Saturday, 31 May 2008

Queen Mary 2, too big for Panama.

Conventional wisdom has it that any ocean liner's design must be constrained by limiting dimensions. The turning basin at Southampton, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in New York, and the Panama Canal. The Queen Mary 2 re-wrote the design rule book and is too large for Panama, forcing her to round Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of Chile. Fabulous!

Friday, 30 May 2008

Glory, Glory, Glory.

Cunard line was taken over by Carnival Corporation in 1998 who recognised the value of the brand and appreciated such a glorious nautical heritage. Immediately, plans were made for 'Project Queen Mary', a ship to harken back to the glory days of the great Ocean Liners, but what to name such a vessel? There was no equivocation. She was to be named after that great Royal lady of the seas, the Queen Mary.

Queen Mary 2 was to be stupendous. Carnival opened their vaults and a previously unheard of eight hundred million dollars was spent on her construction. This magnificent liner was built at St. Nazarre, in the same shipyards that build the might SS Normandy. This is a wonderful example of 'keeping it in the family', but necessary since, to all intents and purposes, British shipbuilding, once the first word throughout the world, had virtually vanished due to union fecklessness. Nevetheless, St. Nazarre it was and they did a magnificent job.

She was named by the Queen on January 8th, 2004 and it was during her maiden world cruise when QUEEN MARY 2 sailed as close as she dared to the original Queen Mary in Longbeach and gave her a 3 blast salute. Each ocean liner's horn, or whistle as they are more correctly called, is individually hand-built by expert craftsmen, and are as unique as fingerprints. Here is a wonderful video of the occasion when the two Queens Mary met for the first time. Listen carefully for the return salute by the Queen Mary from her permanent mooring at Longbeach. She sounds as glorious as ever here, as history is being made.

In keeping with Cunard tradition, the whistle currently mounted on the starboard funnel of Queen Mary 2, used to belong to the original. It was specially renewed by the original manufacturer, Kockums of Sweden. She can be heard from over ten miles away when at sea and sounds like Poseidon himself gargling lava. Glorious.

Farewell to a Cunard Queen.

The advent of the jet aircraft was the death knell of the great liners and Cunard, committed to the construction of Queen Mary's replacement, the QE2, needed to sell the old Queen to pay the bills. Very narrowly, Queen Mary 2 was sold to Longbeach California where she lies in state to this day as an hotel and tourist attraction, having very nearly been sold to Japanese scrap merchants.

Ship have a strange effect of those of us who love them. I'm sure that I'm not alone in being moved by a long blast from a ship's whistle. The only time our present Monarch, Queen Elizabeth 2nd has cried in public, was at the farewell of her beloved yacht Britannia. Ships are far, far more than the sum of their parts, they carry with them the spirits of all those who travelled in them and few ships have the service record of the mighty Queen Mary.

After 1001 crossings of the Atlantic, she sailed on her final journey, from Southampton to Longbeach. So much history, so much tradition, it is hard to imagine a ship more reflective of the true magnificence of the great ocean liners than is Queen Mary. The ocean she spanned with safety and distinction for so many years is still the most important bridge in humanity, that between the United States and Europe, connecting the new world with the old, and although the bulk of traffic these days flies over the ocean rather than upon it, an important, industry changing decision was made by Cunard on June 7th, 1998, which not only refreshed the memory of this mighty Cunard Queen, but announced the birth of a new and exciting Cunader bearing her famous Royal name, opening the seas to a new generation and enabling thousands, once more, to cross the Atlantic in comfort, in safety and in style.

Farewell to the Royal Mail Steamer, QUEEN MARY. Long upon the sea, longer upon the memory. Longest in the heart.

War Service of "The Silver Ghost".

In late August 1939, the Queen Mary was on a return run from New York to Southampton. However, the international situation led to her being escorted by the battlecruiser HMS Hood. She arrived safely, and set out again for New York on 1 September. By the time she arrived, the Second World War had started and she was ordered to remain in post until further notice alongside the Normandie. In 1940 the Queen Mary and the Normandie were joined in New York by Queen Mary's new running mate Queen Elizabeth fresh from her secret dash from the Clydebank. The three largest liners in the world sat idle for some time until the Allied commanders decided that all three ships could be used as troopships (unfortunately, the Normandie would be destroyed by fire during her troopship conversion).

The Queen Mary left New York for Sydney, where she, along with several other liners, was converted into a troopship to carry Australian and New Zealand soldiers to the United Kingdom. Eventually joined by the Queen Elizabeth, they were the largest and fastest troopships involved in the war, often carrying as many as 15,000 men in a single voyage, and often travelling out of convoy and without escort. During this period, because of their wartime grey camouflage livery and elusiveness, both Queens received the nickname "The Grey Ghost". Their high speed meant that it was virtually impossible for U-Boats to catch them. Once, Germany was nearly successful; whilst the Queen Mary was in South American waters, a radio signal was intercepted which indicated that spies had reported her last refuelling stop and a U-Boat was waiting on her line of voyage. After being alerted, the Queen Mary changed course and escaped.

On 2 October 1942, Queen Mary accidentally sank one of her escorts, slicing through the light cruiser HMS Curacoa off the Irish coast, with the loss of 338 lives. Due to the constant danger of being attacked by U-Boats, on board the Queen Mary Captain C. Gordon Illinsworth was under strict orders not to stop for any reason, the Royal Navy destroyers accompanying the Queen were ordered to reverse course and rescue any survivors.

In December 1942, the Queen Mary was carrying exactly 16,082 American troops from New York to Great Britain, a standing record for the most passengers ever transported on one vessel. While 700 miles from Scotland during a gale, she was suddenly hit broadside by a rogue wave that reached a height of 28 metres (92 ft). An account of this crossing can be found in Walter Ford Carter's book, No Greater Sacrifice, No Greater Love. Carter's father, Dr. Norval Carter, part of the 110th Station Hospital on board at the time, wrote that at one point the Queen Mary "damned near capsized... One moment the top deck was at its usual height and then, swoom! Down, over, and forward she would pitch." The incident inspired Paul Gallico to write his story, The Poseidon Adventure, which was later made into a film by the same name, using the Queen Mary as a stand-in for the SS Poseidon.

During the war, the Queen Mary carried British Prime Minister Winston Churchill across the Atlantic for meetings with fellow Allied forces officials, he would be listed on the passenger manifest as "Colonel Warden" and insisted that the lifeboat assigned to him had a .303 machine gun fitted to it so he could "resist capture at all costs".

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

The birth of a Cunard Queen.

In the 1930's, the race was on. The greatest transportation route on earth was between the United States and Europe, as indeed it is today. There was great competition between Germany and especially between France and Britain. The British entry into to fray was the magnificent Cunard-White Star liner, Queen Mary, although she was very nearly named Victoria.

Until her launch she was known simply as Cunard hull No. 534, since the name she was to be given was kept a closely guarded secret. Legend has it that Cunard intended to name the ship "Victoria", in keeping with company tradition of giving its ships names ending in "ia". However, when company representatives asked the King's permission to name the ocean liner after Britain's "greatest queen", he said his wife, Queen Mary, would be delighted. And so, the legend goes, the delegation had of course no other choice but to report that No. 534 would be called RMS Queen Mary. However, this story was denied by company officials, and is probably apocryphal, since traditionally the names of sovereigns have only been used for capital ships of the Royal Navy. It is more likely that the name Queen Mary was decided on as a compromise between Cunard and the White Star Line, with which Cunard had recently merged, who had a tradition of using names ending in "ic".

Construction began in December 1930 on the River Clyde by the John Brown & Company Shipbuilding and Engineering shipyard at Clydebank Scotland but was halted in December 1931 due to the Great Depression. Cunard applied to the British Government for a loan to complete 534. The loan was granted, with enough money to complete the Queen Mary as well as enough to build a running mate, hull No. 552 which became Queen Elizabeth. One condition of the loan was that Cunard merge with the financially ailing White Star Line, which was Cunard's chief British rival at the time. Both lines agreed and the merger was completed in April 1934. Work on the Queen Mary resumed immediately and she was launched on 26 September 1934. It had taken 3½ years and cost 3½ million British Pounds to complete her.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

SS NORMANDIE and the Atlantic Blue Riband Prize.

Between the wars, a magnificent contest developed between those most intractable of adversaries, Great Britain and France, for the coveted Blue Riband, the prize awarded to the fastest crossing of the North Atlantic by steamship. An invention of the 1860's, the Blue Riband was a pennant awarded to the fastest ship crossing the Atlantic and was flown from the highest mast to signify the honour. In 1935, the pennant was replaced by the Hale Trophy, but the title 'Blue Riband' remained. There were prizes for both directions of Atlantic crossing and the greatest contest was observed between the wars, as business between Europe and America became increasingly interdependent and time was, more and more, of the essence.

One of the two great combatants in this battle Royal was the SS Normandie, a gorgeous ship by any measure. Launched in 1932, she was a wonder to behold. There were many tremendous developments in the 1930's in the world of trans-Atlantic shipping, chief among them being the merger between the ailing White Star Line with Cunard Line, to become, briefly, Cunard-White Star and finally, Cunard as the line is known to this day. The chief designer of the Normandie, Vladimir Yourkevitch had initially approached the Cunard-White Star with proposed designs for their hull number 534, soon to be the renowned 'Queen Mary', much, much more about which later, but was rejected as the plans represented too radical a break from tradition for the British shipping company.

The French Line Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, or CGT, adopted Yourkevitch's designs and commissioned the new hull to be built at France's premier shipyard, the Penhoët shipbuilders at St. Nazair. The new ship would draw talent from the finest designers, architects, and artisans of France. Yourkevitch's designs would allow the ship to match the great speed of Britain's 'Queen Mary' with one-fifth less horsepower and substantial fuel savings, and allow the Normandie to be the first French Liner ever to be in competition for the cherished 'Blue Riband'. When she won it in 1935, the Normandie wore an enormous blue pennant, over thirty feet long from her foremast. Officers still insist she ran faster whilst wearing her pennant!

The NORMANDIE won the Blue Riband in 1935 and would lose it each subsequent year to Queen Mary until the outbreak of World War Two. The competition between these two leviathans of the deep was legendary and the awarding of the Blue Riband in the second half of the 1930's was only ever a mater of one or two knots.

In February 1942, though, after the Normandie had been seized by the US military and was being converted into a troop ship under the new name of USS LaFayette, a dreadful fire broke out from welding sparks and the huge liner capsized at her dock after uneven flooding caused by water used to fight the fire. Old sailors will tell you that you should never, EVER, change the keel name of a ship, or the one she is named with at construction. To do so is to temp the Fates, and so it was to be with the beautiful, glorious, wonderful, magnificent SS NORMANDIE.

HMS Dorsetshire and the ignominy of Benjamin Martin

HMS Dorsetshire was ordered to pick up Bismarck survivors, so the heavy cruiser slowly sailed into the mass of humanity in the water where the Bismarck went down. Ropes were thrown over the side for the survivors to climb up, with the assistance of the British seamen. The Dorsetshire had taken on board 86 German sailors, and the destroyer Maori had picked up another 25 sailors when suddenly there was a submarine alert. The Dorsetshire immediately got underway followed by the Maori, leaving hundreds of survivors behind, some still clinging to the ropes along her side before they dropped off. The reasonableness of leaving the area depends most likely on the eyes that sees it, but the abrupt departure of the British ships sounded the death knell for nearly all of the several hundred German survivors left behind in the water.

One particular story of bravery is well worthy of note. A Bismarck crew member, whose arms had been blown off, somehow managed to reach Dorsetshire and tried to grab a line in his teeth. On Dorsetshire, Midshipman Joe Brooks climbed over the side in an attempt to get a bowline around him. But the ship began to move forward and Brooks lost him, only barely managing to climb back on board himself. The Captain on Dorsetshire, Benjamin Martin, promptly put Brooks under arrest for leaving the ship without permission and had him confined to his cabin.

In an interesting postscript, Captain Martin was relieved of his command when HMS Dorsetshire arrived in Newcastle to disembark her Bismarck survivors. HMS Dorsetshire would go on to be sunk, a year and a month later, after being bombed by the Japanese in waters south west of Ceylon. More than 500 of HMS Dorsetshire's ship's company survived in the water, to be rescued by American ships the following day.

Battle of Bismarck Videos.

Here are the final 6 in a series of 12 superb videos, in sequence, which detail the battle between HMS Hood and the Bismarck. Apart from the appalling loss of life, this historic battle of 67 years ago this month marked a turning point in Naval warfare. From this point on, the sun was setting on the era of the mighty Battleship, and aircraft would hence forth be the determinant of success or failure, particularly carrier borne aircraft, a strategy which remains to this day. However, recent developments in a truly frightening new weapon may change that forever. More on that, another day. Today is a day for the memory of Bismarck, an astonishing ship with a courageous and determined crew.

It should be noted that nearly 1000 Bismarck survivors were abandoned in the water by the captain of HMS Doresetshire, BCS Martin, RN, after receiving a "U-boat warning". That no German submarine had ever fired upon an enemy combatant during the recovery of survivors is, perhaps, a measure of the influence of vengeance in the mind of Captain Martin following such horrendous losses in HMS Hood only three days earlier.

In Memory of the Battleship BISMARCK

The loss of HMS Hood was a body blow to the Royal Navy and the impact of her sinking could not be overstated. The Admiralty dispatched a flotilla of warships, comprising the battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney, battle cruisers HMS Repulse and HMS Renown, brand new aircraft carrier HMS Victorious, and the cruisers HMS Norfolk and, infamously, HMS Dorsetshire. They had but one purpose. Sink the Bismarck.

A torpedo attack by Swordfish aircraft managed to damage Bismark's steering gear, and the hunters closed in for the kill.

Around 08:00, Rodney and King George V closed to within 21 nautical miles (39 km) of Bismarck, with their enemy well illuminated by the morning sun in the background. At this point visibility was only 10 nautical miles (19 km) and the sea state at 4-5. High winds were blowing in 320 degrees from the North West at a force of 6-7. Rodney steered to the north so that her gunfire would work the length of Bismarck, while King George V took the side. They opened fire at 08:47. Bismarck returned fire, but her inability to steer, and her list to port, adversely affected her shooting accuarcy. Her low speed (seven knots) also made her an easy target, and she was soon hit several times, with heavy cruisers Norfolk and Dorsetshire adding their firepower. At 09:02 an 8-inch (200 mm) shell from Norfolk hit the main gun director, killing the gunnery officer, Adalbert Schneider, who had been awarded the Knights Cross in the early hours of the same morning for his part in sinking Hood. At 09:08 a heavy shell from Rodney hit both of Bismarck's forward turrets, Anton and Bruno, disabling the latter; this was followed by another salvo which destroyed the forward control post, killing most of the senior officers.

The aft turrets, Caesar and Dora, continued to fire locally. At 09:21 Dora was knocked out. The crew of Anton managed to fire one last salvo at 09:27. At 09:31 Caesar fired its last salvo and was then knocked out. This salvo straddled Rodney jamming the ship's torpedo tubes. Bismarck's salvoes throughout the battle were directed at Rodney, the older ship (perhaps in the hope of achieving a success similar to Hood). When Admiral Guernsey observed this, he remarked: "Thank heavens she's shooting at Rodney". The closest Bismarck came to threatening King George V was when Freiherr von Müllenheim-Rechberg, under local fire control, zeroed in on the enemy but had his director blown away by a direct hit before fire could be directed at the British battleship.
Within 44 minutes, Bismarck's heavy guns were all silent. Rodney now closed to point-blank range (approximately three km) to pound the superstructure, while King George V fired from further out.

Survivors from Bismarck are pulled aboard HMS Dorsetshire on 27 May 1941.

Bismarck continued to fly her ensign. With no sign of surrender, despite the unequal struggle, the British were loath to leave Bismarck. Their fuel and shell supplies were low, a demonstration of how difficult it was for a battleship to sink a similar unit, even in an unbalanced engagement. However, when it became obvious that their enemy could not reach port, Rodney, King George V and the destroyers were sent home. Norfolk had used its last torpedoes; therefore, Dorsetshire launched three 21-inch (533 mm) torpedoes, which may have hit Bismarck at comparatively short range. The battleship's upper works were almost completely destroyed but her engines were still functioning, although Johannes "Hans" Zimmermann (a boiler room stoker who survived) confirms salt water had entered the boiler feed lines causing the engineers to reduce speed to seven knots, fearing an explosion, and the hull appeared to be relatively sound; therefore, rather than risk her being captured, survivors have said the order to scuttle and then abandon ship was given. Many of the crew went into the water, but few sailors from the lower engine spaces got out alive. As Captain Lindemann was presumed killed with all officers after the bridge was hit by a 16-inch (410 mm) shell, it is unclear whether he could have given the order to scuttle. Some of the survivors, though, strongly believe they saw him going down alive with his ship.

Bismarck went under the waves at 10:39 that morning. Unaware of the fate of the ship, Group West, the German command base, continued to issue signals to Bismarck for some hours, until Reuters reported news from Britain that the ship had been sunk. In Britain, the House of Commons was informed of the sinking early that afternoon.
Dorsetshire and Maori stopped to rescue survivors, but a U-boat alarm caused them to leave the scene after rescuing only 110 Bismarck sailors, abandoning the surviving crew in the water. The next morning U-74, which had heard sinking noises from a distance, and the German weather ship Sachsenwald picked up 5 survivors. In all of the 2,200 crew, 1,995 German sailors had lost their lives.

After the sinking British Admiral John Tovey wrote in his memoirs, "The Bismarck had put up a most gallant fight against impossible odds worthy of the old days of the Imperial German Navy, and she went down with her colours flying". The Admiral had wanted to say this publicly but the Admiralty replied: "For political reasons it is essential that nothing of the nature of the sentiments expressed by you should be given publicity, however much we admire a gallant fight".

BISMARCK was sunk 67 years ago today, May 27th, with the loss of 1995 men.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

In Memory of HMS HOOD

Sixty Seven years ago today, HMS HOOD was sunk after a 'lucky' shot fired from the guns of the terrifying German Battleship, the Bismark, under the command of Admiral Gunther Lutjens.

She lies at the bottom of the Atlantic and was lost with over fourteen hundred men. There were three survivors.

The battle was joined after HMS Norfolk and Suffolk, radar equipped heavy cruisers, shadowed the Bismark and Prince Eugen from the coast of Norway, through the Denmark Straight. HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales were steaming at high speed along the south coast of Iceland.

HMS Hood was an old ship and only armoured over one third of her upper deck. Her side armour was 10 inches thick, and more than enough to withstand an older, flatter barage, but naval gunnery had advanced leaps and bounds since she was launched on the Clide in August 1918. For one thing, the shells fired by Bismark each wieghed around one ton and were fired balistically from farther away, thus falling onto the decks rather than striking the ship's side. To her fatal peril, over two thirds of the upper deck of HMS Hood was terribly exposed to the vastly more modern gunnery of the Bismark.

Of all the pictures available, this one is the most dramatic. From the archives of the British Admiralty, is shows a picture drawn by the captain of HMS Prince of Wales. I'll let it speak for itself.

HMS Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy, had sunk in 3 minutes. From Hood's first salvo upon engaging the Bismark to her disappearance beneath the waves, only eleven minutes had passed.

HMS HOOD was lost on this day, sixty seven years ago.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Nineteen Keys.

And the sea will grant each man new hope, his sleep brings dreams of home.

I'm about to embark upon a major sea journey to mark my forty-fourth birthday and official entry into middle age. Naturally, one's thoughts have turned to magnificent disasters of the past in seeking to make sense of one's own.

The Grand Daddy of them all, within a nautical context, is undoubtedly the loss of RMS Titanic, in the first hours of April 15th, 1912. Of all the stories to emerge from this iconic catastrophe, is a taped interview with Edith Russell, survivor of the disaster. I'll let her words speak for themselves, since no introduction of mine would do them justice except to note, with bemused irony, that we share the same birthday. Given planned events in my very near future, one sincerely hopes we don't share the same nautical fate.

Listen carefully to the reminiscences of this global treasure and witness to the endless folly of man, and you'll learn the reason for the title of this, my latest attempt at an enduring blog.

(Edith Russell, born Cincinnati, Ohio, on 12 June 1879. Died 4 April 1975 in London. She was 96.)