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, Scotland.
She was launched by HM. Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) on 27 September 1938, who named the ship RMS. Queen Elizabeth. It had been hoped that HM. King George V would attend the launch of the ship, however the worsening political situation in Europe meant the King was unable to travel to Scotland for the launch.
With the new ship due to enter service in 1939, Cunard-White Star were planning to start the world’s first two-ship weekly transatlantic express service.
However, these plans were put on hold following the outbreak of World War II, at which time the Queen Elizabeth remained idle and unsafe in Clydebank.
Part 2: War Years
Following the outbreak of World War II, the security of Queen Elizabeth became a major concern for Cunard-White Star and the British Government. It was not safe to keep the ship in Scotland, as 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 rumoured 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 to the safety of America. 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 great Transatlantic 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 the world’s largest troop carrier. During the works, defensive armaments and a degaussing coil (to protect against mines) were fitted.
On 11 February, Queen Elizabeth sailed from Singapore bound for 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, carrying troops to Suez.
Queen Elizabeth later sailed to Canada, and carried troops to Sydney, while in 1942 the Admiralty considered possible future uses for the Queens. Their trooping capacity meant they were the most valuable large troop transports in service. When the USA entered the war in December 1941, the future use of Queen Elizabeth along with Queen Mary changed. Ultimately, the ships were most valuable operating the trooping service on the North Atlantic, and following a major overhaul Queen Elizabeth commenced this service. She remained in Government requisition for the rest of the war.
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.
In fact, Winston Churchill himself acknowledged the Cunard Queens, crediting them for helping reduce the war, saying in a letter to Cunard Chairman Sir Percy Bates:
Without their aid, the day of final victory must unquestionably have been postponed.
Part 3: 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 luxury passenger interiors installed aboard Queen Elizabeth, in preparation for civilan transatlantic services. Additionally, ship was 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 maiden peacetime passenger voyage to New York on 16 October 1946.
Queen Elizabeth proved a popular ship and over the coming months the ship was well 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 later successfully re~floated.
In September 1951 Queen Elizabeth made her 100th peacetime transatlantic crossing. But as 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 with a particular focus on longer duration cruising
As such, during a refurbishment in January 1952 the ship’s fuel capacity was increased allowing her to sail longer distances without refuelling. Additionally air-conditioning was fitted throughout, to allow the ship to undertake voyages into warm climates. Four years later, Queen Elizabeth was fitted with stabilisers, which greatly improved passenger comfort.
Part 4: The Jet Age
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 shipping service (they had moved their business to airliners) led to an announcement that the ship would be used more and more for cruises.
Cunard gave Queen Elizabeth another major overhaul in Greenock, Scotland, which involved an interior refurbishment and the creation of an outdoor swimming pool on Queen Elizabeth’s aft deck. This was combined with a new lido area which, it was hoped, would allow the ship to attract more cruise passengers.
Sadly, 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 financial viability. On 8 May 1967, Cunard announced the fates of the two Queens. Queen Mary was 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.
Part 5: Retirement
Queen Elizabeth was initially sold to a group of Philadelphian businessmen, who intended to turn 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.