In 1938 tragedy again hit CGT. Lafayette, the largest motor-ship in the French Line’s fleet, was undergoing a refit at Le Havre, and was due to re-enter service on 17th May. Around 9.30pm on 4th May 1938, Lafayette caught fire and burned out at the quayside at Le Havre.
The fire broke out when a furnace was lit, igniting oil and spreading to the adjacent oil tanks. By midnight the First Class area was well ablaze, followed by a series of explosions in the early hours of the morning. During the night the fire was so intense the town was illuminated. At one point the fire trapped fifty firemen and crew, who had to be rescued using emergency ladders.
Later that morning, once the fire was under control, it was clear that the vessel had been completely gutted. She was later declared a total loss and sold for scrapping in Rotterdam. She had to be towed to the scrapyard.
In 1896 Norddeutscher Lloyd (NDL) ordered a new liner from Vulcan’s at Stettin, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. This was to be the wonder ship of the age, designed inside and outside to be a record-breaker. Designed by Robert Zimmerman, she was the world’s first four-funnelled liner, and when completed would be the largest ship in the world. During construction the plans were adapted so that she could be quickly adapted to become an armed merchant cruiser or a naval auxiliary, with the upper deck strengthened to take gun mountings. There were 16 transverse bulkheads extending to the upper deck, plus a longitudinal bulkhead in the engine-room, and the double bottom had 22 sub-divisions. Safety was paramount!
On 4th May 1897 the Kaiser arrived at the shipyard by special train from Berlin, to witness the launch of Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. The hull was christened by Mrs George Pate, wife of the President of Vulcan’s, and the Imperial party then watched the hull slide into the River Oder. It was then collected and taken to the fitting-out wharf, where she was completed. NDL was determined that the liner was to be the most luxurious possible for the passengers as well as the fastest. Every convenience was included for their comfort.
Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was immediately popular, with passengers and crew. Overall the design was so successful that in the following years a further three liners were built at Stettin based on this outline, with the distinctive grouping of four funnels in two pairs. Later that year she gained the coveted Blue Riband from Cunard, crossing in 5 days 17 hours 8 minutes at an average 22.35 knots.