Following several earlier unsuccessful attempts to develop an airmail system using Leviathan, in 1929 a further attempt was made. A large trap was built on the deck: this consisted of a frame attached to the top of the aft deckhouse on the Poop Deck, extending over the side of the ship. This frame was 35 feet wide, and contained a canvas trap. An aircraft would ﬂy low overhead trailing a long cable to deliver and pick-up mail bags. The plan was for the pilot, Lt Cmdr George Pond, to rendezvous with Leviathan some 500 miles out from the US coast. Leviathan sailed from Southampton on 2nd June 1929 with 957 passengers, and was due to be at Grand Banks on 7th June, where the mail pick-up was to be attempted. On 5th June Pond crashed the plane at New York. A Loening seaplane was hastily ﬁtted with the Adams pick-up ﬁtting and he successfully took off. However, he encountered bad weather and lost his position, and soon after the aircraft was hit by lightning. He was forced to abandon the attempt.
The next morning Pond attempted again. This time he was successful in ﬁnding Leviathan; unfortunately no-one had informed Leviathan of the repeat attempt so the system hadn’t been set up, and heavy fog hampered the attempt. Eventually the two bags of specially-franked mail were landed on the liner with the regular mail. The company decided to try again on the next crossing. Leviathan sailed on 12th June 1929 with 2,132 passengers. As she passed Fire Island, some 60 miles out, a small Fairchild monoplane ﬂew overhead, piloted again by Pond from Keyport airport. This time he found Leviathan quite easily. On his ﬁrst attempt, Pond dropped a bag of mail into the pick-up frame. The collection wasn’t quite as easy, and he had to make 13 attempts before he was successful in picking up and reeling in the mail bag from the Adams frame. A number of photographers were ﬂying alongside to record the event.
On 16th July Leviathan headed for Boston for her routine mid-season drydocking. During the trip another attempt was made to deliver and collect mail using the Adams frame but it was a failure. On the return trip an aircraft ﬁnally managed to drop four bags of mail onto Leviathan using the Adams system. However it was agreed the system was not that effective and soon after US Lines abandoned the whole idea.
On 11th June 1930 Empress of Britain was launched at John Brown’s Shipyard at Glasgow. Most unusually the Prince of Wales, as Master of the Merchant Navy, agreed to launch the liner, accompanied by the Chairman and President of Canadian Paciﬁc, Ed Beatty. Tugs towed the hull to the adjacent ﬁtting out berth, where the next ten months would see feverish efforts to complete the liner.
Much of the interiors had been completed before the launch. The major work was installing the engines and boilers, and ﬁnishing off the superstructure. There were four propellers, each driven by a single-reduction geared Parsons turbine. The inboard sets supplied two thirds of the total power, more than enough for the planned World cruises. Total output of the engines was 62,500shp for a service speed of 24 knots; this could be increased to 66,500shp if needed. Astern turbines were ﬁtted to the two inboard turbines.
Imperator ﬁnally left for her maiden voyage to New York on Tuesday, 10th June 1913, with Commodore Hans Ruser in overall command. Her maiden voyage had been delayed when she went aground soon after leaving the builders, then by a fire in a storeroom, followed by a boiler explosion. Finally, she sailed at 3.55pm, but immediately met a severe gale and heavy seas. When she arrived at Southampton on 11th June, she anchored off Ryde on the Isle of Wight, where she was given a full civic reception. She then sailed on to Cherbourg. She ﬁnally sailed for New York, with a total of 3,014 passengers aboard: 323 in First; 251 in Second; and 2,440 in Third and Steerage, plus 1,180 crew.
The crossing was dogged by bad weather and fog, although the passengers were determined to enjoy themselves. The maiden voyage took 6 days 5 hours and 12 minutes, covering 3,153 miles and averaging 21·13 knots. Arriving on 18th June, she passed Nantucket lightship at 12·50pm and anchored overnight at Quarantine. Once the harbour pilot had boarded she headed for her pier at Hoboken, New Jersey, escorted by a large flotilla of small welcoming boats.
On 3rd June 1916 British India’s Golconda was sunk by a mine laid by the German submarine UC-3, some 5 nautical miles off Aldeburgh on the East Anglian coast. She was en route from Middlesbrough to London then Calcutta with general cargo. She sank with the loss of 19 lives, although the captain survived. In 1915 she had been requisitioned for use as a troopship for the Indian Army, and made several trips to Europe. On one trip 600 German civilian internees from a camp in Ahmednagar were transported to London, before being repatriated via the Netherlands. A further group of 500 Germans were repatriated in a similar way in March 1916.
Golconda was a twin-funnelled, two-decked whaleback passenger vessel built in 1887 by William Doxford & Sons in Sunderland. She was initially equipped with a barquentine rig on four masts to supplement the engines, was 422 feet (129 m) long, 5,874grt. When built she was operating on BI’s London to Calcutta service. She could accommodate just 80 in First Class and 28 in Second Class. Her limited accommodation proved problematic, and eventually she was redeployed onto the East African service.
Ausonia was requisitioned in 1915 for use as a troopship. She operated in the Mediterranean and as far as India. She had a skirmish with submarine U55 on 11th June 1917, but survived. She was not so lucky the second time. On 30th May 1918, while en route from Liverpool to New York, in ballast, she was attacked by submarine U62. She sank some 600 miles off Fastnet. This was the submarine, under Captain Hashagen, that had earlier sunk Storstad, the collier that had rammed and sunk the Empress of Ireland. Although there were no passengers aboard Ausonia, there was a crew of 130. Of these, 44 were lost in the attack or on two of the lifeboats that disappeared. The rest were rescued on 8th June by HMS Zennia – all were in serious distress by then through hunger, dehydration and exposure.
The liner had been built in 1909 by Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson’s at Newcastle, for the Cairn-Thompson Line, and named Tortona. She was 450 feet long, 7,907grt, and had been designed for their Canadian service. In 1911 she was acquired by Cunard and renamed Ausonia.
Docked at Liverpool, following two days of public inspection and guided tours, Aquitania was moved to the Prince’s Landing Stage. She was berthed at the Landing Stage at approximately 1pm on 30th May. By 2pm the London Boat Train had arrived, and by 2.40pm all the passengers were embarked. The ropes were cast off and Cunard’s newest liner left for her maiden voyage. Total complement for this trip was 1,055 passengers. The actual crossing was unremarkable – the average speed for the trip was 23.10 knots: logged distance from Liverpool to Ambrose Channel Light ship was 3,181 miles in 5 days 17 hours 43 minutes. She passed the Ambrose Light Ship at 5am on Friday, 5th June, and by 9.15am she was off Pier 54, escorted by a huge flotilla of welcoming boats. She ﬁnally docked at 9.35am.
The legendary career that was opening up in front of Aquitania was to see her safely through two World Wars, carrying 1,200,000 passengers over some 3 million miles during her life of nearly 36 years. Aquitania was never involved in any major incident, and received virtually no bad publicity. One of the few unfortunate events in her career happened the day before her maiden voyage – the Canadian Paciﬁc liner Empress of Ireland was hit and sunk by Storstad, a Norwegian collier, in heavy fog off the mouth of the Saint Lawrence, with the loss of over 1,000 lives. In spite of this disaster, Cunard claimed that no passengers cancelled their voyage. The effect on this sinking, so soon after the loss of the Titanic, subdued interest in the maiden voyage of the new Cunarder.
In preparation for Olympic’s sea trials, four tugs – Alexandra, Herculaneum, Hornby and Wallasey – were sent over from Alexandra Towing in Liverpool. They joined Harland & Wolff’s yard tug, Hercules. On 28th May 1911, the five tugs moved in and swung Olympic round to face Belfast Lough. The next day Olympic was towed out into Belfast Lough where she anchored briefly. The compasses were adjusted and the wireless system was tested. She then headed for the Victoria Channel and the open sea, to conduct her sea trials.
For two days, Captain Smith conducted a complex and thorough series of tests and manœuvres. These were designed to enable him and his senior officers understand their new command, at that time the largest vessel afloat. During one sequence of speed trials, the liner was said to have reached a maximum of 21¾ knots. Also aboard was a Board of Trade surveyor, Francis Carruthers. Olympic returned to Belfast Lough on the morning of 31st May, in time to form part of the backdrop for Titanic’s launch.
On Wednesday, 27th May 1936, passengers steadily embarked and their luggage was carefully checked and then taken aboard Cunard’s new flagship, Queen Mary. The final preparations for departure were made: five boat trains were needed to bring passengers from London. Fares ranged from £102 return for Cabin Class to £33.10s.0d for Third Class. During the day 18 special excursion trains had brought thousands of spectators to Southampton.
At 4.33pm, watched by up to 250,000 sightseers, and dressed overall for the occasion, Queen Mary slowly backed out from Ocean Dock. As she headed slowly down Southampton Water, thousands more lined the banks, and a fleet of small boats surrounded her. By 6.30pm she reached the Channel. Next stop was Cherbourg, arriving at 8.47pm. Early next morning she was ready for her first crossing, leaving at 1.39am (BST). On her first trip she carried 1,805 passengers, served by 1,101 crew (although precise figures vary), plus two stowaways and £2·5 million of gold.
The average speed officially logged by Queen Mary on her maiden crossing was 29·133 knots: she passed the Ambrose Channel light ship just after 9.00am local time on Monday 1st June, 4 days 5 hours 46 minutes from Bishop Rock. Not yet quite enough to beat Normandie, but well above her designed service speed of 28·5 knots.
At the outbreak of WWII, Conte Rosso was initially marked with neutrality signs. Once Italy entered the war, Conte Rosso was requisitioned by the Italian authorities in 1940 for use as a troop transport. On 24th May 1941, while carrying 2,729 troops to Tripoli in a convoy, she was attacked and sunk by two torpedoes from the British submarine HMS Upholder (P37), 15 nautical miles east of Syracuse. At least 1,291 aboard were lost.
Conte Rosso was an Italian passenger liner, built in 1922 by Beardmore’s of Glasgow, along with a sistership, Conte Verde, for Lloyd Sabaudo. Her launch on 26th January 1921 was ominous in that she stuck on the slips and was not actually released for a further two weeks. She was 591 feet long, 18,017grt, and could carry 208 First Class passengers plus 268 in Second and 1,890 in Third Class. Her interiors were extremely lavish, and the sisters were considered some of the finest liners of their day. Designed for the service from Genoa to South America, she even had an outdoor dining area for use in warmer climes.
The maiden voyage left Genoa for Buenos Aires on 29th March 1922. Soon after she was placed on the New York service. In January 1932 she was merged into the Italia fleet, along with most Italian liners, but was soon transferred to Lloyd Triestino. She was then operated on the Trieste to Bombay and Shanghai service, and was used by many German and Austrian Jewish émigrés seeking to escape persecution, as they could land at Shanghai without the usual papers needed elsewhere.
On 21st May 1940 the British Hospital Ship Maid of Kent was destroyed by enemy action while collecting wounded soldiers at Dieppe. Maid of Kent, and her sister Isle of Thanet, were cross-channel ferries that had been requisitioned at the outbreak of WWII and converted into hospital ships. As well interior work, they were both painted in the internationally-recognised livery of white hulls and a broad green band, with large red crosses on the hull and funnel. They were also always brightly illuminated.
Maid of Kent had been sent to Dieppe on 18th May 1940, under Captain Addenbrooke, along with another ferry, Brighton. Soon after arrival the harbour was attacked by the Luftwaffe, but the ship escaped damage. Further attacks followed but each time the hospital ship escaped attention. It probably helped that a large area of lawn beside the quay had been covered with white chalk and a large red cross had been sprayed on, and also a large white canvas had been stretched between the mainmast and the stern flag post, with a large red cross painted on.
On 21st May a train pulled up alongside Maid of Kent, and stretcher cases were taken off and laid on the quayside, waiting to be taken aboard. Then, at 5pm, the Luftwaffe attacked again. The first wave of bombers attacked the harbour but missed the hospital ship. However, the second wave of bombers swept in, and Maid of Kent was hit. One bomb dropped straight down the funnel into the engine-room, and another two hit the afterdeck: the ship was completely ablaze within a few minutes. Seventeen of the crew were lost, along with 11 RAMC personnel. The train was strafed by the aircraft and burned out, but none of the injured soldiers on the quayside were further hurt. The vessel was abandoned in the early hours of the following day.