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The last days of the Blue Riband rivalry

Posted in Historical articles, Ships, Travel on Monday, 28 November 2011

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This edited article about transatlantic travel originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 863 published on  29 July 1978.

Bremen and Liberte, picture, image, illustration

The Bremen and the Liberte by John S Smith

In the last days of August, 1939, Bremen, the pride of Germany’s Blue Riband holders, quietly slipped out of New York harbour. As the great liner headed out to sea, her crew members clicked their heels and gave the Nazi salute to the Statue of Liberty. For now they were members of the Third Reich, and war was imminent. The friendly rivalry on the North Atlantic had turned into something altogether more serious – now that the German crew faced the prospect of a return voyage to Europe across an ocean that was distinctly hostile. Just as Queen Mary was racing across the Atlantic from the other direction, fearful of any German warships that might be in the area, so Bremen was worried about the possibility of capture by a British warship – with good reason, for the cruisers Exeter and York had been despatched to find her.

Though still neutral at this stage of the war, the Americans had done all they could to hinder Bremen’s sailing with red tape and customs formalities. But now she was out to sea, heading north as fast as her propellers could drive her.

In a clever escape operation, the crew had spread rumours that they were going to Mexico. They had thrown lifebelts overboard to make it look like they had scuttled her, and in reality they were carrying enough explosive to do just this, should the need arise. Flying a Soviet ensign (though she looked nothing like a Soviet vessel), Bremen made a frantic dash northwards, heading towards Greenland and then the Russian port of Murmansk, where she could expect a reasonably friendly welcome at that time.

Later she crept down the coast of Northern Europe to Bremerhaven, where she joined her sister, Europa, which had been in Germany when war was declared. Like their former rivals, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, they too were converted into troop ships. They had huge doors cut into their sides, ready to take part in Operation Sealion, Hitler’s plan to invade Britain. Luckily the project was abandoned, which was just as well, for the two ships would have made easy targets for RAF bombers.

Bremen met the same fate as the Normandie. In 1941, at her berth in Bremerhaven, a member of her crew with a private grudge set her on fire and the once-proud Atlantic liner became a total wreck.

Europa was supposed to have been converted into an aircraft-carrier, but Germany had no suitable aircraft to operate from her, and so that idea was abandoned as well. She therefore remained at Hamburg under camouflage netting and miraculously survived the virtual destruction of the port by Allied bombs.

After the war, she was given to the French to replace the loss of Normandie, but while she was being refitted she also caught fire and capsized. However, they could not keep her down. She was raised and repaired, and this made it the second time that she had been brought back from the dead, since she had burnt out just after she was originally launched. The French renamed her Liberte and she served them well until she became too old and was broken up in the 1950s.

None of the great Italian ships survived the war. Rex was considered for conversion to an aircraft-carrier, as was her companion, Conte di Savoia. However, the former was sunk by British bombers at Capodistria, and the latter by American planes.

Of the six magnificent Blue Riband holders that had steamed across the Atlantic during the ’30s, only Europa and Queen Mary survived to see the peace. Queen Elizabeth also survived but she never made an attempt on the record. Yet by the end of the war, passenger aircraft were killing off the Atlantic liner far more effectively than submarines, bombers and fire-raisers – by the early 1950s, people were crossing the Western Ocean by plane in their millions.

The Blue Riband was almost finished, yet there is one final chapter to be written.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the American government became convinced that the spread of Communism was a threat to the world and America in particular. They had been impressed by the troop-carrying abilities of the Queen Mary during the war and therefore decided that they needed a fast troopship with which Communism could be fought world-wide.

There was also another reason. Throughout the Blue Riband saga, America had been beaten by Cunard, and indirectly, Britain. Queen Mary was still earning more than 50 million dollars a year carrying mostly American tourists, while the USA languished on the sidelines without a comparable ship. With Britain victorious in the war, but economically on her knees, the time seemed right for a now powerful, rich America to prove her superiority once and for all.

It was decided that the American government would subsidize the construction of an Atlantic greyhound next to which all the others would pale into insignificance. The owners were to be the United States Lines. They had been around for quite a while, but they had never contemplated competing for the Blue Riband. They were now going to be the owners of a distinctly strange vessel – an Atlantic record-breaker in the guise of a troopship.

A specially-constructed dry dock was used to build her at Newport News, and in 1950 she was laid down. Her name? What else could befit such a mighty vessel but United States?

She was the most expensive Atlantic liner ever. She cost no less than 77 million dollars, of which more than half was supplied by the American government.

Everyone must have been living in a dream world: did they seriously think that any ship, however powerful, stood a chance against a long-range jet bomber, or a modern torpedo attack? Once again it all boiled down to national pride despite all the excuses that were made. Even though the Atlantic ferries were doomed, America wanted to be the last holder of the Blue Riband trophy.

On 23rd June, 1951, she was “floated” in her dry dock – an unusual form of launching – and after a presidential ceremony, the veil of secrecy that had surrounded her was raised for the first time.

The result was a beautiful ship, and certainly one of the safest. Bearing in mind the end of the Europa and Normandie, her designers had stipulated that she be built out of aluminium and steel, and any inflammable materials were conspicuously absent. Lifeboats, lifebelts, bedding, curtains, carpets – everything was made out of fire-proof material. However, there was one exception: Steinway, the piano-makers, refused to build any aluminium pianos, so wooden ones were allowed!

The United States weighed 30,000 tons less than the Queens and Normandie, but she was a giant all the same. The fins on her two enormous funnels finally solved the upper deck smoke problem. Her speed on trials was rumoured at 40 knots, which, if true, is faster than most warships today!

In fact her maximum speed was never disclosed, nor did she ever attempt it. She broke all previous records for a merchantman, but what reserves of speed she had left is not known.

On 3rd July, 1952, she left New York on her maiden voyage. In both directions she broke the record, travelling at an average speed of around 35 knots, which the Queens could not hope to match. For the first time in 100 years, America held the Riband. The last American ship to do so had been E.C.Collins’ wooden paddler of 1852, which was the size of the tugs in the picture on the previous page!

America was cock-a-hoop, and the trophy was handed over with great ceremony on 12th November, 1952.

For 17 years, United States plied the Atlantic route, but towards the end, despite being full most of the time, she was losing more than 5 million dollars a year – even with a subsidy from the government.

Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were withdrawn from service after they had been running almost empty for some time. Queen Mary is now berthed at Long Beach, in California, where she is on permanent exhibition. Queen Elizabeth was sold to America for use as a conference centre, but was then sold to a Chinese shipowner after the American owners became bankrupt. She was to have become a floating university, but after being refurnished, she was gutted by fire in Hong Kong harbour.

For a while, there were three giant liners crossing the Atlantic – United States, the French Line’s new France and the Queen Elizabeth 2, Cunard’s Atlantic ferry-cum-cruise ship. The last made no attempt at high-speed crossings since she had to operate within the limits of rising costs and simply could not afford to go any faster.

France has been withdrawn from service at an early age and is awaiting an offer to become a floating hotel in the Middle East or somewhere similar.

In 1969, the last record-holder, the United States was also withdrawn from service, and is now laid up. She is slowly rusting.

The last laugh has been with Cunard. They now operate the only large transatlantic liner, the Queen Elizabeth 2, even though she only makes a limited number of crossings between cruises.

The Blue Riband trophy now rests at the US Merchant Marine Academy at King’s Point, Long Island, a memorial to one of shipping’s most exciting eras.

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