Over the Waves: RMS Queen Elizabeth

I've decided to take a bit of a departure this week from smaller vessels. Since my first love is ocean liners, I decided to look to my larger ships, and tell the story this week of the RMS Queen Elizabeth.

Ship Stats

  • Nationality: British
  • Length: 314.2 metres
  • Beam: 36 metres
  • Weight: 83,673 tonnes
  • Draught: 11.6 metres
  • Capacity: 2,283 passengers
  • Crew: 1,200~
  • Year: 1938

Named after the Queen Cosort (and later the Queen Mum) the Queen Elizabeth was launched in 1938 and christened by the Queen Mum herself. On the cusp of war time, the Queen delivered some words of peace before smashing the bottle against the bow of this great ship.

The RMS Queen Elizabeth, in her prime

The Queen Elizabeth was the largest riveted ship of her time, larger than her predecessor the Queen Mary. The designers had made changes to her design to make her more accessible to her passengers, and to increase her appeal among travellers. They had reduced the number of boilers down to twelve (Mary had twenty four), and got rid of her third funnel so they could increase her deck space. They increased her length, changed the shape of her bow to make her look more sleek, and when she was finished she was the pride of the Cunard line! However, war was approaching, and when war was declared the Queen Elizabeth was still sitting in the Clyde with her crew trying to finish fitting her out. It was decided almost immediately that she was going to be changed to a troopship, but everyone had to move fast because as the pride of the British Cunard line, she was a target for the German bombers.

A plan was hatched to keep her protected from the German forces. All the plans were made publicly to move her to Southampton to finish her fittings. Crew members booked hotel rooms, parts were shipped to the dock, and everyone made it seem like this was the super secret plan that the Germans couldn't know about. Then, as she left the Clyde in March 1940, her captain received his true orders - he was sailing to New York, where he would join the Queen Mary and then sail straight on to the South Pacific for the fitting out of both ships.

Sailing into New York City

The Queen Elizabeth arrived in either Singapore or Sydney(I have sources that say both), and she was fitted out with anti-aircraft guns. For the rest of the Second World War, she acted as a troopship for Australia, Britain, Canada and America, moving up from the Pacific early on.

After the war, she spent an extra year helping to bring war brides across the ocean, and then resumed her commercial route. In the early fifties she was given another overhaul to increase her fuel capacity and add stabilizer fins for smoother sailing. As time went on, however, Cunard began to struggle to fill their luxury liners. Air travel was beginning to pick up in popularity, and people did not want to spend a week travelling across the Atlantic now when they could do it in a matter of hours. Despite adding a swimming pool, an extra deck, and various other amenities like air conditioning, the numbers continued to decrease. With the introduction of her younger sister, the QE2, her fate was sealed, and in 1968 she made her final transatlantic journey, sold to a businessman from the United States.

RMS Queen Elizabeth

The Queen Mary had been retired for a year at this point, and was being renovated to serve as a floating hotel in Long Beach, California. The new owners of the Queen Elizabeth had a similar idea, deciding to locate the ship in Port Everglades, Florida. The south Florida climate was too harsh on the vessel, though, and she deteriorated rapidly. The owners, losing money and unable to keep up on the repairs (including engines that were now trashed from water seeping into the rotting hull) sold her in 1970, this time to a firm in Hong Kong. Repairs were made to make her seaworthy, and she was off again on last adventure, now under the name Seawise University.

Her new owner had the intention of making her a floating school, traveling to different ports all over the world. Unfortunately, the ship was now pushing 40 years old, and in rough shape. She was nearing the end of her £5 million refit when one night in 1972, she mysteriously caught fire in five different locations. Fire crews rushed to the vessel and doused it with water trying to save what they could. Unfortunately the superstructure collapsed, and as the ship filled with water from the fire hoses she began to list, eventually completely rolling onto her side and coming to rest on the bottom of Hong Kong harbour. Most of her structure remained above water, but there was nothing that could be done to save the ship. She was marked on charts as dangerous, and in 1974 the majority of her was scrapped, leaving what couldn't be reached at the bottom of the harbour.

Seawise University ablaze, 1972

An interesting fact for anyone who enjoys James Bond movies: the Queen Elizabeth was filmed as the secret entrance to the MI6 headquarters in "Man with the Golden Gun". I had no idea about that before I started researching this article, and coming from a family of Bond fans, I thought that was pretty neat.

Living in St. John's I see a lot of cruise ships sail in and out of our harbour around this time of year. They are all very sleek and shiny, and many of them are all white and done up to appear as luxurious as possible. The thing is, for me personally, I always think that the old-style liners like the Queen Elizabeth have an element of class that the new cruises can't seem to channel. Just once I'd like to be able to get down to the Queen Mary just to be able to catch a glimpse into what traveling on one of these ships would have been like.

The wreck of the Seawise University, previously the RMS Queen Elizabeth

Maybe that's just me being old fashioned, but I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for these original luxury liners.

Images are not my own, since I do not own a time machine. They came from here, here, here, and here.