I’ve been lucky enough to sail on many great, fine and famous ships in my time. But, like many other writers, I retain a kind of wistful nostalgia for the ones that ‘got away’, or went way before my time.
If I could go back in time and travel on any ship, then the Normandie would be at the absolute top of my list. But, my word, the Ile De France would not be far behind in the pecking order. And here’s why…..
After World War One, as the shattered ocean liner fleets began to rebuild, there was no desire amongst any of them to resume the great superliner races of those pre-war days.
That era- between 1907 and 1914- had seen an ever larger trio of super ships enter service for Cunard, White Star, and the Hamburg Amerika Lines, respectively. Those nine vessels were, collectively, the largest moving objects ever built.
But, by wars’ end the Titanic, the Lusitania and the Britannic were all gone. The trio of German giants were surrendered as war reparations to the victorious allies but, even then, the feeling was that the surviving big ships were no longer good economic role models.
As they rebuilt post war, all of the lines went for smaller, more cost effective new builds that were typically in the 20,000 ton range. It was a move that fitted the cautious mood of a world still reeling from the after effects of the most disastrous single conflict in human history.
But, in 1927, all of that changed with the birth of one stunning new ocean liner; a ship that would become one of the most adored and legendary vessels ever to cut salt water.
The Ile De France.
At 43,000 tons, the new French Line flagship was more than twice the size of any new build, but still not quite as large as the likes of the ageing Berengaria, Olympic and Majestic. And her knife like bow, counter stern and trio of smokestacks made her look like a hangover from the Edwardian era. Externally, she was as conventional as they come.
But her interiors were entirely another matter. Here, the French simply threw out a rule book thought almost sacrosanct for nearly a century.
Where every large liner before her had tried to emulate the look of some Gothic theme park, grand Edwardian hotel or Roman palace, the Ile De France was sheathed from bow to stern in the new, Art Deco style of interior design that was then all the rage in Europe. It was a look that catapulted her light years ahead of the opposition.
Instead of overly fussed, dark wood panelling, the Ile De France was a slick, streamlined riposte, wrought large in glass, marble, and hammered bronze. Her vast interiors boasted simple lines, elegant curves, bold new geometric furniture and avant garde carpets, right throughout the ship.
This trendy, totally different take on interior design was allied to the matchless standards of food and service for which the French Line was already justly renowned. The first class dinner menu on the Ile De France listed no less than two hundred and seventy five different items nightly. Table wine was always free in all classes, at both lunch and dinner. The passenger lifts came complete with scarlet jacketed bellboys, who were simply there to show Monsieur or Madame to whichever part of the ship they might wish to visit.
Though most of her passengers would be American, announcements aboard the Ile De France were always made first in French. The company insisted that you were actually in France from the moment that you crossed her gangways, whether in Le Havre, Southampton, or New York.
And the travelling public loved her. Regular passengers on the Atlantic crossing were prepared to wait an extra week just to be able to sail on her, rather than the competition. In the 1930’s, she carried more first class passengers than any other ship afloat.
She never went for the speed record, which was regarded as pretty passe in the 1920’s. It would take the return of the big German liners to re-ignite the race for the Blue Ribband a couple of years further down the line.
She was sailed with great panache as well. When one English passenger mentioned to her captain that the Ile De France was ‘not the biggest’, he replied sweetly: ‘No, madame, but then neither is the Ritz’.
And, way beyond her sheer magnificence and sense of panache, the coming of the Ile De France triggered the second great era of superliner building. After her sensational debut, every line wanting to corner the cream of the North Atlantic trade had to look to their laurels.
In Germany, her success triggered the construction of both the Bremen and the Europa. Mussolini’s Italy would also launch it’s own stunning, twin riposte, in the shapes of the Rex and the Conte Di Savoia.
These four ships in their turn acted as lightning rods for the construction of the two greatest liners of them all; Normandie and her great British rival, Queen Mary.
Collectively, these seven ships would dominate the 1930’s ocean liner trade. And the Ile De France herself would sail on until as late as 1959, becoming a decorated war heroine in the process. In July 1956, she rescued the survivors of the Andrea Doria after her collision with the Stockholm off Nantucket.
If ever any ship was a true game changer, it was surely the Ile De France. Every passenger ship that followed was influenced by her in some way or another. She was a truly beloved legend, and one of the most immortal ships ever to sail anywhere.