Queen Elizabeth was the second of the two super liners which Cunard had built for the New York service. After lengthy negotiations between Sir Percy Bates, Chairman of Cunard, and the Government a formal contract for what was known as job 552 was signed on 6th October 1936. The British Treasury agreed to advance £5 million to Cunard and tenders went out for the contract. The contract went to John Brown & Co, builders of the Queen Mary.
The launch date for Hull no. 552 was scheduled for September 1938, however as the time drew near the political situation across Europe worsened. The launch did go ahead on 27th September but King George VI was unable to attend. Queen Elizabeth was launched by Queen Elizabeth, with Princess Elizabeth by her side. After this the ship went to be fitted out and the completion date was set for the Spring of 1940 but the outbreak of World War II, on 3rd September 1939, meant that the ship would follow a different agenda.
Queen Elizabeth was painted gray and its maiden voyage was cancelled. Over the next few months it was realized that the Queen Elizabeth was not only at risk from German Bombers whilst it was berthed on the Clyde, but was an inconvenience too. On 3rd March 1940 she left her anchorage off Gourock and sailed to New York, arriving on 7th March. It was widely published that she was headed for Southampton - a clever ploy to try and fool axis spies into relaying false information to the Nazi intelligence. The scheme worked, and "Lizzie" arrived in New York safely and without any problems from her untested turbines and propellers.
During March 1940 four of the world's greatest liners, the Mauretania, Normandie, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary, were berthed alongside each other in neutral New York City. The Queen Elizabeth remained berthed at New York until November 13th and then set sail for Singapore, where she was to be serviced and refurbished to commence duty as a troop transport. The refit was completed in graving dock at Singapore and defensive armament was fitted. Internally it was fitted out to carry troops as it had now been requisitioned by the British Ministry of War Transport. On February 11th, Queen Elizabeth sailed from Singapore to Sydney, Australia, arriving on February 21st. After the fitting out was completed here "Lizzie" made her trooping debut, voyage to the Middle East and spent the next five months carrying troops from Sydney to Suez, and returning with German P.O.W's. After the US entered the war the Queen Elizabeth sailed to Esquimalt, in Canada, and carried troops to Sydney.
In 1942 the British Admiralty drew up plans to convert the two Queens into aircraft carriers but these were later abandoned as it was considered that their troop carrying role was too important. In April 1942 the Queen Elizabeth relocated from Sydney to New York. Here the troop accommodation was altered to make its capacity 10,000. In June 1942 she began to make voyages from New York to Gourock and then to Suez, via Cape Town. In August she began a shuttle service between New York and Gourock. Despite the ever present threat of U-boats the ship continued its service unscathed, although the German press stated that a U-boat had hit the vessel with a torpedo on November 11th.
By the end of the war in Europe the Queens had brought over a million troops to the war zone. The ship's next duty was to repatriate these troops and redeploys troops for the war against Japan which was ongoing for months after Victory in Europe. The repatriation of American troops continued until October 1945 when the Queen Elizabeth was released from US service and allocated to the repatriation of Canadian troops. On the 6th March, 1946 "Lizzie" arrived back in Southampton and was released from British Government service as the need for troop movements had diminished. During the war Queen Elizabeth had carried over 750,000 troops and traveled 500,000 miles. Winston Churchill, stated that the Queens had "shortened the war by a year." "Lizzie" had proved herself!
The post-war overhaul and refurbishment of Queen Elizabeth was to be carried out both on the Clyde and at Southampton. This overhaul would transform the Queen Elizabeth from a mass troop carrier into one of the grandest luxury liners of all time. On 9th March 1946, before she left for the Clyde, a fire was discovered on the promenade deck. Luckily this was spotted early and the fire brigade was able to extinguish it, but there was considerable damage to that area of the ship. Although it was never proved, arson was strongly suspected. At the end of March "Lizzie" left for the Clyde. There she was finally repainted in Cunard livery and the machinery was overhauled. By 17th June Queen Elizabeth was back at Southampton for interior refurbishment. It was soon announced that she would make her belated maiden passenger voyage to New York on October 16th, 1946.
After speed trials and a visit by the Queen, accompanied by Princesses Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, "Lizzie" traveled to Southampton and set out on her maiden passenger voyage to New York. There is little doubt that Queen Elizabeth was a faster ship than Queen Mary, but no attempt was ever made to take the speed honours away from the elder Cunarder. Over the coming months the ship was fully booked and carried many famous passengers. On 17th April 1947 she ran aground on Brambles Bank whilst approaching Southampton in thick fog. Although no damage was done the passengers had to be disembarked and the bulk of the fuel pumped out before the ship could be re-floated. Industrial disputes in 1948 left the Queen Elizabeth stranded at New York for two weeks. By September 1951 she had made her historic 100th Atlantic crossing.
During an overhaul in January of 1952 the ship's fuel capacity was increased and air-conditioning fitted throughout. Again mysterious fires broke out in several passenger cabins but were easily extinguished. In January of 1955 Queen Elizabeth was fitted with Denny Brown stabilizers. These improvements, however, were not enough to enable passenger liners to compete with air travel and by the late 1950's, due to the Jet airliner, there were more people crossing the Atlantic by air than by sea. On 29th July 1959 the Queen Elizabeth was involved in a collision with the American Hunter, a United States Lines cargo ship. The collision occurred in the Ambrose Channel when both ships were outward bound from New York. During thick fog the American ship struck the starboard bows of the Queen Elizabeth but, luckily, damage to both vessels was only slight and temporary repairs were carried out at New York.
By 1962 the steady decline in the number of passengers led to an announcement that the ship would begin cruising the following year. Cruises from New York to Nassau began in February 1963. Dramatic is a word to describe one of Queen Elizabeth's 1962 cruises when a light aircraft smashed into the sea only a few hundred yards from the ship's stern. This occurred south-east of Cape Hatteras and as the pilot was killed, all that could be done was to notify the coastguard. In March 1965 it was announced that the ship was to undergo a major overhaul. The work was done in Greenock and involved extensive redecoration and the installation of an open-air swimming pool on the vessels aft deck, as well as extending the superstructure to enclose the aft decking (a technique that would be extensively used on the Queen Elizabeth 2 some 4 years later). The work was completed in Spring 1966 but seamen's strikes immediately after this caused disruption for several weeks.
On May 8th, 1967 Cunard announced that the Queen Mary would be withdrawn from service later that year and that the Queen Elizabeth would be withdrawn in Autumn 1968. The fact that the ship was still running at a loss after an extensive refit and that seamen's strikes had cost the company £14 million sealed its fate.
The Queen Elizabeth made her final Atlantic crossing on 5th November 1968. She had now already been sold to a group of Philadelphia businessmen for £3.25 million. After her final visit to New York under the Cunard banner, "Lizzie" sailed to Port Everglades and opened to the public in February 1969. By the end of the year it had been closed down by the local authorities as a fire hazard, plus it was losing money. In late 1970 the ship was auctioned and bought by C.Y.Tung shipping group in Hong Kong and was intended to become a floating university. "Lizzie" was soon renamed Seawise University (Named by C.Y. after himself "C.Y's" - Seawise... considered amusing amongst the new owners) Seawise University sailed for Hong Kong on February 10th, 1971. Due to machinery problems it did not arrive until July and anchored off Tsing Yi Island near Kowloon.
Work soon began on a £5 million refit to convert the ship into a University and by January 1972 work was almost complete. The vessel that was once Cunard's flagship was painted white, with buff funnels and a green clover style logo attached. Security on board, however, was lax and on 9th January several fires were discovered in various parts of the ship. The fires spread and the ship burned throughout the night. Soon the ship rolled on to its side and then the hulk continued to burn until it was obvious that the vessel would not be salvageable. It is suspected that arson was the cause. The metal of Seawise was sold to Japanese ship breakers. A tragic end to one of the worlds greatest liners.