Skip to main content

“When Does This Place Get to New York?”

July 2024
16min read

The Queen Mary in Peace and War

The first commercial transatlantic flight still lay three years in the future when the Queen Mary began her maiden voyage in May, 1936, but Sir Percy Bates, chairman of the Cunard Line, made the sailing the occasion for an extraordinary forecast. “The crux of the matter,” he said, “will lie whether, twenty-five years from now, it would be the universal desire to travel like rockets at supersonic speeds in a closed metal container, probably without windows, or whether many would still prefer a more leisurely progression.”

Sir Percy’s vision was correct even to the Concorde’s postcard-sized windows. Fate timed the Queen Mary’s lifespan well. She arrived when the going was good and she quit when she was ahead. Of all the liners that sailed the North Atlantic in the twentieth century, the Mary was the greatest. The ship was not as big as the Queen Elizabeth or as fast as the United States , or as elegant as the Normandie . She lacked the magic of the Mauretania . But the Mary was timed for grandeur; she was not only one of the last expressions of the golden age of ocean travel, but also a gallant and hardworking American ally during World War II. It could be argued that she did more for America at war than any other foreigner since Lafayette.

The keel of the Mary was laid on the Clyde in Scotland in 1930, but the Depression stopped the work almost immediately. For two years her unfinished frame stood, skeletal, rusting, and abandoned at Clydebank. Funds ultimately were found for completing her, and on September 26, 1934, in a freezing rainstorm, she was christened by Queen Mary with a bottle of Australian wine.

Ships’ names traditionally are kept secret until the launching, and the myth of the Mary ’s name is more amusing than the reality. Cunard ships usually had ended in “ia,” and legend has it that Cunard intended to name the ship Queen Victoria . While grouse shooting with King George V, Lord Royden, a Cunard director, asked permission to name the ship “after the most illustrious and remarkable woman who has ever been Queen of England.” The King replied, “That is the greatest compliment ever made to me and my wife. I shall ask her permission when I get home.”

The facts are mundane. Cunard had merged with the White Star Line, which ended the names of its ships in “ic” (as in Titanic ), and the two lines had agreed to break with their traditional name-endings.

In 1936 the Mary was ready for her maiden voyage, during which it was hoped she would win the coveted Blue Riband for the fastest ocean crossing; it was then held by the French Normandie. She was a superb sight, just over 81,000 tons, black with white superstructure and three funnels in red and black. She was the first thousand-foot ship, beating the Aquitania by ninety-nine feet. The world had been combed for materials and ideas for decor. The marble and furniture were modeled on those at Versailles and Chantilly, the balustrading was copied from Fontainebleau, some of the doorways from Pisa Cathedral, the friezes from those on the Roman theater at Aries. The world’s rarest woods were gathered, fifty-six varieties in all, including the silken avodire from West Africa, yellow angelón from South America, padouk from Burma, Brazilian peroba, and Ceylonese satinwood. The swimming pool was two decks deep, with slide, slip-proof tiles, and luminous ceilings of synthetic mother-of-pearl. The ship even had a Scroll Room for Jewish worship, believed the first synagogue aboard a liner. The world press offered analogies of the grandest absurdity. Her power was equal to the strength of 7,000,000 galley-slaves pulling together. Her weight was 22,000 tons more than that of the entire Spanish Armada, and so on. In the United States she made the cover of Life magazine. The interior received a poorer press. Critics spoke of “engraved Dianas with streaming hair and big-eyed unicorns racing across mirrors” and “strip-lit Winter Gardens with rubber plants.” Others made comparisons with “Leicester Square cinema palaces” and Radio City Music Hall.


On May 26, 1936, five special trains carried 1,849 passengers from Waterloo Station to Southampton. Among those on board was Frances Day, who was to London musicals what, a decade or so later, Ethel Merman would be to Broadway. Miss Day brought her own hens because she doubted the ship’s eggs would remain fresh over four days (they did). Henry Hall, one of Britain’s most popular bandleaders led the orchestra, and twenty-two-year-old Larry Adler played the harmonica. At Cherbourg, the first stop . before the crossing to New York, a champagne firm sent aboard three bottles for every passenger, which took almost the entire voyage to deliver.

Commanded by Captain Sir Edgar Britten, commodore of the Cunard White Star Line, the Mary then set out across the Atlantic. When she passed over the spot where the Titanic had sunk in 1912, a wreath was dropped overboard. On June 1 she received a huge welcome from the fireboats in the Hudson. But, slowed by eleven hours of fog, she failed by forty-two minutes to take the Blue Riband. (This she did on the August crossing and received a telegram of congratulations from Edward VIII, who was cruising the Mediterranean in the yacht Nahlin with an American divorcee, Mrs. Wallis Simpson.)

For three years the Mary carried the beautiful, the rich, and the famous to and fro across the ocean, sent off with brass bands and proper streamers. Most were suitably impressed; Beatrice Lillie, boarding her for the first time, was staggered by the Mary’s size. “Say,” she asked, “when does this place get to New York?” Yet the voyage itself was quite a casual affair. The first-night dinner of the maiden voyage makes disappointing reading to expectant contemporary eyes. No caviar or pâté de foie gras or even oysters are mentioned. The menu lists honeydew melon, turbot, chicken, and desserts, with fancy French titles. Two out of three of the first-class passengers were American, on the average, because the United States had so many rich people. They lived aboard much as they lived on any holiday they might take at Palm Beach or Deauville. There was no evening dress de rigueur . Those who put on black tie and evening dress for dinner at home did so on the ship. Others did not.


The refinements that do sound exotic today were the product of a human history of cheap labor and of people used to servants who ironed the fold out of the morning newspapers before presenting it to Master. Every day of the voyage, apprentices turned all fifty thousand eggs to keep the yolks centered. Daily they turned every leaf of lettuce to prevent wilting.

The classes in the Mary were strictly segregated, the interconnecting doors locked, and only first class enjoyed true luxury. Tourist class westbound was occupied mostly by immigrants, eastbound by ex-immigrants visiting the old country. The cabins had no bathrooms, and baths were reserved in advance with the bathroom steward. Both tourist and cabin classes had upper and lower berths.

On September 1, 1939, the Mary made one of her most dramatic voyages, bringing to New York 2,332 Americans and Europeans from a war now inevitable and imminent. The war began, and the Mary, too valuable a property to risk, was ordered to remain at her pier. On the Clyde her newly completed sister ship, the Queen Elizabeth, was intensely vulnerable to German attack. By several subterfuges, she slipped away to sea and joined the Mary in New York in March, 1940. The British government did not know what to do with them. Luxury liners were not built for a world at war.

But the Queens soon began a new career as the world’s most magnificent tramp steamers, taking troops wherever they were ordered. Reinforcements were needed desperately to keep the Suez Canal in British hands. The Mary, painted gray, sailed to Sydney, Australia, and in fourteen days was converted into a troopship equipped to carry five thousand men. All her furnishings, woodwork, ornate doors, mirrors, beds, and art were removed and stored. The two-deck swimming pool was drained and given an intermediate deck, the upper for a dining room, the lower for sleeping quarters.

These were ugly days for the Mary. The blistering sun of the Red Sea resulted in heavy beer-drinking and fighting. Fire hoses frequently were needed to break up the brawling Aussies. There was trouble below decks. Rival Liverpool gangs were represented in the crew and claimed their own turfs in the ship. On one occasion, Royal Marines with fixed bayonets were summoned from the cruiser Cornwall to take off troublemakers.

By chance, both Queens were in America at the time of Pearl Harbor on December 7,1941, and another career began for them as the ferries of American troops to Europe. The four-day voyage made it possible to ship far more troops than could be carried on a twenty-day Pacific journey. Troop accommodation was doubled and then tripled, until fifteen thousand could be held. “Standees” were installed in every available space, in staterooms, restaurants, corridors, even on deck. These were canvas cots that could be stacked so that the GIs could lie in layers of up to six, with only a few inches for body maneuver and a couple of feet between rows. Two men were assigned to each sleeping space, one sleeping by day, the other by night.

The ships were fast—too fast for U-boats to keep up with them—and were under orders to stop for nothing, not even to help ships in distress or to pick up men in lifeboats. The hazards, therefore, were unpleasant rather than mortally dangerous. In rough seas, zigzagging to present a more difficult target could cause falls, snapped limbs, and put a heavy strain on the medics. Seasickness made sleeping quarters nauseating. Those sleeping on deck were also assailed by the stench of portable latrines. Only two meals a day could be provided for such huge numbers, and they were served in six sittings. The men brought their own cutlery, which they washed in receptacles at the door on leaving. The ships were under British command, but the soldiers were under American command, so the ships were dry.


The most vivid memory of almost every veteran who sailed in the Queens was the compulsive gambling that went on day and night. John Starr, then a 2d lieutenant in the 315th Combat Engineers recalled in an interview that “The poker games would start at eight in the morning and go on until midnight. Every table would be surrounded by a crowd of men, six, seven, eight deep waiting for a seat to fall free. A lot of the players gave up their meals in order to keep on playing. They sent runners for Hershey bars and Cokes.”

The American poet Andrew Glaze, then an Air Force lieutenant, stood on the f oredeck and looked down on “a quarter of a mile of human circles shooting craps. The same sight prevailed on deck after deck, every deck a haze of pale blue smoke. Everybody smoked cigarettes. It was eerie.” Solomon Glushak, a New York lawyer, recalled: “It is important to realize that the GIs had nothing to do. All around them they saw sailors working, officers organizing, naval gunners cleaning their guns. The troops gambled to convince themselves they were achieving something.” Sometimes they did. Glaze encountered a sergeant from New Jersey who disembarked in Scotland, with a quarter of a million dollars.

The other force which fueled the soldiers’ energy was rumor. U-boats had been sighted. The ship was being diverted to Italy. Winston Churchill was aboard on a sealed deck. “On the last voyage”—this was a perennial story—“the Mary raced through a pack of 25 U-boats.”

Most troops were convinced that the Mary was an American ship, and the presence of British crews could not convince them otherwise. “Only Americans could build a ship like this,” said the boys from Tennessee and Montana.

Generally the return voyage was less frenetic. The Mary carried diplomats, American wounded, and German prisoners. Churchill did in fact make three voyages aboard her to confer with Roosevelt, each time turning the main deck into a floating Downing Street, with staff, secretaries, code clerks, and a map room. There was no nonsense about main deck being dry. In his memoirs, he recalled one of the trips: “Five thousand German prisoners were already on board. It had been suggested that they should be transferred to another ship, but I could not see what harm they could do to us.” One wonders what those Germans must have thought when they learned that Winston Churchill himself was pacing the deck above them.

On October 2, 1942, the Mary was carrying her usual complement of fifteen thousand troops, and sailing forty miles north of the coast of Donegal. The weather was fine and she was steaming at 28.5 knots. The waters off Ireland were known to sailors as “U-boat Alley,” and the troopships picked up naval escorts for the last leg of the voyage.

Her escort was the H.M.S. Curaçao, a light cruiser, forty-two hundred tons, with a crew of 439. To the GIs of the Mary, the Curaçao, which looked tiny from the rails of the great ship, seemed to be behaving in an erratic manner, weaving dangerously close to the Mary ’s bow. At the same time the scene was weirdly casual. Sailors could be seen sitting on the hatches of the naval vessel writing letters. Paul Deutschman, then a corporal in the 319th Bomb Group, 440th Squadron, remembered: “She was cutting awfully close in front of us, much too close for comfort. Some GIs’ explanations were that the Curaçao ’s captain was an old friend of the Mary’s captain and was expressing his joy, or that the helmsman was drunk, or that this was the stolid Britishers’ everyday greeting at sea for the Yanks. Some soldiers on deck were actually making bets after a series of near-misses that we would hit the cruiser.”

Captain (later Sir) Cyril Illingworth of the Mary was sailing on a prearranged zigzag course. What happened next was seven minutes of horror. It is awful enough to contemplate an automobile crash at thirty miles an hour. Consider a sailor’s feelings as he sees a razor-sharp skyscraper of 81,000 tons bearing down at thirty miles an hour, with four of the world’s largest propellers churning her through the sea.

The Mary first caught the Curaçao a glancing blow eleven feet from the stern, spun her ninety degrees, then clove her midships, slicing her in two. GIs ran from side to side of the Mary to see first the stern half and then the forward half of the cruiser sink, the sailors struggling and drowning in the water. Of their reactions, Deutschman recalled only that the word he kept hearing was “serious”: “Hey, this looks serious!” It was. The Mary radioed for help, but only 101 officers and men out of the 439 were saved, including the Curaçao’s captain, a veteran of twenty-five years in the Royal Navy. The Mary did not stop to pick up survivors, but half an hour later she stopped for emergency repairs. Every GI had had hammered into his head two facts. One was that the Mary stopped for nothing . Another was that the waters around Ireland crawled with U-boats. The troops had a full hour to ponder these facts before the ship got under way again.

Two months later, on December 10, the Mary may have come within inches of the most apocalyptic disaster in maritime history. According to some, she was hit by a “rogue” wave. Waves are driven in trains of varying power and speed. Occasionally in stormy weather two waves will synchronize. Much more rarely, three and even four waves will gather together in simultaneous momentum to create a wall of water seven or eight stories high.

Seven hundred miles from the British coast, the Mary, carrying fifteen thousand troops, encountered appalling weather. One monstrous wave rose vertically to her starboard and fell on her, broadside. Aboard on that voyage was Frank H. Teagle, Jr., a technical sergeant in the 30th Engineers, today a retired printer in Woodstock, Vermont. “It was the Mary’s ninety-first voyage,” he remembers. “The wave hit at 9:00 P.M. I was in my cot in the tourist-class lounge and held on. There was no panic, simply because of the men’s innocence of conditions at sea. They thought storms were always like that. I had had sea experience, and was more frightened.” He had reason to be. As the London Daily Mail subsequently reported, “The Mary listed until her upper decks were awash and those who had sailed in her since she first took to sea were convinced that she would never right herself. Her safety depended on no more than five degrees. Had she gone those inches further to port, Mary would have been no more.”

The mass of GIs on deck were sent rolling into the scuppers. Fortunately, the railings were boarded up to minimize the escape of light, otherwise many would have been thrown overboard. Miraculously, the Mary did right herself; if she had gone down with all hands, it would have cost a loss of life ten times that of the Titanic.

Nervous consciousness of the Mary ’s vulnerability pervaded the British war effort, and it affected everyone from Downing Street to the crews themselves. The ship was well enough armed for defensive purposes. But she was so vast. Laurence Naismith, a well-known peacetime actor, then a captain of Royal Artillery in charge of arming merchant ships, studied the Mary in dock. “All I could think of,” he has said, “was that a few Swordfish bi-planes of the Fleet Air Arm were enough to cripple the Bismarck, and leave her helpless for the Royal Navy to sink her. The Prince of Wales and the Repulse were sunk by a handful of Jap fighters. All it needs is a few Luftwaffe dive-bombers with pilots ready to die for the Führer and it’s ’bye ’bye Mary.” (Mr. Naismith’s postwar roles, incidentally, include that of the captain of the Titanic in A Night to Remember and commander of naval operations at the admiralty in Sink the Bismarck.)

The weather was dreadful again when Sir John WheelerBennett, British historian and wartime diplomat, made the trip from the Clyde in January, 1945. In Special Relationships , he recalled the ship “as crammed with young Americans on crutches, in splints and bandages.…They were incredibly cheerful and wonderfully compassionate and helpful to one another as we pitched and tossed.…I have seen two men with three legs and two arms between them keeping one another upright.” Wheeler-Bennett also recalled that he and two Canadian colleagues had been ordered to catch the ship at Greenock in the afternoon, so they paused for a pub lunch on the water-front. The previous day, Wheeler-Bennett had cajoled from the Ritz in London one of the last bottles of Napoleon brandy. Feeling rather good about this coup, he sat facing the water. Suddenly, in a faint voice, he said, “Don’t look now, but I think that we’ve missed our ship.” The Mary , in all her majesty, was moving downriver.

One of the Canadians pulled out an unopened letter and read that sailing times had been changed. They managed to make contact with the Mary , and the ship hove to. To appreciate what happened next, one must understand that water level distorts size by thousands of degrees. On one of the two occasions when the author of this article was sunk during the war, he was picked up by a corvette, the smallest ship of the Royal Navy, about 450 tons. As the lifeboat pulled alongside in heavy seas, he and other survivors were convinced they were being rescued by a cruiser.

The three passengers made it by boat to the Mary , and Wheeler-Bennett saw an aperture about two-thirds of the way up the ship, and from it, a rope ladder descending. It must have seemed to him that he was climbing the wall of a thirty-story building. He said, “To climb a rope ladder up the side of the Queen Mary , in a rough sea, wearing a fur coat (astrakhan collar and all!), with a bottle of Napoleon brandy in a pocket, and a black chapeau Eden , and encumbered by an umbrella and a brief-case has remained with me as a vision of hell which I trust never to encounter again.”

By war’s end, the Mary had transported three-quarters of a million GIs, one in every twenty of the Americans who served in Europe. She never saw a U-boat, never fired any of her guns in anger. She then began yet another career, as the vessel of love, the ship of the war brides. Thousands of GIs had married British and European girls. The army cots were stacked away against the next war, and accommodation changed for female necessities, for babies’ cots, washing and ironing rooms, nurseries, high chairs, diaper services. The Mary began the first of her six war-bride voyages on February 3, 1946. One of the 9,118 brides was Mrs. Peggy Ferrini, from Guildford, Surrey, who works today for the British Information Service. She found the Mary an exhausted ship. “Everything was run down,” she said. “The food and service was poor. Every inch of all the miles of railing was carved with the names of GIs. The ship staff tried to make it a normal crossing, with a last-night-at-sea party. I shared a small cabin with three other girls. I was lucky.” One confidently presumes, however, that after all those years with all those soldiers, the ship’s officers thoroughly enjoyed the voyages.

On September 29,1946, with all brides reunited with their American husbands, the Mary came to Southampton to begin the penultimate stage of her life, and underwent the biggest refitting any ship has ever known. Ten thousand items of furnishing had been returned to England from Australia. Twelve thousand workmen swarmed over her (the pilfering is recalled with awe in Southampton to this day). Her wartime gray was painted over with the noble prewar colors. The Kilroy-encrusted railings were either removed or kept as company souvenirs, or planed and sanded over, then refinished, and the Queen Mary became again the luxury liner of the world. Nothing on the seas could match her. Her prewar competitors were gone. The French Normandie had turned on her side in New York. The German Bremen had been ignominiously sunk at her berth by the RAF. The Elizabeth was still being refitted. The Liberté, lovely as she was, was the old German Europa, turned over to the French as war booty. The Ile de France was aging.

On July 24,1947, the Mary sailed on her postwar maiden voyage, a kind of defiant symbol of the old order, in the face of Britain’s postwar austerity, cheered from her berth by Englishmen rationed to a couple of eggs and a shilling’s worth of meat a week.

She resumed carrying the international quality. The writer sailed in her seven or eight times with his boss, Lord Beaverbrook, the Canadian newspaper proprietor. A few vignettes of memory: the Windsors walking their dogs on an upper deck and quarreling; Beaverbrook in his deck chair, closing his eyes and adjusting his asthma mouth-mask when he spotted social acquaintances he did not feel like greeting; Ian Fleming poring over the galleys of his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, and muttering, “Crap! Crap!”

The candlelit Verandah Grill, the tables adorned with exquisite arrangements of fresh flowers, was perhaps the most glamorous restaurant in the world. Caviar consumed was replaced by another double dollop on request. The maître d’hôtel coquettishly hid the menu behind his back and challenged the passengers to test the chef’s genius for anything they wanted, from Beef Wellington to tripe and onions.

The red-and-white baggage stickers for first-class passengers were one of the great prestige symbols of international society, and even the blue-and-white tourist-class sticker could be worn with pride.

The Queen Elizabeth, too, was magnificent, but she lacked the Mary’s cachet. Although she had been sailing the world’s waters throughout the war, she did not make her official maiden voyage until the war ended, and had no prewar tradition to call on; until her dying day she was always somewhat new, the eternal bridesmaid, never the bride.

Three years after the war the North Atlantic run was just as crowded as it had been before the fighting began. Great new liners were being built in the United States, France, and Britain. Thirty thousand feet above, adventurous red-eyed travelers flew in propeller-driven airplanes, disembarking into Quonset huts at Heathrow, outside London, or into the flaking stucco pavilion at Le Bourget, Paris. They returned to the Art Deco Marine Terminal at New York’s La Guardia, which looked as though Amelia Earhart or Amy Johnson might arrive any moment in leather helmet and goggles. But the air-passenger load was tiny compared with that carried in ships. As late as 1952, the year of the maiden voyage of the majestic United States , nearly twice as many people crossed the Atlantic by sea as by air.

But just six years later it all began to change. In 1958, for the first time, more people flew than sailed across the Atlantic—1,200,000 to 937,000. From then on the graph never ceased to plummet for the shipping lines. The Queens kept sailing for another nine years. The Mary started her five-hundredth and last round-trip voyage on September 17,1967, arriving back at Southampton on September 27. On October 31, about ten thousand Southamptonians, many weeping, saw her leave her traditional No. 107 berth for the last time. A band of the Royal Marines played “Auld Lang Syne.” Helicopters forming the shape of an anchor gave her an aerial salute. Her buyer was the City of Long Beach, California, which paid $3.45 million. Too big for the Panama Canal, she arrived in California by way of Cape Horn on December 9, just in time. After more than thirty years of steaming, her funnels were reduced to rust, and chunks could be crumbled in the hand like corn flakes. They were replaced by aluminum replicas, and the Mary became a Hyatt hotel with shops, restaurants, pizza parlors.

Some years later, a cleaning woman pulled out a drawer from one of the staterooms. On the underside she found written the names of a score or so of GIs, perhaps the last artifacts of the American boys the Queen Mary transported to Europe during the war, and the sadly fewer she brought back.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.