Another of those great, largely under rated transatlantic liners that crossed the ocean between the two word wars was the White Star Line’s Majestic. Originally launched as the Bismarck in June of 1914, she was intended to be the third- and the finest- of Hamburg America Line’s stunning triple response to the Olympic class super liners of the rival White Star Line.
Work on her was suspended during the war. Not until 1922 would she be finally completed, under the supervision of a working team from Harland and Wolff of Belfast. Bismarck, now renamed Majestic and handed over to White Star, was taken to sea for her trials by her original intended German captain, Hans Ruser.
When her new English captain boarded for the delivery trip to Southampton, he was not made especially welcome by the Germans. Bertram Hayes found his cabin full of yet to be installed bathroom sinks. All the same, British crewmen were already painting her three towering funnels in White Star colours, and her new name already adorned both bow and stern. In this condition, the newly wrought Majestic came round to Southampton.
She was ostensibly a direct replacement for the sunken Britannic, which had been lost in the Aegean after striking a mine laid by a German U-boat. At the time of her takeover by White Star, the 56,000 ton Majestic was the largest ship in the world. In May of 1922, the company put her into service on the Atlantic crossing between Southampton, Cherbourg, Queenstown and New York.
The Majestic was advertised as ‘The Queen of the Western Ocean’ by White Star. Despite her German origins, she became the flagship of the line. Like her near sisters (and new rivals), Berengaria and Leviathan, she was in essence a vast, grand Edwardian hotel (in first class at least). With her trio of gracefully raked funnels and her trim black and white exterior, the Majestic did indeed look every inch a queen.
In the 1920’s, the Majestic would routinely sail westbound from Southampton at noon on a Wednesday, arriving in New York some six days later. After four days tied up in Manhattan, the ship would depart eastbound for Europe on a Saturday on another six day voyage. After four days’ stay in Southampton, she would embark again on the next Wednesday for New York.
White Star ran a three ship service on this route after the war, putting the Majestic in tandem with the Olympic, the surviving sister ship of the lost Titanic, and the Homeric, another, smaller ex-German vessel. With this line up, White Star could offer a first class express service to New York on a weekly basis.
But the Homeric was nowhere near fast enough to maintain her place in tandem with her two speedier, far more reliable siblings. As a result, the White Star service-splendid as it was- never quite matched the rival Cunard troika. That line’s trio of Aquitania, Berengaria and Mauretania was able to offer a far more balanced, reliable service in those post war years. The Cunard Line trio offered Wednesday departures from Southampton to New York, but the timescale of the weekly service broadly equalled that on the White Star liners.
None the less, the Majestic was very popular indeed. In that incredible, post war era of steamships, flapper girls, gin joints, baseball and jazz, the White Star vessel was hugely prestigious. Her crossings were events; newspaper reporters mobbed her gangways on both continents, hoping to catch scoops from the politicians, movie stars, sportsmen and the simply idle rich before they were ushered into her plush interiors.
She was fast, too, probably second only to the still speedy Blue Riband holder, the legendary Mauretania. Still, no attempt was ever made on setting a new record by any liner in those first post war years. Even in the wake of the most disastrous global conflict in world history, the long shadow of the Titanic still hung over the Atlantic like so much baleful fog.
As the twenties approached their nadir, the first of a new breed of post war ocean liners emerged from her cocoon in a French shipyard. Her name was Ile De France, and she was about to become a legend; an Art Deco suffused sanctuary that instantly made almost every other liner look and feel like an antiquated relic.
With her stunning debut, all those ageing fleets of prewar Edwardian ocean liners suddenly began to look fusty, dingy and dated, like a line of overly powdered dowagers competing against some incredibly pretty girl in a shimmering ballgown. There was only ever going to be one winner.
Even the ‘Queen of the Western Ocean’ was beginning to look increasingly dated against a looming backdrop of gleaming new German vessels, hell bent on regaining prewar German ascendancy on the Atlantic. And, when the Wall Street crash of 1929 triggered the worst global downturn of that time, it took many of the high rollers of the Atlantic crossing down with it. Passenger numbers plummeted, and the rump that remained tended to cross on the newer ships.
By 1934, both Cunard and White Star were in such dire straits that the only route to salvation lay in a forced ‘shotgun wedding’ of the two age old rivals. This done, the government advanced funds to the newly monickered Cunard-White Star Line that would enable them to complete the moribund hull that would soon become the Queen Mary, plus the funds for an upcoming companion ship- the eventual Queen Elizabeth.
With the new ship finally on her way, there was an obvious need to shed ‘old blood’ at Cunard White Star. Largely, the former White Star Line was the loser in this maritime parade to the block, one that witnessed the end of Mauretania, Homeric, Olympic and, in the spring of 1936, the disposal of even the Majestic herself.
The arrival of the Queen Mary effectively marked the end of the commercial life of the Majestic. One year earlier, she had finally lost the honour of bring the world’s largest liner to the shimmering new Normandie. A new generation of giants had clearly surpassed the old order.
For all of her glamour and style, somehow the Majestic never quite got the laurels accorded by history to many of her fleet mates and rivals. Inexplicably, she was never quite as popular or avant garde as her sister ship and rival, Cunard’s Berengaria. Never a speed champion, her active life was bookmarked by the end of the Great War, and the coming of the Great Depression. She was always something of an ‘also ran’; even in the White Star fleet, the older Olympic was always the more popular ship.
As much as anything, the Majestic was a victim of changing times and tastes. Envisaged as a paragon of Teutonic splendour, she was quite literally launched into a totally alien world. A few years of genuine popularity and success soon foundered in the wake of a fleet of splashier new French, German and Italian rivals. And, at the end, she became acceptable collateral damage for a company which, by 1935, was fighting for its very financial survival.
But the Majestic would not yet face the axe. Sold to the Royal Navy in 1936 for use as a static training ship, she was renamed as HMS Caledonia. Just before she sailed for her new home at Rosyth, in Scotland, the tops of her three great funnels were cut down, so that she could sail under the Forth Bridge. Here, she endured three further years of static stagnation, terminated just after the outbreak of yet another world war by a fire that devoured her from stem to stern. It was a tragic loss, one that deprived the war effort of what could have been a potentially very valuable troop ship.
The charred, ruined hulk was scrapped to recycle all that valuable wartime steel. By the time that this second global war had run its course in 1945, the one time ‘Queen of the Western Ocean’ was long gone.