What could a stockman from New South Wales, a stockbroker from New York, and a railway telegrapher from Nova Scotia possibly have in common? Between 1942 and 1944, they, and thousands of their countrymen, were military "guests" aboard the fastest and most modern ocean liner afloat, the Cunard-owned RMS Queen Elizabeth.
Queen Elizabeth, 82,998 tons, was launched in September of 1938 and modified for troop transport in 1940 in Singapore. Her designation RMS (Royal Mail Ship) was dropped for HMT (His Majesty’s Transport) for the duration of World War II. During that time she carried nearly half of all Allied troops sent to Europe.
Queen Elizabeth was a true behemoth, capable of carrying 16,000 troops per trip (on one voyage she transported the entire 1st U.S. Infantry Division) at a speed of more than 30 knotsfast enough that senior naval men felt she could safely avoid the German U-boat fleet.
In salons where one should have found fashionable women in diamonds gossiping about Wallis Simpson and gentlemen lounging with brandies and Havanas, only military personnel in fatigues could be found, sitting on jury-rigged bunks often stacked 30 high, sleeping, playing craps, or writhing with paroxysms of sea-sickness. To relieve the boredom and tension, military personnel were encouraged to "volunteer" for shipboard duty, filling the jobs of lookout, gun crew, mess orderly, and kitchen helper.
Meals were served only twice each day, in shifts; breakfast from 0630 to 1100 and "tea" from 1500 to 1930. While food was adequate and plentiful, it was definitely not of the gourmet variety one might expect on board this elegant vessel in peace time. But a sense of decorum was not completely absent: officers were expected to appear in shirt, tie, and jacket for meals, and special holiday dinners were announced on attractive menus printed in the ship’s print shop.
At one point, Adolf Hitler offered a bounty equivalent to almost $250,000 and an Iron Cross to any Kriegsmarine Captain who could send the Queen Elizabeth to the bottom. On November 9, 1942, Kapitanleutnant Kessler of U-704 could hardly contain his joy as he spotted the ultimate Allied prize near 55° N, 29° W. No doubt with visions of a comfortable retirement on a Bavarian estate in mind, Kessler cried "Losen!" and U-704 released a spread of four torpedoes at the rapidly moving target.
The U-boat’s crew heard one explosion as the Queen slipped into the mist, and Kessler eagerly radioed his handlers that he had a confirmed hit. Unfortunately for Kessler, what he heard was one of his torpedoes self-destructing short of its target, and the Queen Elizabeth continued unharmed.
At least one 1944 trip on the Queen Elizabeth was considerably more enjoyable for shipboard guests. Glenn Miller’s band was aboard, and the main salon echoed with the strains of "In the Mood" and "Moonlight Serenade." The band was making that passage to embattledBritain just a bit more bearable than most. Ironically, after surviving perilous wartime service, the Queen Elizabeth died a peacetime death in 1972 at the hands of saboteurs when she was burned and sunk in Hong Kong Harbor.