Queen Elizabeth History

The Concept of Queen Elizabeth

Queen Elizabeth

Following Cunard’s merger with White Star Line in 1934, the British Government provided funds for Cunard-White Star to create a running mate for the Queen Mary.

Designated as Hull 552, the new ship was laid down at the John Brown shipyard in Clydebank. She was launched by HM. Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) on 27 September 1938. It had been hoped that HM. King George V would attend the launch of the new liner, however the worsening political climate across Europe meant the King was unable to travel to Scotland for the launch.

With the new ship, Cunard-White Star were planning to inaugurating the world’s first two-ship weekly transatlantic express service. However, these plans were abruptly put on hold following the outbreak of World War II, and Queen Elizabeth remained idle in Clydebank.

War Years

Following the outbreak of World War II, the future of Queen Elizabeth became a major concern for Cunard-White Star. It was not safe to keep the ship in Scotland, and it was well known that she was a tempting target for the Luftwaffe.

Queen Elizabeth was painted in military grey before departing Clydebank for what was expected to be a short journey to Southampton. However, once in open sea the ship’s course was altered – Queen Elizabeth’s maiden voyage was to New York! Thus, the untested and untried ship – then the world’s largest ocean liner – made a secret dash across the Atlantic.

She arrived unannounced in New York, surprising officials and New Yorkers alike. Queen Elizabeth berthed alongside Queen Mary, Normandie and Mauretania, and for a brief period during March 1940 four of the world’s greatest liners lay side by side.

Queen Elizabeth was requisitioned for wartime service on 13 November 1940. The ship sailed to Singapore where she was refurbished into a troop carrier. Here, defensive armaments and a degaussing coil (to protect against mines) were fitted.

On 11 February, Queen Elizabeth sailed from Singapore to Sydney, Australia, arriving ten days later. Here the conversion into troop ship was completed and Queen Elizabeth undertook her first trooping voyage to the Middle East. She spent the next five months carrying troops from Sydney to Suez. The ship returned each time with German Prisioner’s of War.

Once the United States entered the war on the side of the allies, Queen Elizabeth sailed to Canada, and carried troops to Sydney. In 1942 the Admiralty considered future uses for the Cunard Queens, including possible transformation into aircraft carriers. However the trooping capacity of these ships meant they were most valuable as large troop transports and the Queen Elizabeth along with Queen Mary were redeployed to the transatlantic.

At the end of the war, Queen Elizabeth was famous on both sides of the Atlantic. The ship, which had carried over 750,000 troops, now commenced work repatriating those troops as well as the war brides.

Winston Churchill, Britain’s Prime Minister, stated that the two Cunard Queens had helped shorten the war by at least a year.

Passenger Service

Queen Elizabeth was released from Admiralty service in 1946. Her post-war overhaul and refurbishment was carried out both on the Clyde and at Southampton. This overhaul saw the luxury passenger interiors installed aboard Queen Elizabeth, in preparation for civilan transatlantic services. The ship was finally painted in Cunard livery while the machinery was overhauled.

Queen Elizabeth was given her full sea trials, and then officially accepted by Cunard. The ship made her belated maiden passenger voyage to New York on 16 October 1946.

Queen ElizabethQueen Elizabeth proved a popular ship and over the coming months the ship was fully booked.

On 17 April 1947 Queen Elizabeth ran aground near Brambles Bank as she made her approach to Southampton in thick fog. The ship was successfully re~floated.

In September 1951 Queen Elizabeth made her 100th peacetime transatlantic crossing. But as more and more passengers took to airline services, Cunard realised that they needed to upgrade Queen Elizabeth in order to keep her relevant in a changing world.

To that end, during a refurbishment in January 1952 the ship’s fuel capacity was increases and air-conditioning was fitted throughout, to allow the ship to undertake cruses. Four years later, Queen Elizabeth was fitted with stabilisers, which greatly improved passenger comfort.

Troubled Times

When Pan American World Airways flew the first Boeing 707 service across the Atlantic, the future for Queen Elizabeth was in doubt. By 1962 the decline in the number of passengers on the Atlantic service led to an announcement that the ship would be used more and more for cruises.

Cunard gave Queen Elizabeth a major overhaul in Greenock, which involved an interior refurbishment and the creation of an outdoor swimming pool on Queen Elizabeth’s aft deck, as well as the building of a lido area.  While the work was completed in time, the 1966 Seaman’s Strike meant that the refreshed ship was laid up in Southampton for a number of weeks, which further impacted on Cunard’s profitability.


On 8 May 1967, Cunard announced the futures of the two Queens. Queen Mary was to be withdrawn from service later that year, while the Queen Elizabeth was to be retained until Autumn 1968, by which time it was hoped the QE2 would be ready as her replacement.

Queen Elizabeth was initially sold to a group of Philadelphian businessmen, who intended on turning her into a floating hotel in Florida. The ship made her final transatlantic crossing on 5 November 1968 before she was withdrawn from Cunard service.

Once in Florida, the ship was opened to the public, however this venture didn’t last and the ship was closed in late 1969. In 1970 the ship was auctioned and bought by C.Y.Tung, Hong Kong, who planned to convert the liner into the world’s largest Floating University.

Re-named Seawise University, the ship sailed for Hong Kong to be converted. The transformation was almost complete when a series of fires broke out aboard the ship, causing her to burn out and sink in the harbour.

Images sourced with thanks from: Simplon Post Cards