18 March 2009

A Quiet Launch

Time on this day in 1940:

Q.E. Deed

Captain John Townley's comments were laconic and anything but epic. "Well, I mean to say, I better not discuss that. . . . You mustn't ask too many questions. . . . Then a number of things happened, I can't say when. . . . Don't ask where. ..."

Chief Engineer William Sutcliffe mostly shrugged and shook his head. The only definite things he would say were that he had used all twelve of her boilers and that some day she would outspeed the Queen Mary. But about the crossing he was modestly mum.

Manhattan offices of the Cunard White Star Line issued an announcement of her arrival as dry and unsalted as a British High Command communique. About the crossing's adventures, nothing.

All garrulous old Winston Churchill would say (last week, at least) was: "Splendid, very good work, indeed."

Even Pilot Julius Seeth, who brought her up from Quarantine, failed to pick up any yarns. His only comment was that "she did everything a lady ought to do."

At a daily cost to New York City of $1,300, nine police sergeants, six mounties, 22 plainclothesmen and 117 patrolmen were deployed along the Hudson River waterfront to keep a tight ring around the lady so that no one could even get a good look at her.

And so the U. S., as usual, had to get the lowdown by devious methods. Across Twelfth Avenue from Pier 90, in a waterfront joint called the Anchor, Queen Elizabeth's crew gradually spilled the beans. Whoever would talk got free drinks. Some of the men were reticent and asked not to be quoted. Senior Printer Pearce Jones not only consented to be quoted; he insisted. "I am protected," he said, "by the Typographical Society of Great Britain and Ireland." Greaser Tom Barber and Fireman Jim O'Brien and Engineer Peter Johnson were in fine form. Oiler Jack Sykes babbled in Cockney. Gradually the story took consecutive shape:

At John Brown's Shipyard in Clydebank, Scotland, on Sept. 27, 1938, at 3:36 in the afternoon, Queen Elizabeth gravely said: "We cannot foretell the future, but in preparing for it we share a trust in a Divine Providence and in ourselves"; then snipped a ribbon which released a bottle of champagne to christen the world's largest liner (85,000 tons, 1,030 feet overall) with her own name. Into the water slipped the Queen Elizabeth, and into troublous times.

As peace waned, Q. E. grew—got her two funnels, pumps, donkey engines. She came along fast. Cunard set her first voyage to the U. S. for April or May 1940. Then war broke. Q. E. sat useless, an unfinished liability, meat for either sabotage or bombing. Last month fire broke out in her library.

Fortnight ago the report was given out that Brown's had contracted so much war work that Q. E. was in the way. Since one of the year's two highest apogee tides was coming along, it had been decided to move her "to another port." With no fuss, with only a few score people lining the same Clyde River banks where 1,000,000 had cheered Queen Mary in 1936, Q. E. eased downstream. For an hour she kissed a mudbank at Rashielee Light, where the Mary, too, had grounded. Finally she anchored outside, at Greenock.

A shadow crew of 378 was signed on "for the run to Southampton," at four quid two and ten (about $17) a man.

Ostentatiously a pier at Southampton was cleared. If there were any German agents around, they were allowed to hear exactly when the big lady was supposed to reach that vulnerable port.

For two days, inside Greenock's harbor boom, Q. E. limbered up. Two screws ahead, two astern, she slowly turned around. This shunting was all she ever had by way of shakedown, trial run, compass test.

On the first day of March the crew was called together in the third-class lounge.

Captain Townley spoke. He talked of what a fine ship this was—Britain's pride.

Then he sprang a surprise. He told the men they were going to make a trip of which they could not know the danger.

The crew negotiated for, and was promised, "run money" of $120. A few with families or funk ("who didn't want to be shanghaied into any bloody disaster") walked off. Those who remained were allowed to write letters home. Next morning, with hardly anyone to watch her go, Q. E. put to sea, convoyed by a squadron of bombers and four destroyers. At dark the planes cut back. Captain Townley then opened his orders to find out where he was going. He was going to New York.

The destroyers stayed with her into the second night.

The third morning, the convoy had disappeared. Q. E. was on her own. All she had for protection now was a coat of drab grey paint and a DeGaussing Girdle—a weft of cables strung around the hull just below the promenade deck. Nobody on either side of the ocean—outside the British Navy and the Cunard Line—could say for sure how this electric belt worked.

Best guessers figured that it either extended the ship's magnetic field, thus exploding the mines at a safe distance, or reversed the ship's polarity, thus immunizing it to the effect of the mine's magnetic trigger. Ironically the protective device took its name from German Magnetist Karl Friedrich Gauss, whom Captain Townley patriotically calls "a Swedish professor." Q. E. had a tried skipper in charge.

Captain John Townley is an old hand, formerly captain of the Queen Mary. Dodging Germans was old stuff to him. During World War I he shuttled troops to the East in the Aquitania. He skippered the Mauretania on her last hazardous run to Manhattan in September.

As soon as the convoy dropped away, he ordered Q. E.'s speed stepped up from 17 to about 25 knots, and began zigzagging. Her course was south of the regular lanes—warm enough so the men could sunbathe on the off watches. On the fourth day, thick fog came up. Submarines or no submarines, Q. E.'s foghorn blasted every minute. Next night it cleared and passenger ships passed. ("We could see their lights in the darkness," said young Quartermaster Norman Cronin. "We were all blacked out. We couldn't even smoke on deck.")

Early on the morning of the sixth day, Q. E. sighted Nantucket Light. At this point, with a premature burst of pride, the Admiralty announced in London that the Elizabeth had reached a safe berth "across the Atlantic." This was the first intimation to most of the world that Q. E. had even left John Brown's Shipyard. Far more amazing, a far more admirable feat than Q. E.'s actual run was the secrecy which had blacked it out. Too many people knew it was coming off—families of the crew, some 2,000 Brown Shipyarders, the underwriters for Q. E.'s $18,000.000 insurance, Admiralty insiders, many thousands in firms under contract for fittings, furniture, odds-&-ends which had to be left behind. But not one of them talked. They had read the repeated warnings that walls have ears and Adolf is under every table.

If Germans were disappointed by the news, they gave no sign of it. Said an official spokesman: "The stealthy trip into a U. S. harbor does not speak well for British confidence in victory. First the British took gold over there, then apparently other treasures, and forgot to bring back certain historical documents [i e., one of four copies of Magna Charta, deposited in the Library of Congress]. Now they must pay $1,000 a day docking charges. . . . What is the Queen Elizabeth anyway. It is not even finished. In fact, it is half a skeleton. Now, the Bremen—that was something!"

Manhattan newshawks announced Q. E.'s arrival while she was still miles from Ambrose Light. Not until the next morning did she heave to at Quarantine, greeted there at the end of her strange maiden voyage not by swarms of welcoming craft, but by three hollow grunts from the humble sludge boat Coney Island, on her way to dump outside the bay. . . .

And that, said the boys at the Anchor, was that. Why had she come? So as not to be bombed, of course. As for those docking charges the Nazis jeered about,* she would save almost $1,000,000 a year on insurance premiums by being out of the danger zone.

Had the men been frightened? Blimey, no! Why be frightened on a nice, easy trip, with a bar for the crew, and cards, and the best British tobacco? But the men were glad to be in New York, all the same—glad to be out of danger, glad to be heroes, glad, above all, to be where beer flowed free and there was no such thing as blackout. "Know what I'm going to do next?" exulted Quartermaster Cronin. "I'm going up to Times Square and just walk around and let the lights shine on me." Before the evening was over, Quartermaster Cronin did some shining of his own. With two pals he drifted into the bright Hollywood Restaurant, and soon, right in front of a flashlight camera, he had his chin chucked by a chorus girl till he glowed like Ambrose Light.

*Queen Elizabeth would incur no new rental charges at Cunard's Pier 90, chartered by the year for $189,188. But Mauretania, moved to new space to make room for Q. E., will entail a new rental fee for Cunard. Mauretania was berthed at Pier 86, which until October was rented to North German Lloyd and held the Bremen just before her dash home.

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