RMS Aquitania - The Ship Beautiful
he introduction of the RMS Aquitania in 1914 by the Cunard Line was as much a response to new builds from rival companies as it was to maintaining a weekly express service to New York. Though the company’s Lusitania and Mauretania were the fastest liners on the North Atlantic, a new class of vessels planned by both the White Star Line and Hamburg America Line exceeded the Cunard duo in terms of opulence and size. The Aquitania would be a suitable running mate to the Lusitania and Mauretania that would allow for a weekly service to New York, and her interior appointments would compare with those of the competing new builds.
The contract to build the Aquitania went to John Brown & Company, and the keel was laid December 1910. As had been the case with Lusitania and Mauretania, provisions were made so that the ship could easily be converted to an armed cruiser in the event of war. Launched April 21, 1913 by the Countess of Derby, it had been announced with much fanfare that she was to be the largest liner in Britain, and scores of people lined the banks of the River Clyde to witness her launch. Ever mindful of the Titanic loss only a year earlier, Cunard had made revisons to the original plans of the new ship to ensure the safety of all passengers onboard. As the travelling public was particularly keen on ship safety, advertisements for Aquitania tried to allay the rattled public’s apprehension.
So completely is the Aquitania protected with water-tight compartments that she is a ship within a ship. Lifeboats, including two motor boats fitted with wireless telegraphy, are provided to accommodate all on board. The wireless installation will ensure the vessel being always in communication with the land. The submarine signalling apparatus is also installed.
Design elements of the Aquitania followed closely with those of the Lusitania and Mauretania – she had a long slender hull with four equally spaced funnels, all of which were functional – but she was a larger ship with a wider beam. Fitted with Frahm’s anti-rolling tanks to lessen rolling on the tempestuous North Atlantic, it was rightly expected that Aquitania would be a comfortable ship – comparing more closely with the White Star Line’s Olympic than her greyhound fleetmates.
RMS Aquitania
In May 1914 Aquitania was ready for sea trials. Company officials were pleased with the results – she had made 24 knots, which was faster than expected – and her maiden voyage was set for May 30. Tragically, the Empress of Ireland of the Canadian Pacific line had collided with the Norweigian collier Størstad and sank with a loss of over 1,400 lives the day before, so the gaiety of the maiden voyage was somewhat subdued.
Aquitania saw commercial service only briefly, as war erupted in Europe in August 1914. The government subsidies that allowed for her construction stipulated that she be available for naval duties in the event of war, and on August 7 Aquitania was requisitioned by the Admiralty to serve as an armed merchant cruiser. On her second voyage in naval service she collided with another vessel, and it was determined she was too large to serve as an armed cruiser. She would spend the remainder of the war serving as either a troop ship or hospital ship. Aquitania served as a troop ship in the Gallipoli campaign in 1915, and the following year served time as a hospital ship. Idle for most of 1917, she began serving as a transport for American forces in 1918. Her final assignment under the Admiralty was repatriating Canadian troops.
After an extensive refit at the Armstrong Whitworth yard, Aquitania reentered service in August 1920. During the refit her exquisite interiors had been restored and her engines had been converted from coal burning to oil-fired. In the post-war period Aquitania enjoyed immense success. Her lavish interiors were subtle and refined, and she came to be called “the ship beautiful.” Running in tandem with the Berengeria – formerly the Imperator of the Hamburg America Line – and Mauretania – the Lusitania had been lost in war – Aquitania became part of the Cunard weekly express service to New York. Several refits throughout the 1920s and 30s kept her up to date and popular, even when facing competition from newer and flashier vessels such as the Ile de France, and later the express liners Breman and Europa. During the midst of the depression she was frequently sent cruising to the Mediterranean, and when the Queen Mary entered service in 1936 she was paired with the new ship as a running mate. It was planned she would be sent to the breakers when Queen Elizabeth entered service, but war would intervene before that, and Aquitania would serve admirably in yet another global conflict.
When war broke out in September 1939, Aquitania was requisitioned for war duties. She was quickly converted for use as a troop transport, capable of ferrying 7,724 of His Majesty’s troops. For a time she was based out of Sydney, transporting Australian and New Zealand troops to theatres in the Pacific, and she also served on the Atlantic, transporting American service men to Europe. After the cessation of hostilities she repatriated troops and carried war brides back to North America. In 1948 she was returned to Cunard, having steamed some 500,000 miles and transporting 300,000 troops.
The remaining years of the Aquitania were an anticlimax to her otherwise colorful career. Though still used commercially, she was never restored to her pre-war splendor, and she mostly served in the immigrant trade. Her advancing age had began to take its toll, she was prone to mechanical and structural problems, and she was not granted an operating certificate for 1950. In December 1949 she was sold to the British Iron & Steel Corporation for demolition. With a career spanning thirty five years, she remains the longest serving Cunard vessel, and perhaps the most successful.
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