A hundred years ago, eighty years ago, many a young boy dreamed of going away to sea. Harry Grattidge was one such who fulfilled his dream starting his career as a lowly cabin boy and going on to captain both the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth. Upon his retirement in 1953, he wrote a memoir Captain of the Queens which I read and enjoyed in the Readers Digest Condensed version almost sixty years ago. It was the beginning of my fascination with the RMS Queen Mary, the ship I will always think of as the Queen of the Seas.
People today will not understand my fascination but, before air travel became commonplace in the sixties, ships were the only way to go. The trans-Atlantic voyage between England to America was the most heavily traveled route, the glamor trip. It was a long voyage, 3,450 miles, and speed was an important consideration if travel time was to be minimized. The ship that clocked the fastest average speed on the round trip between Southampton and New York City was said to hold the Blue Riband. For most of the period between 1936 and 1952, the Queen Mary was the proud holder of the Blue Riband attaining a maximum speed of almost 37 mph; her record was only eclipsed in 1952 by the SS United States. But the Queen was much more than a speedy ocean liner; she had an illustrious history.
She was built for the Cunard -White Star line and her construction was subsidized by the British government. The story goes that, while she was still being built, the Cunard directors approached King George V and asked permission to name her after” England’s greatest queen”. Cunard ships had names ending in “..ia” and this ship was to be named for the King’s grandmother, Queen Victoria. However, the King misunderstood. He replied ” My wife will be delighted you are naming the ship after her.” And that is how the ship came to be named the Queen Mary!
In their time, the Queen Mary and her sister ship , the Queen Elizabeth which was constructed a few years later, were undoubtedly the most luxurious, the most glamorous of the ocean liners. Sleek, fast, majestic, offering gourmet dining, dancing to live orchestras, well appointed cabins and first class service they engendered a sense of well- being coupled with awe in their passengers. They also did yeoman service as troopships in the darkest days of World War II. For some reason, the Queen Elizabeth was never accorded the same attention as her older sister; it is always the Queen Mary that people spoke about.
Shortly after America entered the war, it became necessary to shore up British forces against a Nazi invasion. Large numbers of American troops had to be ferried across the Atlantic quickly and the only way to do so was by sea. This is where the two queens came in . Because of their great speed, they were able to evade German submarines and torpedoes. As long as they were moving fast, the troops on board were safe but still it was a gamble. If one of them had the misfortune to run into a sub and be sunk, it would have meant the loss of thousands of troops, an unimaginable catastrophe. There were far too few lifeboats.
I had known that the Queen Mary was used as a troopship but had not known magnitude of the numbers involved. On each voyage, the Queen Mary carried over 14, 000 troops, on one occasion as many as 16,082. All told she made 86 crossings without mishap ( 43 each way) and transported over 600,000 troops to bolster Britain’s defenses. The Queen Elizabeth, presumably, carried a like number. No wonder that Winston Churchill later said that the two ships helped shorten the war by at least a year.
Much has been written about the Queen Mary as a luxury liner, less about her service as a troopship. In his memoir, Big Russ and Me, Tim Russert describes what it was like for the troops packed into the Queen Mary ( his father was one of them). “Berths were stacked six high everywhere, in lounges, function rooms and even in empty swimming pools. The men slept in shifts. They were fed twice a day, also in shifts, and were given only a few minutes to eat. To ease congestion, all pedestrian traffic on board was one way: if you wanted to move forward, you had to keep to the forward side; to move back you used the port side. had to All passengers had to wear life jackets in case they were attacked. There was no smoking, and even chewing gum was forbidden because it was hard to remove from the decks. The weather was rotten and many of the men were seasick.”
The heyday of the queens was from the forties to the late sixties at which time they were both taken out of service. The Queen Mary was turned into a museum in Long Beach CA, and is still berthed there. The Queen Elizabeth was being re-fitted in Hong Kong in 1972 when she was destroyed in a mysterious fire and had to be scrapped. Today, there are new versions of both ships, the Queen Mary2 and the Queen Elizabeth 2, much bigger and even more luxurious than their predecessors but, for me, they do not have the same appeal.
When we went on a trip to California in 1987, I made it a point to visit Long Beach and the Queen Mary. It was everything I hoped it would be but my kids must have wondered what I was so excited about. They , after all, were born after the age of the great ocean liners had passed.
On February 23 2006, the Queen Mary 2 and the Queen Mary met for the first and only time. As the Queen Mary 2 entered Long Beach harbor and passed the Queen Mary which was moored there, each ship sounded a whistle to greet and salute the other.
I wish I had been there.