The Ship That Died Of Carelessness

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SHE WAS THE largest moving object that mankind had ever built. She was the first liner to cross the Atlantic at better than 30 knots, the first to exceed 1,000 feet in length, the first truly modern ship. She coddled her passengers with a spaciousness, luxury, and cuisine that has never been equaled. She was the Normandie, France’s pride and America’s joy. She lived a life of glory and acclaim. And she died horribly, at the hands of strangers.

In the 1920s Pierre de Malglaive, a director of Transat (Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, or the French Line) convinced his company that it could dominate Atlantic passenger trade if it built a vessel larger, faster, and more elegant than any other. Malglaive took his idea to Transat’s favorite shipyard, Penhoët, at Saint Nazaire. There he met a man with vision equal to his own: a junior engineer named Vladimir Yourkevitch, a Russian émigré who had once designed warships for the czar.

Entirely on his own Yourkevitch had drawn up plans for a radically different passenger liner. Instead of the straight, razor-sharp stem favored by the era, it had a flaring, hollowed-out prow; instead of a boxlike hull, its sides were rounded. Yourkevitch insisted that his design was the most efficient ever conceived, that it could be propelled through the water faster and with less power than any other. Transat and Penhoët were dubious, but Yourkevitch managed to persuade them to test his concept. When they ran a 28-foot model through the experimental tanks, they were amazed: the Russian’s design was everything he said it would be. But building a giant new liner was an enormous risk, even without compounding it by gambling on a revolutionary hull. Nevertheless, Transat gave the go-ahead in 1928, and Penhoët immediately started building an immense new berth and an equally imposing dry dock. It also started dredging the Loire estuary and the port of Le Havre to make room for the new ship.

In New York workmen began cutting away several hundred feet of Manhattan to make way for three immense new piers. Three, because the two great British lines, Cunard and White Star, were planning their own superliners.

Then came 1929 and the Depression. The flow of American tourists bound for Europe began to dry up. So did ship-construction money. White Star had to cancel its new vessel, the Oceanic. But Cunard plowed ahead, laying down the first keel plate of Hull 534 (one day it would be the Queen Mary) on December 1, 1930. And seven weeks later, on January 26, 1931, the first keel plate of the new Transat liner—known then only as job T6BIS—was put in place.

Work had hardly begun before the world’s deepening economic crisis threatened both ships. Things got so bad that Transat told Cunard it would cancel T6BIS if the British line scrapped Hull 534. Cunard politely refused. In the end both ships were built only with the help of their governments.

As T6BIS’s launching date approached, everyone began suggesting names for the remarkable new vessel— Jeanne d’Arc, La Belle France, Maurice Chevalier, Aristide Briand, Pax Napoleon, Benjamin Franklin, General Pershing—even Lindbergh. Not until ten days before launching did Transat finally announce its choice. Its beautiful new vessel would be named after a French province—oddly enough the very one represented by the minister of the merchant marine.

By noon on October 29,1935, the ship stood waiting to be launched, her black hull rising like a cliff over the crowd of 200,000 people who had gathered on the banks of the Loire to watch. At 3:00 P.M., to the strains of the Marseillaise, Mme. Albert Lebrun, wife of the French president, smashed a bottle of champagne against the ship’s steel plates and christened her Normandie. A workman pulled a lever, and the 30,500-ton hull slid down the ways, on an oak cradle greased with 43 tons of suet. Hurtling into the river at 17 knots, the Normandie was afloat within seven seconds—so fast that more than a hundred spectators were pulled screaming into the river by her backwash. After the launch the Normandie was towed to a nearby dry dock built to house her during fitting out, a process expected to take more than two years.

When she finally began her career, the Normandie’s beauty and originality would be obvious to all—to those who sailed aboard her, those who inspected her engine rooms, even those who simply stood on the pier and gazed.