On July 15, 1952, an exceptionally hot summer Tuesday in New York, thousands lined the waterfront on both sides of the Hudson and stuck their heads out of every window facing the harbor to get a glimpse of a ship.
Welcoming a new record breaker—a winner of the Blue Riband of the Atlantic, the unofficial yet highly prized honor denoting the world’s fastest ship—was not uncommon in those days. The ritual had been repeated more than half a dozen times in the previous 25 years. People had turned out in droves for the Normandie and for the Queen Mary, for the Bremen and the Europa and the Rex, as well as for the Queen Elizabeth and other contenders that never took the prize. The NYPD estimated that 100,000 packed the waterfront for the Normandie’s record-breaking arrival in 1935—30,000 in Battery Park grandstands specially erected for the occasion. The event made the front page of all eight of New York’s daily newspapers, with the New York Journal putting out eight editions in a single day. WABC radio covered the arrival live for seven hours.
The race for the Riband—which, despite one farcical attempt at formalization, never existed as an actual award—wasn’t just a contest of speed. It was for more than 100 years a competition among nations and a stage on which mankind demonstrated technological wizardry and aesthetic mastery. The stakes could be enormous. The first clear-cut case of one ship’s snatching the Blue Riband from another—the Great Western from the Sirius, in 1838—essentially put the slower vessel out of business. Nations judged their maritime prowess in part by the quality of their transatlantic fleets, the most prestigious measure of which was the Riband.
The contest reached its apotheosis in the run-up to and aftermath of World War II. The ships built in that period surpassed all others in grace, luxury, speed, and size (and have since been bested only in the last category). They were the technical marvels of their time, “the greatest of the works of man,” in one writer’s phrase, and subjects of intense public fascination. Even people in landlocked little prairie towns—folks who would never see the ocean, much less an ocean liner—knew the ships’ names and could tell them apart in photos with ease. The big ships were international celebrities in a way that no man-made object is today. Owners, builders, passengers, and spectators alike assumed that their ascendancy would continue forever.
The spectators on that hot July day didn’t realize that this particular ritual would never be repeated again. The age of the transatlantic superliner would soon be over, a victim of the jet age. Today, the ships are almost forgotten, though two survive—including the SS United States, the last winner of the title. The men who built them, meanwhile, have been entirely forgotten, though the three greatest were heroes of industry, innovation, achievement, and perseverance.
The brain behind the United States belonged to William Francis Gibbs, a rail-thin, hollow-cheeked patrician who, even his friends conceded, looked like a cadaver. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Gibbs was seized by a passion for ships when his financier father took him, at age eight, to witness the launch of the SS St. Louis, a transatlantic liner built by a client of the family firm. “This was my first view of a great ship, and from that day forward I dedicated my life to ships,” Gibbs later recalled.
Gibbs had three obsessions, in fact: ships, fires, and superstitions. He would not sign letters containing 13 paragraphs, and he carried a small piece of wood in his wallet to knock on. He also designed some of the most innovative firefighting equipment ever built. His 1938 boat Fire Fighter, for 70 years the Fire Department of New York’s flagship, put out dozens of fires in and around the harbor, including the blaze at Ground Zero after 9/11.
But ships were his true love. Young William flunked out of Harvard not because he didn’t study but because he spent all his time teaching himself naval architecture, a subject for which the university had no formal program. To please his father, Gibbs reenrolled at Columbia, where he earned three degrees in two years. He took up the law, spent two years on his first case, won it—and quit the next day to pursue his maritime dreams.
In 1915, Gibbs finagled an audience with J. P. Morgan, then owner of the world’s largest commercial fleet. At a time when the biggest ship in the world was less than 800 feet long, Gibbs pitched Morgan a pair of megaliners exceeding 1,000 feet apiece. Morgan commissioned a design, but less than two years later, the United States entered World War I, and the government forbade construction before any work had started. Gibbs found plenty of work planning and supervising the revitalization of the U.S. Navy. But he never lost sight of the “big ship” of his dreams.
Vladimir Yourkevitch, a young naval architect, was working for the Imperial Russian Navy in 1912, when Czar Nicholas returned from a visit to his first cousin, King George V of the United Kingdom, determined to build a navy as impressive as Britain’s. Yourkevitch, one of the juniormost men on staff, was not initially considered for this prestigious work. But he had radical ideas. He conceived a hull shape that was “absolutely unusual and new”: paunchy in the middle but extremely pointed fore and aft. Yourkevitch was convinced that the new shape would greatly reduce drag, allowing the ship to reach higher speeds and conserve fuel.
His superiors weren’t interested, so he pestered them until they agreed to test a model based on his theories. In test after test, his design handily beat the traditional hulls drafted by the old-guard staff. Still disbelieving, the Russian admirals arranged for a repeat at Europe’s most sophisticated and celebrated test tank—a large tank of water that simulates ocean currents, waves, swell, and wind conditions for hull models submerged in it. Here, in Bremerhaven, Germany, Yourkevitch’s model won yet again, and all the German marine engineers pronounced it years beyond anything they had ever seen. Yourkevitch got the job.
Construction began on four battleships of his design, but the Russian Revolution began before any could be completed. Yourkevitch fought briefly on the White Russian side, but by 1920 he’d made his way to Turkey and then to Paris. No one in France would hire him to design ships, despite his entreaties. Dejected, he took the only job he could find: riveting cars on the Renault assembly line.
After the Great War ended, Gibbs rekindled his dream of building a “big ship,” but he could find no commissions. So much tonnage had been built before the war that the shipping trade faced a glut, which only intensified as the U.S. sharply limited immigration, cutting off what had been the shipping companies’ most reliable revenue stream—transporting European emigrants. Gibbs was, however, charged with refitting the German liner Vaterland—seized as a war prize and operated by the U.S. Navy as a troopship—for commercial service under the American flag with the new name Leviathan. He did a magnificent job under trying circumstances, but the ship mostly lost money. Because of Prohibition, her crossings had to be dry; the European competition, once past the international limit, could and did serve booze. The Leviathan also had no comparable sister ship, the lack of which, for an aspiring front-rank liner, was always a drag on passenger loyalty.
Sir Percy Bates understood such problems well. He had been born into a shipping family and groomed for the business. At 31, Bates joined the board of Cunard—since 1839, the North Atlantic’s premier shipping line—and rose to vice chairman by the time he was 43, in 1922. Business was booming, and Cunard’s Mauretania held the Blue Riband, but Bates could see trouble ahead. His prestigious fleet was aging. Eventually, either the machinery or passenger enthusiasm would give out.
Successful North Atlantic passenger lines ran a weekly schedule. That is, every week, on the same day of the week, a ship from a given company would leave New York bound for Europe, and another—similar if not identical in size, speed, and accommodation—would embark in the opposite direction. At the dawn of the steam age, it took six ships to maintain such a schedule. By the eve of World War I, advances in technology and ever-increasing hull sizes had reduced the number to three.
Bates was not the first to wonder whether it could be done with two. Back in 1907, in the course of flunking out of Harvard, Gibbs had conceived the same idea—before even the first three-ship weekly service had been built. But Bates was the man who would build the only two-ship service ever to sail. It is a measure of Gibbs’s genius that the dimensions and speed of Bates’s pair were almost identical to the numbers that Gibbs had calculated as a 20-year-old with no formal training.
In 1926, Bates took the first steps toward making this vision a reality, but the projected costs stirred the Cunard board’s opposition. Two events changed their minds. First, in 1929, the aged Mauretania lost the Blue Riband after 22 years to the German liner Bremen—a replay of the events of 1897, when Germany first took the prize that Britain had held almost since the advent of steam. Bates feigned indifference. He always maintained—despite a record that by then included 12 Blue Riband holders—that safety and reliability were the company’s only concerns. “Records mean risk, and I am not for taking risks,” Bates sniffed. “I am certainly not in any racing mood.” Yet he also quietly authorized the Mauretania’s captain to make one last try. The old ship beat her best speed by a full knot—an incredible feat, but not enough.
Second, France’s Compa- gnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT, or “the French Line”) announced that France, for the first time, would build a potential record breaker. That not only woke up Cunard; it got Vladimir Yourkevitch’s attention, too. He assumed, as he would recall later, that “shipbuilding engineering in Europe had made such incredible progress that my ideas would turn out to be too outdated.” But from what he could see from the newspaper photos, none of his 15-year-old concepts had been incorporated into the latest ships. He was, he said, “absolutely amazed and overjoyed to realize that Europe still hadn’t got any nearer to the problems” that he had solved in Russia. Yourkevitch determined then and there that he would design France’s new superliner. The only thing left to do was notify the owners.
Drafting the design for Cunard’s new liner turned out to be the easy part. The outlines were determined by the service requirements: it was clear that to run a weekly schedule with just two ships, those vessels would have to be far larger and faster than any that had come before. Later, when cajoled to boast about his creations, Bates would say merely that they “represented the smallest and slowest ships which could fulfill the conditions necessary for a regular weekly service.” From any other man, this would have been false modesty; the taciturn Bates meant every word.
In getting the initial vessel built, Bates faced obstacle after obstacle. First, he couldn’t find sufficient insurance. The private market, remembering Lloyd’s stupendous losses from the Titanic and Lusitania disasters, balked at the necessary sums. So Bates worked out a deal wherein the government—to help relieve unemployment in the Clydebank, in Scotland, where the ships would be built—would underwrite a third of the risk.
The next hurdle was that Britain had no drydock large enough to service such gargantuan liners. A game of chicken between Cunard and the Southern Railway Company, owner of the Southampton docks, chewed up a year. Bates expressed his position tersely in a telegram to Britain’s Board of Trade, a government body tasked with promoting commerce, industry, and employment: “No drydock, no ship.” Bates eventually won the day. Incidentally, the resulting King George V Dry Dock not only proved profitable; it was invaluable during World War II and is the only drydock still in use in Southampton today.
On the other side of the Atlantic, there was no pier in New York big enough, either. The city was willing to build one—at a rent 15 times what Cunard was then paying, at a time when traffic and profits were falling. Bates once again had to play hardball. “It seems to me,” he wrote to his U.S. manager, “as though we may have to consider providing a ‘Southampton’ to the ‘London’ which calls itself New York.” Cunard’s first American port had been Boston, he reminded city hall, and perhaps Beantown would not mind picking up the trade again.
City hall caved, but that only led to another complication. Piers big enough to support the new liners needed to be 1,100 feet long, which would interfere with the Hudson River’s deepwater channel. As a solution, the Army Corps of Engineers extended the piers the other direction—into Manhattan—blasting and shoveling out a chunk of the island 325 feet wide by 15 blocks long. Ever notice how 12th Avenue takes a little jog eastward at 42nd Street and then jogs back west at 57th? Now you know why.
On December 1, 1930, the first keel plate was laid, with a launch date set for June 1932 and a maiden voyage planned for the following spring.
Vladimir Yourkevitch spent the closing months of the 1920s making a pest of himself with conduct that would, in our day, result in a restraining order. He wrote, he wired, and he called—with exasperating persistence—officials at CGT and the Penhoët shipyard, where the new French liner would be built. All his entreaties were ignored. Finally, he contacted an old friend from the Russian navy who had been welcomed into France’s military establishment. The officer got Yourkevitch a meeting.
The shipyard chairman, René Fould, barely concealed his disdain for Yourkevitch’s poverty, his lowly job, and his broken French. Still, he took Yourkevitch’s drawings and gave them to one of his engineers, expecting to hear no more of the matter. Weeks later, to Fould’s astonishment, the engineer reported that the Yourkevitch design principles were better than any he had seen. Fould convened his entire staff to confirm the result. They did. He then persuaded CGT to let him disclose to a complete stranger the dimensions of the liner that it wanted—risking a disastrous leak that might give Cunard or some other rival line an advantage in planning a new ship.
For months, Yourkevitch stayed up late in his cramped Paris apartment drafting his dream ship. One of his friends later recalled that “he created his work in primitive, refugee-style surroundings, where the drawing board was the most sacred object. On the walls, on the floor and on the desks there were volumes of correspondence, tables, diagrams.” Once he was finished, there began a process that must have seemed like 1912 all over again. Since the French government would foot the bill for much of the new ship’s initial cost, Admiralty engineers were brought in to check Yourke- vitch’s design. Convinced that his numbers had to be wrong, they insisted on a series of tank tests—but Yourkevitch’s model, put up against 25 different French-designed hulls, won every time. Still unprepared to accept the results, the engineers traveled to Germany to run the tests in a more sophisticated tank. Yourkevitch won yet again. French officials made the unprecedented move of consulting the German designers of the Bremen. They agreed that Yourkevitch’s design was superior. Even so, it took CGT’s managers a month of anguished deliberations to decide to risk everything on this radical, untried design from an assembly-line worker at an auto plant.
But they did it. The French superliner’s keel was laid down in early 1931, on Yourkevitch’s design. “I had to sustain a long fight,” Yourkevitch later recalled. “The forms I suggested were so different from the ones that were generally accepted, that I had to argue in their favor to the end.” Many confident and persistent men are cranks and kooks, but Vladimir Yourkevitch, it turned out, was exactly the visionary he believed himself to be. Virtually every ship constructed since has followed the principles that he discovered in Saint Petersburg with pencil and paper in the first years of the twentieth century. Decades later, when William Francis Gibbs was designing his masterpiece, the United States, the U.S. military allowed him access to the legendary ENIAC, the first supercomputer. He ran a series of sophisticated calculations to determine the best hull shape for minimizing drag, reducing fuel consumption, and maximizing speed. All on its own, the computer arrived at . . . the Yourkevitch hull.
During 1931, the British and French hulls went up as if in a race to see which nation could get into the water first. But that year was disastrously slow for passenger traffic on the North Atlantic. Cunard was running out of cash to continue construction. The subsidized French Line faced no such difficulty. Bates, by then Cunard’s chairman, suspended the company’s dividend and slashed pay for every worker, including himself. It wasn’t enough. Work on the hull was halted on December 11, 1931, a mere five months before the scheduled launch. The stoppage threw more than 13,000 men out of work and devastated the economy of western Scotland. Half the total wages paid in the Clydebank had been generated directly or indirectly by that one project.
Britain responded with a mixture of disbelief, outrage, compassion, and misplaced heroism. The Daily Telegraph editorialized: “From the moment that particulars about her were made known, the British people took her to their hearts as the boat that was to recapture the lost Blue Riband of the Atlantic now worn, because worthily won, by the German Bremen. The decision to stop work will be felt as a direct blow to national pride.” Cunard received thousands of letters from ordinary people offering small amounts of money to get work restarted. But the money wasn’t enough.
“534”—the hull, not yet named, was known by her yard number—rusted for 28 months, becoming home to thousands of nesting birds in the process. The French launched Yourkevitch’s ship, christened Normandie, on October 29, 1932. Even worse, the Italian liner Rex—named by Mussolini himself to curry favor with Italy’s royalist faction—entered service that year and won the Riband in 1933. Britain was not just falling behind; she was losing to two of the North Atlantic’s also-rans.
Bates’s salvation came from an unlikely source. The White Star Line had been one of Cunard’s major rivals in the years before World War I. The loss of the ill-fated Titanic in 1912 and of her sister, the Britannic, in 1916 permanently crippled the company’s competitiveness. Sensing an opportunity, Bates had tried for years to acquire White Star, but its directors always insisted on a merger on equal terms. Chancellor of the Exchequer Neville Chamberlain, who believed that Britain’s two main steamship lines faced a competitive disadvantage against the nationalized lines of the other European powers, had long cajoled Bates to give way. Now he had leverage. He hinted that, should Bates agree to a merger, the government could find its way toward a loan not just to finish 534 but to get started on a sister ship. For intellectual ammunition, Chamberlain commissioned a government report that concluded that the day when the two ships could be seen “entering New York harbor flying the British flag can be regarded fairly as a spectacular expression of British technical performance.”
The Prince of Wales, fated to be remembered as the Nazi sympathizer who gave up the throne for a shrew, played a constructive role in this drama. Convinced by David Kirkwood, the Clydeside MP, that the “ship means work. It means life. It means the prestige of the British Empire and the Blue Riband of the Atlantic,” the prince made a well-publicized visit to Clydebank families that helped turn public opinion in favor of the loan. Despite Labour grumbling about treasury funds’ paying for a “millionaires’ ship,” the loan passed, the Cunard–White Star company was created, and on April 3, 1934, work resumed on the hull. Six months later, the ship was launched and dubbed Queen Mary; the queen herself did the honors.
The Normandie made her maiden voyage the following May. The ship was in every respect a marvel: the first thousand-footer in history and the first to exceed not merely 60,000 tons but 70,000. Beautiful on the outside—Yourke-vitch’s improbable hull gave her a yachtlike elegance rare for such a large ship—she was a marvel on the inside as well, a floating apotheosis of the art deco style. France’s most prominent artists and designers provided decor, from Lalique’s towering glass “fountains” in the first-class dining room to the Babar murals in the children’s playroom drawn by Brunhoff himself. The works, grand and of a scale that would have been impressive enough on shore, were simply unprecedented for a ship.
The passenger list for the Normandie’s debut was packed with glitterati: New York and Paris socialites; the political philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel; his mistress (and stepmother), the writer Colette; the Maharaja of Kapurthala; Madame Lebrun, wife of the president of France. Also on board (in first class, courtesy of CGT) were Monsieur and Madame Vladimir Yourkevitch.
The Normandie needed only one more thing to make her triumph complete, and she got it, winning the Blue Riband from the Italian Rex on that first crossing. Until her last day at sea, the ship’s officers disclaimed any attempt at the Riband. That this was disingenuous nonsense became clear when, the record secure, the crew unfurled a 30-meter (one for each knot of speed) blue ribbon and flew it from the mainmast.
In keeping with maritime custom, CGT offered the public the chance to tour the ship while in port. One of the tourists was William Francis Gibbs. The tour route was supposed to be confined to the ship’s public spaces, but Gibbs managed to sneak into the engine and boiler rooms and later found his way to the smoking room, where he dictated stream-of-consciousness observations to an overwhelmed assistant.
Bates, too, wanted a peek at the new French liner. He dispatched five Cunard engineers to Plymouth, where they boarded the Normandie for the five-hour journey to her home port of Le Havre and combed the ship for any intelligence worth relaying to Liverpool. The worst thing they could find to say was that the Normandie suffered vibration in her afterdecks.
The following spring—ten years after Bates first conceived the ship in his mind, and three years later than he had planned—the Queen Mary finally made her own first crossing. Bates wrote to David Kirkwood: “On the Queen Mary’s sailing day it seems appropriate that I should write a line to you to express my appreciation of your faith and help in this great work. This is only your due. I sail in her today a thankful and hopeful man.”
For the normally laconic Bates, this was effusive language. Indeed, he was in such a good mood that, when queried by the press about a run at the record, he spoke the only nondisparaging words about the Blue Riband that ever passed his lips: “With what is called the Blue Riband the Cunard Company today is indirectly concerned. If it can be obtained it will be a valuable advertising point, but its attainment is merely incidental to a far bigger fact.”
Like the previous year’s maiden outing for the Normandie, this one was a grand affair—pleasure craft, fireboats, packed waterfronts, and all. Most of the royal family—led by the new king, Edward VIII—toured the ship’s accommodations and dined on board the day before sailing, which happened to be the ship’s namesake’s birthday. More than 100 reporters made the voyage, and hundreds more saw the ship off from the Southampton docks or greeted her in New York. Thirty thousand people toured her on both sides of the Atlantic. As the ship approached New York Harbor, World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker flew out in a DC-2 to greet her, circled low, and dropped a bundle of carnations on her deck.
In two respects, the Queen Mary’s debut was more successful than her rival’s. She was measured as slightly larger, though also slightly shorter, than the Normandie. (This advantage would not last; the following year, CGT added an enormous afterdeck salon that pushed its ship’s size past Mary’s.) Also, the British ship carried well over 1,800 passengers, nearly double the Normandie’s maiden-voyage total. Throughout the three seasons during which the two ships competed head-to-head, the Queen Mary proved consistently more popular—and more profitable.
But she failed to take the Riband. Bates shrugged that off: “All we require for this schedule is 28.5 knots, and I think we have got a ship which will do that and perhaps more. Some day we may find out what the vessel can do.” That day came only a few months later, in August 1936, when the Queen Mary won the Riband. Bates, in character, explained that the voyage was just a fact-finding experiment. “We are at the moment engaged in consideration of the details of the Queen Mary’s sister-ship,” he said. “To help us to a proper consideration of the details of the machinery and the propellers the round voyage such as the Queen Mary has run this last fortnight was of the greatest help.”
The Normandie took back the Riband in March 1937. She then bested her own record that August, cracking 31 knots for the first time. But the Queen ultimately proved faster. A year later, she completed a crossing at an average speed of 31.7 knots, a record that would stand for 14 years.
One man who refused to be impressed by the Queen Mary’s success was Vladimir Yourkevitch, who, by this time, had parlayed his part in the Normandie saga into a thriving naval architecture practice. He never tired of pointing out that the Queen Mary needed 40,000 more horsepower than his Normandie to achieve that extra half-knot. Side by side on his office wall hung framed aerial photos of each ship at full speed. Thanks to her revolutionary hull, the Normandie cut through the water with barely a ripple, whereas the Queen Mary was surrounded by a foamy white wake.
In September 1938, Cunard launched Mary’s running mate, the Queen Elizabeth—the honors performed, once again, by the ship’s namesake, wife of the man who inherited the throne after his brother’s abdication. The king was supposed to attend as well, but the simmering crisis over the fate of Czechoslovakia kept him in London. Three days later, his prime minister—the same man who, as chancellor of the exchequer five years earlier, had cut the deal to ensure that the ship got built—returned from Munich declaring “peace in our time.”
Vladimir Yourkevitch hung around Paris in anticipation of being commissioned to design a ship to top the Normandie. The French Line made noises about such a project but shelved it because of low passenger traffic and lack of financing. Frustrated, Yourke-vitch emigrated to the United States—on the Normandie, of course—and opened a naval architecture practice at 17 State Street in lower Manhattan.
A few blocks away, at 21 West Street, William Francis Gibbs was drawing up plans for the first major passenger ship to be built in America in more than a decade. She would not be the “big ship” of his dreams, but she would be the largest passenger liner ever constructed in the United States up to that time. Yourkevitch bid for the contract as well, but Gibbs won it. The ship would be named America. Eleanor Roosevelt presided over the launch, on August 31, 1939.
The next day, Germany invaded Poland, and crossing the North Atlantic suddenly got dangerous. All summer, as tensions increased, the Normandie and the Queen Mary had carried record-setting passenger loads westbound but sailed virtually empty eastbound. The day before the America was launched in Newport News, Virginia, the Queen Mary left Southampton carrying 2,332 paying passengers—her largest commercial load ever. War was declared while the ship was en route; the crew blacked out the portholes to obscure the ship’s profile from prowling U-boats. By the time the Queen arrived in New York, the Normandie was sitting at the next pier south, her eastbound crossing first postponed, then canceled.
For six months, the two behemoths stood idle. Most of their crews were sent home aboard whatever merchant ships could take them. Small groups of seamen and engineers stayed behind to perform the ongoing task of staving off in-port deterioration. Weeks stretched into months, and the ships seemed to become permanent features of the West Side waterfront.
In London, politicians questioned why Britain should waste resources maintaining “useless” liners in wartime. One member of Parliament suggested that the Queen Mary be sold to the Americans. The bigger question was what to do with the Queen Elizabeth, still unfinished on the River Clyde. With no passenger traffic to speak of, many argued that Britain didn’t need even one mammoth liner, much less two. Proposals ranged from converting the Queen Elizabeth into an aircraft carrier to breaking her up for steel.
But Britain’s top civilian naval official was the same man who had held the job during the previous world war. He well remembered how invaluable the great liners had been in that conflict, during which they ferried troops, supplies, prisoners of war, and wounded men to and from distant theaters. Thus did Winston Churchill not only scotch any talk of selling the liners; he personally saved the Queen Elizabeth from destruction.
The Germans knew that there were only two tides in the entire year during which the River Clyde would be deep enough for the liner to escape to sea. Work proceeded at a fevered pace—on essential systems only—to meet the earlier date. On February 26, 1940, a drab-gray Queen Elizabeth crept down the river unannounced, at first watched by fewer than 100 people. But as word spread, thousands crammed the riverbank to see off the world’s largest ship—an honor that she would retain until the construction in 1961 of the USS Enterprise, America’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
British subterfuge convinced spies that the Elizabeth was headed for Southampton. Churchill, knowing the southern port to be easily within range of German bombers, had other ideas. A courier brought the ship’s captain Admiralty orders in a sealed envelope—not to be opened until the Elizabeth was at sea—that instructed him to make all haste for New York. Only then was the news announced to the ship’s 400 crewmen, most of whom hadn’t brought even a change of clothes. Churchill’s misdirection worked: German bombers were spotted circling the entrances to Southampton’s harbor several times in early March. Hitler had offered an enormous bounty—$250,000 and an Iron Cross—to any U-boat commander or bomber pilot who could sink one of the Queens.
When the ship was about a day from New York, she was spotted by a TWA airliner en route to Boston. The news soon spread and caused a sensation, leading the front pages of all the New York papers and making the newsreels. The Post admiringly referred to the ship as an “Empress Incognito.” The Times ran an editorial praising British maritime might and daring. Spectators, as ever, packed the riverfront to get a glimpse of her.
The Queen Elizabeth docked next to the sister she was meeting for the first time and three blocks up from the Normandie. (Longtime readers of City Journal may recall the magazine’s Autumn 2006 issue, whose cover reproduces a painting of the great event.) The world’s three largest ships—the first-ever thousand-foot ships and the first-ever 80,000-tonners—were together for the first time. It would also be the last time. Two weeks later, the Queen Mary left for Cape Town, Singapore, Sydney, and extended war service. The Queen Elizabeth followed in November, leaving the Normandie alone at her pier.
William Francis Gibbs had a busy war. No naval architect’s services were in higher demand; the Department of the Navy later estimated that his firm designed 75 percent of the American tonnage built during the war, including the concept and blueprints for the Liberty Ship. Gibbs became so integral to the war effort that in 1942, he made the cover of Time.
Bates was also integral, but in a different way. Cunard’s fleet proved invaluable to the Allies: instead of ferrying the well-heeled between Southampton and New York, it carried Tommies, Diggers, and GIs to and from far-flung theaters of war. For the first few years of the conflict, the Queens operated well clear of their U-boat-infested home waters. But as the focus of the war shifted back to Europe, the ships returned to the North Atlantic, carrying to Britain more than 1.5 million of the American and Canadian troops who would land in Normandy on D-day, liberate Western Europe, and defeat Nazi Germany. Winston Churchill later wrote that “the two Queens helped to lessen the war in Europe by at least a year.” It was an estimate that Percy Bates was never tired of repeating.
Yourkevitch, like Gibbs, spent the war years working on ship designs for the U.S. Navy, but he never achieved anything like Gibbs’s fame. CGT officials, not eager to publicize that France’s great triumph had been designed by a Russian, never exactly denied Yourkevitch’s role in the Normandie, but neither did they go out of their way to acknowledge it. The French government decorated every senior member of Penhoët and CGT for services to France—except Yourkevitch. A special edition of the British magazine The Shipbuilder, published to commemorate the Normandie’s maiden voyage, displays the photos of 23 men involved in her construction. Yourke-vitch is nowhere mentioned. In America, though, Yourke-vitch was respected enough to lecture at MIT, the University of Michigan, the Naval War College, and other top engineering and naval architecture schools.
For some two and a half years after the outbreak of war, Yourkevitch’s most glamorous creation was tied up at her Hudson River pier, about halfway between his Riverside Drive apartment and his office downtown. After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government, under the right of angary, seized every nominally belligerent ship in an American port; since unoccupied France now cooperated with the Axis powers, that included the Normandie. The seizure made front-page news across the country. The Navy renamed the ship Lafayette and set about converting her into a trooper.
The first order of business was to carry off any furnishings and objets d’art that could be moved. Some could not. The Grand Salon housed four towering Lalique glass lamps, supported by steel stanchions anchored to the decks. These had to be cut down with acetylene torches. The work began methodically on a cold Monday morning, February 9, 1942. A small crew of men—one wielding the torch, one holding a shield to deflect sparks, the others standing ready to carry away debris and douse any flames—cut through the stanchions’ base supports. As they cut through the last leg of the last stanchion, a small spark leaped onto some life jackets piled nearby. A fire started and spread fast.
A Keystone Kops routine followed. The men on fire patrol rushed forward to confront the flames but tripped over the buckets of emergency water, spilling their entire contents. No hose was at hand; then one was found in a neighboring compartment—but its American couplings did not fit the French standpipes (something that other workers had already discovered but done nothing to fix). By that time, the flames had engulfed the Grand Salon and were spreading into passageways and other rooms. The Normandie boasted what was, at the time, the most sophisticated fire-prevention system ever put to sea. But the Americans had not bothered to staff the fire-control room and had even shut off the pumps that fed the system, preferring instead to rely on a small number of roving watchmen, almost none of them trained firefighters.
There was no systematic attempt to fight the fire. The workmen did not know the ship well enough to find their way through its warren of passages, and their equipment was woefully inadequate. By the time the FDNY arrived, the fire had spread up three decks and almost the entire length of the ship. Before long, all attempts to fight the fire from the inside gave way to efforts to fight it from the outside—largely from city fireboats, including Gibbs’s 1938 masterpiece, the Fire Fighter. The boats pumped enormous jets of harbor water into the Normandie’s upper decks but could not keep pace with the spreading flames. By late afternoon, a column of smoke rose high above Pier 88. The water added so much weight to the burning ship that she began to list badly.
A huge crowd gathered on the West Side waterfront. Mayor LaGuardia himself, a notorious fire buff, showed up in his personal FDNY helmet and boots to survey the scene. Sitting in his office, Yourkevitch received a call from a Russian friend of his wife’s: “Vladimir Ivanovitch, your Normandie is burning!” He raced uptown to find his beloved ship engulfed in flame. The staff officers of Rear Admiral Adolphus Andrews, who was in charge of the ship, ordered the fireboats to keep pumping, believing that the Normandie was stable.
Yourkevitch—the only man on the scene who understood the hull’s buoyancy calculations and center of gravity—knew otherwise. The Normandie’s list was dangerous and getting worse. More water meant more weight: eventually, the ship would capsize. In vain, Yourkevitch tried to get someone to listen to him. The only way to save the ship, he said, was to open the seacocks, let water flood into her bilge tanks, and allow the bottom to settle into the mud scarcely eight feet below. He claimed to be (and he surely was) the only person on the scene who knew the location of all the valves and offered to go aboard and operate them himself. Eventually, his proposal reached Admiral Andrews, who thundered, “This is a Navy job!” Dejected, Yourke-vitch drifted home.
It’s debatable whether Yourkevitch could have survived the attempt to go belowdecks on the burning vessel. One thing, however, was certain: no other course of action had any hope of saving the ship, and the one that was followed sealed her fate. The water kept coming for several more hours until the mayor and the admiral both pronounced the fire contained. But the Normandie’s list continued to worsen, and workers could not pump water out fast enough. At midnight, she was listing so badly that the admiral ordered the ship evacuated. Pumping efforts stopped. The ship’s port side sagged further, increasing its angle almost imperceptibly, like the hands of a clock, until, at 2:45 AM on February 10, she keeled over into the Hudson.
When informed the next day, FDR pounded his desk and screamed at Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. Public outcry over the disaster was cacophonous. Sabotage rumors and accusations flew widely. Thousands of citizens wrote letters to newspapers and to their congressmen, demanding that heads roll or offering tips on “who done it.” In 1939, the CGT liner Paris had burned at her Le Havre pier in an act of sabotage whose culprit and motive have never been determined. That disaster was fresh in the public mind in February 1942. Yet four subsequent investigations found that carelessness, not arson, had killed the Normandie.
Yourkevitch, never one to give up hope, immediately set about drawing plans for righting and refitting the ship. Several other architects, including Gibbs, also submitted detailed proposals. In one of the largest and most complex salvage operations of all time, the Normandie was righted and refloated in August 1943—but only after her superstructure had been shorn off. Refit proved too expensive and impractical. The hulk was towed to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where it lay until it was finally scrapped in 1946.
After the war, New York hotel magnate Hyman Cantor proposed building two enormous vessels and hired Yourkevitch to design them. The Russian plunged in with gusto, but his hopes were again dashed when Cantor was unable to secure financing. Yourkevitch died in 1964, never having landed—despite many attempts—the commission that would enable him to top his Normandie. Against that one great disappointment, however, stands this indelible achievement: no single figure more changed the course of naval architecture in the last 100 years. Virtually every ship in the water today—from cruise ships to tankers to cargo haulers to aircraft carriers—owes its form to Vladimir Yourkevitch.
The Queens put in months of postwar service—returning American troops from Europe, taking prisoners of war home in the other direction, and delivering “war brides” to their new countries. Elizabeth was first to be released from government duty, in March 1946. Cunard rushed to get her ready for her first commercial crossing that October, which it billed as her “maiden voyage.” Even though she had been in service for six years and sailed some half a million miles, Elizabeth had never worn Cunard colors or carried a single paying passenger. Her commercial debut was to be a momentous event not just for Bates and for Cunard, but for all of Britain. The reborn passenger ships would be floating manifestations of the “Britain Can Make It” postwar PR campaign—symbols of the country’s emergence from war and return to its long-standing commercial greatness.
Sir Percy Bates was on the passenger list, of course. As he had sailed on Mary’s first trip in 1936 and had been scheduled to sail on Elizabeth’s aborted April 1940 maiden voyage, so he planned to go this time. The night before the voyage, Bates hosted the royal family for dinner in the first-class dining room. Then, as his luggage was being loaded, he disembarked to tie up a few loose ends at his office. There he collapsed from a heart attack.
He died two days later, Elizabeth well out in the middle of the Atlantic. Commodore James Bisset, the ship’s master, led a memorial service on board. “Sir Percy Bates was mainly responsible for the building of these two great vessels, the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth,” Bisset said. “He watched them grow from masses of steel girders and plates into the magnificent structures that they are today. They were the children of his brain. He lived for them, he worked for them, he wore himself out with anxieties for them, and he has died for them.”
Less than a year later, in July 1947, the Queen Mary returned to commercial service, joining her younger sister for the first time in the role that both were built to play. Mary’s first-class dining room boasts a two-deck-high mural of the North Atlantic—a gigantic tableau with tracks showing the routes of the two sister ships. In the glory days, mechanically driven crystal models of each vessel plied that virtual sea, allowing passengers a glimpse of their progress. On August 3, 1947, the two models—and the ships they represented—converged for the first time in peace. That mid-ocean meeting would be repeated almost every week for the next 20 years, 15 of which were the most profitable that Cunard ever enjoyed. The company paid back its loans to the British government, delivering a handsome profit to the treasury on its investment.
Forty years after he conceived the idea, William Francis Gibbs finally got the chance to build his dream ship. American defense officials were cognizant of the Queens’ role in winning World War II and painfully aware of their own country’s lack of any comparable merchant fleet. With a cold war budding, the need to move huge numbers of American troops could arise at any moment. The Navy persuaded Congress to bankroll 50 percent of the construction costs of a new liner, provided the ship be designed with quick conversion to military duties in mind. Formally, she would be called the United States. Her crew called her “the Big U.” But from the moment he got the contract until the day he died, Gibbs always referred to her simply as “the big ship”—as if there were, and ever had been, only one.
Into his design, he packed a lifetime of insights, original and borrowed, book-learned and hard-won. The essentials of the Yourkevitch hull remained, but refined—sleeker, lower to the water, with a shallower draft. “There wasn’t an ounce of superfluous flesh on her,” writes John Maxtone-Graham, author of the classic The Only Way to Cross, “only a lean frame that hinted strongly at the Blue Riband.” Rivets were flush-driven to reduce drag, a technique pioneered for aircraft by Howard Hughes. On the upper decks, welding substituted for rivets, a harbinger of the future: within a decade, rivets would disappear completely from shipbuilding. The hull had a glassy-smooth appearance unprecedented on the high seas.
The true greatness of the ship, however, lay belowdecks. The details of her power plant were kept secret for years, but we now know that, incredibly, she boasted two complete engine rooms (in case one was struck by a torpedo) and could generate steam heated to 980 degrees Fahrenheit at 1,000 psi—more than twice as high as the pressure of the Queens’ steam, on fewer than half as many boilers. The best estimate of her horsepower (the official number is still a secret) is 240,000—60,000 more than that of the Queens. We also know that on her trials, the United States achieved a scorching 38.32 knots and later even cracked 40—the maritime equivalent of rocketry. On her maiden voyage, she averaged 35.59 knots over three and a half days—blowing away what the Mary could achieve on her fastest short burst.
Gibbs traveled on his “big ship” only once, for the maiden voyage, but called the bridge officers and engineers every day she was at sea until his death. The United States proved popular, but she scarcely cut into the Queens’ bookings. The decor was derided as sterile, and the lack of a true running mate—the same problem that had afflicted the Normandie—hurt. She was nonetheless a prominent and powerful symbol of American prowess during the early Cold War and remains the fastest single-hulled ship ever built.
Gibbs died on September 6, 1967. On that day, his greatest creation was in New York, beginning an eastbound voyage. As she passed Gibbs’s longtime office at 21 West Street, her flags flying half mast, the captain saluted her creator, and her whistle blew three loud blasts.
As the great liners had lived and thrived by speed, so they would die. Oceangoing transatlantic travel reached its peak in 1958, when more than 1.5 million paying passengers crossed by sea. But that year also saw the debut of the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8, the first two commercially successful passenger jet aircraft. One year later, twice as many people crossed by air as by sea. The ratio would only grow.
The Queens were withdrawn from service in 1967 and 1968, the United States the following year. Elizabeth was eventually sold to a Hong Kong millionaire and fell victim to arson, though no suspects or motives were ever uncovered. She died as the Normandie had died, capsizing under the weight of water meant to quench the flames. The Queen Mary and the United States are, amazingly, still intact. The former is a floating museum and hotel in Long Beach, California. The latter is rusting in Philadelphia at a Delaware River pier, owned by a nonprofit conservancy that hopes to raise enough money to restore her to something like her former glory.
Twenty-five years was considered a long and full life for a liner. The Queen Mary sailed for 31 years, the Queen Elizabeth for 28, the United States for 17, and the Normandie for only four. When the end came, it brought no small degree of indignity to each of these great vessels. But perhaps the worst indignity is the extent to which their creators have been forgotten. These three great men did what they set out to do, against often infuriating obstacles and delays. In the process, they created jobs and wealth for thousands of people, linked the Old and New Worlds, helped win a war, captured the imagination of millions, and revolutionized shipping in ways that still affect everyday life. Long may the Blue Riband wave in their honor.