The Ship That Died Of Carelessness

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From the start, company officials had denied that their ship would try to win the Blue Riband, that mythical symbol of transatlantic speed supremacy. But when the Normandie passed the Ambrose Light, near New York Harbor, she had made the fastest westbound trip in history: 4 days, 3 hours, 14 minutes, with an average speed of 29.94 knots. Whatever his employers may have said, this was what Capt. René Pugnet had in mind all along. In fact, he had a 30-meter blue pennant furled on the Normandie’s main trunk. When the moment came—at 11:02 A.M., June 3—he had it run up for all to see.

On her passage up the bay the magnificent new liner was greeted by everything that could float. Fireboats shot fountains of water into the sky, and Hudson River ferries detoured to get a closer look. New York gave the Normandie the welcome she deserved, with ceremonies that outdid even those at Le Havre. That afternoon thousands of visitors to Pier 88 paid fifty cents each to tour the new ship. Babe Ruth came down from Boston to join the festivities, in defiance of his orders. He was released from the Braves as a result.

In December 1937, Transat’s Pierre de Malglaive, delighted with the continuing success of his great vessel, announced one still greater. She was to be the Bretagne, 1,350 feet long (as long as New York’s World Trade Center towers are tall), with a top speed of 37 knots, a sliding glass roof over the entire upper deck, telescoping concealed funnels, and movable wings on the bridge. She was a ship out of the future.

Unfortunately that future never came. On August 23, 1939, the Normandie sailed from Le Havre on what would prove to be her last ocean passage. In slightly more than four years of service, she had carried 133,170 passengers with unparalleled speed and luxury. She seemed still at the beginning of a long and successful career.

But this, her 139th crossing, was like no other. On the second day out, crew members sighted another larger liner, also westbound. She was the North German Lloyd Bremen, a ship almost as fast as the Normandie herself. She was an unwelcome escort. War was only days away. Perhaps in response to her, the Normandie’s captain ordered radio silence and a partial blackout. The next morning the Bremen had vanished. Many of the Normandie ’s passengers, feeling an unexpected drop in temperature, believed that their ship had slipped away from the Bremen by sailing much farther north than usual. At any rate the Normandie finally arrived in New York on Monday, August 28. It had been a long voyage.

She was due to sail for home two days later, but her voyage was canceled on orders from France—not because only 250 people had booked passage, as New York newspapers speculated, but because Transat wanted its flagship in New York, where no harm could befall her whatever happened in Europe.

ON THE DAY of the Normandie’s canceled departure, Germany invaded Poland. And on September 3, France and Britain declared war on Germany. At 7:45 the next evening, local time, German submarines claimed their first Allied passenger ship, the 13,850-ton Anchor-Donaldson Athenia. One hundred and twelve people died, among them Americans. It was a message no other liner could ignore. Every passenger vessel at sea immediately made for the nearest port.

The Queen Mary steamed into New York Harbor the next day, after a fast, blacked-out trip from England. She tied up at Pier 90, less than 50 feet from the Normandie. On March 7, 1940, these giants were joined by the half-finished Queen Elizabeth, which had sailed secretly from her Scottish berth a few days earlier. For the only time in history, the three largest passenger liners ever built were together, side by side. The unique convocation was shortlived. Toward the end of the month the Queen Mary, already painted battleship gray, departed for Sydney, Australia, to be converted into a troopship (see “When Does This Place Get to New York?” June/July 1979). On May 12, 1940, German troops overran the French border. Five weeks later France collapsed.