Warrior Queens: The Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth in World War II
By Danial Allen Butler
Hardcover in dustjacket, 180 pages, photographs, sources, and index
Published by Stackpole Books, February 2002
Dimensions: 6.0 x 1.0 x 9.0 inches
As the world began to emerge from the Great Depression in the 1930s, the British Cunard White-Star Line began building two gigantic ocean liners for the trans-Atlantic route. Together, the two ships were to provide weekly service between Southampton, Cherbourg, and New York. The ships were to be the largest and fastest liners ever built, displacing over 80,000 tons with speeds of 32 knots.
Germany’s invasion of Poland ended the commercial trans-Atlantic passenger trade. Queen Mary was in service and remained safe in the then neutral port of New York, along with the ill-fated French liner Normandie. Queen Elizabeth was not yet in service, fitting out at Clydebank, Scotland. To be safe from Luftwaffe bombers, Queen Elizabeth departed in great secrecy to join Queen Mary in New York. It was decided to convert both ships into troop transports in Australia, and they were used to transport Australian and New Zealand troops to North Africa, with wounded soldiers and Axis PoW’s embarked on the return trips. Designed for the North Atlantic route, the ships were not provided with adequate air conditioning equipment for the tropics which made the trips Down Under uncomfortable and occasionally fatal.
With America’s entry into the war the ships’ troop-carrying capacity was increased, allowing over 15,000 to be carried. This was enough to transport an entire infantry division, a task which had previously required a 21-ship convoy and taken twice as long. The Queen’s great speeds allowed them to make the passage unescorted and in complete radio silence which made them an almost impossible target for German U-boats. Administratively the passage was treated as a single-ship convoy, requiring only local escort upon entering or leaving port.
On only two occasions did the Queens encounter trouble. On 02OCT42, in fair weather with good visibility, the Queen Mary cut the escorting anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Curacoa in half with the loss of 239 sailors. This chapter was a hard read for a former ship-driver, as a series of mistakes were made on both bridges and the collision could have been easily avoided. The second incident occurred just two months later, when Queen Mary was struck by a rouge wave off Scotland. This caused her to heal over to within a few degrees of capsizing (think of the Poseidon Adventure movie). This could have easily resulted in her loss with all aboard, and as she was steaming alone it might have remained one of the great mysteries of the sea to this day.
My sole criticism of this book is that it was lacking in personal interviews and anecdotes, which might have added a more human aspect to the stories of these ships. Overall though this is an interesting and well-written work which describes the use of two very glamorous ships pressed into the very un-glamorous role of troop transport. Churchill credited the ships with shortening the war by a year, as between them they transported well over a million U.S. and Canadian troops to England. Recommended for all readers interested in ships and the sea.