It was a relatively simple ceremony, as such things go. On May 12th, 1936, the Cunard White Star flag was raised for the first time on the brand new RMS Queen Mary at her berth in Southampton. It was final acknowledgement that the ship was no longer the property of the shipyard that had struggled to bring her to life over almost six tumultuous years. She now belonged to the steamship line and, to a larger extent, the nation itself.
Just getting her to this stage had represented the besting of one awesome hurdle after another. The Great Depression had caused the closure of the John Brown yard on Clydebank, where work on the enormous hull had come screeching to a halt in December of 1931. For over two and a half full years, the biggest British ocean liner yet to be conceived sat gathering rust on the Clyde, while flocks of birds made themselves at home in her vast, skeletal interiors.
The stilled, silent hulk was not merely a boon for Scottish wildlife; it was a national humiliation of the first order. While a series of fast, new German and Italian liners played ping pong with the Blue Ribband- the speed record on the North Atlantic- France, of all countries, was continuing to steam full speed ahead with the construction of a new liner, one every bit as vast, fast and symbolic as the Queen Mary. Depression or no, the Normandie loomed ponderously towards completion, just across the channel.
The Normandie took to the water at Saint Nazaire on October 29th, 1932, amid much pomp and a genuinely huge outpouring of emotion and national pride. The world’s first ever 1,000 foot long, 80,000 ton liner had been born. There could have been no bigger slap across Britannia’s imperial face than the reality of the new French ship, and everybody knew it.
Ironically, it also proved to be the salvation of the moribund Queen Mary. For, depression or not, there simply had to be a British rival to the Normandie.
Thus, Her Majesty’s government forced through a brutal, yet necessary ‘shotgun marriage’ of Britain’s two premier ocean liner companies- Cunard and White Star. They then proceeded to loan the new Cunard-White Star Line some seven million pounds; money enough to complete the Queen Mary, and also to build a similar sized sibling, the eventual Queen Elizabeth.
In May, 1934, thousands of Clydebank shipyard workers swarmed back through the dockyard gates as they creaked open, a full twenty nine months after they had been slammed shut. Some one hundred and four tons of accumulated rust was scraped from the dormant hull of the Queen Mary as, against all the odds, she struggled back slowly to life.
Finally, on the rainy afternoon of September 26th, 1934, the vast hull slid into her natural element. A crowd estimated at over 200,000 cheered themselves hoarse as the giant liner slid with ponderous grace and majesty into the steel grey waters of the Clyde. Known up until that moment solely by her builder’s number of 534, she now had a name that the world would never forget- Queen Mary.
It is no exaggeration to say that the hopes and expectations of an entire nation went down the ways with her. The Queen Mary was the largest ship ever to be built by the greatest seafaring nation on the planet. With her, Britannia would truly rule the waves again.
But the Normandie got away first.
On May 29th, 1935, the new French liner steamed proudly out of Le Havre on her maiden crossing to New York. And, in what still ranks to this day as the single most auspicious maiden voyage in ocean liner history, the Normandie simply swept the board.
She entered New York harbour on the afternoon of June 3rd, 1935, having taken the Blue Ribbon at the first attempt. Normandie was now the largest, fastest and most luxurious ship that the world had ever seen; she had accomplished a stunning triple coup, the likes of which would never be seen again.
Something like 200,000 people blackened the banks of the Hudson to see her come in. Factories and offices emptied, and an armada of over a hundred small boats formed a guard of honour for her as the Normandie swept proudly towards her pier.
Overflown by aircraft and a blimp that filmed the historic occasion from the air, and wreathed in torrents of fire boat spray, that maiden arrival of Normandie garnered headlines so staggering in scale and coverage that they would only be equalled when an American named Neil Armstrong first set foot on the surface of the Moon, some thirty four years later in 1969.
Back in Britain, as work on completing the Queen Mary went ahead, Cunard conceded that the Normandie ‘seemed to have done pretty well’….
By early 1936, with the Queen Mary finally complete and running very successful sea trials, Cunard-White Star were quietly confident that their new ship would soon do ‘pretty well’ herself. But, of course, no one in the company was making any extravagant claims. That was not the British way. Let the Normandie fly her thirty metre long champions’ pennant.
But it was the reality of the challenge ahead that dominated all minds in Southampton on that sunny May 12th, 1936. Quiet determination was leavened with sober appreciation. The French ship had taken every major honour that the Queen Mary aspired to, and with seemingly nonchalant ease. Beating her was by no means a certainty.
What was certain was that a speed race without parallel was in the offing. In fact, the greatest single speed race of all time.
It would be a race fought out between two peerless ships, each one a technological triumph of the first order. Each one represented the pride, hopes and aspirations of the respective nations that had so improbably wrought them to life in the depths of the greatest depression ever known. Each was aimed squarely at capturing the creme de la creme of the slowly recovering transatlantic passenger trade.
This was no Trafalgar, Quiberon Bay, or even Waterloo. But, as these two incredible creations jockeyed for position in May of 1936, the smell of gunpowder was easily discernible to the more fanciful people out there.
It was a battle between two giants of unparalleled scale and style.