Three enormous ocean liners, built well before the Second War when trans-Atlantic travel was best made by sea, not by air, suffered ends which none of them deserved. They were Lusitania, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary. All were British, though Lusitania’s strong association with the United States was in the end (partly) instrumental in bringing America into the First or Great War.
Lusitania was a luxurious steamship vastly popular with American passngers,; they raced back and forth between New York City and British ports in the utmost comfort, replenished by 6 and 7-course meals plus cold buffet per day, not forgetting the snack of bouillon or beef tea for elevenses, English tea with muffins and wafer-thin-sandwiches at four-thirty, aparitifs at six pm in case starvation approached.
In spite of the impending danger from the new German submarine menace a year after War had begun in 1914, this liner continued her westward and eastward voyages. Many merchant mariners were sceptical of the new-fangled submarine, which had been developed in secret by the German Navy while Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Battenberg (q.v.) had been reforming the British Navy.
America, still under influences stemming from the Monroe Doctrine, had decided that the Kaiser’s War against France and Britain was Europe’s affair. Let the Europeans sort themselves out, they thought, and in the meantime we can get on with the construction of the American Empire while the French, German, Belgian and British Empires exhaust themselves and their economy. But then it happened. On 7 May, 1915, a German submarine detected Lusitania sailing along near the Irish coast, with (the German captain did not know this) 128 US citizens aboard. Torpedoes were launched, and the great lady sunk. 1,195 lives were lost, including those 128 Americans.
The United States went purple with fury; intense indignation at this impertinence swept across America, spoiling President Woodrow Wilson’s policy of neutrality. Germany, meanwhile, refused all responsibility for the attack, and refused to make reparations. Still, two years more were to pass before the USA broke off relations with Germany, and entered the First War on the Allies’ side on year before the War’s end in 1818.
Queen Mary with three funnels and Queen Elizabeth with two were two of the most magnificent steam-driven passenger ships (liners) ever launched by Cunard White-Star Line. For some years before the Second War these two ladies crossed and re-crossed the Atlantic at superlative speed, avoiding icebergs, and maintaining a standard of luxury not even equalled by Lusitania. Both ships survived not only World War II, but being employed as troopships on the same routes!
When America entered the Second War at last after Pearl Harbor, troops and equipment were transported across the grey Atlantic from the US and Canada to war-torn Britain. Most of the Commonwealth and US forces engaged in the Normandy Landings (q.v.) had crossed the ocean in Mary or Elizabeth, luxuries denied because of the War.
Both liners were so fast (forty knots with a following wind) that they could not be accompanied by warship escorts, which could not keep up! It was their immense speed (for those days) that saved them from the torpedoes too. On a multitude of occasions U-Boat commanders tried to get Elizabeth (named for George VI’s wife) and Mary (George VI’s mother), but failed.
After the War these two apparently indefatigable ladies were retired, and both ended their days in a manner less than graceful. Queen Elizabeth lies nearly submerged near the harbour at Hong Kong, but a lot of her can still be seen above the waves. Queen Mary is permanently moored at Long Beach, California, where she serves as a hotel and restaurant.