France Afloat
When the French Line decided to supplement the revolutionary Ile de France of 1926 with a record-breaking super-liner in early 1930, they turned to naval designer Vladimir Yourkevitch to design the new ship. It was intended that the ship would be France’s contender for the Blue Ribband of the Atlantic, and it would be a floating showcase for the talent of French artisans and craftsmen. In designing the ship, Yourkevitch incorporated turbo-electric engines and the relatively new and innovative bulbous bow. The French Line also announced with much fanfare that new ship would be the first liner to exceed 1000 feet in length, and it would have a gross tonnage of 60,000 tons—making it the world’s largest ship.
Construction on the liner—designated as “T 6”—commenced in early 1931 at the Penhoet shipyards at St. Nazaire. As was traditionally the case with the naming of a liner, there was much speculation about the name of the new liner. It was widely thought the ship would be named after the recently assassinated French President Paul Doumer, but the widow of the slain leader had requested the name “Doumer” not be used. It was just prior to the launching that it was revealed the new ship was to be called Normandie. On October 29, 1932, Madame Lebrun—wife of the French President—launched the new ship. By this time, however, the economic depression that was gripping the world economy made it necessary to halt construction on the new liner. When construction on Normandie resumed, her maiden voyage had been delayed until spring 1935.
When construction was completed on Normandie, she was the longest and largest ship afloat—measuring 1,028 feet in length with an initial tonnage of 79,280. To the pride of her owners and countrymen, she claimed the Blue Ribband from the Italian Liner Rex on her maiden crossing in May 1935. Keen on keeping the title “longest, largest, and fastest” ship in the world, it did not escape her owner’s attention that the British had announced the tonnage of their new super-liner Queen Mary that was nearing completion at 81,235. So during the winter refit in 1935, a deckhouse was added to her aft deck increasing her final tonnage to 83,423, allowing her to maintain title of world’s largest ship. And though she eventually lost the Blue Ribband to Queen Mary in August 1938, her top speed of 31.2 knots was only a fraction slower than Queen Mary’s record-breaking speed of 31.6 knots.
Grand Salon - Click to Enlarge
Grand Salon of the Normandie
click to enlarge
Though she was the world’s largest ship, the enormous size of Normandie did not mean she carried more passengers than any ship had ever carried. Her grandeur meant that each passenger had more space. The dimensions of her dining-salon—walled in molded glass, air-conditioned and decorated by the foremost artists and craftsmen of France—were breath taking. The sun deck, clear of all obstructions, stretched two city blocks in length. She was equipped with a permanent theater, seating nearly 400, and a beautiful chapel. Staterooms aboard Normandie—virtually all with luxurious bath or shower facilities—afforded a new scope for the kind of gracious living that French Line passengers had come to expect while on board ship.
Her cruiser bow and the turtleback extending over the foredeck enabled Normandie to take the roughest seas smoothly, without loss of speed. Her electric drive reduced vibration to an absolute minimum—though she was plagued with terrible vibration because of inappropriately designed propellers during her early crossings. Radios onboard allowed her to be in constant touch at all times with both Europe and America. Normandie was truly a wonder-ship that one could not see without wanting to travel onboard.
Regrettably the service career of what is arguably the most superb liner to ever sail was tragically short. Scheduled to sail the day before war started in Europe, she was detained at New York as U.S authorities checked to ensure she did not have munitions or arms aboard. She would spend the remainder of her days in New York, and with the fall of France to the German armies, her fate seemed uncertain. However, with America’s entry into the war, the U.S. Coast Guard seized Normandie in May 1941. In December, the U.S. Navy took control of the vessel and renamed her USS Lafayette.
On February 9, 1942, while undergoing the major refit to accommodate thousands of U.S. troops, sparks from a workman’s welding torch set her ablaze. Firemen were able to extinguish the blaze, but tragically the liner capsized as a result of the tons of water used to fight the fire. She would be salvaged, but ultimately was scrapped at Port Newark, New Jersey—truly an ignominious end for perhaps the greatest liner to ever sail.
NEXT: Interior Spaces
HTML layout and design by Bryan R. Guinn. Text and images on this page are from French Line advertisements from the private collection of Bryan R. Guinn. Bibliography on career details and statistics available here. No unauthorized reproduction of text or images.