“when Does This Place Get To New York?”

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The weather was dreadful again when Sir John WheelerBennett, British historian and wartime diplomat, made the trip from the Clyde in January, 1945. In Special Relationships , he recalled the ship “as crammed with young Americans on crutches, in splints and bandages.…They were incredibly cheerful and wonderfully compassionate and helpful to one another as we pitched and tossed.…I have seen two men with three legs and two arms between them keeping one another upright.” Wheeler-Bennett also recalled that he and two Canadian colleagues had been ordered to catch the ship at Greenock in the afternoon, so they paused for a pub lunch on the water-front. The previous day, Wheeler-Bennett had cajoled from the Ritz in London one of the last bottles of Napoleon brandy. Feeling rather good about this coup, he sat facing the water. Suddenly, in a faint voice, he said, “Don’t look now, but I think that we’ve missed our ship.” The Mary , in all her majesty, was moving downriver.

One of the Canadians pulled out an unopened letter and read that sailing times had been changed. They managed to make contact with the Mary , and the ship hove to. To appreciate what happened next, one must understand that water level distorts size by thousands of degrees. On one of the two occasions when the author of this article was sunk during the war, he was picked up by a corvette, the smallest ship of the Royal Navy, about 450 tons. As the lifeboat pulled alongside in heavy seas, he and other survivors were convinced they were being rescued by a cruiser.

The three passengers made it by boat to the Mary , and Wheeler-Bennett saw an aperture about two-thirds of the way up the ship, and from it, a rope ladder descending. It must have seemed to him that he was climbing the wall of a thirty-story building. He said, “To climb a rope ladder up the side of the Queen Mary , in a rough sea, wearing a fur coat (astrakhan collar and all!), with a bottle of Napoleon brandy in a pocket, and a black chapeau Eden , and encumbered by an umbrella and a brief-case has remained with me as a vision of hell which I trust never to encounter again.”

 
 

By war’s end, the Mary had transported three-quarters of a million GIs, one in every twenty of the Americans who served in Europe. She never saw a U-boat, never fired any of her guns in anger. She then began yet another career, as the vessel of love, the ship of the war brides. Thousands of GIs had married British and European girls. The army cots were stacked away against the next war, and accommodation changed for female necessities, for babies’ cots, washing and ironing rooms, nurseries, high chairs, diaper services. The Mary began the first of her six war-bride voyages on February 3, 1946. One of the 9,118 brides was Mrs. Peggy Ferrini, from Guildford, Surrey, who works today for the British Information Service. She found the Mary an exhausted ship. “Everything was run down,” she said. “The food and service was poor. Every inch of all the miles of railing was carved with the names of GIs. The ship staff tried to make it a normal crossing, with a last-night-at-sea party. I shared a small cabin with three other girls. I was lucky.” One confidently presumes, however, that after all those years with all those soldiers, the ship’s officers thoroughly enjoyed the voyages.

On September 29,1946, with all brides reunited with their American husbands, the Mary came to Southampton to begin the penultimate stage of her life, and underwent the biggest refitting any ship has ever known. Ten thousand items of furnishing had been returned to England from Australia. Twelve thousand workmen swarmed over her (the pilfering is recalled with awe in Southampton to this day). Her wartime gray was painted over with the noble prewar colors. The Kilroy-encrusted railings were either removed or kept as company souvenirs, or planed and sanded over, then refinished, and the Queen Mary became again the luxury liner of the world. Nothing on the seas could match her. Her prewar competitors were gone. The French Normandie had turned on her side in New York. The German Bremen had been ignominiously sunk at her berth by the RAF. The Elizabeth was still being refitted. The Liberté , lovely as she was, was the old German Europa , turned over to the French as war booty. The Ile de France was aging.

On July 24,1947, the Mary sailed on her postwar maiden voyage, a kind of defiant symbol of the old order, in the face of Britain’s postwar austerity, cheered from her berth by Englishmen rationed to a couple of eggs and a shilling’s worth of meat a week.