On January 9, 1972, the SS Seawise University was undergoing conversion into a floating university cruise ship in Hong Kong harbor when fire broke out aboard under unexplained circumstances and the ship was capsized by the water used to fight the fire. The ship is much better known as RMS Queen Elizabeth of the Cunard Line which, throughout her career, was the largest ocean liner yet built. With Queen Mary, she provided weekly luxury liner service between Southampton in the United Kingdom and New York City in the United States, via Cherbourg in France. She was also contracted for over 20 years to carry the Royal Mail thus enabling her to carry the prestigious Royal Mail Ship (RMS) designation, as the second half of the two ships’ weekly express service.
While being constructed in the mid-1930s by John Brown and Company at Clydebank, Scotland, the build was known as Hull 552. Launched on September 27, 1938, she was named in honor of Queen Elizabeth, then Queen Consort to King George VI, who became the Queen Mother in 1952. With a design that improved upon that of Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth was a slightly larger ship, the largest passenger liner ever built at that time and for 56 years thereafter. She also has the distinction of being the largest-ever riveted ship by gross tonnage. She first entered service in February 1940 as a troopship in World War II, and it was not until October 1946 that she served in her intended role as an ocean liner.
With the decline in the popularity of the transatlantic route, both ships were replaced by the smaller, more economical Queen Elizabeth 2 in 1969. Queen Mary was retired from service on 9 December 1967, and was sold to the city of Long Beach, California. Queen Elizabeth was sold to a succession of buyers, most of whom had unsuccessful plans for her including a period of time moored in Port Everglades, Florida. Finally, the Elizabeth was sold to Hong Kong businessman Tung Chao Yung, who intended to convert her into a floating university renamed Seawise University. On the morning of Sunday, January 9, 1972, while the ship was anchored in Victoria Harbour, a series of fires suddenly broke out aboard, forcing hundreds of visiting shipyard workers and their families to evacuate the ship. Firefighting boats tried to extinguish the fire for the next 24 hours, but they could not prevent the ship from capsizing. According to a Time magazine article published on January 24, 1972: “Next day, with her upper decks collapsed and her massive steel hull buckled like so much soggy cardboard, the ship, still burning, keeled over. The Queen had died.”
On the day RMS Queen Mary sailed on her maiden voyage, Cunard’s chairman, Sir Percy Bates, informed his ship designers that it was time to start designing the planned second ship. The official contract between Cunard and government financiers was signed on October 6, 1936. The new ship improved upon the design of Queen Mary with sufficient changes, including a reduction in the number of boilers to twelve instead of Mary’s twenty-four, that the designers could discard one funnel and increase deck, cargo and passenger space. The two funnels were self-supporting and braced internally to give a cleaner looking appearance. With the forward well deck omitted, a more refined hull shape was achieved, and a sharper, raked bow was added for a third bow-anchor point. She was to be eleven feet longer and of 4,000 tons greater displacement than her older sister ship, Mary.
Queen Elizabeth was built on slipway four at John Brown & Company in Clydebank, Scotland, Great Britain. During her construction she was more commonly known by her shipyard number, Hull 552. The interiors were designed by a team of artists headed by the architect George Grey Wornum. Cunard’s plan was for the ship to be launched in September 1938, with fitting out intended to be complete for the ship to enter service in the spring of 1940. The Queen herself performed the launching ceremony on September 27, 1938, and the ship was sent for fitting out. It was announced that on August 23, 1939, the King and Queen were to visit the ship and tour the engine room and that April 24, 1940, was to be the proposed date of her maiden voyage. Due to the outbreak of World War II, these two events were postponed and Cunard’s plans were shattered.
Queen Elizabeth sat at the fitting-out dock at the shipyard in her Cunard colors until November 2, 1939, when the Ministry of Shipping issued special licenses to declare her seaworthy. On December 29, her engines were tested for the first time, running from 0900 to 1600 with the propellers disconnected to monitor her oil and steam operating temperatures and pressures. Two months later, Cunard received a letter from Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, ordering the ship to leave Clydeside as soon as possible and “to keep away from the British Isles as long as the order was in force”.
At the start of World War II, it was decided that Queen Elizabeth was so vital to the war effort that she must not have her movements tracked by German spies operating in the Clydebank area. Therefore, an elaborate ruse was fabricated involving her sailing to Southampton to complete her fitting out. Another factor prompting Queen Elizabeth‘s departure was the necessity to clear the fitting out berth at the shipyard for the battleship HMS Duke of York, which was in need of its final fitting-out. Only the berth at John Brown could accommodate the King George V-class battleship’s needs.
One major factor that limited the ship’s secret departure date was that there were only two spring tides that year that would see the water level high enough for Queen Elizabeth to leave the Clydebank shipyard, and German intelligence were aware of this fact. A minimal crew of four hundred were assigned for the trip; most were transferred from Aquitania for a short coastal voyage to Southampton. Parts were shipped to Southampton, and preparations were made to move the ship into the King George V graving dock when she arrived. The names of Brown’s shipyard employees were booked to local hotels in Southampton to give a false trail of information and Captain John Townley was appointed as her first master. Townley had previously commanded the Aquitania on one voyage, and several of Cunard’s smaller vessels before that. Townley and his hastily signed on crew of four hundred Cunard personnel were told by a company representative before they left to pack for a voyage where they could be away from home for up to six months.
By the beginning of March 1940, Queen Elizabeth was ready for her secret voyage. The Cunard colors were painted over with battleship grey, and on the morning of March 3, the QE quietly left her moorings in the Clyde and proceeded out of the river to sailed further down the coast, where she was met by the King’s Messenger, who presented sealed orders directly to the captain. While waiting for the Messenger, the ship was refueled; adjustments to the ship’s compass and some final testing of equipment were also carried out before she sailed to her secret destination.
Captain Townley discovered that he was to take the ship directly to New York in the then neutral United States without stopping, or even slowing to drop off the Southampton harbor pilot who had embarked on at Clydebank, and to maintain strict radio silence. Later that day, at the time when she was due to arrive at Southampton, the city was bombed by the Luftwaffe. After a zigzagged crossing taking six days to avoid Germany U-boats, Queen Elizabeth had still crossed the Atlantic at an average speed of 26 knots. In New York she found herself moored alongside both Queen Mary and the French Line’s Normandie, the only time all three of the world’s largest liners would be berthed together. Captain Townley received two telegrams on his arrival, one from his wife congratulating him and the other from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth thanking him for the vessel’s safe delivery. The ship was then secured so that no one could board her without prior permission, including port officials.
Queen Elizabeth left the port of New York on November 13, 1940, for Singapore to receive her troopship conversion. After two stops to refuel and replenish her stores in Trinidad and Cape Town, she arrived in Singapore’s Naval Docks where she was fitted with anti-aircraft guns, and her hull repainted grey. As a troopship, Queen Elizabeth left Singapore on February 11, 1941. Initially, she carried Australian troops to theatres of operation in Asia and Africa.
On February 23, 1942, Queen Elizabeth arrived in Esquimalt, British Columbia, Canada. She underwent refit work adding additional accommodation, armaments and painted. She was in Esquimalt for thirteen days. After 1942, the two Queens were relocated to the North Atlantic for the transportation of American troops to Europe.
Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary were both used as troop transports during the war. Their high speeds allowed them to outrun hazards, principally German U-boats, usually allowing them to travel outside a convoy. During her war service as a troopship, Queen Elizabeth carried more than 750,000 troops, and she also sailed some 500,000 miles (800,000 km).
Following the end of the Second World War, Queen Elizabeth was refitted and furnished as an ocean liner while her running mate Queen Mary remained in her wartime role and grey appearance except for her funnels, which were repainted in the company’s colors. For another year, her sibling did military service, returning troops and G.I. brides to the United States while the Queen Elizabeth was overhauled at the Firth of Clyde Drydock, in Greenock, by the John Brown Shipyard.
Six years of war service had never permitted the formal sea trials to take place so they were now finally undertaken. Under the command of Commodore Sir James Bisset the ship travelled to the Isle of Arran and her trials were carried out. On board was the ship’s namesake, Queen Elizabeth, and her two daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. During the trials, Queen Elizabeth took the wheel for a brief time and the two young princesses recorded the two measured runs with stopwatches that they had been given for the occasion. Bisset was under strict instructions from Sir Percy Bates, who was also aboard the trials, that all that was required from the ship was two measured runs of no more than thirty knots and that she was not permitted to attempt to attain a higher speed record than Queen Mary. Queen Elizabeth‘s engines were capable of driving her to speeds of over 32 knots.
After her trials Queen Elizabeth finally entered passenger service, allowing Cunard White Star to launch the long planned two ship weekly service to New York. Despite specifications similar to those of Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth never held the Blue Riband, for Cunard White Star chairman Sir Percy Bates asked that the two ships not to try to compete against each other.
The ship ran aground on a sandbank off Southampton on April 14, 1947, and was re-floated the following day. In 1955, during an annual overhaul at Southampton, England, Queen Elizabeth was fitted with underwater fin stabilizers to smooth the ride in rough seas. Two fins were fitted on each side of the hull. The fins were retractable into the hull to save fuel in smooth seas and for docking. On July 29 1959, she was in a collision with the American freighter American Hunter in foggy conditions in New York Harbor and was holed above the waterline.
Together with the Queen Mary and in competition with the American liners SS United States and SS America, the Queen Elizabeth dominated the transatlantic passenger trade until their fortunes began to decline with the advent of the faster and more economical jet airliner in the late 1950s. As passenger numbers declined, the liners became uneconomic to operate in the face of rising fuel and labor costs.
For a short time, the Queen Elizabeth – now under the command of Commodore Geoffrey Trippleton Marr, attempted a dual role in order to become more profitable; when not plying her usual transatlantic route, which she now alternated in her sailings with the French Line’s SS France, the ship cruised between New York and Nassau. For this new tropical purpose, the ship received a major refit in 1965, with a new lido deck added to her aft section, enhanced air conditioning, and an outdoor swimming pool. With these improvements, Cunard intended to keep the ship in operation until at least the middle 1970s. However, the strategy did not prove successful due to the high fuel costs plus the ships deep draught, which prevented her from entering various island ports, and the ships width which preventing her from using the Panama Canal.
Cunard retired Queen Mary in 1967. Queen Elizabeth departed on her final Atlantic crossing on November 5, 1968, She had already been sold to a group of Philadelphia businessmen from a company called The Queen Corporation (which was 85% owned by Cunard and 15% by them). The new company intended to operate the ship as a hotel and tourist attraction in Port Everglades, Florida, similar to the planned use of Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. She sailed to Port Everglades and was opened to the public in February 1969.
The Elizabeth, as she was now called, actually opened to tourists before Queen Mary (which opened in 1971) but it was not to last. The climate of southern Florida was much harder on Queen Elizabeth than the climate of southern California was on Queen Mary. There was some talk of permanently flooding the bilge and allowing the Queen Elizabeth to safely rest on the bed of the Intracoastal Waterway in Ft. Lauderdale harbor (Port Everglades) and remain open.
Losing money and forced to close after being declared a fire hazard, the ship was sold at auction in 1970 to Hong Kong tycoon Tung Chao Yung Head of the Orient Overseas Line, Tung intended to convert the vessel into a university for the World Campus Afloat program (later reformed and renamed as Semester at Sea). Following the tradition of the Orient Overseas Line, the ship was renamed Seawise University as a play on Tung’s initials (C.Y.’s).
During the refit in Hong Kong, much of Queen Elizabeth‘s original interiors were removed and new machinery and furnishing were added. By early January, most of the £5 million conversion work had been completed with the notable exception that the ship’s fire suppression systems had not been activated. The vessel caught fire on January 9, 1972. The small band of workers on board were in no position to combat the flames and the fire quickly spread throughout the interiors of the ship consuming the luxurious woodwork that had once made the Queen Elizabeth one of the more elegant ships at sea. As the fire weakened the interior support structure of the ship, and more and more water was pumped onto the upper decks, portions of the ship began to collapse and she eventually capsized onto her starboard side.
An eyewitness account by Englishman John A. Hudson who was living in Hong Kong at the time, as well as Hudson’s color photographs of the fire and aftermath, can be found on the CruisePage.com website.
There is some suspicion that the fires were set deliberately, as several blazes broke out simultaneously throughout the ship. The fact that C.Y. Tung had acquired the vessel for $3.5 million, and had insured it for $8 million, led some to speculate that the inferno was part of a fraud to collect on the insurance claim. Others speculated that the fires were the result of a conflict between Tung, a Chinese Nationalist, and Communist-dominated ship construction unions.
The charred wreck was featured in the 1974 James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun, as a covert headquarters for MI6. Q’s labs are in the wreckage of this ship.
The vessel was finally declared a shipping hazard and partially dismantled for scrap between 1974 and 1975. Portions of the hull that were not salvaged were left at the bottom of the bay. The keel and boilers remained at the bottom of the harbor and the area was marked as “Foul” on local sea charts warning ships not to try to anchor there. It is estimated that around 40–50% of the wreck was still on the seabed. In the late 1990s, the final remains of the wreck were buried during land reclamation for the construction of Container Terminal 9. Position of the wreck is at 22°19.717′N 114°06.733′E.
A court of inquiry in Hong Kong concluded that several fires were set simultaneously using highly inflammable substances. It was a “deliberate act by persons or persons unknown.” Otherwise, the court of inquiry found, no one was especially to blame for the disaster which, miraculously, claimed no lives but was a huge insurance loss. The police, it was revealed, received a tip-off about an alleged mastermind but it was anonymous and was disregarded.
After the court of inquiry, the case was handed to the criminal investigation department of the Hong Kong police. Forty-six years later, the public is still waiting to hear what they have found. There have been no arrests, no charges laid and there has been an almost total absence of follow-up discussion or press speculation. Historians and crime writers might hope that government archives would hold some clues. If they do, they are still held too tightly to help.
After the fire, Tung had one of the liner’s anchors and the metal letters “Q” and “E” from the name on the bow placed in front of the office building at Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance, California, that was intended to be the headquarters of the Seawise University venture, where they remain. Two of the ship’s fire warning system brass plaques were recovered by a dredger and these are now on display at The Aberdeen Boat Club in Hong Kong within a display area about the ship. The charred remnants of her last ensign were cut from the flag pole and framed in 1972, and still adorn the wall of the officers’ mess of Marine Police HQ in Hong Kong. Parker Pen Company produced a special edition of 5,000 pens made from material recovered from the wreck in a presentation box, today highly collectible.
Following the demise of Queen Elizabeth, the largest passenger ship in active service became the 66,343 GT SS France, which was longer but with less tonnage than the Cunard liner.
The remote South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha released a set of four stamps and a souvenir sheet on February 8, 1979, to mark the inaugural visit of RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 (Scott #255-259). Printed by the House of Questa Ltd. using lithography, the 15-pence denomination in the set featured Queen Elizabeth.
While growing up, I became fascinated with ocean liners. At this point, I cannot recall if that interest predated or was a result of family visits to the Queen Mary in Long Beach or not. That ship was an early favorite along with Titanic, of course, but was soon eclipsed by the QE2. The original Queen Elizabeth was always a bit off of my radar, something echoed in references to her as “the forgotten Queen.”
The ship’s status in my original interests is reflected by her under-representation in what was my earliest foray into topical collecting — ocean liners on stamps. The Tristan da Cunha set that today’s stamp is a part of was the very first I’d obtained by writing to a foreign postal administration and was one of the first I re-acquired when I returned to the hobby about twelve years ago. Scott #257 remained the ONLY stamp in my collection to portray Queen Elizabeth until just a few months ago when I obtained a first day cover bearing a set of stamps issued by Great Britain as part of 1988’s EUROPA omnibus on the theme of “Transportation and Communication
Scott #1213-1216 featured different modes of transportation in designs reminiscent of Art Deco travel posters designed by the team of Carroll, Dempsey, and Tinker. Printed by Harrison & Sons Ltd. and perforated 15×14, the 25-pence denomination (Scott #1214) features a portion of Queen Elizabeth. The first day cover bears a pictorial postmark from Southampton noting the ship’s 50th anniversary year. It was up to a roll of the dice to determine which stamp would be featured today…