Like some fantastic, improbable sea monster rising from the depths of a deathless legend, a familiar shape is fast assuming solid form in a Chinese shipyard. A name at once suffused with horror, fascination and sheer, fatal glamour.
Now firmly under way in a part of China’s Sichuan province, construction of the static, full scale replica of the ill fated juggernaut is expected to be completed by 2019. And, unlike the bombast fuelled hype that surrounded Australian business man Clive Palmer’s moribund attempt at recreating the ship, this Titanic is very much in the realms of the here, the now, and the oh-so-real.
While all Palmer managed to achieve was laying down dinner plates in restaurants at a series of very fancy press launches, the actual keel plates of the ‘Floating Ritz’ are rising again, day by day, in China. The latest illustrations show construction cracking on at a rate of knots perhaps unseen since the fateful night of April 14th, 1912, as the original ship surged towards her nemesis.
While the replica Titanic will be the centre attraction of a massive, man made theme park, the owners have been very astute in securing the services of a world renowned team of Titanic experts to give the project both credibility, depth and expertise; something that Clive Palmer singularly failed to do.
The current project cost has been estimated at around £105 million, and will include the recreation of three hundred first class cabins, to be sold as hotel rooms. The original lavish, opulent interiors will reappear, in the exact scale and stance as those of 1912. There is talk that at least one boiler room will be recreated down in the bowels of the hull, and also possibly the engine room.
There will inevitably be those who cry indignation at any attempt to recreate the central component of such a notorious event as the Titanic disaster. But this ship will not be making any attempt to sail. And yet, paradoxically, this land locked colossus will, indeed, take people on a voyage of discovery back into the past.
For, in terms of interest and fascination, the genie has long been out of the bottle in connection with the Titanic and her story.You only have to look at the phenomenal success of the Titanic quarter in her former builder’s yard at Belfast, to realise just what awe, fascination and sheer sense of wonder are carried by those seven, simple letters. Those who decry the Chinese project are entitled to their point of view, but they are very much swimming against the tide of human curiosity.
In truth, the fateful voyage of Titanic has never actually ended. She has always continued to sail in the minds of men, racing heedlessly across the calm, starlit Atlantic towards her chilling rendezvous near midnight. It was- and still is- a story so staggering and implausible that not even the combined talents of Gene Rodenberry, Steven King and Jules Verne could have conjured up anything so fantastic as the real life events of April 14th-15th, 1912.
It seems to me that this actual, physical reincarnation of the Titanic could act as a kind of emotional lightning rod for those who continue to be fascinated by the ship, one that complements the stellar achievements still being rolled out at Titanic Belfast. And yes, I would have preferred to see the replica displayed in state at the place of her birth, but that’s not how the dice has rolled.
So I expect this now rapidly looming replica to arouse awe, appalled horror, and outright admiration in different people, according to their temperaments. But the point is that the original Titanic herself aroused exactly the same sentiments in many, and some of those even long before her eventual, aborted maiden voyage.
I continue to watch this project with fascination, and I know that I am far from alone.
Over the years, the much maligned and romanticised Captain Smith of the Titanic has posthumously come across as something of a casual, urbane chancer; a man whose breezy manner of doing things was the ultimate catalyst for the worst maritime disaster of the time. But was he really so blase about commanding the largest moving object on the face of the planet?
Smith was the senior captain of the White Star Line. As commodore, his £1200 a year salary was more than double that of his nearest rival. And no wonder; the socially adept and much admired Smith was considered the most popular skipper on the Atlantic, both by passengers and crew alike. He seems to have been one of those genuinely unique men that could forge bonds with people from across the world.
He was also famously in thrall to modern, twentieth century technology. In the summer of 1907, when he brought the then brand new, 24,000 ton Adriatic into Southampton to begin her maiden voyage, he said this to the assembled press;
“I cannot conceive of any vital accident that would cause this ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that….”
But did subsequent events shake that complacent view? There is no record of how Smith reacted to the sinking of another White Star liner- the Republic- just two years after he made that fatuous pronouncement in Southampton. But it cannot have failed to have impacted on him.
It certainly impacted on the management at White Star, but not in a positive way; all of the passengers and crew of the slowly sinking Republic had been safely evacuated to other, nearby ships by the liner’s own lifeboats. And this fact prompted a seismic shift of perspective that would impact the Titanic and her captainjust as fatally as the iceberg itself.
Post Republic, the management chose to look on lifeboats in general as ferry boats that would simply convey passengers from a sinking ship to rescue vessels, summoned by the miraculous new wireless telegraphy. They completely disavowed the notion that those same lifeboats might have to serve as survival craft in themselves for everybody on board. This complacent, delusional self satisfaction was at least partly responsible for the fatal dearth of lifeboats on the Titanic on that fateful night in April, 1912.
As for Smith, his triumphant ascent to command of the stunning new Olympic in June of 1911 seemed inevitable. Now he stood on the bridge of a ship twice as large as the Adriatic; in fact, a ship that was bigger than anything else ever seen. And trouble was not long in following.
As the Olympic attempted to dock at her New York pier for the first time, the surge created by her propellers sucked in a harbour tug like a bobbing cork, before the whirling blades neatly severed it at the stern. All told, it took eighteen tugs a full hour to dock the new ‘marvel’ at the end of an otherwise triumphant maiden crossing. Did this incident send any alarm bells ringing in Smith’s ivory tower?
Just three months later, the Olympic began her stately progress down Southampton Water at the start of another crossing to New York. Proceeding on a parallel course on her starboard side was a Royal Navy cruiser, the HMS Hawke.
Somehow, the suction from the giant Olympic sucked in the relatively small cruiser, swinging her to starboard and instigating a collision that left the reeling cruiser’s bow resembling so much sodden cardboard.
As for the Olympic, the impact tore an eighty foot hole in her starboard side, right aft. By God’s good grace there were no casualties, but it did mean the abortion of the voyage, and a trip to Belfast for repairs that took a full six weeks.
At the time of the accident, Olympic was under the command of Captain Smith, though the local harbour pilot, George Bowyer, was in charge of handling the ship at the time. All the same this incident was by far the most serious that Smith had ever been involved in over his thirty seven year career. If that did not give him food for thought, it certainly should have done. Or did the fact that the Olympic survived with no loss of life merely deepen his faith in this new, more technologically advanced breed of super liner?
Whatever, the Olympic accident did nothing to dent White Star’s faith in it’s star commodore. April 1912 found him in command of the newer, slightly larger Titanic. Her sixteen day, round trip maiden voyage to New York and back was expected to be Smith’s last hurrah. Once done, he could look forward to a long, honourable retirement.
It all went pear shaped at the start. As the Titanic edged gingerly downstream from the White Star dock, the suction from her propellers pulled the smaller New York away from her pier. Mooring ropes on the old American liner snapped like cotton, and her stern swung out like a battering ram. Only the frantic action of stopping the engines on Titanic, and the perceptive intervention of a local tug, prevented a serious and embarrassing collision between the two ships.
Up on the bridge of the slowly proceeding Titanic, the same duo of Smith and Bowyer must have seen these events unfold with scarce concealed horror. It had almost been the Olympic and the Hawke all over again. And it did seem to have an impact on Smith.
That evening, after taking on more passengers at Cherbourg, Smith took the Titanic through a series of lazy ‘S’ turns. He continued this process all the way through the English Channel, and right up to the entrance to his last port of call at Queenstown, in Southern Ireland on the following lunch time.
What provoked this? It seems that this third mishap with an Olympic class liner in enclosed waters prompted some deep, residual concern in Smith. All three near disasters had occurred within the space of ten months, and all in plain sight of the self same captain.
In all, the speed and handling trials of the Olympic had lasted a scant two days. For the Titanic, they took up a mere eight hours. This, for the two biggest moving objects on the face of the planet; two ships that were expected to navigate both huge oceans and shallow, crowded waterways alike. Perhaps the truth of that had finally come home to Smith and, in making his series of lazy, meandering turns en route to Ireland, he was attempting to get a better sense of the intricacies of steering his awesome new command.
However, that concern seemed only to apply to enclosed waters. Once clear of Ireland and with only the open ocean in front of him, Smith reverted to a cavalier, increasingly upped rate of speed. Ultimately, he was doing exactly what he had done- and got away with- for thirty eight years. But this time, it would go horribly wrong.
The long odds finally caught up with this most highly regarded of captains just four nights later, when the Titanic ran pell mell into a vast, eighty mile region of floating ice. The rest is history. If only Smith’s belated concerns about sailing in harbour waters had extended to a more cautious approach to charging head long through ice filled waters, then things might have played out very differently on that starlit Sunday evening of April 14th, 1912.
Soon after noon on Wednesday, April 10th 1912, the ropes that had shackled the awesome bulk of RMS Titanic to her Southampton berth for a week were shrugged off like so many sodden strands, her trio of giant propellers kicked up the mud and sand of the River Itchen and, under the careful husbandry of six local tugs, the biggest moving object on the face of the planet began to inch gingerly forward to the cheers of a large crowd, gathered on the quayside.
Not everyone was glad to see her go. A contingent of six firemen had signed on to the ship, only to linger ashore over a last pint at The Grapes, a famous local dockside pub. By the time that they showed up to report for duty, the Titanic was already clear of the quay and, with the gangways down, the duty officer on board wasn’t taking their lateness as an excuse. That sudden excess thirst almost certainly saved their lives, but no one knew that then.
Those men watched in sullen silence as 46,000 plus tons of ocean liner, eleven decks high and almost nine hundred feet long, began her stately procession downstream. A wan springtime sun glinted against her quartet of towering, black and buff smokestacks as schools of whooping, shrieking sea birds wheeled and dived in her churning wake. The great siren on board boomed out an exultant, triple chimed salute to her home port, and Titanic began to pick up speed, her escorting tugs resembling so many panting puppies trying to rein back an agitated dinosaur.
Though the departure was intended to be low key, it would be full of high drama. Standing downstream, the wake from the Titanic snapped mooring ropes on the nearby steamer New York like so many cotton strands. The old American liner came loose, her stern looming out into the river until it came within mere feet of the startled, briefly stalled Titanic. As the crowds on shore gasped and strained their necks to see what looked like an imminent collision, one of the tugs got a rope on the New York. She was dragged back to her berth like some reluctant steer. With a sigh of relief almost audible from across the water, the Titanic resumed her stately progress downstream.
On board, the passengers had viewed the incident with a mixture of everything from amusement to outright horror. The ensuing delay while the New York was corralled and returned to the quay had cost the Titanic almost a full hour. Even as his ship skirted the Isle of Wight and dropped down past Ryde, Captain Smith was well aware that he would be late arriving in Cherbourg to pick up his passengers embarking on the continent. It couldn’t be helped; they would simply have to cool their heels until the Titanic made her delayed grand entrance into Cherbourg’s historic harbour.
Those were some very well heeled feet waiting for him, too. Among them was a substantial batch of platinum chip American corporate royalty; Astors, Guggenheims, Strausses, plus a whole supporting cast of railroad owners, property magnates, movie stars and professional sportsmen. There were art collectors, newspaper editors, and the simply rich. It was quite an illustrious roster in all; many of them had been regular passengers on the Olympic since her debut the previous summer. That giant ship- the first of the three great sister ships-had proved to be a marvellous advertisement for the newer, even more opulent Titanic. Bookings for both ships were very healthy right throughout that 1912 season.
This must have been a source of pride to both Captain Smith and White Star Chairman, Bruce Ismay, as the Titanic romped steadily across the sunlit English Channel. The sun shone; smoke from the first three smokestacks (the fourth one was a dummy fitted for aesthetic harmony) trailed back behind the ship towards home. On the aft mast, the White Star Line’s pennant fluttered gamely in the afternoon breeze.
Already, passengers were beginning to explore and exult in the ship that they were travelling on. In first class, afternoon tea was being served in the Verandah Cafe. Passengers in deck chairs took soup and sandwiches on the long promenade decks, bundled up in warm steamer blankets wrapped round them by solicitous stewards. People began making dinner reservations for the extra tariff, a la carte restaurant.
In the indoor squash court, the steady ‘thwack’ of ball against wall assumed a tempo that would be silenced only by the sudden inrush of surging, icy seawater some five nights later. The first passengers plunged boldly into the waters of the indoor pool nearby. Even braver souls surrendered themselves to the ministrations of trained masseuses in the garish menagerie of the Turkish Baths.
Others, more cerebral, lost themselves in a brand new book from the library, or wrote last, hasty letters home that could be sent ashore from Cherbourg and, later, Queenstown in Southern Ireland.
Late that afternoon, the coast of France emerged from the haze; a shimmering, low lying sliver that seemed to have a mirage like quality. But before almost anyone knew it, the Titanic arched a graceful turn, and came looming into the slowly darkening bay of Cherbourg. The anchor rattled down with a deafening crash right forward, and the huge liner swung skittishly at rest.
It was a brief break; that hours’ delay had helped nobody, and Captain Smith was anxious to begin his triumphant procession to the west, and the gala fire boat reception that awaited his glittering new command in New York. Two tenders- the Nomadic and the Traffic- came chugging out of the harbour towards the Titanic, like a pair of nervous courtiers paying homage to a new queen.
Aboard Nomadic were the first class passengers, and the mountain of luggage that always accompanied such people. As the Nomadic bumbled out into the bay, her irate passengers gasped in amazement at their first glimpse of the grand, stately Titanic, floodlit from bow to stern as the night took hold. They were ushered with apologies and assurances into the warm womb of the giant liner. A battalion of lift operators and bellboys stood ready at the adjacent trio of elevators to whisk these prized patrons off to their plush quarters, where the beds were freshly made and fresh flowers spilled out across almost every surface.
The second and third class passengers aboard the more plebian Traffic did not receive this kind of effusive, low key welcome. Instead, they and their much less substantial belongings were ushered through the steel shell doors of the hull, and into the belly of the brute. None the less, the same sense of barely disguised haste dominated the proceedings for all those embarking that evening.
As the two empty tenders backed away, the anchor was hauled up from the darkened briny. There was the clang and slamming of the shell doors along the liner’s hull. Once more, the great triple propellers- a full hundred tons of bronze in all- began to thresh up the waters around them.
The tender crews watched in awed silence as the floodlit Titanic swung through a graceful quarter circle, her quartet of great funnels standing like ramparts against the starlit sky. The deep, warm boom of the liner’s whistle echoed across the empty water like peals of slow, rolling thunder. And then, almost before they knew it, she had swept past them and disappeared beyond the horizon.
Disappeared, standing out for a noon arrival in Queenstown the following day, there to embark her last passengers. From there, it would be a stately romp across an agreeable, implausibly calm ocean for five days, before that first, glorious American landfall. Manhattan, and the promise of a freshly minted New York spring.
Several thousand miles to the west, a squat, glacial, salt water assassin waited patiently. Shrouded in darkness and black against the dark, still water, this potential killer- one of the truly deadly ‘great whites’ of the ocean- awaited it’s curtain call……
In the wake of yet another conga line of conspiracy theories, word reaches me that the ill fated White Star liner Titanic may actually have been sunk by a mutant, hairy bread roll that had been adrift in the Atlantic since 1588. This monster- nicknamed the ‘Beast of Bizerte’- can trace it’s origins back to the time of the Second Crusade.
It was a Gtangan priest who first discovered the recipe for a kind of mutant dough that possessed both incredible strength and buoyancy around the 9th Century BC. This recipe was then rediscovered among a sheath of Thomas Cromwell’s papers and presented by Sir Walter Raleigh to his Queen, Elizabeth I.
The canny Elizabeth created a massive batch of the dough, which was then shaped, hammered and beaten into several thousand lethal cannon balls. In July of 1588, the Spanish Armada of the Duke of Medina Sidona was decimated by a combination of terrible weather and an endless hail of hairy bread rolls.
The tale should have ended there, but in 1943, Nazi rocket scientists somehow discovered the same formula. The third and most terrible of all Hitler’s V-weapons- the V3- was to have been armed with a payload of mutant bread rolls that were intended to devastate New York. Only the Allied ground advance across Europe thwarted these evil designs.
Later, international airlines bought this same formula, and many still use it for their in flight bread rolls to this day, despite a clear ban on such horrors by the UN Security Council. And this is where the Titanic link comes in.
In April 1912, the Titanic left on its first cruise to New York, crammed full of terrified civilians fleeing a Walpurgis Night concert scheduled for Berlin. It is alleged that Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and The Krankies were on the bill that awful evening.
Five days into her maiden voyage, the liner hit a hulking, mutant bread roll just before midnight. The ship’s plating crumpled like rice paper on contact with the waterlogged brute. The rest, as they say, is history.
The airlines, unwilling to admit that one of these monstrous, morally indefensible creations might somehow have slipped out of one of their galleys to drop into the path of the most famous shipwreck in history, simply banded together and used their huge media influence to concoct a story concerning an iceberg. Obviously, these could hardly speak up to defend themselves. Hence the Titanic was on the bottom, and the airlines were off the hook. Very convenient, to be sure.
But there is another, even more sinister take doing the rounds.
What if one of those original feral beasts, hurled from the mouths of Drake’s cannon way back in 1588, had actually survived for centures to float, silent and menacing, on the surface of the Atlantic until that fateful night in 1912? If icebergs can be carried south on the Labrador current, then why not mutant, hairy bread rolls, too?
Did Titanic actually hit one of these? Or is the international airline industry actually guilty of a corrupt cover up on a scale unseen in modern history.
Yes, it all sounds more than a bit daft, fanciful and far fetched. But it’s not the most stupid conspiracy theory to surface this year by a long way….
By 1922, the White Star Line had intended to operate a crack, three ship express service on the Atlantic with three almost identical, giant sister ships- the Olympic, Titanic, and Britannic.
Fate took out the second of these ships in the most resounding maritime tragedy in the years leading up to the Great War. The bullets that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Empress Sophie in Sarajevo in June, 1914 found an echo in the mine explosion that sent the incomplete Britannic- serving as a makeshift hospital ship- to the bottom of the Aegean in 1916. By the time that peace returned to a shattered, exhausted Europe in 1918, only the Olympic remained of that once grand, unrealised dream.
Olympic at the time was described as ‘our one Ewe lamb’ by Harold Sanderson, managing director of White Star. But even as he spoke, Sanderson had already acquired a couple of surrendered German replacements for the two lost White Star juggernauts. The three ship service remained the ultimate dream for White Star and Cunard alike.
The reasons for a three ship service lay in simple scheduling and economics. White Star’s plans were for one ship to leave Southampton each Wednesday, bound for New York. A second ship would leave New York on Saturday, bound for Europe. The third ship would always be in mid Atlantic, heading in one direction or another.
In this way, the company could guarantee a weekly service, offering six day crossings on a year round basis. Cunard would also offer a similar service post war, but with different sailing dates.
The Olympic was soon joined on the service by the Majestic, the third of Albert Ballin’s intended trio of world beaters for the Hamburg America Line. She was the largest ship in the world and, crucially for White Star, her speed was roughly compatible to that of the Olympic. Her new owners called her ‘The Queen of the Western Ocean’ when she first set sail for them in May of 1922.
For their third vessel, White Star acquired a 35,000 ton liner, originally intended to be called Columbus. She remained incomplete in Germany during the war. Under White Star’s stewardship, the unfinished hulk was completed as Homeric She came round to Southampton in early 1922 to join the Olympic and Majestic on the platinum chip run to New York.
By far the smallest and slowest of the three, the Homeric would have seemed an odd choice at any normal time. But those post war years were not normal times. New tonnage was in pitifully short supply, and many shipyards needed to be reconfigured from war duties back to peacetime production. Like every other shipping line in those first, lean years, White Star had to make do with what it could get.
Her maiden voyage actually took place in February of 1922, from Southampton to New York. In terms of service, style and accommodation, the Homeric was every bit as plush, elegant and prestigious as her two larger siblings. Once settled down into regular passenger service, she proved popular enough for sure. With a passenger capacity of 2,145 across first (750), second (545) and third (850) plus a crew of 780, the Homeric provided twenties travellers with a safe, highly styled crossing of the Atlantic.
But she was a flawed, limping greyhound, capable of only an average speed of eighteen knots, against the routine twenty three knot crossings of her siblings. As a result of this imbalance, the White Star express schedule began slowly losing ground to Cunard. Fine ship that she was, the Homeric was simply not up to the rigours of the year round express service between Europe and New York. By 1927, she was already being sent on cheaper, off season cruises to the Mediterranean.
By 1929, the advent of the Great Depression had combined with the arrival of speedy, stylish new French and German liners to put the White Star Line on life support. By 1932, the ageing Homeric had been relegated to full time cruise duties, a role terminated by the shotgun wedding of Cunard and White Star in May of 1934.
With the Queen Mary already looming large in the rear view mirror, the new Cunard White Star Line began shedding surplus tonnage like some Stalinist purge. The end for the Homeric was officially announced in August of 1935. By 1938, she had been completely scrapped.
The Homeric never really had much of a chance. Slower than her fleet mates, she was soon outpaced in both the style and glamour stakes by newer, flashier foreign rivals. Even within the White Star ranks, she was something of a ‘poor sister’ when compared to the more prestigious Olympic and Majestic.
Still, there is something truly sad, almost indecent, about the way in which she seems to have almost vanished from the pages of history. Of itself, this small article is an attempt to redress part of that balance.
Bearing in mind that today marks the anniversary of the Titanic disaster, I’ve been giving some thought to putting together this post.
It mainly concerns Captain Smith, and his situation once the ship had already hit the iceberg.
This is not a condemnation, nor yet another of those attempts to rationalise the events and omissions that led up to the actual accident itself. It is simply an attempt to put the man in context at the most extreme and momentous point of his life.
By midnight on April 14th/15th, the situation of his command can be summed up as follows:
The Titanic was sinking, without any hope of salvation. At best estimates, she had less than three hours to live. The nearest responsive rescue ship- the Cunard liner Carpathia- was a minimum four hours’ steaming time distant.
In the meantime, he had 2,200 plus passengers and crew on board under his charge, and lifeboats with a maximum capacity of 1,180, assuming every boat was correctly loaded to capacity and lowered safely.
Even then, under those optimum conditions, that left over a thousand people with nowhere to go, other than into a freezing ocean where they would almost certainly expire within minutes.
And Smith- as the sole master, under God, for the duration of the voyage- would ultimately be held to blame for their loss, as he very well knew.
Under those circumstances- the sure and certain knowledge that responsibility for at least a thousand deaths would be laid at your door forever- that would be enough to break any man.
So, for those wondering at Smith’s almost complete lack of involvement in the botched evacuation of his ship, there largely lies the explanation. Captain Smith imploded mentally under the sheer strain, the awful enormity of it all simply overwhelmed his normal rational thought processes.
In terms of the actual evacuation, almost everything was left to a handful of increasingly desperate deck officers, literally working against both time and tide, who were constantly having to improvise in a situation that worsened every minute. And all without any overall sense of direction.
This is why Smith’s initial ‘women and children first’ order was interpreted differently on opposite sides of the ship. Separated by just ninety-four feet, Lightoller and Murdoch each formed his own interpretation of the order.
In that situation, Lightoller- loading the port side boats- allowed ‘women and children only’ into the boats. No men at all.
Slaving away on the starboard side, Murdoch allowed men in the boats if no more women and children were in evident sight.
Smith, of course, never clarified the order either one way or the other. He ruled in favour of neither of his officers. But was he ever asked for a clarification? We’ll never know, of course.
But that fateful lack of co-ordination was largely responsible for the needless loss of at least another four hundred plus lives over the night of April 14th-15th, 1912.
Other than joining the officers for the issuing of firearms at about 1.30 in the morning, exact information on Smith’s whereabouts during those final, desperate hours is scant indeed. As with the luckless Murdoch, there are numerous theories on his final fate, but no really substantive evidence.
I think it extremely unlikely that the emotionally shattered Smith would even have contemplated trying to survive the loss of his command. The sinking of the Titanic also marked the wrecking of his mainly superlative, glittering thirty eight year career. As his great command sagged helplessly into the freezing ocean underneath his feet, Edward John Smith would have known that, too.
No, the evacuation of the Titanic was not a ‘text book’ situation, but there is no such thing as a ‘text book disaster’, either. It is easy to be critical of the individuals involved, and the decisions that they made. Indeed, for the sake of posterity, some rational attempt at analysis is absolutely vital.
But, once the full, ghastly horror of the situation became clear to them, both the captain and his deck officers were placed in an appalling conundrum, one that got more acute with every passing minute. If the sheer scale and horror of what they faced almost overwhelmed then, it is hardly to be wondered at.
Placed in such a horrifying predicament, I sometimes wonder how any of us might have fared. And that is why, today of all days, I retain more than just a little sympathy for that handful of embattled men and their stunned, effectively neutered captain.
Another of those great, largely under rated transatlantic liners that crossed the ocean between the two word wars was the White Star Line’s Majestic. Originally launched as the Bismarck in June of 1914, she was intended to be the third- and the finest- of Hamburg America Line’s stunning triple response to the Olympic class super liners of the rival White Star Line.
Work on her was suspended during the war. Not until 1922 would she be finally completed, under the supervision of a working team from Harland and Wolff of Belfast. Bismarck, now renamed Majestic and handed over to White Star, was taken to sea for her trials by her original intended German captain, Hans Ruser.
When her new English captain boarded for the delivery trip to Southampton, he was not made especially welcome by the Germans. Bertram Hayes found his cabin full of yet to be installed bathroom sinks. All the same, British crewmen were already painting her three towering funnels in White Star colours, and her new name already adorned both bow and stern. In this condition, the newly wrought Majestic came round to Southampton.
She was ostensibly a direct replacement for the sunken Britannic, which had been lost in the Aegean after striking a mine laid by a German U-boat. At the time of her takeover by White Star, the 56,000 ton Majestic was the largest ship in the world. In May of 1922, the company put her into service on the Atlantic crossing between Southampton, Cherbourg, Queenstown and New York.
The Majestic was advertised as ‘The Queen of the Western Ocean’ by White Star. Despite her German origins, she became the flagship of the line. Like her near sisters (and new rivals), Berengaria and Leviathan, she was in essence a vast, grand Edwardian hotel (in first class at least). With her trio of gracefully raked funnels and her trim black and white exterior, the Majestic did indeed look every inch a queen.
In the 1920’s, the Majestic would routinely sail westbound from Southampton at noon on a Wednesday, arriving in New York some six days later. After four days tied up in Manhattan, the ship would depart eastbound for Europe on a Saturday on another six day voyage. After four days’ stay in Southampton, she would embark again on the next Wednesday for New York.
White Star ran a three ship service on this route after the war, putting the Majestic in tandem with the Olympic, the surviving sister ship of the lost Titanic, and the Homeric, another, smaller ex-German vessel. With this line up, White Star could offer a first class express service to New York on a weekly basis.
But the Homeric was nowhere near fast enough to maintain her place in tandem with her two speedier, far more reliable siblings. As a result, the White Star service-splendid as it was- never quite matched the rival Cunard troika. That line’s trio of Aquitania, Berengaria and Mauretania was able to offer a far more balanced, reliable service in those post war years. The Cunard Line trio offered Wednesday departures from Southampton to New York, but the timescale of the weekly service broadly equalled that on the White Star liners.
None the less, the Majestic was very popular indeed. In that incredible, post war era of steamships, flapper girls, gin joints, baseball and jazz, the White Star vessel was hugely prestigious. Her crossings were events; newspaper reporters mobbed her gangways on both continents, hoping to catch scoops from the politicians, movie stars, sportsmen and the simply idle rich before they were ushered into her plush interiors.
She was fast, too, probably second only to the still speedy Blue Riband holder, the legendary Mauretania. Still, no attempt was ever made on setting a new record by any liner in those first post war years. Even in the wake of the most disastrous global conflict in world history, the long shadow of the Titanic still hung over the Atlantic like so much baleful fog.
As the twenties approached their nadir, the first of a new breed of post war ocean liners emerged from her cocoon in a French shipyard. Her name was Ile De France, and she was about to become a legend; an Art Deco suffused sanctuary that instantly made almost every other liner look and feel like an antiquated relic.
With her stunning debut, all those ageing fleets of prewar Edwardian ocean liners suddenly began to look fusty, dingy and dated, like a line of overly powdered dowagers competing against some incredibly pretty girl in a shimmering ballgown. There was only ever going to be one winner.
Even the ‘Queen of the Western Ocean’ was beginning to look increasingly dated against a looming backdrop of gleaming new German vessels, hell bent on regaining prewar German ascendancy on the Atlantic. And, when the Wall Street crash of 1929 triggered the worst global downturn of that time, it took many of the high rollers of the Atlantic crossing down with it. Passenger numbers plummeted, and the rump that remained tended to cross on the newer ships.
By 1934, both Cunard and White Star were in such dire straits that the only route to salvation lay in a forced ‘shotgun wedding’ of the two age old rivals. This done, the government advanced funds to the newly monickered Cunard-White Star Line that would enable them to complete the moribund hull that would soon become the Queen Mary, plus the funds for an upcoming companion ship- the eventual Queen Elizabeth.
With the new ship finally on her way, there was an obvious need to shed ‘old blood’ at Cunard White Star. Largely, the former White Star Line was the loser in this maritime parade to the block, one that witnessed the end of Mauretania, Homeric, Olympic and, in the spring of 1936, the disposal of even the Majestic herself.
The arrival of the Queen Mary effectively marked the end of the commercial life of the Majestic. One year earlier, she had finally lost the honour of bring the world’s largest liner to the shimmering new Normandie. A new generation of giants had clearly surpassed the old order.
For all of her glamour and style, somehow the Majestic never quite got the laurels accorded by history to many of her fleet mates and rivals. Inexplicably, she was never quite as popular or avant garde as her sister ship and rival, Cunard’s Berengaria. Never a speed champion, her active life was bookmarked by the end of the Great War, and the coming of the Great Depression. She was always something of an ‘also ran’; even in the White Star fleet, the older Olympic was always the more popular ship.
As much as anything, the Majestic was a victim of changing times and tastes. Envisaged as a paragon of Teutonic splendour, she was quite literally launched into a totally alien world. A few years of genuine popularity and success soon foundered in the wake of a fleet of splashier new French, German and Italian rivals. And, at the end, she became acceptable collateral damage for a company which, by 1935, was fighting for its very financial survival.
But the Majestic would not yet face the axe. Sold to the Royal Navy in 1936 for use as a static training ship, she was renamed as HMS Caledonia. Just before she sailed for her new home at Rosyth, in Scotland, the tops of her three great funnels were cut down, so that she could sail under the Forth Bridge. Here, she endured three further years of static stagnation, terminated just after the outbreak of yet another world war by a fire that devoured her from stem to stern. It was a tragic loss, one that deprived the war effort of what could have been a potentially very valuable troop ship.
The charred, ruined hulk was scrapped to recycle all that valuable wartime steel. By the time that this second global war had run its course in 1945, the one time ‘Queen of the Western Ocean’ was long gone.
Elegant luxury travel on sea, land and by air, past, present and future