Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Secret Voyage of the Queen Elizabeth

As the Second World War began to escalate in the early part of 1940, the decision was made to move the new Queen Elizabeth out of Scotland; she would be too prime a target for the Luftwaffe otherwise. Without being thoroughly tested, she embarked on her secret maiden voyage, as described by Leonard A. Stevens:

On March 2, 1940, the Queen Elizabeth, untried at sea, set forth across the Atlantic. She was escorted for a ways by four British destroyers and some military aircraft; then the ship set off alone in the submarine-infested ocean. Captain J.C. Townley commanded a crew of about four hundred. The ship was unarmed except for two guns on each side of the flying bridge. Though the crew did not know it, they were actually acting on an order from Winston Churchill, who had said that the liner must keep away from the British Isles until ordered to return. Indeed, the Germans, who got word of the plans, were even waiting with their bombers over the English Channel at the time the Elizabeth was supposed to come through on her way to Southampton.

Out at sea Captain Townley opened his secret orders to learn that he was to take the Elizabeth to the Port of New York where her sister ship, the Mary, had been caught as the war began. He was to maintain radio silence, but he would be sent important wireless communications by the Royal Navy. He was to maintain a full blackout and take an evasive, zigzag course. Regardless of his course, Captain Townley had a tremendous advantage when it came to running the Atlantic in the ship that a German U-boat crew would most love to sink. His was one of the fastest liners on earth - or at that point without trials, she was supposed to be. As he added miles between the ship and Scotland, the Master of the Elizabeth was rapidly convinced that she was performing as her designers and builders had planned. It would have taken an extremely clever or mighty lucky U-boat captain to sink the new Queen.

The Queen Elizabeth’s secret voyage - both her trials and her unofficial maiden voyage wrapped in one - was uneventful, yet the crew would never forget that Atlantic crossing. The vessel, sleek and new as seen from the outside, was still raw on the inside. Pipes, wires, and other materials ordinarily hidden were exposed, and some not even fixed in place. Moreover, the gigantic ship was virtually empty, and crew members wandering around inside the liner found it a lonely, eerie experience. They made up about an eighth of the numbers the Elizabeth could carry when full. This new, untried hotel of the seas was a gray, lightless ghost ship skimming over the cold North Atlantic in the dangerous early days of World War II.

References: Leonard A. Stevens, The Elizabeth: Passage of a Queen (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), 153-155.

No comments:

Post a Comment