“I have given you a new Normandie!”
General-turned-President Charles De Gaulle’s expansive, extravagant claim was lapped up by the more than one hundred thousand strong crowd that had just witnessed the launch of the new SS. France at the Penhoet shipyard at Saint Nazaire. But even such a suave, bombastic claim came second place to the leviathan that had just been baptised in front of them.
Minutes before, at 4.15 pm on the afternoon of May 11th, 1960, Madame Yvonne De Gaulle had swung a bottle of champagne at the soaring mass of black steel that loomed above her head in the late afternoon spring sunshine. There was a moment’s silence, and then an awesome steel cathedral, some one thousand and thirty five feet long, began her slow, stately procession down to the steel grey waters of the River Loire. A huge cheer floated up from the crowd that blackened the slipways on either side of the great new liner as her stern kissed water for the first time, with literally thousands of tons of hissing, shrieking and clanking steel chains taking up the strain in a desperate attempt to stop the huge liner from careering straight across the river. From the loudspeakers above, the proud, defiant swagger of La Marseiiliaise filled the air.
Naturally, the France had first been blessed by Monsieur Villepelet, the Bishop of Nantes, just prior to her launch. And the new liner would need all the divine intervention she could get.
Since she had been laid down just two years earlier in 1958, the Atlantic liners had already lost something like seventy per cent of the travelling trade to the speedy new jet airliners. The France was already playing against a stacked deck from day one.
She had been built as a single ship replacement for the veteran, post war duo of Ile De France and Liberte. Originally, the idea was to replace those fabled liners with a pair of modern vessels, each of a more modest 35,000 tons, that would not have been dissimilar in scale and intent to the more recent vessels built by the Italian Line.
But De Gaulle personally decided that French international prestige- dramatically on the wane since the military loss of Vietnam and the blood bath of Algeria- was in desperate need of a new, national icon. A second Normandie, as De Gaulle himself said. So the eminently sensible idea for two smaller, modern sisters was torpedoed in favour of one stunning exclamation mark of a vessel; a true show stopper that would be one final, magnificent burst of bravado in the face of the Jet Age.
And what a show stopper she was. The France was the longest ocean liner ever built up to that time. In fact, she would retain that honour until the advent Of the Queen Mary 2 from the self same shipyard in 2003. At her ultimate 66,348 tons, she was eclipsed only by the ageing Cunard Queens in terms of size.
Speed wise, she was-and is- second only to the SS United States. On trials, the France managed over thirty-five knots with relative ease. But there was no thought of running for the speed record; with the jets thundering overhead at five hundred miles an hour and more, it was seen as an empty gesture.
What she remains is the last true express liner built for the age old route between Northern Europe and America. The France was meant to make some thirty-four round trips a year between Le Havre and New York, with no concession whatsoever to a regular cruise schedule. Indeed, her beam of 110 feet made her too wide to pass through the Panama Canal.
This last, potentially disastrous flaw was shrugged off by De Gaulle with his usual Machiavellian flair. The problem was not that the France was too big, he said; it was that the canal was too small.
Her show stopping maiden voyage would not occur until February of 1962, some twenty one months in the future. When the marvellous, majestic bulk of the France slipped gracefully into the Loire on May 11th, 1960, a lot was riding on her, both figuratively and actually. It is safe to say that every major shipping line followed her progress with a mixture of vague hope and more than a little unease.