Churchill Afloat – Liners and the Man

Finest Hour 121, Winter 2003-04

Page 16

By Christopher H. Sterling

Dr. Sterling is on the faculty of The George Washington University and is editor of The Churchillian, published by the Washington Society for Churchill. His “Churchill and Air Travel” appeared in FH 118.


queen mary maiden voyage 1936Throughout his long life, Winston Churchill was a prolific traveler. He enjoyed a variety of modes of transport, including on one notable and photographed occasion, a camel.1 Of the many ships on which he took passage, Churchill is most closely identified with the Cunard liner Queen Mary, on which he sailed numerous times (more than any other single vessel) during and after World War II—and about which he wrote the tribute published in this issue.

Churchill sailed on at least fifteen different liners over nearly six decades.2 His trips varied considerably in length and the conditions under which he sailed, but few sources detail them. Passing reference is often made (“Churchill sailed…”), offering no information on the ship involved. What follows is culled from a wide variety of sources on ships and Churchill.

Serving the Empire

Churchill’s first ocean voyages took place on vessels of the three most important British shipping lines linking vital Empire routes. The Cunard Line had served the North Atlantic route to Canada and the United States since 1840. The Peninsular & Oriental (P&O), formed in 1839 and responsible for adding the term “posh” to the language (which originally stood for the way to avoid the hot sun by dwelling on the “port [side] out [and] starboard home”), pioneered service to India and Australia. The Union-Castle line (the result of a 1900 merger) served South Africa.3 At this stage, Churchill was but one of many young men traveling by sea to serve Britain’s worldwide interests. The entertainment and excitement he sought, of course, was not found aboard ship.

Perhaps fittingly, his initial sea voyage took him on his first of more than a dozen trips to the United States. In November 1895 Churchill sailed with his friend Reggie Barnes from Liverpool to New York on the Cunarder Etruria. It was an inauspicious beginning to a life of travel by sea for, as he wrote to his mother near the end of the voyage, “I do not contemplate ever taking a sea voyage for pleasure and I shall always look upon journeys by sea as necessary evils which have to be undergone in the carrying out of any definite plan.”4

While his cabin was “not uncomfortable,” the ship lacked a “comfortable place to sit down and an interesting occupation” while on board— though it was his fellow passengers that were most vexing.” There are no nice people on board to speak of—certainly none to write of…There is to be a concert on board tonight at which all the stupid people among the passengers intend to perform and the stupider ones to applaud. The days have seemed very long & uninteresting.”5 After an exciting time in both New York City and Cuba (where he turned 21 and came under fire for the first time), Churchill returned to England early in 1896 on the same ship.

The next four voyages—on four different P&O ships—all carried Churchill either to or from Bombay, India, by way of the British-operated Suez Canal. In September 1896, he sailed from Southampton with many of his army compatriots on the Britannia, which had been chartered to carry troops. Clearly this second experience was more agreeable—largely because of his fellow passengers. As he wrote to his mother, “I play Picquet…& chess…& in the afternoons and evenings our string band plays—adding to the agreeableness of the voyage. Everyone here pretends the weather is very hot—sleeps on deck, etc. But I remain comfortably in the deserted cabin which as I have it to myself at nights is perfectly cool. We make a very cheery party ourselves—and as there are nearly a hundred officers on board there is no lack of company.”6

In May 1897, and very much against his mother’s advice on what would be good for his career, Churchill took leave and sailed home on P&O’s Ganges from Bombay for Brindisi, from which he journeyed by train to Britain. Under three months later he made the same trip in reverse, reaching Brindisi by rail, and sailing on P&O’s Rome to Bombay. An eventful nine months later, in March 1899, he left India for the last time, returning from Bombay on P&O’s Carthage, along with, among others, Sir Bindon Blood.

Christine Lewis Conover, then a young American whom Churchill met aboard the Carthage, provides a glimpse of young Winston at the time: “…a freckled, red-haired young man in a rumpled suit carrying an immense tin cake box. [In it was his manuscript for The River War, his book on the Sudan campaign, which he had joined as a correspondent during another Indian leave in the summer of 1898.] We found him a most amusing fellow traveler, full of fun, with a delightful sense of humor.. ..Every day he sat beside us on the deck, working intensely on his book. He paid no attention to the gay chatter of young people on the adjoining chairs as he wrote and rewrote in that particular small hand. His concentration was an example to us all.”7

Arriving in Cairo, Churchill holed up there for a few weeks to work on his book, keeping brief company with Miss Lewis. Churchill sailed to and from Egypt on small French packet ships of little importance—and less cleanliness, from surviving accounts.

On his subsequent voyage down to South Africa, on the other hand, he was on board a first-class vessel. With some 1,500 British soldiers, he sailed on 14 October 1899 to Cape Town on the Castle Line’s government-chartered Dunottar Castle. The first shots in what became the Boer War had been fired just two days earlier. Again he complains—this time in a dispatch to the Morning Post—of “what an odious affair is a modern sea journey!” He was clearly bored with the inaction of a trip of more than two weeks along the coast of West Africa. Or, as he often said, quoting Dr. Johnson’s line, “Being in a ship is being in jail, with the chance of being drowned.”

Churchill was especially bothered about being cut off from news, since only a handful of ships were then equipped with wireless. But perhaps the real problem this time was mal de mer, as he wrote to his mother: “We have had a nasty rough passage & I have been grievously sick. The roll of the vessel is still very pronounced….”8 But a week later he was “having a cool & prosperous voyage, and although the ship is crowded and ill-found, I cannot say I hate it as much as I expected to.”9 In July 1900, Churchill returned to England on the same ship, by now a war hero.

Churchill’s second trip to North America was a lecture tour about his experiences in the Boer War. In December 1900, he sailed for New York on Cunard’s Lucania, by far the largest and fastest liner he had yet used, the best of the British merchant marine at the time, though no longer a record holder. After dozens of lectures and £10,000 richer, an exhausted Churchill embarked in February 1901 from New York on Etruria— the very liner that had first brought him to America six years before.

Interval: Two Disasters

For almost three decades, Churchill apparently did not sail on a passenger ship. These were, of course, the frantically busy years of his striking political growth. They included two of the worst British passenger liner disasters of the century, in one of which he was indirectly involved.

The sinking of the White Star liner Titanic on her April 1912 maiden voyage to New York, with the loss of some 1,500 lives, horrified the world.10 Writing to his wife just days after the loss, Churchill reflected that “the strict observance of the great traditions of the sea towards women & children reflects nothing but honour upon our civilization….I cannot help feeling proud of our race and its traditions as proved by this event. Boatloads of women and children tossing on the sea—safe and sound—& the rest—silence.”11 As soon became known, however, the reality was quite different: a host of women and children in second and third class lost their lives while many First Class (and other) male passengers were saved, including the chairman of the line, J. Bruce Ismay, who never lived it down and died a broken and despised man.12

The torpedoing by the German submarine U-20 of the Cunard Line’s Lusitania off the south coast of Ireland just over three years later was almost as bad. The large liner went down in just eighteen minutes, taking hundreds with her. Many more died before rescue ships reached them hours later. Some 1,200 lives were lost— including many women and children and 129 Americans.13 Churchill was then First Lord of the Admiralty, and it was under Admiralty orders that Lusitania sailed. A host of accusations were raised then—and in some later books—arguing that Churchill or the Admiralty were somehow behind the sinking of the ship in an attempt to bring America into the war.14

Already under fierce political pressure over the Gallipoli venture that would (seemingly) soon end his career, Churchill said little about the Lusitania at the time—merely one brief response to a question in the House of Commons. He devoted three pages to the event in The World Crisis, and wrote a more expansive newspaper piece fifteen years later. In all he was defensive—”No one can say the Admiralty were remiss” as he put it in the 1937 article. In the same piece he also writes of two torpedoes (when even then it was known that only one struck the vessel), that “no panic broke out” (which was clearly not the case), and of blunders made by Captain Turner (whom some officers at the Admiralty had tried to frame for the disaster). Churchill also suggests the U-20 remained nearby on the surface when at no time had it surfaced. Nor does he comment upon the Admiralty’s confusion over the sending of rescue vessels, which sadly contributed to the death toll.15

Traveling First Class

In the 1920s Churchill held high office, including Chancellor of the Exchequer. When Baldwin’s government fell in 1929, he was ready for a substantial change of scene. Over the next three years he would sail extensively and loyally on British lines (Cunard, White Star, Canadian-Pacific), unless a foreign liner got him around faster.

On 3 August 1929, joined by his brother, nephew and son Randolph, Churchill boarded the Canadian Pacific’s Empress of Australia bound from Southampton to Quebec. Used to good service and facilities, the group traveled First Class. “What fun it is to get away from England and feel one has no responsibility for her exceedingly tiresome and embarrassing affairs,” he wrote Lord Beaverbrook.16 Perhaps ironically in light of that comment, he also noted the benefit of being in wireless connection with those back home. The Churchills spent nearly three months in Canada and the United States before sailing in October from New York on Cunard’s Berengaria, just days after the stock market crash. The huge First Class public rooms and the sense of space on a liner of more than 50,000 tons was unlike anything Churchill had enjoyed before.

Now out of office, Churchill embarked two years later on a lecture tour of the U.S., his fourth trip there. In December 1931 he, Clementine, daughter Diana, and a bodyguard sailed on the North German Lloyd’s speedy Europa for New York. Choosing other than a British liner (especially on the line that had taken the “Blue Riband” or Atlantic speed record from Britain’s Mauretania two years before) was unusual, caused by some late debate on the pending India Bill in Parliament.

Arriving in New York, Churchill held a press conference on the Sun Deck reception saloon and posed for pictures.17 The planned speaking tour was delayed for weeks when Churchill was struck by a car on Fifth Avenue and had to recuperate in a hospital. For a three week rest in the Bahamas, the family traveled to Nassau on White Star Line’s huge Majestic, which offered warm water cruises to fill empty cabins during the Depression. Originally planning to take White Star’s Olympic (sister to the Titanic) back from New York two weeks later, they extended their stay and returned from Nassau on another cruising liner, the Holland American Statendam. After a belated and exhausting speaking schedule, the Churchills sailed home from New York in March 1932, again on the Majestic, to find a handsome new Daimler, a gift from more than one hundred friends.

This was Churchill’s last ocean liner trip until the war. His heavy writing commitments, as well as ongoing Parliamentary debates on India, the Abdication, and German rearmament, kept him fully involved save for short European vacations. But he stayed in touch with liner developments and in 1936, on trie entry into service of the new Cunard-White Star flagship, the Queen Mary, wrote a description for the Strand Magazine. He concluded: “Never in the whole history of Atlantic travel has so lavish provision been made for those who travel ‘tourist.'”18 Little did he then know how important that phrase—or this ship—would prove to be.

Rising tensions in Europe led Churchill to suggest that another liner on which he had sailed several years before be preserved for possible wartime use. In late 1938 Cunard’s Berengaria was headed for the Scottish breakers when Churchill, among other MPs, urged the House of Commons to retain her for the duration of the European crisis for possible troop transport. While antiquated, her capacity would have been invaluable. But unfortunately, no action was taken.19

Queens at War

As First Lord of the Admiralty in March 1940, Churchill was in a position to order action to preserve Britain’s newest and biggest liner, Cunard-White Star’s Queen Elizabeth, then completing her fitting out on the Clyde: He ordered her to sail to New York to get beyond the reach of German bombers.20 Painted a dull navy grey instead of her usual livery of black hull with white superstructure, the Elizabeth sailed with a skeleton crew and many construction workers still on board. For less than a week, the world’s three largest liners lay moored side-by-side at Hudson River piers—the grey Mary and Elizabeth, and the French Line’s doomed Normandie, exiled while still in her peacetime livery. (See page 23.)

As Prime Minister, Churchill made three transatlantic round-trips on the Queen Mary, traveling by warship or airplane for his other journeys: May 1943 (New York and the “Trident” conference with the Americans); July 1943 (Halifax for the “Quadrant” conference in Quebec); and September 1944 (Halifax again for the “Octagon” conference, again in Quebec). Churchill and those traveling with him always boarded at Gourock, Scotland, near the mouth of the Clyde, in evening hours to lessen the chances that his movements would become known to the enemy. The Queen Mary most often traveled alone rather than in a slower convoy, as her top speed, over 30 knots, was far faster than convoy vessels—or the German U-boats.21

While wartime travel on the Mary was under austerity conditions for most passengers (who ranged from thousands of prisoners of war heading west to even more Canadian and American soldiers traveling east), Churchill and key members of his party occupied First Class suites on the main deck. These were furnished in the line’s best pre-war fashion, right down to fresh flowers daily.

Whenever the Prime Minister traveled, structural alterations were required. His suite had to be sealed off from the rest of the liner; staff offices, dining quarters, a map room and conference room were needed. Cabins and staterooms were restored to something like their prewar state of comfort. Guarded by Marines, the PM Suite had laws of its own. The ship, then ferrying American troops, was “dry.” When Churchill heard of this he pulled what is described as “a very glum face,” so his accommodation had its own licensing laws and drink could be served!22 The PM’s party also enjoyed a higher level of cuisine, but these after all were working journeys with extensive staff work to do. Churchill would usually appear on the bridge at least once daily to chat with the Queen‘s officers about the ship and her navigation.

Churchill’s final passenger ship during the war was the older and smaller Cunard liner, Franconia. For the Yalta conference of early February 1945, the liner was moored off Sebastopol for accommodation and communications by the British delegation. After the conference, Churchill and many of his entourage spent February 11th-13th on board “this most comfortable ship with its Queen Mary staff.”23 He was not, however, happy with noise from adjacent rooms and several had to be closed. All aboard were “comfortable to the point of luxury and wonderfully over-fed” by the Queen Mary chef, whose white dinner rolls “take one back to times of peace.” To George Baker, the chief commissary officer, Churchill expressed special appreciation with an autographed copy of Great Contemporaries.24

Twilight Voyages

During the first postwar decade Churchill traveled to or from America by ocean liner on six occasions. He sailed on one or the other of the Cunard Queens, which were from the late 1940s to about I960 in their passenger-carrying heyday, offering the two-ship Atlantic express originally intended in the 1930s.

In January 1946 Churchill, now leader of the Opposition, and his wife sailed—two of only 134 civilians—aboard the Queen Elizabeth to New York, then headed south by train for a holiday in Florida. This was his first time aboard the Elizabeth which, save for her two funnels repainted in Cunard orange and black, was still in wartime grey livery and filled with standee bunks for the troops—more than 12,000 returning Canadians. Both Queens remained under government control to shift the thousands of troops back across the Atlantic.

Churchill spoke to them over the ship’s public address system toward the end of the voyage, concluding: “Yesterday, I was on the bridge, watching the mountainous waves and this ship, which is no pup, cutting through them and mocking their anger. I asked myself, why is it that the ship beats the waves, when they are so many and the ship is one? They just flop around, innumerable, tireless, but ineffective. The ship with the purpose takes us where we want to go.”25

After considerable travel, many visits, and the famous “Iron Curtain” speech in Missouri, the Churchills returned in late March 1946 aboard the Queen Mary, also still in wartime grey, continuing to ferry thousands of soldiers westbound and small commercial loads eastbound.

Three years later, Winston and Clementine, along with Mary and Christopher Soames, two secretaries, a detective and a valet, boarded Queen Elizabeth, now in her peacetime finery, for a March 1949 voyage to New York—Churchill’s twelfth visit to America (see back cover of Finest Hour 121 here). After a seven-month refurbishment in 1946, the ship had been restored to the luxury form originally intended, with service to match. Churchill noted in a letter to a Cunard official that it had been more than a half century since his first trip on one of the company’s liners—”which is a long time as human lives go.”26 The Queen, more than ten times the size of those first vessels, arrived at Pier 90 to be met by a horde of 200 journalists, for whom Churchill answered questions in the liner’s theater. The ensuing trip included extended visits to New York, Washington, and Boston (his famous Mid-Century Speech at MIT), and then a return to New York and a voyage home on the Queen Mary early in April. In a note to his grandson he described the ship as “a floating hotel which rushes along at 33 miles an hour, and is a great credit to our country.”27

In December 1952, now Premier again, Churchill set off on his penultimate liner voyage, to New York on the Queen Mary, to see President Truman and President-elect Eisenhower. Lunching and dining in the posh, extra-cost Verandah Grill, he spent New Year’s Day in mid-Atlantic. After an impromptu press conference on arrival, his party transferred to Bernard Baruch’s apartment and a meeting with General Eisenhower. He flew to Washington in President Truman’s plane, then on to a vacation in Jamaica. Two weeks later, he was back in New York for a flight home.

In 1954, Churchill flew to New York. His last voyage on an ocean liner would occur in June when RMS Queen Elizabeth carried him home. It was less comfortable than usual: floating ice forced the poorly ventilated ship’s track farther south, and into warm and humid conditions. It also became politically uncomfortable when, still at sea, he telegraphed a summit meeting offer to the Soviet Union without prior Cabinet (or U.S.) knowledge or approval. Considerable uproar ensued on his arrival in England.28

Two years later, for the first time in history, more passengers crossed the Atlantic by airliner than by ship. Within five years, both of the great Queens were losing money. In just over a decade, both had been withdrawn, the Queen Mary to become a hotel-museum in California, the Queen Elizabeth to be destroyed in a fire in Hong Kong harbor. An era had ended.


Endnotes:

1. For a survey of his early interest in and travel on airplanes, see the author’s “Churchill and Air Travel,” Finest Hour 118:24-29 (Spring 2003).

2. We describe here only WSC’s use of ocean liners, not yachts, cargo or river craft, of military vessels (e.g., the Admiralty yacht Enchantress). For Churchill on the battleship Renown see “Glimpses from the ‘Taxi’: HMS Renown 1943″ by Vic Humphries, Finest Hour 113:24-25, Winter 2002-03.

3. Numerous excellent histories exist for these three shipping lines and their vessels. For Cunard see Francis E. Hyde, Cunard and the North Atlantic, 1840-1973 (London: Macmillan, 1975), and Neil McCart, Atlantic Liners of the Cunard Line from 1884 to the Present Day (Wellingborough: Patrick Stephens, 1990). For the P&O line, see Boyd Cable, A Hundred Year History of the P&O (London: Ivor Nicholson and Watson, 1939), and David Howarth and Stephen Howarth, The Story of P&O (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987). For the Union-Castle and predecessors, see Marischal Murray, Union-Castle Chronicle, 1853-1953 (London: Longmans, 1953), and C.J. Harris and Brian D. Ingpen, Mailships of the UnionCastle Line (Vlaeberg, South Africa: Fernwood Press, 1994).

4. Randolph S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill I: Youth, 1874-1900 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966), p. 257.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid, p. 280.

7. Correspondence: Winston S. Churchill to Christine Lewis Conover, 1899-1943 (Washington: Churchill Centre, 1996), pp. 20-21.

8. Randolph Churchill, op cit, p. 440.

9. Ibid., p. 441.

10. There are countless books on the Titanic story. For sheer drama, Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember (New York: Holt, 1955) can’t be beaten; it has remained in print for nearly half a century. But one of the most balanced accounts is the harder-to-find Geoffrey Marcus, The Maiden Voyage (New York: Viking, 1969), complete with a large fold-out deck plan. Technically, Titanic was American-owned, as White Star was then part of J.P. Morgan’s International Mercantile Marine combine, though she flew the British flag.

11. WSC to his wife, 18 April 1912, in Randolph S. Churchill, ed., Winston S. Churchill: Companion Volume II, Part 3: 1911-1914(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969), p. 1542.

12. For details on how Titanic‘s passenger and crew death toll varied by gender and class, see, for example, Daniel Allen Butler, “Unsinkable”: The Full Story of RMS Titanic (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1998), p. 239.

13. Two quite different recent analyses are Diana Preston, Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy (New York: Walker, 2002), and David Ramsay. Lusitania: Saga and Myth (New York: Norton, 2002).

14. For an analysis of this controversy, see Harry V. Jaffa, “The Sinking of the Lusitania: Brutality, Bungling, or Betrayal?” in Statesmanship: Essays in Honor of Sir Winston S. Churchill (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 1981), pp. 255-73.

15. For the remarks to the House of Commons, see Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winton S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963,111: 1914-1922 (New York: Chelsea House, 1974), “Loss of the Lusitania,” p. 2376. Churchill’s later words are found in his The World Crisis: 1915 (New York: Scribner, 1923), pp. 347-8; and the later “Tragedy of the Torpedoed Lusitania,” News of the World (13 June 1937), reprinted in Michael Wolff, ed., The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill, IV: Churchill at Large (London: Library of Imperial History, 1976), pp. 362-74.

16. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill V: The Prophet of Truth, 1922-1939 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), p. 338.

17. Robert Pilpel, Churchill in America, 1895-1961 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), p. 99.

18. “Queen of the Seas,” Strand Magazine (May 1936); see this issue.

19. Les Streater, Berengaria: Cunard’s “Happy Ship” (Charleston, SC: Tempus, 2001), p. 118.

20. Neil Potter and Jack Frost, The Elizabeth (London: George G. Harrap & Co., 1965), p. 50.

21. See, for example, Gerald Pawle, The War and Colonel Warden (London: Harrap, 1963), and Sir James Bisset, “Part Three: The Second Great War at Sea,” Commodore: War, Peace and Big Ships (New York: Criterion Books, 1961), pp. 293-464. Bisset captained the Queen Mary on the second and third of Churchill’s wartime voyages.

22. Potter & Frost, op. cit., pp. 164-65.

23. WSC to his wife, quoted in Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: The Road to Victory, 1941-1945 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), p. 1217.

24. Moran, Churchill: The Struggle for Survival 1940-45 (London: Constable, 1966), p. 233. Details on Great Contemporaries from Churchillbooks.com.

25. Quoted in Neil Potter and Jack Frost, The Elizabeth (London: George G. Harrap & Co., 1965), p. 84.

26. Martin Gilbert, WinstonS. Churchill: “Never Despair,” 1945-1965 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988), p. 463.

27. Ibid., p. 469.

28. Ibid., p. 1012.

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