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SS.FRANCE-THE SECOND NORMANDIE?

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The fabulous France of 1962

The SS. France was launched at the Saint Nazaire shipyard on May 11th, 1960. As over a thousand feet of gleaming, pristine new ocean liner slid slowly down the ways, a human tidal wave of something like 100,000 people surged forward, cheering the looming bulk of the immense vessel as she gathered way.

As she kissed the water for the first time, French President Charles De Gaulle took the microphone out of the hand of his wife, Yvonne. Madame De Gaulle had served as godmother to the new ship, christening her with the traditional champagne bottle. From his lofty perch high above the hordes below, the President shouted exultantly to the crowd;

I have given you a new Normandie!”

That bit of fatuous, self serving bombast would become a millstone around the metaphorical neck of the last great French liner. Even invoking the hallowed memory of the illustrious Normandie- lost in a tragic fire at New York in February of 1942-was to offer a promise on such a spectacular scale that any ship would have struggled to even begin to meet it.

From Day One, the new SS. France would have to fulfil the nostalgic expectations of an emotional travelling public, and also somehow beat the rising tide of jet air travel. The latter had already secured more than seventy per cent of all Atlantic travellers by the time she made her debut in February of 1962. France would be expected to reach, and then maintain, an almost Olympian level of excellence and luxe, and do so in the face of the direst set of financial circumstances imaginable. Not only that, but she was expected to do it with all the style, elegance and grace for which the French Line had become an almost century old byword.

No pressure there, then…..

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The Normandie at speed on the Atlantic in her late 1930’s heyday

So, how similar was the new challenger to the imperishable legend of her deceased forebear? The France was a few feet longer than the Normandie (in fact, she was the longest liner ever built until the 2004 debut of the Queen Mary 2) and she was faster by a few knots, too. Despite that, there would be no attempt to challenge the SS. United States for the Blue Ribband of The Atlantic. If the Normandie had been hell bent on achieving that singular honour back in 1935, then the France eschewed even the very idea with a typically Gallic shrug less than three decades later. With the jets flying overhead at more than five hundred miles an hour, the days of thirty knot record ocean crossings looked positively prehistoric by 1962.

Externally, the France was much more of a respectful nod to her predecessor. The great, flared bow and soaring, tapered flanks made her every bit as visually bewitching as the Normandie had ever been, though the cruiser stern was a direct contrast to the knuckled counter stern of the earlier ship. She looked longer, slightly leaner, too. And, partly because of the use of aluminium in constructing her superstructure, the France came in at a little over 66,000 tons, compared to just over 83,000 tons for the Normandie.

Where Normandie had been a three class ship, the France catered to just two; First and Tourist. And, even though she was the lighter ship by a not inconsiderable 17,000 tons, the France could still carry a similar passenger total to Normandie of about 1900 in all, and in very considerable, air conditioned comfort.

Of course, the decor of her public rooms was an epic swerve away from those of the earlier ship. If the Normandie had been a true temple of seagoing Art Deco, then the France was a modern, almost severe exemplar of Sixties styling that verged on the sterile in many places. Plush and luxurious as she was, her overall design aesthetic was strictly, almost glacially trendy. In terms of decor, she never, ever gained the rave reviews that were showered like confetti on the Normandie in her prime.

Where the France did gain wild acclaim-and right from the start at that-was for the sheer excellence and quality of the food and service on board across both classes. The French Line had always enjoyed a stellar reputation in both respects; in fact, the company was widely considered to offer the best hospitality of any of the Atlantic liner fleets. And, in that respect, the France was right up there with every single one of her predecessors, the Normandie included. From first to last, her standards of on board cosseting and catering were simply sublime, and easily the best to be found on any liner in those last, waning years of regular ocean crossings.

Like the Normandie, the France was a hideously expensive ship to operate. At full speed on the Atlantic, she guzzled the increasingly expensive Bunker C crude oil fuel like so much cheap table wine. By the time of the OPEC oil crisis of 1973 that ultimately doomed her, she was costing the French Line (and, by extension the French taxpayers who stumped up for her) around a million dollars a day just for fuel alone.

At the time, she was still sailing at around eighty per cent passenger occupancy, itself a remarkable achievement, and a telling testament to the sheer excellence and quality of the ship. Despite this, the revenue realised from each trip was still massively overshadowed by her stratospheric fuel bills. Faced with the double whammy of fast, cheap jet travel and soaring fuel prices, she never really ever stood a chance.

This was the backdrop to the twelve year career of the SS. France; it found an astonishing parallel in the pre-war career of the Normandie, when the increasingly bellicose, unhinged sabre rattling of both Hitler and Mussolini did so much to create an air of unease, one that hung over the age of 1930’s Atlantic travel like so much poisonous fog. For all of their glamour and finesse, both Normandie and France would sail on increasingly troubled waters. Fate itself always seemed to be against both of them.

But they did differ in one massive, hugely emotional respect. For, while Normandie would die violently (and needlessly) in the middle of New York harbour, the France would be resurrected after a long, lonely five year lay up in her home port of Le Havre. Brought back to life as the SS. Norway in an unparalleled $118 million dollar refit over the winter and spring of 1979-80, she became the world’s first true mega cruise ship. And against every set of odds in the book, she would become a legend for the second time in her career.

Ironically, one of the things that made the Norway-ex-France so successful was her dramatic interior transformation. All of the chrome, plastic, laminate and veneers that had once erupted across her public rooms was dumped unceremoniously into shore side skips. In their place came a glorious sweep of Art Deco luxe that, taken collectively, made her the most elegant, opulent ship anywhere afloat.

The result was what I often used to call ‘three martini syndrome’; passengers on board the reborn Norway, softened up with premium booze, suffused in Art Deco splendour, and usually serenaded by a fifteen piece orchestra playing Glenn Miller standouts, would often be heard to refer to Norway as ‘the Normandie’. It wasn’t hard to see why; people simply fell (or stumbled) through that Art Deco shaped looking glass, and thought themselves denizens of another ship, in another time. It was wistful, kind of endearing, and often downright funny. And, in that way, Norway- the revived former France- tipped her metaphorical hat to her doomed, divine predecessor one last, respectful time.

But, make no mistake; France was not the ‘second Normandie’. She didn’t need to be. The ship had breathtaking panache, and a dazzling, charismatic vibe that was truly all her own. As the Norway (and, indeed, as the France) she was a stunning, sensational statement of intent in her own right. Wrought large in steel, wood and matchless splendour, she was every bit as much of an awe inspiring seagoing cathedral as ever the Normandie was.

And, just like the Normandie, she, too has now become an adored, lost legend. A ship sometimes hyped to the heavens for sure, but one that still has, in her own way, no true equal, either real or imagined. While there is much symbiosis between those two sublime maritime creations, Normandie and France -and, indeed, the reborn Norway- each crafted their own, imperishable legends. And that, in the final analysis, is how they will be defined, both by time and tide.

Incidentally, that’s also exactly as it should be, too.

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TRAVEL AND ME, AND WHERE IT ALL STARTED….

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SS. France, New York maiden arrival, February 8th 1962

For the longest time, I didn’t realise exactly when this latent wanderlust that would dominate my life kicked in exactly. But recently I realised that I actually can put an exact date on it, after all. After all these years, it’s a bit like closing a circle.

Of course, I knew that it began with the SS.France, the ship I fell in love with as a nine year old kid. She was a ship that I never even dreamed that I’d set eyes on, let alone get to sail….

But life is a strange, quirky lady, and she often throws you a curve ball when you least expect it. For the SS.France, after a five year lay up in Le Havre, would return to service as the SS.Norway, the first true all singing, all dancing mega cruise ship.

At age 22, I made it my mission to sail on my dream ship. And yes, I did sail her. And she changed my life forever.

I found this couple of wonderful, almost sinfully evocative photos of the newly wrought SS.France arriving in New York on her maiden voyage on February 8th, 1962.

And that day, even though I was only two years old- and as clueless as any two year old should be- is the day that all of this began to take shape.

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I mean, look at her; she’s proud, beautiful, so perfectly poised. A last, defiant burst of swagger in the face of the all conquering jet age. Typically, the New York press tagged her as ‘an eighty million dollar gamble’ on that cold February afternoon in 1962. Her owners, more sanguine, called her ‘the last refuge of the good life’.

Me? I call her magnificent, awe inspiring and exhilarating. She took me on a dance, and I folded like so much wet cardboard. ‘Smitten’ does not begin to cover it….

Now, I’m lucky enough to have been on many other ships. Famous ships. Bigger ships. Arguably more luxurious ships.

But- and this is a remark considered through the prism of almost four decades of sea travel all over the world- I will never sail on anything as spellbinding, mesmerising and damned, downright, drop dead gorgeous ever again.

80 YEARS AGO TODAY- QUEEN MARY HANDED OVER TO CUNARD

 

QUEEN MARY 1936
The Queen Mary arriving in New York on her maiden voyage, June 1st, 1936

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.

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The Normandie, inbound past the Statue of Liberty at the end of her record breaking maiden crossing on June 3rd, 1935

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.

 

LAUNCH OF THE FRANCE- 56 YEARS AGO TODAY

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The France at speed on her trails. Only the SS United States proved to be faster

“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.

THE ILE DE FRANCE- A POST WAR PARADOX

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The Ile De France sailing from Manhattan for Europe

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 TitanicA 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.