It was described as a great grey ghost coming out of the mist by the Fire Island coast guard on duty as the RMS Queen Elizabeth came into view. It was March 7, 1940, and no one in New York was expecting the arrival of the world’s largest ocean liner, which meant everything had gone according to plan. The Queen Elizabeth would go onto have a very successful career as a transatlantic liner, but it began its life as a troop transport ship and it all started with a secret voyage.
The same day of the RMS Queen Mary’s maiden voyage, Cunard-White Star Line, the company who owned the vessel, ordered another ship. They planned for the two liners to have a weekly sailing service between England and the United States.
Construction on the new ship began in 1936 and its hull was built from the ground up. A launching ceremony was held on 27 September, 1938, and it was named the Queen Elizabeth in honour of King George VI’s wife.
With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, tensions were high and many worried the Queen Elizabeth would be the next target of Nazi forces. Its destruction would mean the loss of an important resource for the war effort and an even bigger hit to the United Kingdom’s national morale. Work on the ship stopped regularly for fear of attack.
As the Queen Elizabeth’s fit out continued, a plan for a secret voyage was forming. The ship was painted military grey and its engines were installed in February 1940. A small crew of about 400 was reassigned from the RMS Aquitania to it and the reason why was kept from them, even the Queen Elizabeth’s newly appointed commanding officer Captain John Townley.
On March 3, 1940, the Queen Elizabeth left its berth for the first time and headed for open sea. Once the ship was at a sufficient distance from England, Townley opened an envelope with his orders. He was to take the Queen Elizabeth to New York as fast as possible. Many of the ship’s systems were untested, including its engines, and it still had launching equipment connected.
A rumour was deliberately spread to mislead Nazi secret agents that the Queen Elizabeth was sailing to Southampton for dry docking. Later in the day, Nazi planes were seen flying over the area in Southampton where the ship was supposed to have been.
The Queen Elizabeth made it safely to New York and further fit out electrical work took place. In November 1940, it sailed to Singapore and was converted into a troopship.
During the war, the Queen Elizabeth travelled around 800,000 kilometres and carried over 75,000 servicemen all over the world.
The Queens Elizabeth and Mary were integral to the Allies’ victory and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said he believed the two ships shortened the Second World War by 12 months.
After the war’s end, the Queen Elizabeth was transformed back into a passenger ship and began its first transatlantic service in 1946. It was one of the most popular vessels that sailed the route between Britain and the United States.
By the late 1950s, aircrafts had become the preferred way for people to travel between countries and large ocean liners were losing business.
The Queen Elizabeth was retired in 1967 and its future was uncertain. Finally, it was sold to Orient Overseas Container Line owner Tung Chao-yung.
Sadly in 1972, while being turned into a floating university and cruise ship, in Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong, a suspicious fire broke out onboard and the Queen Elizabeth burned. Firefighting tugboats fought the blaze for a day but were unable to save the vessel and it sank.
Three years later, salvaging work began and it’s suspected that about 50% of the wreck still laid on the seafloor. The last remains of the Queen Elizabeth were completely buried during a reclamation project in the 1990s.
The ship’s legacy lives on in the Queen Elizabeth 2 (1969–2008) and the MS Queen Elizabeth (2010–present).
Photo Credit: Owlcation (https://owlcation.com/humanities/RMSQueenElizabeth)
Liners: Ships of Destiny – Episode 2: Ships of War, The (1997 TV Series)
Old Hong Kong’s 50-Year-Old Shipwreck: How the World’s Largest Boat, Britain’s RMS Queen Elizabeth, Sank on the Seabed of Victoria Harbour – And it’s Still There! (https://www.scmp.com/magazines/style/leisure/article/3144126/old-hong-kongs-50-year-old-shipwreck-how-worlds-largest)
Only Way to Cross, The (1981 Documentary)
Queen Elizabeth (https://www.britannica.com/topic/Queen-Elizabeth-British-passenger-ships)
R.M.S Queen Elizabeth (http://ssmaritime.com/RMS-Queen-Elizabeth.htm)
RMS Queen Elizabeth (https://military-history.fandom.com/wiki/RMS_Queen_Elizabeth)
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