SS Ile de France
Name – Ile de France 1927-1959: Furansu Maru 1959-1960
Named after the region around Paris known as “L’Ile de France”, the most populous of France’s 18 regions
Owner – Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT, aka “The French Line”)
Port of Registry – Le Havre, France
Builder – Ateliers et Chantiers de Saint-Nazaire Penhoët, Saint-Nazaire, France
Laid Down 1925 (1)
Launched/Christened – March 14, 1926
Maiden Voyage – June 22, 1927 (2)
In Service – 1927-1959
Tonnage - 43,153 GRT (1927); 44,356 (1949, post WW II restoration) (3)
Length – 791 feet
Beam – 91 feet
Speed – 23.5 knots (27.0 mph)
Capacity (1927)– 1,786 passengers
537 first class
603 second class
646 third class
Crew – approx. 800
Capacity (1932 refit) - 1,586 passengers
670 first class
408 second class
508 tourist class
Capacity (1949 refit) – 1,395 passengers
541 first class
577 cabin class
277 tourist class
The first major ocean liner built after World War One and the first to be decorated with modern designs associated with the Art Deco style. It was neither the largest ship nor the fastest, but was considered by many as the most beautifully decorated ship.
“She was handsome without being grand, comfortable without being overstuffed, class-conscious without living by exclusions”.
“The divide from which ocean liner decorators reached forward rather than going back”.
Construction of the Ile de France was part of an agreement to build 4 passenger ships between the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT) and the French government dating to 1912. World War I delayed construction until the 1920’s.
From Le Havre, France to New York, New York.
Two-year restoration begun in April 1947, after ferrying American and Canadian troops home from Europe. The Ile de France travelled to New York on its first postwar crossing in July 1949.
Capt. Joseph Blancart.
First Captain of the Ile de France
The SS Ile de France was an ocean liner built in Saint-Nazaire for the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT), more commonly known as the French Line.The ship was named after the region around Paris known as “L’Ile de France”.In 1935, the Ile de France was joined by the new superliner Normandie and, along with the Paris (1916), the CGT could boast of having the largest, fastest and most luxurious ships travelling the North Atlantic Ocean between the two world wars.
First-class Dining Room
The ship’s keel was laid down in 1925, it was launched on March 14, 1926, and, after 14 months of fitting-out and sea trials, its maiden voyage from Le Havre to New York began on June 22, 1927. It was the first major ocean liner built after World War One and the first to be decorated with modern designs associated with the Art Deco style.
The Ile de France was neither the largest ship nor the fastest but is still considered by many to be the most beautifully decorated ship. Its beautiful and unique interiors represented something new, as the trend in interior design up to this point celebrated the various styles of the past. In contrast, the interiors of the Ile de France were designed not to reproduce decorative styles of the past, but to celebrate the progressive style of the present. It was “the divide from which point ocean liners reached forward rather than back.”
The first-class dining room was the largest afloat, rising through three decks with a grand staircase as its entrance. Another innovation was that of the private dining room. The ship had four, used for smaller, more intimate gatherings. Other amenities included a chapel decorated in the Gothic style, a shooting gallery, a sixty-car garage, a gymnasium, a 350-seat film theater, a bowling alley, an indoor swimming pool and a children’s merry-go-round. It was an extraordinary and trend-setting French vessel, visited by many of the major ocean liner companies as they planned their next passenger liners.
One interesting fact is that the ship pioneered the quickest mail service between Europe and the United States. In July 1928, a 60-ton seaplane catapult was installed at the ship’s stern. For the next two years, CAMS 37 flying boats were launched when the Ile de France was within 200 miles of its destination, decreasing mail delivery time by 18-36 hours. However, this practice proved to be too costly and, with the quickly expanding capabilities of aircraft to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, the catapult was removed and the service was discontinued in 1930.
Air Mail delivery to Boston Harbor
The Ile de France became the favorite ship of the pre- and post-WWII era, carrying young, famous, wealthy and fashionable Americans to and from Europe, both Hollywood and European royalty. Some of the famous passengers were:
Hollywood – Rita Hayworth, Bogie and Bacall, Cary Grant, Errol Flynn, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Swanson, Buster Keaton, Alan Ladd
Entertainers – Lena Horne, Maurice Chevalier, Will Rogers
Others – Arturo Toscanini, Marie Curie, John D. Rockefeller, Barbara Hutton
Royalty – Prince Rainier, the Greek Royal family, various members of the British Royal Family
Ernest Hemmingway and Marlene Dietrich
Ile de France - World War II
World War II:
The Ile de France was the last civilian ship to leave France before the outbreak of war on September 3, 1939. The ship carried almost 1,800 passengers, about 400 more than the usual number and mostly American tourists.It was an uncomfortable trip, as the ship was overcrowded, had limited activities, and sailed with its lights out.It arrived six days later in New York.During its Atlantic crossing, 16 vessels has already been sunk by torpedoes, mines or gunfire, among them 9 British and 4 German ships. The Battle of the Atlantic (1939-1945) had already begun.
Once berthed in New York, the Ile de France’s career as an ocean liner was temporarily ended. Since the French were not anxious to return home, the ship was towed to Staten Island (it took ten tugboats and $30,000 of special dredging), where it sat idle for the next 5 months. The ship was lent to the British in March 1940, where it was loaded with 12,000 tons of war material, submarine oil, tanks, shells and several uncrated bombers, and sailed back to Europe, commanded by the British Admiralty.
The Ile de France was officially seized by the British after the fall of France later in 1940, where it made several northeast crossings as a troop ship under Cunard’s management for the balance of the war, ultimately carrying more than 400,000 troops to Europe and other destinations.
On the evening of May15/16 1942, a collision between the Durban-bound (South Africa) Mauretania and the Bombay-bound (India) Ile de France was narrowly averted by a last-minute “hard to starboard” turn by the Ile de France. Normally the two ships would have passed fifty miles apart, but a driving monsoon put them on a collision course (think Andrea Doria/Stockholm 14 years later). Both ships, almost always unescorted, also travelled the difficult “Suez Shuttle” – Bombay to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to Durban to Port Tewfik (now Suez Port) on the Suez Canal.
In 1942, the Ile de France was escorted to South Africa where it was later “gutted as thoroughly as a herring” with all the ship’s luxurious fittings removed as she was converted into a floating prisoner of war camp to bring Axis (German and Italian) prisoners back from the North African theater to various POW camps.
In January and February 1943, the Ile de France participated in “Operation Pamphlet”, a World War II convoy operation transporting the 9th Australian Infantry Division home from Egypt as the North African campaign wound down. It was determined that the veteran division was needed to bolster the forces for offensive operations in New Guinea and, indeed, the division made an important contribution to successful operations in New Guinea later in 1943. The Ile de France was one of five ships assigned to the operation, along with the converted ocean liners Aquitania, Nieuw Amsterdam and Queen Mary and the armed merchant cruiser HMS Queen of Bermuda. No contact was made between Allied and Japanese ships during the journey across the Indian Ocean and along the Australian coast and the division arrived safely in various Australian ports during late February.
After 5 years of military service, the Ile de France was returned to France by the British Admiralty in the fall of 1945, where it was used to ferry American and Canadian troops home, while still under Cunard management.
The ship was returned to the French Line in February 1946, where in 1947 a two-year complete overhaul was begun at Saint Nazaire.
Post War Retrofit
Post War (1949-1958)
The Ile de France resumed service to NY on its first post-war crossing in July 1949, proving to be just as popular as before the war, remaining the ship of choice for the Who’s Who of Hollywood and Royalty. Its most notable changes included replacement of the 3 original funnels with 2 new streamlined versions while all the cabins’ configurations were redesigned and modernized. It was practically a new ship.
First Post-war Crossing - July 1949
The Ile de France figured prominently in nine rescues. In fact, even before the Andrea Doria disaster (1956), the ship was already well-known among mariners as the “St. Bernard of the Atlantic” and was held in great affection by seafarers, who generally were a superstitious group. Because it seemed that the ship was able to be close enough to lend assistance in so many cases, it became a symbol of good luck.
The Ile de France participated in 2 particularly famous rescues during the 1950’s – on September 21, 1953, she rescued 24 of the 26-man crew of the Liberian freighter “Greenville” which was damaged and later sank in an Atlantic Ocean tropical storm (80 mph winds and 50-foot waves), about 700 miles west of England, on route from Montreal to Liverpool. An amazing story of seamanship, it was best summarized by a passenger on the Ile de France who wrote "those men on the bridge of the Ile de France, and those unimpressive-looking seamen who speak a tongue that is not ours made me very proud that I am also a member of the human race, for that is the nearest relationship I can claim.
The handling of the ship was almost uncannily skillful, the most generous daring of the men in the small boats was beyond praise...Whenever man's good qualities are mentioned, I shall forever think of those men on the Ile de France; whenever I am tempted to think of the less fortunate aspects of mankind, I shall remember their glory...They were truly magnificent...".
The second and most famous rescue was on July 26, 1956 – the Andrea Doria/Stockholm collision near Nantucket. Ultimately, 754 (576 passengers and 178 crew members) people (out of 1,706) were transferred to the Ile de France during a six-hour rescue operation.
Ile de France Standing By The Andrea Doria
The superior seamanship of the Captain of the Ile de France makes him the real hero in this story – Captain Raoul de Beaudean, who had served CGT for 35 years. The Ile de France, having left New York the same day as the Stockholm, was already east of the collision site on route home with 1,767 people aboard, including 940 passengers. Upon hearing the distress call, the captain was at first skeptical that a modern ship the size of the Andrea Doria was actually foundering and he knew that if he steered back to the site only to find that the Ile de France was not needed, it would mean having to return to NY to refuel, delaying passengers and causing a financial disaster for the French Line. Those people consumed more than $4,300 worth of food every day and the Ile de France itself gulped nearly a ton of fuel per mile.
However, if the ship’s services were needed, Captain de Beaudean knew that the company would not question his actions. He unsuccessfully tried to contact the Andrea Doria, but did contact the Stockholm, as well as the Cape Ann cargo vessel (United Fruit Company) and the US Navy transport “Private William H. Thomas” which had already arrived on the scene. Quickly realizing the severity of the situation and realizing that the lives of over 1,600 people were at risk, he turned his ship around. The Ile de France arrived in less than 3 hours (steaming back through the same fog that helped cause the collision).
The arrival of the Ile de France at the scene of the collision was the turning point in the rescue operation. Although the Cape Ann and the US Navy transport were already on scene, neither was equipped for a large-scale lifeboat rescue that the Ile de France could perform. As his ship approached the site, Captain de Beaudean ordered the Ile de France to move forward slowly, trying to get as close as he could to lighten the task of his crew who would be rowing to the Andrea Doria. When the ship reached a point a mile and a half away, he ordered the engines to be stopped and the great liner glided forward on her momentum. He stopped the Ile de France 400 yards away, using its bulk to serve as a windbreak to keep the open water between the ships calm. Captain de Beaudean had to position his huge ship among two damaged liners, the other responding vessels, a number of lifeboats and perhaps people in the water. He positioned the Ile de France such that the starboard side of the Andrea Doria was sheltered.
Then the captain issued an order that came as a great emotional relief to the hundreds who had been stranded for 3 hours, watching helplessly as their beautiful ship tilted closer and closer to the water. “Light up our name, the funnels, the decks. Light up everything, quickly. ”The sight of the illuminated Ile de France blazed through a North Atlantic night that only moment earlier was bathed in an impenetrable and deadly fog. Captain de Beaudean then issued his second order – “Launch the lifeboats” – and by shuttling his 10 lifeboats back and forth and, along with receiving lifeboat loads from the other ships already at the collision site (including the Andrea Doria), the Ile de France ultimately took on 754 survivors of the 1,706 passengers and crew. After discharging its survivors in New York, the Ile de France resumed its crossing to Europe.
One Last Role to Play (1958-1961)
With the development of jet travel and a decline in ocean travel, old age and economics finally caught up with the Ile de France and CGT (the French Line) wished to dispose of the ship quietly and formally announced in December 1958 that the Ile de France was to be retired from service and sold for scrap. Despite its connotation, scrapping was considered a dignified end for liners that had outlived their usefulness. Nevertheless, a storm of public protest blew up, with newspapers and magazines publishing glowing stories recalling the ship’s 31 years of glory, noting that the Ile de France had carried almost one million passengers. Many telegrams, letters and telephone calls flooded in from many countries pleading for the ship to be spared, along with various proposals.
Some of the more memorable suggestions:
The Ile de France should be sailed up the Seine and anchored in the middle of Paris as a permanent national monument (entirely impractical as nearly 40 bridges crossing the river would have to be destroyed).
The Sheraton Hotel Corporation studied the possibility of converting the Ile de France to a floating hotel moored on the island of Martinique.
Two European syndicates proposed to utilize the ship to expand hotel facilities on the French Riviera.
Both German and Greek shipowners made discreet inquiries as to whether the ship could be “patched up” for a few more years of service, although at far fewer exacting standards than had been required of the ship when it was the pride of France.
The French Line had no intention of selling the ship into service as a second-class liner under another flag or for any other undignified purpose. The Ile de France had been a symbol of French pride for over 30 years and its name was synonymous with a kind of luxury and gaiety and ambiance that was inimitably French. The ship held several glowing citations for its service in ferrying more than 400,000 troops over half a million miles over war-torn oceans and the Ile de France was the only foreign ship ever to receive the United States Gallant Ship Award for its role in the Andrea Doria rescue. To sell the ship for any purpose other than scrapping was unthinkable and the French Line sent out a clear and firmly worded second announcement: bids for the Ile de France would be entertained only for purposes of scrap and the contract of sale would specifically forbid that the ship be put to any other use.
French, Belgian and German firms all bid, but the highest bid came from Japan and the sale was finalized in January 1959. The Ile de France, now renamed the “Furansu Maru”, departed Le Havre for the last time on February 26, 1959, to be sailed to Osaka, Japan by a skeleton crew.The Japanese had run their flag up her masthead above the flag of France as the law required, but kept the Rising Sun tightly furled, so the French Tricolor still proudly blew as the ship left port. The ship would pass through the Suez Canal and reach Japan in about six weeks.
Once the Ile de France reached Japan, a formal decommissioning ceremony was held, where a thousand dignitaries and guests attended a large banquet to pay last respects to the great ship. A Shinto priest performed an official cleansing and purifying rite and the story of the Ile de France should have ended there, in dignity, with a touch of sadness.
An Inglorious End to a Glorious Ship
Unfortunately, this fitting end for the Ile de France was not to be, for it underwent an agonizing experience that offended those that loved, honored and respected the ship. No sooner had negotiations for the sale to Japan been completed in January of 1959, when newspapers all over the world reported that a movie producer affiliated with a major American studio (MGM) intended to sink the ship for a movie whose script he had written himself. He added that the Ile de France would not be sunk in mid-ocean, but somewhere near shore where it could then be raised and returned to its Japanese owners for scrap.
At first, it seemed probable that the idea was simply a publicity stunt and, besides, the contract under which the ship was purchased specifically forbade its use for any purpose other than scrapping. And, in addition, films dealing with marine disasters were normally shot with scale-model ships in a water tank and the ships were not actually “sunk”.
However, the contract did not specify that a “partial demolition” could not be carried out and, despite his misgivings, President Okada of the Japanese owners could not refuse MGM’s rental offer of $4,000 per day. Although a full sinking was never seriously envisioned, the director/writer/producer (Andrew Stone) announced that he intended to “burn, blow up, shatter and destroy” just about everything else connected with the Ile de France, in line with his “passion for realism”.
Both the French Line and the French Government presented a stiff formal notice which demanded that the name Ile de France had better not appear anywhere in connection with the film or its advertisements. Stone set painters to work obliterating the ship’s name everywhere (including the ship’s iconic funnels) and substituted the name Olympus, where upon the Greek Line pointed out that their flagship was named Olympia and that this name better not appear anywhere in the production either.
Ultimately, the ship was named the SS Claridon in the movie “The Last Voyage”, where it was partially sunk in the Sea of Japan, had explosives detonated in its interior with the forward funnel sent crashing into the deckhouse (“killing” the ship’s captain). Ironically, the film received a 1960 Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects (losing out to the “Time Machine”).