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RMS Queen Elizabeth

RMS Queen Elizabeth

History and Background


First planned in 1926, the goal was to have two ships that, between them, could provide a regular weekly shuttle service across the Atlantic, carrying both passengers and mail reliably year round.  As Sir Percy Bates, the chairman of Cunard explained:


The speed is dictated by the time necessary to perform the journey at all seasons of the year, and in both directions, plus the consideration of the number of hours required in port on each side of the Atlantic.

The size is dictated by the necessity to make money by providing sufficient saleable passenger accommodations to pay for the speed.

In the opinion of its technical advisors, so far from attempting to construct steamers simply to compete with others in speed and size, the Cunard company is projecting a pair of steamers which, though they will be large and fast, are, in fact, the smallest and slowest which can fulfil properly all the essential economic conditions

In Service                                              1946-1968

Line:                                                       Cunard-White Star, London

Builder:                                                  John Brown & Co., Clydebank, Scotland

Launched:                                             September 27, 1938

Tonnage:                                               83,673 GRT

Length:                                                  1,031 feet

Beam:                                                    118 feet

Draught:                                                38 feet

Speed:                                                   32 knots (36.8 mph)

Radio Call Sign                                     GBSS

Capacity:                                               Passengers: 2,283 

                                                               Crew 1.296                                                        Fate:                                                      Fire damaged and partially dismantled,                                                                         vessel's remains covered over on seabed

                                                               in Hong Kong Harbour by 1975

Built at the famed John Brown Shipyard in Clydebank, Queen Elizabeth was the largest passenger ship ever constructed, a title it held from its launch until 1996 – when finally eclipsed by the Carnival Cruise Ship Carnival Destiny.


With government funding coming out of the restart of work on the Queen Mary and the merger of Cunard and White Star, work started on the Queen Elizabeth on December 4, 1936. Its design was updated from the Mary, having only two funnels instead of three. This gave the designers more flexibility in laying out passenger spaces. In addition, rumor had it that the French ship Normandie was a few centimeters longer than the Mary. With bragging rights at stake, some twelve feet were added to its design to ensure that it was the largest liner in the world.


With George VI now the king, naming the ship after his wife, Elizabeth continued the tradition started with the Queen Mary. So, on September 27, 1938, the Queen Elizabeth was launched and christened by its namesake.


As war came to Britain, the Queen Elizabeth was still being fitted out and was a sitting duck for German bombers. Given its potential help as a troop transport, work on completing its fitting out was accelerated, including painting it battleship grey, so it could be sent to safety. On February 26, 1940, on one of only two days in the year when it could make it out of the Clyde River, the Elizabeth slipped out of the Clyde River and then, under secret orders, sprinted for New York.


After waiting in New York for close to a year, the Elizabeth headed to Sydney to join the war effort in bringing Australian troops to the Middle East.


With the entry of the US in the war, the Queen Elizabeth shifted to control of the US and started shipping US GIs.


Jimmy Steward onboard the Queen Mary

With the end of the war, the Queen Elizabeth was finally able to enter commercial service. It and the Mary began their regular shuttle service across the Atlantic, continuing into the 60’s.


As trans-Atlantic passenger loads fell, particularly in the cold winter months, cruising was tried to extend its life. In February 1963, the Elizabeth sailed south to Nassau and back. These southern excursions proved successful enough to warrant investing in a refit in 1966 to add air-conditioning and private baths in every room.  However, by 1967, it was clear that its days of cruising were done and the Elizabeth was put on the block.


An American company tried to buy it but could not raise the funds. It was then sold to a Chinese shipping magnate and sent to Hong Kong where it was converted into a floating university and rechristened Seawise University. But, in January 1972, only a few days before it was to sail, it caught fire and capsized in Hong Kong harbor.


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