The Magnificent Queens
Contributor: Alan Chanter
One of the great stories of the war that had to remain untold until the end of the war in Europe is that of the ocean journeys of two of the world's largest liners, the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth. When the war clouds broke over Europe the luxury ocean liner RMS Queen Mary was outward bound from Southampton carrying a record number of 2,332 passengers. All through the autumn and winter, she would lie in the Cunard White Star pier in New York harbour in the United States, while decisions were taken at the highest level regarding her future employment.
Meanwhile the RMS Queen Elizabeth, launched by H. M. The Queen in September 1938, was being completed at Clydebank, Scotland, United Kingdom, and in normal circumstances should have joined the Queen Mary on the North Atlantic service in July, 1940. But her presence had become a source of anxiety for the British Government who recognized that she presented a sitting target for enemy bombers, thus endangering the entire shipyard, and also that her vast hull took up space which was ungently needed for other work.
In February, 1940, the Admiralty demanded that the Queen Elizabeth should leave the Clyde at the earliest possible date and remain away from the British Isles. Since the number of ports outside the United Kingdom which could accommodate the world's largest liner was limited it was decided that she should be sent to New York, which was already playing host to the Queen Mary. This would involve a 3,000 miles unescorted voyage across the Atlantic in February and March - the months most notorious for bad weather - with the ever present danger of attack by enemy warships or submarines.
On 26th February, 1940, escorted by six tugs, the Queen Elizabeth left her fitting-out basin and proceeded down the Clyde. Three days later, after completing basic sea trials, shore leave was cancelled and the crew were informed of the ship's destination. Soon after, the barely completed vessel sailed for New York, arriving safely on the 7th of March, to berth alongside Queen Mary.
For nearly a fortnight the two ships lay immobile, side by side at their berths, while fascinated New Yorkers speculated wildly as to their future. Then on 20th March, Queen Mary slipped down the Hudson and away from New York. Her work for the war effort was about to begin.
The value of big and fast transport in times of crisis was demonstrated sooner than could have been expected. At Sydney, Australia, where the Queen Mary arrived on 17th April, she was prepared for service as a troopship - This big job which was completed in the amazingly short period of fourteen days - and after embarking 5,000 Australian military personnel she departed for Great Britain. However, between her departure from Sydney and her arrival in Great Britain, France had fallen and the Empire stood alone. The Mediterranean now became the key theatre of war and therefore, on 26th June, after embarking 5,000 British troops, the Queen Mary in convoy with other transports, among them Aquitania and Mauretania, departed for the Middle East.
Meanwhile the Cunard White Star Line had been advised that Queen Elizabeth was also required for government service, and at the beginning of November she sailed from New York to Singapore where she was to be fitted out in readiness to join the Queen Mary and other transports to bring Australian and New Zealand troops to Egypt.
Both vessels left Sydney at the beginning of April, sailing together in convoy. The Queen Mary making her sixth voyage as a transport while the Queen Elizabeth was making what was, in effect, her first voyage with passengers. The Queen Mary embarked 6,000 Australian troops and the Queen Elizabeth another 5,600. Before departure they were joined by the Mauritania with 4,400 New Zealand troops (Incidentally this was.the only time during the war that Queen Mary would travel in convoy). Together these three great liners representing in their design and construction the last word in the development of passenger steamship, headed out into the Indian ocean; their valuable human cargo destined for Suez and a destiny in battle with Adolf Hitler's and Benito Mussolini's fearsome legions.
Throughout the summer of 1941 both ships carried on their trooping service without interruption. Their massive grey hulls and distinctive lines, their enormous decks thronged with khaki-clad figures, became familiar sights in Sydney and Suez, Fremantle and Trincomalee. By the end of the year they had carried over 80,000 troops, the majority of whom were reinforcements for for the Allied armies in the Middle East.
To the 800 British officers and men who comprised the crew of both Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth it was a time of incessant work and great strain. Not only were they working in torrid climatic conditions far removed from the North Atlantic weather conditions that the vessels had been designed for, but they were never free from the danger of enemy attack.
With the entry of Japan into the war, they began their long service as troop transports for American troops. The initial successes of the Japanese with their swift progress towards Singapore menaced the whole of the Far East and seriously imperiled the Australian continent which had so largely denuded itself of armed forces to serve the Allied cause in the western hemisphere. At the moment of crisis both ships were in North American waters, undergoing one of their periods of overhaul. Three days after the fall of Singapore, the Queen Mary steamed from Boston, Massachusetts, United States for Sydney with 8,200 U.S. troops. Three weeks later, also carrying 8,000 American soldiers, the Queen Elizabeth began a 7,700-mile voyage from San Francisco, California, United States to the same destination. After disembarking their passengers in Australia, the ships were ordered to return to New York to assist in the transportation of American forces to Great Britain. It was the first time since 1940 that the ships had returned to home-waters, and on their arrival welcome arrangements were made for the crewmen to take a well-earned, if somewhat brief, leave with their families.
In the early summer of 1942 the North African campaign was going badly. Erwin Rommel was striking into Egypt and reinforcements for the British 8th Army were urgently needed. Once again, in British ports, the transport ships gathered, among them the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth. From Great Britain to Suez they voyaged, by way of Freetown and Simonstown; and after reaching their destination, they were further despatched to New York, by way of Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro, to embark the first American forces ready for war service.
In the Queen Mary's record of war service, one voyage is named "the long voyage." Beginning in December 1942, it did not end until April 1943. In the intervening four months the ship visited West, South and East Africa, the British East Indies and Australia, steaming nearly 40,000 miles and burning over 56,000 tons of fuel oil. By the time she reached home waters again she had carried over 30,000 troops and the stores required for feeding this vast army reached the record figure of 3,876,600 lbs in weight.
With the completion of "the long voyage" the Queen Mary completed her first period of trooping, which had lasted over three years. Like the Queen Elizabeth, she had been based for the greater part of the time in Sydney, during which time the two ships had steamed some 339,000 miles and carried 105,000 troops. Now with their task in Eastern waters accomplished for the time being, they, together with other ships that the British Government had freely made available, these magnificent vessels took up the duty of transporting thousands of Americans to Britain in preparation for a future liberation of enemy-occupied Europe.
Stripped of their luxury fittings, the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth would carry across the Atlantic in one year twice as many passengers as were normally carried in peacetime by the entire Cunard White Star Fleet. From May to September, 1943, the average number of troops ferried by each ship on every voyage exceeded 15,000, and during the winter of 1943-44, despite adverse weather conditions, the average number of troops aboard rarely fell below 12,000 for the Queen Mary and 13,000 for the Queen Elizabeth - Figures which increased with the coming of summer, and by the end of 1944 they could claim to have ferried, since their war service began, a total of 944,000 troops, of whom over 80 per cent had travelled eastwards from New York.
On the westbound run the vessels left Britain with from 2,000 to 5,000 passengers - a hybrid complement that provided the ships officials with more problems of catering and accommodation than the straightforward eastwards voyages. There might by two to three thousand prisoners of war to be berthed and fed in accordance with international requirements, plus groups of service personnel (Enlisted ranks not always being provided with the best accommodation space - one wartime photograph shows 300 soldiers, homeward bound, crowded in to a dormitory that had, in peacetime, been one of the liner's observation lounges). Sick and wounded men, sent home, were tended in a makeshift hospital that had once been the Queen Mary's beautiful ballroom. Better berths were given to ships "special passengers" - such as diplomats, business and industrial leaders who had been granted official permission to travel overseas and to the Queen Mary, in particular fell the honour of carrying across the Atlantic on three occasions Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his Chiefs of Staff. No doubt many important discussions took place on board during these voyages that would help shape the eventual course of the war.
In fact,each voyage was a considerable feat of organization and perfect co-operation between the sea transport staff of the Ministry of War Transport, the War Office, the Admiralty and the American authorities on the one hand and the ships' owners on the other. Superb teamwork by the officers, crews and permanent military staffs aboard evolved into a smooth-running machine that could absorb 15,000 men, feed and house them during the voyage, then disembark them with scarcely a pause. Then commence the whole operation once again. The amount of stores required was considerable. For just one voyage by one ship the complement would require some 76,400 lbs of flour, cereal etc.; 21,400 lbs bacon and ham; 155,000 lbs meat and poultry; 4,600 lbs cheese; 16,000 lbs jam; 29,000 lbs fresh fruit; 31,400 lbs tea, coffee, sugar; 31,400 lbs tinned fruit; 124,300 lbs potatoes; 53,600 lbs butter, eggs and milk powder.
Everything was meticulously planned with no detail too small to be ignored. Obviously, to allow 15,000 troops (corresponding to an entire army division on every trip) freedom to wander at will about the ship would be to invite chaos, and to obviate this, each ship was divided into red, white and blue zones. Before the troops began to embark each man was issued with a coloured label indicating the zone in which he would be berthed. He was required to wear it throughout the voyage, and for him any other zones were strictly out of bounds.
The troops messed in the ship's main restaurant, 2,000 sitting at each meal. Each man was issued with a coloured card indicating his meal time, which had to be rigorously observed. The preparation of over 30,000 meals a day was a colossal task for the kitchen staff who were commonly assisted by fatigue parties drawn from among the passengers. The troops themselves provided their own eating utensils and were additionally required to assist the kitchen staff by doing their own washing up in specially installed equipment. The time at sea was not spent entirely in lining up for meals. Troop accommodation had to be cleaned for daily inspection, and there were the regulation boat and other drills, which all ranks were required to attend, and to which they would be mustered by a public address system that reached into every corner of the ship. There were eagerly awaited news bulletins and impromptu entertainments and film shows arranged to accommodate all who desired to attend, and well stocked ship's canteens allowed the men to purchase anything from Coca Cola to shaving soap.
Finally, as they drew near to their destination, arrangements had to be made for the men to disembark. One of the first tasks was to issue around, 30,000 ration packs for their onward journeys. Then the men would parade on deck for an official welcome to Great Britain, after which there commenced an orderly disembarkation into the tenders that would ferry the troops across the Clyde to the trains waiting to carry the troops on to their designated base camps.
Between the Spring of 1940 and May 1945, the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth phantom-like in their grey war paint had steamed over 930,000 miles - the equivalent to 38 journeys around the world - to bring safely over the oceans some 1,250,000 fighting men of the United Nation. Britain rendered no charge on the United States for these shipping services which was a mighty contribution to Lend-Lease in reverse.
The Two "Queens" - War Service of the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth (Hutchinson's Pictorial History of the War, Vol.26, pp 389 - 392)
Last Major Update: Oct 2013
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Joachim von Ribbentrop, German Foreign Minister, Aug 1939