When the Ile De France made her first post war appearance in New York harbour in the summer of 1949, many people had to take a second look at her. The three famous, familiar stacks had been replaced by a pair of more stout, substantial funnels, still clad in the familiar red and black colours of the French Line. Raked at a more jaunty angle than their predecessors, they were an almost reluctant attempt to create some modern flair for one of the most timeless and elegant of all the Atlantic liners.
Despite being fully reconditioned from bow to stern, the fact remained that the Ile De France was, by then, some twenty two years old. She had performed valiant, incalculable good work as a troop ship between 1940 and 1946, a stint that had earned her the Croix De Guerre from an enfeebled but still grateful nation.
But the French Line was in a parlous state. With the glorious Normandie gone, and the soon to be Liberte still struggling slowly back to life, the need to get the French flag back out there on the Atlantic was paramount. Both of the giant Cunard Queens were already up and running, and already well on the way to becoming the most distinctive and successful double act in maritime history. For the French, the return to service of the Ile De France was nothing less than a statement of national renewal. She had to gleam from stem to stern, and she did. Her bow to stern, truck to keel renewal took a full two years to complete.
She progressed upstream to Pier 88, through gracefully arched fountains of fire boat spray. Sirens and car horns tooted in salute as the freshly primped dowager swept proudly upstream. Crowds thronged the pier itself to welcome the celebrated liner back to civilian service. For all concerned, the return of the adored Ile De France was a cause for celebration.
Yet, for all of her restored, resplendent finery and peerless panache, the Ile De France was now something of a quaint anachronism herself. Back when she made her stunning debut in 1927, her astounding new Art Deco interiors had completely swept the board in terms of maritime architecture. She was almost space age in terms of modernity back then. At one fell swoop, she had made almost every other liner on the Atlantic appear irredeemably dated.
Now it was the Ile De France herself that looked dated. Her hull-famously conventional in style even back in the twenties- now looked every bit as dated as the rival Aquitania. The knife edge prow and semi counter stern were, indeed, almost pure World War One vintage.
However, back in the twenties, the travelling public had a glut of ocean liners to choose from for their journeys. The advent of the Ile De France herself, plus the coming Great Depression, served to thin this ageing herd out massively.
Then of course, the war itself played absolute havoc with the new breed of ocean liners that had followed in the Ile’s barn storming wake. Fires, air attacks and sheer carelessness had thinned out the ocean liner families to such an extent that, by 1947, even the most superannuated old hull was pressed back into service with almost ruthless haste.
None of this implies in any way that there was anything wrong with the Ile De France when she returned to service once again that summer of 1949. The ship was as sound as ever; her public rooms had been completely restored and updated, insofar as possible. And, above and beyond anything else, she still had that almost effortless sense of ease, style and chic that only the French Line really had. And. being the lady that she was, the Ile De France flaunted it at every turn.
Only on the Ile De France could you have onion soup for breakfast even in tourist class, should the fancy suit you. The first class dinner menu still offered well over two hundred and fifty separate items each night. Of course, table wine was still free on the ship, and announcements on board were always made firstly in French.
There were still the scarlet jacketed bell boys to operate the lifts, and the scent of fresh cut flowers everywhere. Older she might have been, but it was not long before the Ile De France regained a huge part of her pre war reputation for fun and frivolity. Old hands returned, and an entire new generation fell in love with her.Once more, the travelling public fell hopelessly under her spell.
When she was joined by the Liberte in 1950, the two ships operated what many of those in the know regarded as the smartest, best fed and best served two ship service on the Atlantic. It mattered not one jot that the Queens were bigger, or the United States much faster. Ile De France and Liberte sported the style, panache and sheer fun of the frivolous, free spirited France of popular perception- a huge irony, since the country itself was still struggling with the aftermath of four years of casually incompetent German occupation. More than anything, those two ships represented the venerated spirit of France; they were idealised creations, ablaze with light and laughter, setting out between the old world and the new. Quite literally, they were, indeed,’France afloat’.
That first post war decade and a half was the most profitable in the history of the transatlantic liner. On average, well over a million people sailed across the Atlantic each year, either on business or pleasure. In high summer, it was nothing unusual for the two French liners to be booked solid many months in advance.
And there were dramatic moments, too. It was the floodlit Ile De France that stood off in the Nantucket gloom, ready and able to rescue the shell shocked survivors of the slowly foundering, three year old Andrea Doria on a foggy night in July, 1956. Her intervention- and the passenger’s salvation- made her front page news on every paper in the world for a few days again.
Later, while on a winter Caribbean cruise, the old girl ran aground, and had to be towed to Norfolk, Virginia, for eye wateringly expensive repairs. None the less, the ‘Grande Dame’ soldiered on until 1959.
Sold to Japanese scrappers in Osaka that same year, the veteran liner was then chartered out to a Hollywood film company. It was just a year after Walter Lord’s book about the Titanic, A Night To Remember, had been made into a hugely successful film. Suddenly, films about sinking liners became all the vogue.
Hence, The Last Voyage, starring none other than the Ile de France, playing the role of the SS. Claridon, a vintage liner that was, coincidentally, on her way to the scrapyard. In the course of this soggy escapade, parts of her deck were blown up, her forward funnel was toppled over, and she was then sunk in shallow water. The directors called it ‘entertainment’.
All of this for a decorated war heroine, a ship that had become a legend twice over, and a floating symbol of France itself. At the conclusion of filming, the Ile De France was raised from her resting place, and then towed to Japan to be butchered like a dead animal.
Yet the spirit of the Ile De France has survived well beyond her shabby, degrading demise. Indeed, she seems to have merely grown in retrospective glamour since her hey day. ‘Iconic’ is a word bandied about too much these days, especially in the case of vanished ocean liners. But, in the case of the Ile De France, to describe her as ‘merely’ iconic goes nowhere near far enough.
She was, in fact, platinum chip maritime royalty, and she will ever remain thus.