In July 1947, Cunard’s illustrious Queen Mary finally resumed her peace time career on the North Atlantic, joining for the first time her near sister, Queen Elizabeth, to finally open the two ship express service to new York that Sir Percy Bates had envisaged as far back as the late 1920’s.
It had taken a full ten months to recondition the hard working liner from troopship and carrier of GI brides back to her pristine, pre war best. From March of 1940 to September of 1946, the liner had effectively been on a war footing. Both her initial conversion into a troop ship and her subsequent reconditioning for civilian service took longer than was the case for the slightly larger Queen Elizabeth.
This should not be so surprising. When she was requisitioned for her famous, furtive dash to New York in March of 1940, the Queen Elizabeth was still largely an empty shell, internally. By contrast, the Queen Mary had already served for three full years as a highly successful ocean liner, playing the maritime equivalent of ping pong with the Normandie for the coveted Atlantic speed record. All of her plush fixtures and fittings had to be at first removed, and then renovated and restored some seven long years later. By way of contrast, the interiors of the Queen Elizabeth represented more of a blank canvas for utilitarian military conversion.
None the less, the ocean that Queen Mary returned to was not the same. The Normandie was gone, as were the Bremen, the Rex, the Conte Di Savoia. and the Empress of Britain. Of the stunned and war scarred survivors, it would be another two years before the Ile De France returned to service, and another year before the French Line could reinforce her with the Liberte, which was nothing less than the heavily refitted and refined Europa. Thus, it was 1950 before the French Line was able to offer even a semblance of a rival to the Cunard service.
In those years, the Queens would cement their reputations as the largest, smartest and well heeled partnership in maritime history. Big, classy and fast, they were often sold out a full six months in advance. The world had never seen a two ship service like it and, in truth, it never would again, either.
Of course, that unchallenged dominance was not so absolute as the Fifties dawned. The French Line duo once again gained a considerable lustre, with a reputation for service, fine dining and sheer frivolity. Then, in 1952, the barnstorming new SS United States shattered the 1938 speed record set by the Queen Mary forever, and the Blue Riband slipped from the Cunard agenda forever.
All the same, if any two ships ever defined the post war Atlantic heyday, it was surely that steady, stately brace of Cunard Queens. Of the two, it was the earlier, slightly smaller Queen Mary that remained the more popular, both with passengers and crew alike. Fine ship (and better ship) that she was in many respects, the poor old Queen Elizabeth never had quite the same appeal.
Perhaps it was because the Queen Mary had three years of pre war service, during which she had time to ‘bed down’ in the public sense of affection? And her construction at the height of the Depression was seen as a sign that an awful period of austerity was finally coming to an end. In that respect, the Queen Mary was a light pointing to a hopefully brighter horizon; a towering, triple stacked beacon of hope.
By contrast, the Queen Elizabeth took shape against the baleful backdrop of an almost inevitable, looming war. Even as she grew over Clydebank, her shadow was eclipsed by the increasingly bellicose sabre rattling of both Hitler and Mussolini. And, as the perceived ‘second ship’ of a class, she was always going to gain less traction in the public mind than her predecessor. Unfair, but true just the same.
Of course, both ships have been invested with a wealth of huge, retrospective glamour in the age of the jet; even their very names have become almost canonised, along with those of all those other, long lost ocean legends that preceded them.
But no amount of wistful nostalgia can really pad out the facts of just how hugely successful that great, glittering pair of Cunard thoroughbreds were in the years after the war. And, if the Normandie remains for many the absolute epitome of ocean liner style, then I think it’s fair to say that those spectacular, post war Cunard Queens fulfilled the promise and potential of the crack ocean liner express service like no others, either before or since.
That, alone, would guarantee their immortal status and enduring stature.