The great age of the ocean liner began to arrive in the early 1900s. It reached its zenith in the 1930s with the launching of three of the most luxurious ships ever built. They were the French Line's Normandie
and the British Cunard Liners Queen Mary
and Queen Elizabeth
Superficially, the purpose of these great ships was to cater to the transatlantic luxury trade, and in doing so, burnish the image of the operating steamship line. Thus the race for the biggest, fastest, most luxurious ocean liners. In reality, the driving force behind the construction of these ships was to cash in on the tremendous early twentieth-century immigration to the United States. Thus when the Titanic
sank on 14 April 1912, most of her victims were poor Irish hoping for a better life in the United States. The Great Depression had done much to stem the flow of immigrants, so Normandie
, Queen Mary
and Queen Elizabeth
were in reality already obsolete when they were launched. Such is often the case in contests of national pride.
The rapid development after World War II of fast inter-continental air travel sealed the fate of the luxury liners as the principal means of transport first between Europe and North America, and later, as the possible length of flights increased, to points in Asia.
These depression-era giants, each almost 1,000 feet (300 metres) long, crossed the Atlantic Ocean in just over four days. Normandie
, in fact, was 1,029 feet long.
was built in Saint-Nazaire, France. When launched she was the
ship of superlatives: the
fastest, and the
greatest ocean liner of all time. She was the
first liner to ever surpass 60,000 tons (70,000 and 80,000 as well), the
first to surpass 1,000 feet in length, and the
first ship to make an Atlantic crossing with an average speed of over 30 knots.
The beginnings of Normandie
can be traced to the Roaring Twenties when shipping companies started to look for new ships to replace the aging veterans, such as the Cunard Line's Mauretania
which had first sailed in 1907. Mauretania's
sister ship, Lusitania
had been torpedoed by a German U-Boat in World War I, a notorious incident that helped bring the U.S. into the war.
Companies like Cunard and White Star Line (who had built the Titanic
), planned to build their own super-liners to rival the newer ships on the scene. These new ships included the record-breaking Bremen
, both German ships. The French Line was not to be left out of this new race and soon began to plan their own supership.
At first the plan was to construct a ship similar to French Line ships of the past, but instead the designers were approached by a man by the name of Vladimir Yourkevitch, who had been a ship architect in the Imperial Russian Navy before the Russian Revolution and had emigrated to France. His ideas included a slanting clipper-like bow and the bulbous forefoot beneath the waterline in combination with a slim hull, a design which worked wonderfully in the scale model. The French engineers were impressed.
Work began on Normandie
in January 1931 soon after the terrifying New York stock market crash of 1929. This was fortunate for the French because the White Star Line's ship - started before the crash - had to be cancelled while the Cunard ships temporarily were put on hold due to the financial problems that arose in the times following the crash. Soon the French builders had to ask the government for money to continue construction on the ship, which led people to ask why so much money was being spent on an ocean liner. Still, the building was followed heavily by newspapers and national interest was deep. Though she was designed to represent France in the nation-state contest of the great liners, and though she was built in a French shipyard, parts of her came from all over Europe. The ship's great rudder was built by Skoda Works in Czechoslovakia. The steering mechanism, including the teak wheel, came from Edinburgh. The most famous poster
was made by Adolphe Mouron Cassandre who, like Yourkevitch, was a Russian emigrant to France.
On le 29 octobre 1932
- three years to the day from the New York stock market crash - Normandie
was launched in front of 200,000 spectators. The 27,567 ton hull that slid into the Loire River was the largest hull ever launched and it caused a large wave that crashed into a few hundred people, but with no injury. Until early 1935 Normandie
was outfitted, meaning all her interior, funnels, engines, etc. were put in to make her into a working vessel. Finally, by April, 1935 Normandie
was ready for her trials, which were watched by reporters. It was a great success and finally everyone could see the design of Vladimir Yourkevitch in action. Hardly a wave was created by the streamlined design and everyone was very impressed with the performance of the ship.
The luxurious interiors of Normandie
were marvels of Art Deco and the Streamline Moderne style. Many of her sculptures and wall paintings made indirect or direct allusions to the province of Normandie for which she was named.
Drawings and photographs from the era show a series of vast public rooms of great elegance. The children's dining room was decorated by Jean de Brunhoff, who covered the walls with Babar the Elephant and his entourage. Indeed, the interior was quite dazzling but perhaps the most dazzling was the first class dining room. Three hundred and five feet long, 46 feet wide and 28 feet high, this was by far the largest room afloat. It could seat 700 diners at a time with 150 tables, serving them with some of the best meals in the world. This ship was a floating promotion of the most sophisticated French cuisine of the period. Due to the design of the ship, no natural lighting could get in the dining room. The solution of the designers was to illuminate the room with twelve tall pillars of Lalique glass and along the walls stood 38 equally bright lighted columns. In addition, two chandeliers hung at each end of the room. From this gorgeous display of lights came the nickname "Ship of Light".
A popular feature was a cafe which led to the grand salon, one of the most popular rooms onboard which would be transformed in a nightclub during voyages. In addition, Normandie
boasted both an indoor and outdoor pool (the second ship to have one, after the Italian liner Rex
), a chapel and a theater which could function as both a stage and cinema.
The interiors were filled with long perspectives and spectacular entryways such as long, wide staircases in order to give a suitable frame to the many upper middle class ladies who saw an Atlantic crossing as a way to show off their clothes and jewels, and sometimes their husbands.
In addition to a novel hull shape which made it possible for her to attain her great speed at lesser power expenditure than that of the other big liners, Normandie
was filled with technical feats. She had turbo-electric engines which eliminated the massive gearing of other liners and made control and maintenance much easier. The machinery of the top deck and forecastle, normally an eyesore or an annoyance for passengers on the other liners, had been integrated within the ship, concealing it completely and releasing nearly all of the exposed deck space for the passengers' use. An early form of radar was installed to detect icebergs and other ships. She was the first liner to have a gyroscopic compass system.
maiden voyage came on le 29 mai 1935
after more fitting out and final touches. Fifty thousand people came to Le Havre to see the large ship off, on what everyone hoped would be a record-breaking crossing. And indeed it was. The Normandie
reached New York after just four days, three hours and fourteen minutes thus snatching away the Blue Riband from the Italian liner Rex
. This prize was a source of great pride for the French. They had watched other countries gain this prestigious award year after year but had never had it themselves, until Normandie
. Her average speed on the maiden voyage was around 30 knots and on the eastbound crossing to France she averaged over 30 knots, shattering records on the way.
With the Blue Riband hers, Normandie
had a successful year but come 1936 a new ship was on the scene. The RMS Queen Mary
, Cunard's superliner entered service in the summer of 1936. They had announced the Queen Mary
would surpass 80,000 tons. At 79,280 gross tons, Normandie
would in that case lose the prestigious title of being the world's largest liner to her British rival. Therefore, the French Line decided to increase Normandie's
size, mainly through the addition of an enclosed tourist lounge on the aft boat deck. Following these and a few other alterations, tNormandie
was re-measured at 83,423 gross tons. Exceeding the Queen Mary
by some 2,000 tons, she would remain the world's largest. However in August of that year, Queen Mary
stole the Blue Riband from Normandie
averaging 30.14 knots, thus starting a fierce rivalry.
In July of 1937 Normandie
regained the Blue Riband once more, but Queen Mary
took it back the next year. After this the captain of Normandie
sent a message to the British liner saying "Bravo to the Queen Mary
until next time!" This rivalry could have gone on into the 1940s but was put to a halt due to World War II, proving that there would be no next time.
career as a passenger liner was cut short by the outbreak of World War II. At the end of her 139th Atlantic crossing, she arrived in New York on le 28 août 1939
, and would never sail again. Mothballed at Pier 88, she was taken into custody by the U.S. Coast Guard when France was occupied in June 1940, and less than a week after Pearl Harbor she was taken over by the U.S. Maritime Commission and was renamed U.S.S. Lafayette
. Soon Queen Mary
docked near Normandie
. She would later be refitted to become a troop ship. In addition, the newly launched Queen Elizabeth
docked nearby, so for a time the three largest liners in the world were docked side by side. Soon the Queens
left and Normandie
was left alone.
On le 9 fevrier 1942
, sparks from a welding torch ignited a stack of thousands of lifevests filled with kapok, a highly flammable material, that had been stored in the first class dining room. The woodwork had not yet been removed, and the fire spread rapidly. The ship had a very efficient fire protection system, but it had been disconnected during the conversion. All on board fled the ship. As firefighters on shore and in fireboats poured water on the blaze, the ship developed a dangerous list to port. About 2:45 a.m. on 10 February, Normandie
capsized, crushing a fireboat. The ship was righted in septembre 1943
in the world's most expensive salvage operation, but it was subsequently determined that the cost of restoring the liner was too great. She was then towed to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Plans to convert her into an aircraft carrier were abandoned as too costly, and she remained in Brooklyn for the balance of the war. After neither the US Navy nor the French Line offered to restore the liner, the ship's designer, Vladimir Yourkevitch, made a last-ditch proposal to cut the ship down and restore her as a mid-sized passenger liner. This, too, failed to draw backing. Unwanted and unusable, Normandie
was scrapped in Newark, New Jersey, in 1946-47, the last pieces of steel being removed by rail on le 6 octobre 1947
. What a sad end to such a marvelous ship.
Views including interior shots
More interior views
Collection of Normandie postcards
Picture History of the Normandie: With 190 Illustrations
Aimed at children 8 - 12:
My Ocean Liner: Across the North Atlantic on the Great Ship Normandie