France at Sea: SS Ile de France

After the Great War, England was awarded German ships as reparations, greatly depleting their fleet. This gave Compagnie Generale Transatlantiqe – CGT (French Line) a chance to make its mark on the Atlantic trade.

In 1912 the only four funneled liner CGT ever operated was the beautiful SS France. The French were not concerned with speed. Luxury was the focus. France had the reputation of being “Versailles at sea” because her interior was gorgeous. When the war was over, CGT decided to take a slightly different approach to ship design. There would be four ships ordered, each one to be unique. The first was SS Paris. The second SS Degrasse. The third was Ile de France.

Ile de France had an interior unlike any ship before her. Art deco was now at sea. Her take on the style was a huge success and would influence ship interior design for over ten years. This ship was high fashion and Ile de France became one of the most popular and profitable of her time.

Ile de France was introduced in 1927 to quite the warm welcome. She was unique and glamorous. Before this ship, liners had imitated palaces and castles on land. The new style of Ile de France actually set off a trend on land this time.

As the immigrant trade began to slow, this fashion icon began to attract names. She was the Hollywood of the ocean, attracting film stars, famous musicians and the super-wealthy.

When the stock market crashed in 1929 setting the Great Depression into motion, many companies began selling their ships for scrap. Ile de France avoided this fate due to her popularity among the elite of society.

In 1939, war erupted in Europe again. France surrendered to the Nazis. The Île de France was laid up at Pier 88 in New York harbour, adjacent to the French Line’s new flag ship; the 80,000-tonner Normandie. Ile de France was taken by the Royal Navy of England and was converted to carry troops until 1945.

Aquitania and Ile de France during WWII

In 1947,back in the hands of the French Line, conversion back into a luxury liner began. Ile de France would emerge with a new look. Her three funnels were reduced to two. The number of staterooms was reduced. She was more popular than ever.

On July 25, 1956, the Ile de France responded to a distress call from the Italian liner Andrea Doria. In fog, the Swedish American Line’s Stockholm accidentally rammed the side of the Italian ship. Despite a crushed bow, Stockholm was still afloat. Andrea Doria was listing toward her wound which made half of her lifeboats unusable. The arrival of Ile de France on the scene was a welcomed sight. Every survivor was rescued, making Ile de France a hero.

At the end of the 1950s, the jet plane was gaining popularity and the ocean liners began to disappear. Ile de France was starting to show her age. She was sold to a Japanese ship breaking company, but she was called on for one more hurrah. A film director wanted to use her in a movie. She became the SS Clarendon in the movie The Last Voyage. It called on the ship to be partially sunk. The Last Voyage truly was her last voyage.

Speed Queens: SS Rex


Not to be left out of the Atlantic speed competition, the newly formed Italia Flotta Riunite (Italian Line) began construction of a ship that would set out to break the record. Her name was REX.

     Rex did indeed win the Blue Riband in 1933. She held it until 1935. During her  maiden voyage, Rex got as far as Gibraltar when she developed mechanical difficulties. She was stopped for three days. As a result, she was required to try for the Blue Riband on the next westbound crossing.

    In tandem with the gorgeous Conte di Savoia, Rex took on the transatlantic route in an express service.

The interior of Rex was decorated in classic Italian style. Her grand staircase lived up to the name.

     The second world war began and Rex was laid up in Genoato keep the ship safe. She was then towed to Trieste. On September 8, 1944, she was attacked in Capodistria Bay, south of Trieste by 12 RAF Bristol Beaufighter aircraft. Rex was attacked. After the bombing, she caught fire and capsized.

German Speed Queens Europa and Bremen

During the years leading into the second world war, in 1929, Germany produced two sister ships that would change shipbuilding. Sleek and fast, Europa and Bremen were ships of state. They would be Germany wherever they went. Revolutionary in design, they both won the Blue Riband. They had a bulbous bows underwater, low squat funnels, and a plane catapult to send mail to shore. They looked fast. Breman was completed first as Europa suffered a fire during construction. Both ships were built with high strength steel to make them lighter weight, Bremen easily snatched the speed record from Britain’s Mauretania (held the record from 1907). Germany was back in the game quite seriously. The North German Lloyd sought prestige, and Bremen delivered.
The original design had flaws and the funnels were raised because soot was bothering passengers and making the decks dirty. The sleek look was aesthetically pleasing, but not practical. By 1939, there would be a storm brewing soon and both ships would be caught up in it.

In August 1939, an order for all German merchant ships to return to the Fatherland. Bremen was approaching New York when the message got to her. She went to Manhattan to drop off passengers then return home. On the return home Bremen received an order to head to Murmansk, Russia instead. She was painted gray. Then the Soviet Union would be at war with Finland and Bremen made a mad dash to Bremerhaven. On the way, the British submarine HMS Salmon. Luckily, an escorting Dornier Do 18 seaplane forced Salmon to dive for safety. After diving,  was allowed to pass because it was believed Bremen might not be a legal target.
While in Bremerhaven, a crew member set the ship on fire, and she completely burned out.

During her initial fitting out EUROPA caught fire and delayed her maiden voyage. During that maiden voyage, Europa took the Blue Riband from her sister.
Unlike Bremen, Europa did see action during the war. She was captured by the Allied powers and became USS Europa as a troop ship for the United States where she loaded 4,500 homeward-bound American troops.
After the war, Europa was awarded to France for the loss of Normandie which burned in New York.
Europa begins conversion to Liberté.During conversion, a big storm caused the mooring lines of Liberté to break and she rammed into the burned up hulk of SS Paris which didn’t get moved because of war. Liberté sank on an even keel in the shallow harbor. She was repaired and became a beloved French liner.

S.S. Normandie: French Ship of Lights

In 1929, The Great Crash of the stock markets occurred, triggering what would be known as the Great Depression. This financial crisis hit the passenger shipping companies hard.

With the stipulation that Compagnie Generale Transatlantique (French Line) be placed under government control, a subsidy was granted to build a new, massive ship. She was launched in 1932 and she became Normandie.

At over 1000 feet long and just under 80,000 gross register tons, Normandie is the largest ship in the world. Soon she would set a new speed record as well.

Following the success of her predecessor Ile de France and her revolutionary art deco interior design, the interior of this new ship would also be art deco, but amplified. A new method of constructing exhaust uptakes meant the rules changed. Normandie had her uptakes split to run up the sides of the ship instead of running straight up. This allowed for bigger and better spaces.

French architect Roger-Henri Expert was the mastermind behind the interior spaces aboard Normandie. Her first class dining room was the longest room on the sea, and was embellished with Lalique light fixtures. She sported a “winter garden,” complete with live birds and a first class smoking room adorned with gold and glass.

The exterior of Normandie was equally beautiful. Her three red and black funnels were teardrop shaped, all evidence of ventilators and equipment were carefully hidden, leaving the decks wide and open. To this very day it’s argued that Normandie is the most beautiful ship ever constructed.

Beauty and grace were two obvious qualities of this French super ship. France claimed she would not go after the Blue Riband, the award for the fastest west bound Atlantic crossing. After 50,000 people bid her farewell from LeHavre, she crossed the ocean with an average speed of nearly 30 knots. She indeed did win the Blue Riband. This record would not go unchallenged. Across the channel, another massive ship was under construction.

Normandie was successful, but a rival was unveiled in 1936. The British Queen Mary operated by Cunard caught the attention of the world by taking the title ‘largest in the world’ away from Normandie. She would also take the Blue Riband.

For the next three years, the two liners battled it out, passing the Riband back and forth, and through refits, also the title of largest ship afloat.

In 1939, France surrendered to Germany at the outbreak of what would be a second world conflict. Normandie was in New York and was seized by the United States government. Here she sat while her rival Queen Mary was called for troop ship duty. In 1940, another massive troop ship joined QueenMary.

In 1941, it was decided Normandie would be converted into a large, fast troop carrier as well. She was renamed USS Lafayette and work began. On January 15th 1942, she was taken over by the United States War Department, and was scheduled to take on her first load of troops by the end of February. But still not completely converted, work went on at a frantic pace.

On February 9, 1942, would mark the beginning of an agonizing end for the beautiful Normandie. While cutting out steel supports for a glass fountain, a spark from one of the acetylene torches landed on a pile of kapok life jackets. The fire spread rapidly.

The fire suppression system had been disconnected just days before and the fire department wasn’t reached for 12 minutes. Due to hundreds of people fleeing the fire, once the fire department arrived, they couldn’t get on board.

Port Authority with fireboats and the fire department tried desperately to get the inferno under control. This effort would ultimately doom the ship.

So much water was being dumped into the burning ship, she became top heavy. She began a slow roll to port and ultimately capsized.

Famous Four Stackers: SS France

Of the only 14 four-stackers ever built, France was the only one which was neither British nor German. Built by Chantiers et Ateliers de St. Nazaire, she was laid down as La Picardie, but was renamed during construction, after the first France was scrapped. Launched in 1910, she made her maiden voyage from Le Havre to New York on 20 April 1912, less than a week after the Titanic disaster. CGT emphasized that there were sufficient life-saving vessels aboard for all, but over half of the spaces were on life rafts, not boats.

After World War I began, France was first called into duty as an armed merchant cruiser. However, the French (like the British) soon realized that large ships were ill-suited to that duty, so France was used as a hospital ship and troopship for most of the War.

France returned to the Le Havre-New York service in 1919. In 1924, she was converted from coal to oil and her third class accommodations were reduced by about a third, due to U.S. immigration restrictions. She returned to service on the Le Havre-New York route in 1925, and remained on that service for the balance of her career, except for some wintertime cruising. She left Le Havre on what turned out to be her final voyage on 9 September 1932. CGT announced her retirement while she was at sea. Laid up on her return, she was scrapped at Dunkirk in 1935.

What is the Difference Between an Ocean Liner and a Cruise Ship?

If anyone really wants to get under my skin, confuse the terms ocean liner and cruise ship. They are not the same. Let me explain.

An ocean liner is purpose built to cross the ocean over and over again. They have a schedule to keep and a destination. The journey end after traveling from point A to point B. The people on board have a place they must reach because it is their transportation. These ships are built strong to withstand the worst the ocean can put in its way. They have beautiful profiles and balanced designs. They were ships of state, representing their nations at sea.

“The brute human force, strength by men to piece the ship together then a marvel in itself. We see no overhead cranes, equipment along the hull. The dangers too many to list. Today OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health], labor unions, insurance underwriters and the corporate front office would have fits. There were no ‘warm, fuzzy, romantic ideals of ocean liner life’ then.
A cruise ship is built for recreation. They come back to the same port it left after visiting a few ports. A cruise line wants people to forget they are at sea. They are floating casino resorts. They do not purposefully sail into a storm. They do not handle raging seas well. Their designs are clunky and boxy, without balance. Basically a floating building. I don’t even consider them ships, nor would I wish to step aboard one.


RMS Britannia

Samuel Cunard

The line formed by Samuel Cunard in 1837 is possibly the most famous line today. They operated some of the most magnificent ships ever to play the Atlantic.

Cunard’s very first ship, Britannia, made her maiden voyage in 1840. Starting on 4 July 1840, she made Halifax, Nova Scotia, from Liverpool, England, in 12 days and 10 hours, continuing on to Boston, Massachusetts

Britannia was a large ship for the period, 207 feet (63 m) long and 34 feet (10.3 m) across the beam, with three masts and a wooden hull. She was a side paddle steamer and also carried sails, as steam power in ships was still in its experimental stage. Cunard requested that his ship be commissioned to carry mail, thus becoming the first Royal Mail Steamer (RMS).

In January 1842 Charles Dickens and his wife travelled to the United States on Britannia. The weather was bad, he was seasick for most of the voyage and returned home on a sailing ship. He wrote that his stateroom was a coffin with a window and he truly believed the ship wouldn’t survive the crossing.

In 1849, Britannia was sold to Germany and renamed Barbarossa and was fitted with guns. She was later transferred to Prussia where she served as a barracks ship. Her end came when used for target practice in 1880.

With Britannia, Cunard proved that regular transatlantic service was possible using steam power.

Tragedy on Lake Superior

Even though she was not a liner, as the anniversary approaches, I am compelled to include an entry about the ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald.

The ship was 729 feet in length, 13,600 tonnes, and built by Great Lakes Engineering Works.

Launched in June of 1958, she was the largest ship of her kind built to that point.The Fitzgerald broke her own records for most cargo carried in one year several times in the short 17 year lifespan of the ship.

On afternoon of November 9, 1975, Edmund Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin with a typical load of 26,000 tons of iron taconite ore pellets and was bound for Zug Island, near Detroit, Michigan. Fitzgerald carried a crew of 29, including Captain McSorley. At about the same time, the freighter Arthur M. Anderson left Two Harbors, Minnesota, bound for Gary, Indiana. The two were in radio contact for the majority of their voyage, and the followed each other on radar.

Aware of a building November storm entering the Great Lakes from the great plains, Captain McSorley and Captain Cooper agreed to take the northerly course across Lake Superior, where they would be protected by highlands on the Canadian shore. This took them between Isle Royale and the Keweenaw Peninsula. They would later make a turn to the southeast to eventually reach the shelter of Whitefish Point.

The National Weather Service issued a storm warning for the lake, stating the storm would hit the area the morning of November 10. Storms on Lake Superior are common in the fall season, and they earned the nickname “the witch of November.”

About 1am on the tenth, the NWS issued a Gale warning for all of Lake Superior. Winds were forecasted at 35–50 knots (65–93 km/h; 40–58 mph). Hurricane force. The waves were over 25 feet in height. This storm had turned deadly.

Shortly after 3:30 p.m., Captain McSorley radioed Anderson to report that Fitzgerald was taking on water and had lost two vent covers and a fence railing. The vessel had also developed a list. This meant Fitzgerald was taking on water, and it’s possible the iron taconite cargo had shifted.

With pumps going and visibility near zero, Edmund Fitzgerald forged ahead. Arthur M. Anderson checked in one more time with Fitzgerald at 7:10pm. “We’re holding our own,” was the reply.

A few minutes later, Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared from radar. No distress call. No rockets fired. Radio silence was the reply.

Captain Cooper of Arthur M. Anderson contacted the Coast Guard on an emergency channel. The Coast Guard was having difficulty with their communications equipment due to the ferocity of the storm. By 9:00pm, Cooper declared Edmund Fitzgerald missing.

The Coast Guard finally got through and ordered Cooper to turn around and search for the missing ship. Cooper found no trace. No following search parties found any indication of what happened to the massive ore freighter.

29 men were declared lost. Four days later, the wreck was found. Edmund Fitzgerald had broken in half. There are many theories about what actually happened, but without survivors to provide witness, the actual events of that day are largely unknown.

Public Tragedy: SS Andrea Doria

The tale of the Italian liner SS Andrea Doria is unique. She sank on live global television.

Andrea Doria was a beautiful liner, and the flagship of Società di navigazione Italia or Italian Line. She was built in Genoa, Italy, by the Ansaldo Shipyards and launched in 1951. She endured an enormous storm on her maiden voyage and immediately became a very popular passenger liner.

Due to the second World War, Italy had lost about half of its fleet due to attacks or reparations to the Allies. In an effort to show that the nation was recovering and restore national pride, the government commissioned two new ocean liners. These would be the SS Andrea Doria and SS Cristoforo Columbo.


Known as an Italian art showcase at sea, Andrea Doria was exceptionally luxurious. Adorned with paintings, sculptures, bronze statues, painted vases and other various priceless artifacts.


First Class lounge

In addition to having absolutely lovely interior design, Doria was praised for having perfectly proportioned exterior lines as well. She was indeed beautiful both inside and out.


The story of the sinking of Andrea Doria is a tale of two ships. The other being the Swedish-American SS Stockholm.


Stockholm was smaller and slower than the Italian ship. Andrea Doria had left Italy for New York. Stockholm was leaving New York for Göteborg. Andrea Doria was close to completing her voyage and was approaching Nantucket. Between the two, there was dense fog.

Both ships were equipped with radar, Andrea Doria’s more advanced than the one installed aboard Stockholm. The two ships did see one another on radar. Both ships slightly altered course to avoid the other. Unfortunately, they both altered course to head in the same direction.


Stockholm collided with Andrea Doria amidships Stockholm’s bow cutting some 40 feet into Doria. The Italian liner was fatally wounded, while the Swedish liner, which had hit head on, was not in any serious danger. At the moment of collision, Andrea Doria took on a severe list to starboard. So severe, that the lifeboats on the port side of the ship were at such an angle to be unusable. Captain Piero Calamai of the Andrea Doria immediately knew his ship was doomed. He ordered a radio call for assistance (strangely enough, there was no radio communication between the two ships before collision). The usable lifeboats were uncovered and an evacuation was ordered. Knowing that half of the lifeboats could not be used, Captain Calamai prayed that the radio call would be heard. The lifeboats that could be used swung out from the side of the ship and couldn’t be boarded in regular fashion. As a result, the boats were required to be set into the water empty, and passengers were made to climb down rope ladders.


Indeed, the radio mayday call was heard. Not only did the Stockholm send some of its own boats to assist, but a much larger ship heeded the call and changed course. The French liner Ile de France turned around and rushed full speed to the site of the stricken Italian ship. Other ships also responded, including the Cape Ann, Pvt. William H. Thomas, Edward H. Allen, and the tanker Robert E. Hopkins.

By now, word had gotten to shore. The US Coast Guard prepared to offer assistance. Other ships also answered the call for help. The first to arrive was the French liner.


The passengers were relieved as the fog began to lift and they could see the glorious red and black funnels of their rescuers.

In all, the number of casualties was 56, most died at the site of collision. 51 from Andrea Doria, and five from Stockholm. ( ABC Radio Network news commentator Edward P. Morgan, based in New York City, broadcast a professional account of the collision, not telling listeners that his 14-year-old daughter had been aboard Andrea Doria and feared dead. He did not know that Linda Morgan, who was soon labeled the “miracle girl”, was alive and aboard Stockholm. She had been lifted from her bed aboard the Italian ship, onto the bow of Stockholm.)

Eleven hours after the collision, Andrea Doria rolled onto her side and plunged to the bottom. Andrea-Doria-sinking

The aftermath of this disaster saw changes to the operation of ships in fog. This next segment is taken directly from Wikipedia:

“Litigation and determination of fault: 1956–57

Several months of hearings were held in New York City in the aftermath of the collision. Prominent maritime attorneys represented both the ships’ owners. Dozens of attorneys represented victims and families of victims. Officers of both ship lines had testified, including the officers in charge of each ship at the time of the collision, with more scheduled to appear later until an out-of-court settlement was reached, and the hearings ended abruptly.

Both shipping lines contributed to a settlement fund for the victims. Each line absorbed its own damages. For the Swedish-American Line, damages were estimated at $2 million, half for repairs to Stockholm’s bow, and half for lost business during repairs. The Italian Line sustained the loss of Andrea Doria’s full value, estimated to be $30 million.

A U.S. Congressional hearing was also held, and provided some determinations, notably about the lack of ballasting specified by the builders during the fatal voyage and the resulting lack of seaworthiness of Andrea Doria after the collision.

While heavy fog was given as the primary cause of the accident, and it is not disputed that intermittent and heavy fog are both frequent and challenging conditions for mariners in that part of the ocean, these other factors have been cited:

  1. Andrea Doria’s officers had not followed proper radar procedures or used the plotting equipment available in the chart room adjacent to the bridge of their ship to plot and then calculate the course, position and speed of the other (approaching) ship. Thus, they failed to realize Stockholm’s speed and course.
  2. Andrea Doria had not followed the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, in which a ship should turn to right (to starboard) in case of a possible head-on crossing at sea. As Stockholm turned right, Andrea Doria turned left, closing the circle instead of opening it. Beyond a certain point, it became impossible to avoid a collision.
  3. Captain Calamai of Andrea Doria was deliberately speeding in heavy fog, an admittedly common practice on passenger liners. The navigation rules required speed to be reduced during periods of limited visibility to a stopping distance within half the distance of visibility. As a practical matter, this would have meant reducing the speed of the ship to virtually zero in the dense fog.
  4. Stockholm and Andrea Doria were experiencing different weather conditions immediately prior to the collision. The collision occurred in an area of the northern Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Massachusetts, where heavy and intermittent fog is common. Although Andrea Doria had been engulfed in the fog for several hours, Stockholm had only recently entered the bank and was still acclimating to atmospheric conditions. The officer in charge of Stockholm incorrectly assumed that his inability to see the other vessel was due to conditions other than fog, such as the other ship being a very small fishing vessel or a ‘blacked-out’ warship on maneuvers. He testified that he had no idea it was another passenger liner speeding through fog.
  5. Andrea Doria’s fuel tanks were half empty and not pumped with seawater ballast to stabilize the ship, in accordance with the Italian Line’s procedures. This contributed to the pronounced list following the collision, the inability of the crew to pump water into the port fuel tanks to right the ship, and the inability to use the port lifeboats for the evacuation.
  6. Also, a watertight door may have been “missing” between bulkheads near the engine room, which was thought to have contributed to Andrea Doria’s problems.
  7. Stockholm’s navigating officer misread his radar thinking he was on a 15-mile setting when in reality the radar was set for 5 miles. Thus, he thought he was farther from Andrea Doria than he actually was. He also failed to consult his captain as was required by regulation.”

The wreck of the Andrea Doria is disintegrating rapidly. She is tangled in fishing nets. She lays on her side at 40°29.408′N 69°51.046′W.


Cunard: Innovation on the Atlantic

Samuel Cunard was the child of immigrants born in 1787 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was a master carpenter and timber merchant and did well for himself. He served as a captain in the Halifax Regiment during the war of 1812.

Being an entrepreneur, Cunard saw interest in more than timber. He expanded to whaling, tea imports and coal mining, as well as the Halifax Banking Company and the Shubenacadie Canal.
From 1830 he saw a need to establish a mail service between England and North America, running steamers from Liverpool to Halifax, and then on to Boston. He approached the British government about this plan and it was approved. Samuel partnered with Robert Napier to form The British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. Cunard then built the Britannia, while his sailing packet Unicorn began mail charter service. The long tradition of mail service to and from the United Kingdom turned into some of the fastest and most beautiful ships in the world.