Slumbering Testament: RMS Queen Elizabeth (1938)

More people around the world are more familiar with the RMS Queen Mary than any other liner except for a certain obvious one that I won't mention here. Yes, that same towering Cunarder is gently bobbing on glistening Californian coastal waters today, but her sister is just across the ocean.

The bustling metropolis of Hong Kong is known for being a shipping and trading hub. Proof of the coastal city's ever-growing influx and outflow of goods and services is the line of container vessel terminals built on Tsing Yi Island. One of them, Container Terminal 9, hides a secret. Buried within a tomb of concrete are the remains of a legend; a lasting testament to the golden age of ocean travel.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (unaltered)

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (unaltered)

The RMS Queen Elizabeth. 

Launched in 1938 amidst the outbreak of the Second World War, the Queen Elizabeth was the subject of fanfare and a widespread instillment of pride in the British people's hearts. While not quite a dramatic platform of resurrection like her older sister - RMS Queen Mary - when she helped reinvigorate British pride and economical balance during the Great Depression, the new younger sister was respected in a similar fashion. The Queen Elizabeth was a magnificent symbol of British supremacy on the high seas, her raked sharp prow appearing keen to slice through the clouds of war like a hot knife through butter. Her sheer scale, girth, and strength were a sight to behold, as was the genius of her graceful beauty lovingly mingled with stark imposition. 

The Germans themselves even felt challenged by the massive 83,000 tonne, two-funnelled superliner - and they didn't wait for her to be in active service to strike. As the Second World War began, many were concerned that German spies had infiltrated the Clydebank area where the Queen Elizabeth had been residing at the John Brown shipyard in preparation for her maiden voyage. A skeleton crew of 400 were employed, and a clever ruse was initiated in 1940 to make it appear as if the liner were to head for Southampton - right down to the booking of hotels in the city in John Brown workers' names and the prepping of a Southampton dry dock. Captain Townley, newly appointed as the first master of the Queen Elizabeth, was presented sealed orders, and the crew were told by a Cunard representative to be prepared to be away for up to six months. She had her striking Cunard red, black and white exterior painted battleship grey. Then on 3 March 1940, during a narrow window when the tide was favourable, the vessel slipped from her moorings and edged out onto the River Clyde.

As she moved along the coast, Captain Townley opened his sealed orders as instructed.

New York. Not Southampton.

Six days later, the lookout off the coast of Fire Island caught a glimpse of a "great, grey ghost" appearing before him out of the fog and heading towards New York harbour. With launch gear still affixed beneath the hull and no fluttering coloured pennants hanging from the masts, the massive liner edged into the harbour, nestling comfortably beside her fleet mate, RMS Queen Mary, as well as their peacetime competition, the ultra-luxe SS Normandie. Never has there been a more dramatic or surprising maiden voyage of a vessel since. 

The Queen Elizabeth proved herself a thoroughbred and valuable asset through her contributions towards the war effort. Together with her sister, she ferried thousands upon thousands of troops during the conflict. After the war ended, she was finally introduced to passenger service after a delay that surely must have tested the patience of many an admirer. 

Photo Credit: SSMaritime.com

Photo Credit: SSMaritime.com

The Queen Elizabeth isn't particularly known today for her interiors (especially when placed alongside her sister in comparison). However, passengers were certainly sheltered from the Atlantic waves in glimmering luxury. From the familiar walnut panelling and warm lighting to the lush carpeting and Art Deco decor, the Queen Elizabeth was a comfortable and inviting retreat at sea. 35 public rooms in the form of a host of shops, services and amenities were available to passengers, including a cinema that would often screen films with their stars in the audience. Children had a wide array of activities and spaces to themselves, and deck space was thoroughly uncluttered compared to that of the Queen Mary, thanks to the incorporation of venting in the funnel casings rather than large ventilation shafts lining the upper superstructure. In fact, thanks to the incorporation of major adjustments made to the boiler system, the liner needed only two funnels - a design feature that allowed for far more space for passengers in the form of more public spaces and cabins.

Unfortunately, it wasn't at all to last. The soundscape and atmosphere of passenger conviviality, clinking silverware and tickled piano ivories was soon replaced by that of a roaring inferno. Like all ocean liners, the Queen Elizabeth couldn't hold her own against the age of jet travel. In the 1960s, the two Cunard sisters were withdrawn from service and sold, the company betting everything and focusing all of their attention on a single ship - the sleek new RMS Queen Elizabeth 2. She was smaller, nimbler and far easier to fill, and boasted infinitely more features that would appeal to the public in the jet age. Obsolete and costly to run, the Queen Elizabeth was initially sent to Fort Lauderdale to be preserved as a floating hotel - much like her sister on the Californian coast to this day. However, the company behind it all ran into major financial trouble, leaving the legendary Cunarder to linger in hurricane-prone waters.

She was eventually given another chance at life at auction in 1970, when Hong Kong tycoon Tung Chao Yung purchased the liner for purpose of keeping the World Campus Afloat program alive. She was brought to Hong Kong, renamed Seawise University, and converted into a floating sanctuary of educational brilliance. in 1972, very close to the completion of the refit, an alleged saboteur (possibly one of Tung Chao Yung's sons, disgruntled that their inheritance was affected by the acquisition), set several fires throughout the giant vessel. Before long, plumes of dark grey smoke billowed from her hull from end to end, which had been freshly painted as white as virgin snowfall.

Above: This two-part documentary on the RMS Queen Elizabeth is a must-see for a deep and authentic look into the life of this regal Cunarder. Filled to the brim with original footage and interviews with figures involved with her career, it is a beautiful archive of information that deserves to be seen. (Credit: John Shepherd, Youtube)

Similar to the needless and selfish fate of the SS Normandie thanks to Adolfus Andrews, the Seawise University was brought to a heavy list due to the amount of water being poured into her by fireboats. The monstrous vessel rolled over onto her side in the middle of Victoria Harbour, charred to the colour of mud with her hull eventually collapsing in on itself. She was a complete write-off. It is said that Tung Chao Yung was so devastated by the loss of the ship that he cried and grieved for weeks on end, and allegedly he never fully recovered from the incident before his death in 1982. Perhaps the liner meant more to him than anyone will ever know.

The wreck was captured forever in the spotlight when filming for the 007 film The Man With The Golden Gun took place around and onboard the once-proud ex-Cunarder. The gigantic rusting, charred hulk was given several long moments alone in the film - perhaps the producers way for them and the audience to say goodbye. In fact, by the time the film premiered in 1974, much of the wreck had been gutted and scrapped. Below the waterline, however, a sizeable chunk of the illustrious ship's keel and hull remains to this day, flattened and completely entombed forever within Container Terminal 9. 

Photo Credit: Ian Taylor

Photo Credit: Ian Taylor

Indeed, the RMS Queen Elizabeth will always be a slumbering testament to the golden age of ocean travel, and what very little remains of her will live on with the rest of us. May she serve as a constant reminder of how we must remember to enjoy the beautiful things in life while they last. May the memories and captured film of her magical oceangoing career serve as a comfortable reminder of what once was an immaculate and welcoming liner. 

The very least we can do in this age is preserve the stories and legacies of these gentle giants of the seas, archiving their rich histories and captured beauty for future generations. I can only hope that Amidships serves as just one such example of this method of preservation. To me, the RMS Queen Elizabeth is one of the most beautiful liners to have existed - especially in terms of her genius exterior design that took an over-cluttered Queen Mary and gave her a hell of a thorough sanding down. The result was a gorgeously streamlined, majestic vessel with an uninterrupted, seamless long bow and rounded superstructure, the latter which boasted those incredibly beautifully arranged rows of windows looking over the forepeak. She is truly the essence of a great liner in every sense, and while widely ignored or forgotten, "Lizzie" will always live on thanks to the many admirers she does have, documenting and preserving her through media for all of eternity.

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