her sister RMS Queen Mary did on the west coast.

The closed RMS Queen Elizabeth in Florida awaiting auction.
The closed RMS Queen Elizabeth in Florida awaiting auction.

Bankruptcy

Almost immediately, the RMS Queen Elizabeth business venture was plagued with problems. It turned out that the harsh Florida climate brutally corroded the vessel, inside and out, far worse than RMS Queen Mary's Long Beach environment. Rising repair costs prompted the business venture to loose money almost immediately. The deathblow came when Florida authorities declared the ship a fire hazard and closed the ship. After only one year of operation, Queen Ltd went bankrupt and the ship went up for auction.

The RMS Queen Elizabeth on fire.
The RMS Queen Elizabeth on fire.

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 to 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 heel and boilers were left to rot on the bottom of the harbor. They would remain there until the 1990s when land reclamation efforts 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.

The wreckage of the Seawise University awaiting scrapping.
The wreckage of the Seawise University awaiting scrapping.

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