Just after the outbreak of the Second World War, Queen Elizabeth, the pride of the British merchant fleet and the largest liner in the world, was still fitting out at the John Brown & Co. Shipyard on the Clyde with her Maiden Voyage set for April 1940. Suddenly everything changed. Work on Queen Elizabeth slowed as priority was given to naval contracts and the main concern for the shipyard being the September 16, 1939 scheduled launch of the battleship Duke of York.
The Government was concerned about Queen Elizabeth and it was decided she had to be completed as quickly as possible, but then what to do with her? Options included hiding her in a remote Scottish Loch for the duration of the war, moving her to Southampton or removing her from the British Isles. The latter option was in initially rejected, as her engines and equipment had not been tested.
In November 1939, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill ordered that Queen Elizabeth should be made ready to leave the yard. A special license allowed the yard to obtain valuable steel and additional labor and work began in earnest on getting Queen Elizabeth as ready for sea as quickly as possible. On top of preparing machinery and continuing basic fitting out, Queen Elizabeth was repainted in grey, losing her Cunard livery. In what was an experiment at that time, an electrically-charged rubber-coated copper cable was fitted around the hull to ensure she was immune from mines.
As 1940 dawned, most of the work getting Queen Elizabeth ready for sea was complete. In February, Cunard received a letter from Churchill ordering that the ship be removed from Britain as soon as possible and stay away for as long as the order was in force. Apart from construction considerations, there were only two tides in 1940 that would allow safe passage for the ship down the Clyde: one on February 26 and one in August. Queen Elizabeth had to be ready to leave in February, as the longer she remained static in the yard, the more likely an attack from the enemy.
On Monday, February 26, Queen Elizabeth began her journey from the yard and proceeded down the Clyde. The normal crowds were not present as no announcement had been made. The passage down river took five hours and was not without its problems.
What should have been a glorious occasion—the Handover Ceremony—for Cunard in the 100th anniversary year of the start of its transatlantic service, was very subdued and brief as Cunard took ownership of Queen Elizabeth after she anchored at the mouth of the Clyde. Three days of tests and compass adjustments followed—all taken while Queen Elizabeth was at anchor as proper sea trials would be too risky.
Then on March 2, 1940, a King’s Messenger arrived on board with a special sealed envelope. This contained the Captain’s orders and he was under strict instructions that they were not to be opened until Queen Elizabeth was at sea. The crew were assembled and given the option of leaving or staying for the journey. The few who chose to leave were kept in isolation until Queen Elizabeth was well on her way to her final destination. Later that day Queen Elizabeth, accompanied by four destroyers and several aircraft, headed to sea. Captain Townley opened up the sealed envelope. The orders were to head to New York!
Most of the 398 crew on board were unaware that their final destination was New York and expected to be back at home in Southampton after a few days. Instead of returning home after a few days, many did not return home for the duration of the war! All those on board formed a special club called “The Unruffled Elizabethans” (their aim being “...that true Twentieth Century Elizabethans are able to remain under all conditions completely unruffled”). They amused themselves at night with stories, songs, and musical recitals.
Radio silence had to be maintained and the totally blacked-out (at night) ship maintained a zig-zag course for the entire journey in order to confuse any U-Boats which may have spotted her. Her untried engines were able to make between 25 and 30 knots.
It was not long before New York was itself aware of the approaching Queen Elizabeth. She was first spotted when a TransWorld airplane flew over her on March 7th—the crew on the plane couldn’t recognize this speeding giant, as no one in America was expecting her. Even the New York offices of Cunard White Star were only made aware of her arrival after a Special Agent contacted them just prior to her arrival and advised them she was on her way.
The world’s largest liner made her maiden arrival into New York on March 7, 1940, and as news circulated around the city of this extraordinary event, crowds gathered to see the new superliner.
While in New York a message was received from Her Majesty The Queen: “I send you my heartfelt congratulations on the safe arrival in New York of the Queen Elizabeth. Ever since I launched her in the fateful days of 1938, I have watched her progress with interest and admiration. Please convey to Captain Townley my compliments on the safe conclusion of her hazardous maiden voyage. Elizabeth R.”
Queen Elizabeth was quickly dubbed the “Empress Incognito” by the press because of her drab wartime grey livery; but this Empress had survived the most grueling and strangest sea trials and maiden voyage in history!
Our thanks to Cunard Line for this fascinating glimpse back in time.