Cunard Line’s Queens Mary and Elizabeth, and the French Line’s Normandie

RH forwarded photos of the Captain of Queen Mary 2 taken with him standing on the bulbous forebow of the giant ship on the occasion of her 10th anniversary, contrasting his size to the mammoth ship he commands. The photo above reminded me of the famous poster of the French Line’s Normandie.


This in turn led me to post some comparisons between the modern Queen Mary 2, her predecessor, the two Cunard Queens Elizabeth and the ill-fated French Line Normandie.



Normandie at speed at sea

SS Normandie was an ocean liner built in Saint-Nazaire, France, for the French Line, Compagnie Générale Transatlantique. She entered service in 1935 as the largest and fastest passenger ship afloat; she is still the most powerful steam turbo-electric-propelled passenger ship ever built.

Her novel design and lavish interiors led many to consider her the greatest of ocean liners. During service as the flagship of the CGT, she made 139 westbound transatlantic crossings from her home port of Le Havre to New York. Normandie held the Blue Riband for the fastest transatlantic crossing at several points during her service career, during which the RMS Queen Mary was her main rival.

During World War II, Normandie was seized by US authorities at New York and renamed USS Lafayette. In 1942, the liner caught fire while being converted to a troopship, capsized onto her port side and came to rest on the mud of the Hudson River at Pier 88, the site of the current New York Passenger Ship Terminal. Although salvaged at great expense, restoration was deemed too costly and she was scrapped in October 1946.

Queen Mary


Queen Mary in New York

RMS Queen Mary is a retired ocean liner that sailed primarily on the North Atlantic Ocean from 1936 to 1967 for the Cunard Line. Built by John Brown & Company in Clydebank, Scotland, Queen Mary along with her running mate, the RMS Queen Elizabeth, were built as part of Cunard’s planned two-ship weekly express service between Southampton, Cherbourg, and New York City. The two ships were a British response to the superliners built by German and French companies in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Queen Mary was the flagship of the Cunard Line from May 1936 until October 1946 when she was replaced in that role by Queen Elizabeth.

Queen Mary sailed on her maiden voyage on 27 May 1936 and captured the Blue Riband in August of that year; she lost the title to SS Normandie in 1937 and recaptured it in 1938, holding it until 1952 when she was beaten by the new SS United States. With the outbreak of World War II, she was converted into a troopship and ferried Allied soldiers for the duration of the war. Following the war, Queen Mary was refitted for passenger service and along with Queen Elizabeth, commenced the two-ship transatlantic passenger service for which the two ships were initially built. The two ships dominated the transatlantic passenger transportation market until the dawn of the jet age in the late 1950s.

After several years of decreased profits for Cunard Line, Queen Mary was officially retired from service in 1967. She left Southampton for the last time on 31 October 1967 and sailed to the port of Long Beach, California, United States, where she remains permanently moored. The ship serves as a tourist attraction featuring restaurants, a museum, and hotel. The ship is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has accepted the Queen Mary as part of the Historic Hotels of America.

Queen Elizabeth


Queen Elizabeth in Cherbourg, France

On the day RMS Queen Mary sailed 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 would be known as Queen Elizabeth.

The new ship improved upon the design of Queen Mary with sufficient changes, including a reduction in the number of boilers to twelve instead of Mary‘​s twenty-four, that the designers could discard one funnel and increase deck, cargo and passenger space. The two funnels were braced internally to give a cleaner looking appearance, a more refined hull shape was achieved and a sharper, raked bow was added making Queen Elizabeth twelve feet longer than the older ship.

Queen Elizabeth was built by the same firm that had built Queen Mary. 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. The Queen herself performed the launching ceremony on 27 September 1938 and the ship was sent for fitting out. The plannded date of her maiden voyage was 24 April 1940. Due to the outbreak of World War II, these two dates were postponed.

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 declare her seaworthy. On 29 December her engines were tested for the first time. Two months later Cunard received a letter from Winston Churchill, 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”.

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. Another factor prompting Queen Elizabeth‘​s departure was the necessity to clear the fitting out berth at the shipyard for the battleship HMS Duke of York, 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, 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 the liner 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 master. 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 colors 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. While 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. 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.

Normandie, Mary & Elizabeth

Normandie, Queen Mary & Queen Elizabeth together in New York. Compare the size of the stacks on Normandie with her rivals. I’ve always felt that the over-large stacks on Normandie ruined her lines. Her hull was quite sleek and graceful.

Following the end of World War II, her running mate Queen Mary remained in her wartime role and grey appearance, except for her funnels, which were repainted in the company’s colors. 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. Bisset was under strict instructions from Cunard boss 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’s two ship weekly service to New York. Despite similar specifications to her older sister Queen Mary, Elizabeth never held the Blue Riband, Sir Percy Bates requested that the two ships not try to compete against one another.

Together with the Queen Mary, and in competition with United States Lines’ SS United States, the 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. As passenger numbers declined, the Queens became uneconomic to operate in the face of rising fuel and labor costs. For a short time, the Queen Elizabeth attempted a dual role in order to become 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 strategy did not prove successful due to her high fuel costs, deep draught (which prevented her from entering various island ports), and great width, preventing her from using the Panama Canal.

Cunard retired both ships by 1969 and replaced them with a single, smaller ship, the more economical Queen Elizabeth 2.

Queen Elizabeth 2

QE2 in Hawaii

Queen Elizabeth 2 in Hawii

Queen Elizabeth 2, often referred to simply as QE2, was operated by Cunard as both a transatlantic liner and a cruise ship from 1969 to 2008. She was designed for the transatlantic service from her home port of Southampton, UK, to New York, and was named after the earlier Cunard liner RMS Queen Elizabeth. She served as the flagship of the line from 1969 until succeeded by RMS Queen Mary 2 in 2004. She was considered the last of the great transatlantic ocean liners until the construction of the Queen Mary 2 was announced.

During almost forty years of service, Queen Elizabeth 2 undertook regular world cruises and latterly operated predominantly as a cruise ship, sailing out of Southampton, England. QE2 had no running mate and never ran a year-round weekly transatlantic express service to New York. QE2 did, however, continue the Cunard tradition of regular scheduled transatlantic crossings every year of her service life.

QE2 retired from active Cunard service on 27 November 2008. She was acquired by Istithmar, the private equity arm of Dubai World, which planned to begin conversion of the vessel to a 500-room floating hotel moored at the Palm Jumeirah, Dubai. In July 2012, Istithmar announced converson plans but these never came to fruition. In 2013 Oceanic Group announced that the ship would sail in October of that year to Asia for conversion into a luxury hotel. This project also stalled and as of 2015 the ship remains laid up in Dubai.

Queen Mary 2

Queen Mary 2

Queen Mary 2: gone are the graceful lines of the Art Deco-era ships as ship architects strive to cram more and more features into ships and hold more and more passengers. QM2 is a hulking giant with five more decks than the previous Queen Mary.

RMS Queen Mary 2 (also referred to as the QM2) is a transatlantic ocean liner. She was the first major ocean liner built since Queen Elizabeth 2, the vessel she succeeded as flagship of the Cunard Line. The new ship was named Queen Mary 2 by Queen Elizabeth II in 2004 after the first RMS Queen Mary, completed in 1936. Queen Mary was in turn named after Mary of Teck, consort of King George V. With the retirement of Queen Elizabeth 2 in 2008, Queen Mary 2 is the only transatlantic ocean liner in line service between Southampton and New York. The ship is also used for cruising, including an annual world cruise.

The ship was designed by a team of British naval architects led by Stephen Payne, and was constructed in France by Chantiers de l’Atlantique in 2003, the same shipyard that built the ill-fated Normandie in the 1930s. At the time of her construction, Queen Mary 2 was the longest passenger ship ever built, and with her gross tonnage of 148,528 also the largest. She no longer holds this distinction after the construction of Royal Caribbean International’s 154,407 GT Freedom of the Seas in April 2006.

Queen Mary 2 was intended to routinely cross the Atlantic Ocean, and was therefore designed differently from many other passenger ships. The ship’s final cost was approximately $300,000 US per berth. Expenses were increased by the high quality of materials, and having been designed as an ocean liner, she required 40% more steel than a standard cruise ship. Queen Mary 2 has a maximum speed of just over 30 knots (56 km/h; 35 mph) and a cruising speed of 26 knots (48 km/h; 30 mph), much faster than a contemporary cruise ship. Instead of the diesel-electric configuration found on many ships, Queen Mary 2 uses integrated electric propulsion to achieve her top speed. This uses gas turbines to augment the power generated from the ship’s diesels.

Queen Mary 2 ‘​s facilities include fifteen restaurants and bars, five swimming pools, a casino, a ballroom, a theatre, and the first planetarium at sea. There are also kennels and a nursery on board.

Comparison of the five ships:

                                Normandie    Queen Mary   Queen Elizabeth   QE2     QM2

1st in service            1935                  1936                1940                 1969       2004

Length                      1,029′              1.019′                1,031                 963′      1,132′

Beam                        119’5″               118′                   118′                 105′         135′

Displacement        68,500 tons     81,961 tons       83,000 tons     48,923 tons   75,000 tons

Draft                               37′               39′                    38′                     32′            33′

Height                         184′               181′                  233′                    171′           236′

# of decks                     12                  12                     12                      12             17

Top speed                32.2 knots       32 knots          30 knots*          34 knots      30 knots

# of passengers        1,972               2,139               2,283                 1,777           2,620

# of crew                   1,345               1.101               1.100                  1,040          1,253

Queen Elizabeth was capable of more than 30 knots, but the Cunard chairman forbade her from outrunning Queen Mary.

Much of the text was adapted from various articles at Wikipedia.


Add yours →

  1. I love the old ships, but for a fact, staterooms (no matter how small) is the key now. The ships are no longer graceful, as you pointed out, but appear extremely top heavy.


    • Indeed, Jack, they appear ready to capsize. I saw QM2 a few years ago when she called on San Francisco. She barely cleared the Golden Gate Bridge when she came in and towered over everything else when she was at the pier. She is ungainly with that massive superstructure.


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