RMS Queen Elizabeth

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RMS Queen Elizabeth at Cherbourg, France
Career (UK)
Name: RMS Queen Elizabeth
Owner: Cunard White Star Line
Operator: Cunard White Star Line
Port of registry:  United Kingdom
Route: Transatlantic
Ordered: 1936
Builder: John Brown and Company
 Clydebank, Scotland
Laid down: 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
General characteristics
Type: Ocean liner
Tonnage: 83,673 gross tons
Displacement: 83,000+ tonnes
Length: 1,031 ft (314 m)
Beam: 118 ft (36 m)
Height: 233 ft (71 m)
Draught: .
Draft: 38 ft (12 m)
Installed power: 160,000 horsepower driving four propellers
Propulsion: Steam Turbine (Single Reduction Gear)
Capacity: 2,283 passengers
Crew: 1,000+ crew

RMS Queen Elizabeth was an ocean liner which sailed the Atlantic Ocean for the Cunard Line (then the Cunard White Star Line when the vessel was launched) and was contracted to carry Royal Mail.

At the time of construction in the 1930s by John Brown and Company in Clydebank, Scotland, during her construction the vessel was known as Hull 552. She was later named in honour of Queen Elizabeth, Queen Consort at the time of her launch in 1938, and in 1952 became the Queen Mother. RMS Queen Elizabeth was a slightly larger ship with an improved design over her running mate, Queen Mary, making her the largest passenger liner ever built at that time, which was a record that would not be exceeded for fifty-six years. SS France, completed in 1961, was longer but had less tonnage than the Cunard liner.

She first entered service in 1940 as a troopship in the Second World War, and it was not until 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 Cherbourg to New York for over twenty years. With the decline in the popularity of these routes, both ships were replaced by the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 in 1969.

After being retired from transatlantic service, she was sold by Cunard and delivered to Florida to her new owners who hoped to operate her as a hotel, this never happened and the ship sat at the dock for over two years piling up mooring fees until the vessel and its owners - the Queen Corporation were declared bankrupt. She changed owners again and was sent to Hong Kong, where while under conversion to a floating university, she caught fire and capsized in 1972. The wreck was scrapped in 1975.[1]

Building and design

On the day RMS Queen Mary set sail on her maiden voyage, Cunard's chairman, Sir Percy Bates, informed his ship designers that it was time to start designing the planned second ship, which unlike Queen Mary, whose name was kept secret, was to be called Queen Elizabeth. The official contract between Cunard and government financiers was signed on October 6, 1936.[2]

The new ship was to be an improved design of Queen Mary,[3] 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,[3] which also gave the new vessel an extra ten feet in length over her sister.[2] The ship also boasted a more refined hull shape and one extra deck.

Cunard's plan was for the ship to be launched in September 1938, with fitting out intended to be complete for the ship to enter service in the spring of 1940.[2] The Queen herself for whom the ship was named,[3] performed the christening ceremony on September 27, 1938, with the ship sent for fitting out.[2][3] It was announced that on 23rd August 1939 the King and Queen were to visit the ship and tour the engine room and April 24th 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.[2]

Queen Elizabeth sat at the fitting out dock at the shipyard in her Cunard colours until 2 November 1939, when the Ministry of Shipping issued special licences to make her seaworthy. On 29 December her engines were tested for the first time, when they were run from 0900 to 1600 with the propellers disconnected to monitor her oil and steam operating temperatures and pressures. Two months later Cunard received a letter from Winston Churchill,[4] then First Lord of the Admiralty, ordering the ship to leave Clydeside as soon as possible and "to keep away from the British Isles as long as the order was in force".

Maiden voyage

File:Queen Elizabeth Construction.jpg
Queen Elizabeth, growing on the stocks.

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.[4] Another factor prompting Queen's departure was the necessity to clear the fitting out berth at the shipyard for the battleship HMS Duke of York,[4] which was in need of its final fitting-out. Only the berth at John Brown could accommodate the King George V-class battleship's needs.

One major factor that limited the ship's secret departure date was that there were only two spring tides that year that would see the water level high enough for Queen Elizabeth to leave the Clydebank shipyard,[4] 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.[4] Parts were shipped to Southampton, and preparations were made to drydock the new liner when she arrived.[4] 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.[5]

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 the 3rd March she quietly left her moorings in the Clyde where she proceeded out of the river and travelled further on down the coast where she was met by the King's Messenger,[4] who presented sealed orders directly to the captain. Whilst waiting for the messenger the ship was refuelled, adjustments to the ships compass and some final testing of the ship equipment was carried out before she sailed to her secret destination. 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 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.[4] After a crossing taking six days, Queen Elizabeth had zigzagged her way across the Atlantic at an average speed of 26 knots avoiding Germany's U-boats, where she arrived safely at New York and found herself moored alongside both Queen Mary and the French Line's Normandie. This would be the only time all three of the world's largest liners would be berthed together.[4]

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.[4] 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.


Queen Elizabeth painted in wartime colours prior to her civilian career.

Queen Elizabeth left the port of New York on November 13th 1940 for Singapore for her troopship conversion[2] after two stops to refuel and replenish her stores in Trinidad and Cape Town. She arrived in Singapore Naval Docks where she was fitted with anti aircraft guns and her hull was repainted black but her superstructure remained grey.

As a troopship, Queen Elizabeth left Singapore on February 11th and initially she carried Australian troops to operating theatres in Asia and Africa.[6] After 1942, the two Queens were relocated to the North Atlantic for the transportation of American troops to Europe.[6]

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.[5] During her war service as a troopship Queen Elizabeth carried more than 750,000 troops and also sailed some 500,000 miles.[2] Her captains during this period were the aforementioned John Townley, Ernest Fall, Cyril Gordon Illinsworth, Charles Ford, and James Bisset.


File:Queen Elizabethaa.JPG
RMS Queen Elizabeth in Cherbourg in 1966

Following the end of the second world war, her running mate the Queen Mary, remained in her wartime role and grey appearence; 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[2] 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.[2] 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.[7] 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 14th April 1947, and was re-floated the following day.[2]

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;[5] 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 1200 outweiged 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.[2] For this new tropical purpose, the ship received a major refit, with a new lido deck added to her aft section, enhanced air conditioning, and an outdoor swimming pool.[8] 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.

Final years

File:RMS Queen Elizabeth.jpg
Depiction of RMS Queen Elizabeth

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 ships 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.[2] 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.[2]

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.[2]

1972: The wreck of Seawise University, the former Queen Elizabeth.

During the conversion, the vessel was destroyed by a massive fire on January 9, 1972.[2] There is some suspicion that the fires were set deliberately, as several blazes broke out simultaneously throughout the ship.[9] The fact that C.Y. Tung had acquired the vessel for $3.5 million, but had insured it for $8 million, led some to speculate that the inferno was part of a fraud to collect on the substantial sum. Others speculated that the fires were the result of a conflict between Tung, a Chinese Nationalist, and Communist-dominated ship construction unions.[10]

The ship capsized in shallow water in Hong Kong Victoria Harbour on 9 January 1972.[11] The wreckage was dismantled for scrap between 1974 and 1975, before the "floating university" project could be fully realized. 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.[12]

The wreck was featured in the 1974 James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun, as a covert headquarters for MI6.

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.


Wikimedia Commons has media related to:
[[Commons: Category:RMS Queen Elizabeth

| RMS Queen Elizabeth

  1. [1]
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 Cunard Queen Elizabeth 1940 - 1972
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Maxtone-Graham, John. The Only Way to Cross. New York: Collier Books, 1972, p. 355
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 4.9 Maxtone-Graham 1972, p. 358-60
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Floating Palaces. (1996) A&E. TV Documentary. Narrated by Fritz Weaver
  6. 6.0 6.1 Ayrshire Scotland - RMS. QUEEN ELIZABETH
  7. Maxtone-Graham 1972, p. 396
  8. Maxtone-Graham 1972, p. 409
  9. Arson Suspected as Blaze Destroys Queen Elizabeth
  10. On This Day: The Queen Elizabeth Mysteriously Sinks in a Hong Kong Harbor
  11. Queen Elizabeth at: 1934 - 1969; The Last Great Atlantic Fleet
  12. Modern Pens for Sale: The Parker 75 and 105 Limited Editions

Further reading

  • Butler, D. A. (2002). Warrior Queens: The Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth in World War II (1st ed.). Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books.
  • Galbraith, R. (1988). Destiny's Daughter: The Tragedy of RMS Queen Elizabeth. Vermont: Trafalgar Square.

External links

da:RMS Queen Elizabeth de:RMS Queen Elizabeth es:RMS Queen Elizabeth fr:RMS Queen Elizabeth hr:RMS Queen Elizabeth hu:RMS Queen Elizabeth nl:Queen Elizabeth (I) ja:クイーン・エリザベス (客船) no:RMS «Queen Elizabeth» pl:RMS Queen Elizabeth pt:RMS Queen Elizabeth ru:RMS Queen Elizabeth fi:RMS Queen Elizabeth zh:伊利莎白皇后號