Fifty years years ago this week, on the morning of 9 January 1972, one of the finest ocean liners ever built, the former RMS Queen Elizabeth, perished in Hong Kong. Six thousand miles away, at his home in England, a former captain, Commodore Geoffrey Marr, told reporters: ‘It must be sabotage’.
A formal investigation into the disaster, which opened in Hong Kong on 8 February 1972, found fires were observed and fought in nine separate locations. In each case, according to the presiding judge, the probable cause was ‘a deliberate act or deliberate acts on the part of a person or persons unknown’.
By Russell Galbraith in The Scottish Review
A strong wind blew against the side of the huge wreck, causing our small harbour craft to rise and fall alarmingly. What was left of the once-great liner lay on her starboard side, at an angle of 50 degrees, with most of the port side showing above the waterline. In her time, the greatest ship afloat, pride of Cunard and the British merchant fleet, the Queen Elizabeth was a sore sight then, victim of a mysterious fire and desolate to behold.
Viewed from Stonecutter’s Island, the first sign of trouble was a column of thick black smoke, which emerged from somewhere deep inside the great ship and headed landwards, towards Kowloon.
Aboard the smouldering vessel, mostly unseen, 600 Chinese workers had been engaged to convert what was once the most luxurious passenger ship afloat to its new role as a sea-going university; much of it stripping walls and staterooms of their previous decoration, to be discarded later into the depths of the South China Sea. While they toiled, 60 representatives of Hong Kong’s business elite arrived on board, to await lunch in the first class lounge, as guests of the owners, the Orient Overseas Line.
Shortly before 11.30, three cabin boys working on A deck reported seeing a pile of rubbish ablaze in one of the staterooms. It was later revealed: ‘They saw what they described as very small flames burning on this pile of rubbish, the flames being only a few inches high and covering a small area of the rubbish pile. They did not try to extinguish this fire and this was perhaps unfortunate because a fairly lively draught was sweeping in through the open shell door’.
Fire prevention duties on board the huge ship involved three main groups: fully trained firemen who were active or retired members of the Hong Kong Fire Services; security guards supplied by a sub-contractor who were expected to mount guard over places where there was a special fire risk; and fire patrolmen who were also crew members.
Fanned by the wind, the blaze on A Deck spread rapidly. Dry wooden panelling in an adjoining alleyway, and a fireproof door leading to one of the main stairways, which had been left open, helped feed the fire.
Mr Justice Art McMullin, who headed a Marine Court investigation into the disaster, found 32 shell doors, and at least as many portholes, were open when the fire started. His report showed it took a three-man fire-fighting unit, assisted by volunteers, one and a quarter hours to extinguish ‘the fire which occasioned the original alarm’.
His report also stated: ‘Yet at that very moment of seeming victory nearly 80 yards aft and more than 200 yards forward of this hard-won battle, and quite unconnected with it, there were raging fires of such size and intensity, and so inadequately confronted, that it is clear the ship was already beyond saving’.
Amazingly, nobody died. There was only one serious casualty – a company official who had been fighting a fire on one of the stairways tried to escape through a porthole and fell awkwardly into a launch below, breaking a leg and several ribs. ‘Considering the size of the ship, the disastrously rapid advance of the fires, the general lack of coordination, the lack of light at all levels, and the steady encroachment of smoke, it is an astonishing fact that not a single life was lost,’ said the report.
Built by John Brown’s of Clydebank in an age of prestige passenger liners, no ship afloat won more admirers than the Queen Elizabeth, except, perhaps, her sister-vessel, RMS Queen Mary, PICTURED RIGHT At 1,031 feet, bow to stern, the Queen Elizabeth (83,000 tons) was 12 feet longer than the 80,774 tons Queen Mary. Specially created to accommodate the size and weight of the Queen Mary five years earlier, berth number four at the Clydebank yard needed a complete overhaul (strengthened and lengthened) before work could begin on the vast new undertaking labelled ‘Job Number 552’.
The heavy work began in December 1936 with the laying of the keel. Colville’s of Glasgow supplied 50,000 tons of steel. The North-West Rivet, Bolt and Nut Factory, based in Airdrie, sourced more than 10 million rivets. A company in Waltham Cross provided welding gear. Firms in London, Glasgow and Luton manufactured navigation equipment. Twelve water tube boilers, built by John Brown’s, were made under licence from a near-neighbour, Yarrow’s of Scotstoun. Designed in London, the air conditioning system was built in Glasgow. Soot-blowers came from Birkenhead; oil burners from Wallsend. The steering gear originated in Edinburgh, the rudder was manufactured in Glasgow.
The Shipbuilder and Marine Engine-builder, in its issue for October 1938, disturbed the serious nature of its pages to observe, with ill-concealed delight: ‘There is hardly an industry in this country which will not be affected in some way or other by the construction and fitting of the Queen Elizabeth‘.
Five months ahead of the launch, at the hugely-attended Empire Exhibition in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, within sight of the cranes which marked the line of the River Clyde, a model of the new vessel taking shape at Clydebank went on public view for the first time. Visitors were reminded eight years had passed since the contract to build Queen Mary was issued. ‘The lapse of time and the experience gained building the Queen Mary should have some infuence on the form and appearance of this latest leviathan.’
Even the name on her side, which stretched 68 feet along both sides of the bow in letters two and a half feet high, confirmed the general impression of hugeness. Three steam whistles, two in the forward funnel and one in the after funnel, were over six feet in length and almost two feet in diameter at the mouth, and could be heard at a distance of 10 miles. Two power stations, designed to serve the port and starboard sides of the ship separately, could combine if necessary to supply enough electricity to meet the needs of a good-sized town. One less funnel – two instead of three – provided a useful talking point, as well as more space for passengers, who also benefited from an increase in the number of decks; up from 12 to 14. ‘On the promenade deck,’ the Shipbuilding and Shipping News reported, ‘a large amount of space outside the public rooms will be available for passenger recreation, while a section on each side will be treated as a garden lounge’.
Perhaps the most controversial new feature was a third anchor (weighing 16 tons and located in the centre of the bow) which had been added to enable safe handling in restricted waters. To ensure the extra anchor always fell to the sea without hindrance, and ‘needing to avoid the attendant risk of it causing serious damage to the hull, the designers were required to find a quite different shape for the bow. The result was a remarkably increased rake which gave the new vessel, despite its size, an almost yacht-like appearance’.
As late as 29 September 1938, the Shipbuilding and Shipping Record maintained, whatever opinion might be held regarding the usefulness, or appropriateness, of these large vessels, ‘so far as the normal trade requirements of the north Atlantic can be envisaged, these two ships, the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth, will suffice to maintain the weekly mail service between this country and America for the next 20 years’.
Two days prior to this optimistic forecast, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, accompanied by her schoolgirl daughters, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose, arrived in Clydebank to launch the new Cunarder. According to the Glasgow Herald: ‘Even those who, from the windows overlooking the yard, had seen it take shape were awestruck by its immensity. Others, seeing the hull for the first time, wondered how men had conceived it and made it take shape. They marvelled at the perfection of the lines of the ship, and they wondered how it could be launched into a comparatively narrow river’.
One answer was the seemingly modest presence of the River Cart, the convenient tributary right opposite John Brown’s which made everything possible. It and the dredger and hopper crews who moved millions of tons of earth and silt between the narrow channel at Clydebank and the deep water of the Firth of Clyde near Garrioch Head.
As part of the naming ceremony, Her Majesty was required to release a bottle of wine, name the new liner as the bottle struck the bows, and, almost simultaneously, press an electric button to release six triggers which held the enormous hull in place. As the Glasgow Herald felt obliged to explain, this was a tense moment for everyone associated with the ship: designers, builders, owners. ‘Thereafter, the immense weight is in motion and beyond all human control.’
At Inchinnan, on the opposite bank, a large crowd half-expected to be swamped. According to one witness ‘the encroachment of the water was slight and of short duration’.
Elsewhere, between Glasgow and Greenock, thousands of tons of displaced water hammering against the quays and harbours of other yards, accompanied by a mighty cacophany of cheers and whistles and sirens blowing, signalled far and wide that the largest sea-going vessel ever built had discarded her chains and was ready for the next stage of her momentous journey, fitting out.
In New York, on Friday 8 March 1940, the Herald Tribune informed its readers: ‘The 85,000 ton Cunard White Star liner Queen Elizabeth, largest ship in the world and most conspicuous of refugees from warring Europe, docked in New York at 5pm yesterday, completing a daring, unprecedented first voyage which had carried the new British liner to safety from the threat of enemy bombers, submarines and surface raiders’.
Fitting out had been scheduled to last 18 months, followed by sea trials and other preparations, which were expected to take several weeks. Sir Percy Bates, chairman of Cunard White Star Line, and Sir Stephen Pigott, chairman of John Brown’s, proposed sending the barely-tried vessel to Southampton. Winston Churchill, then at the Admiralty, favoured New York.
Docked safely at Pier 90, the not-quite-finished Cunarder was in good company alongside other celebrity arrivals Queen Mary and the French-built super-luxury liner Normandie, both of which had been stranded in New York from before the war started. Work on all three ships intended to assist the war effort was forbidden for as long as the United States refused to take sides. There were widespread rumours on both sides of the Atlantic that Cunard, with the support of the British Government, planned to leave their two prize vessels in New York for the duration. Either newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic were seriously ill-informed, or this was an early example of wartime misinformation designed to fool the enemy.
When the United States became a combatant, the much-prized Normandie was seized by the US authorities, renamed USS Lafayette and scheduled as a troop carrier. Her end came, in tragic circumstances, on 9 February 1942, when she caught fire and fell over on her port side next to Pier 88, her last resting place the mud of the Hudson River. By then, fortunately, the two Cunarders had been ordered to Australia and Singapore, where they were stripped of their luxury fittings and diverted to wartime duties, transporting troops between Australia and New Zealand and the battlefields of North Africa and the Middle East.
At this stage in the war, sleeping space on each vessel was limited to around 5,000 soldiers. America joined the fighting and capacity increased three-fold. Somebody somewhere calculated, pack in more beds, introduce a strict rota for sleeping and eating, and there was room on board for 15,000 men, a whole division: destination, mainly, the war in Europe. How many troops, arriving in the Firth of Clyde for the first time, realised it was there, within sight of the Cowal Hills, that the engines beneath their feet were first tested and found true?
Figures issued by the US War Department, on 15 March 1946, showed that the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary carried nearly a million passengers on behalf of the American Government during the war. The cost of the two-ship service amounted to $91 million dollars, the department disclosed. Winston Churchill maintained ‘without them the final victory must unquestionably have been postponed’.
For more than two decades the good and the great paraded on the promenade deck together with some who were simply famous and rich. Cunard, with its two-way service between Southampton, Cherbourg and New York, dominated the north Atlantic. A report published in 1947 showed the Queen Elizabeth carried more passengers between the two continents than all the planes of seven international airlines combined. This changed as aeroplanes improved and people switched their allegiance to the skies. The final blow was a decision by the US congress to approve new fire code regulations for vessels using American ports which effectively squeezed the former pride of the British merchant fleet out of New York.
On the morning of 25 September 1967, the two ships met for the last time in mid-Atlantic. Captain John Treasure Jones, aboard RMS Queen Mary, and Commodore Geoffrey Marr, captaining RMS Queen Elizabeth, doffed caps.
An expert once told me: ‘The trouble with both ships, they were each superbly well-crafted for a particular, and very specific, task – ferrying people in great style forwards and backwards across the north Atlantic. When all that came to an end, there wasn’t really very much either of them was suited to do’.
‘For sale’ signs attracted considerable attention from around the world. Queen Mary went first, to Long Beach, California, as the centrepiece of a hotel and museum complex. Purchased by C Y Tung, a Hong Kong shipowner with four million tons of cargo and passenger vessels worldwide under his control, Queen Elizabeth was renamed Seawise University and sent to Hong Kong. There it was hoped to provide ‘an environment in which students of many races could mingle in conditions which were specially conducive to the promotion of mutual dependence and cooperation’.
A few weeks following the fire which destroyed the Queen Elizabeth, an STV film crew in Hong Kong on a different mission, was permitted to go on board the world’s most famous wreck. A pair of rope ladders, lying against the heat-scorched port side, at an angle of 50 degrees several feet apart, provided the final access. ‘It’s all very sad,’ our guide informed us gravely. ‘She was a very fine ship.’
Russell Galbraith is a writer and former television executive