The Queen Elizabeth was the second of the two superliners which Cunard built for the New York service. After lengthy negotiations between Sir Percy Bates, Chairman of Cunard, and the Government a formal contract for what was known as job 535 was signed on 6 October 1936. The contract went to John Brown & Co, builders of the Queen Mary.
The ship was launch on 27 September. After this the ship went to be fitted out and the completion date was set for Spring 1940 but the outbreak of World War II, on 3 September, meant that the ship would follow a different agenda. Soon the ship was painted grey and its maiden voyage was cancelled.
Over the next few months it was realized that the Queen Elizabeth was both a risk and an inconvenience whilst it was berthed on the Clyde. Not only was it at risk from German bombers but also it was occupying a fitting out berth which was urgently required for warship construction. On 3 March 1940 it left its anchorage off Gourock and sailed to New York, arriving on 7 March.
The Queen Elizabeth remained berthed at New York until 13 November and then set sail for Singapore, via Cape Town. The refit was completed in Singapore and defensive armament was fitted. Internally it was fitted out to carry troops. After the fitting out was completed here it made a trooping voyage to the Middle East and spent the next five months carrying troops from Sydney to Suez, and returning with German POW’s. After the US entered the war the Queen Elizabeth sailed to Esquimalt, in Canada, and carried troops to Sydney.
In 1942 the Admiralty drew up plans to convert the two Queens into aircraft carriers but these were later abandoned as it was considered that their troop carrying role was too important. In April 1942 the Queen Elizabeth relocated from Sydney to New York. Here the troop accommodation was altered to make its capacity 10,000. In June 1942 it began to make voyages from New York to Gourock and then to Suez, via Cape Town.
In August it began a shuttle service between New York and Gourock. Despite the ever present threat of U-boats the ship continued its service unscathed, although the German press stated that a U-boat had hit the vessel with a torpedo on 11 November. By the end of the war in Europe the Queens had brought over a million troops to the war zone. The ship’s next duty was to repatriate these troops and redeploy troops for the war against Japan.
The repatriation of American troops continued until October 1945 when the Queen Elizabeth was released from US service and allocated to the repatriation of Canadian troops. On 6 March 1946 it arrived back in Southampton and was released from Government service as the need for troop movements had diminished.
During the war it had carried over 750,000 troops and travelled 500,000 miles.By 17 June it was back at Southampton for interior refurbishment. It was soon announced that it would make its first passenger voyage to New York on 16 October 1946.
After speed trials and visit by the Queen, accompanied by Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, it travelled to Southampton and set out on its maiden passenger voyage to New York on 16 October. Over the coming months the ship was fully booked and carried many famous passengers. By September 1951 it had made its 100th Atlantic crossing. Despite being a huge success it had never broken any speed records, this was done by the Queen Mary and later by the United States.
The Queen Elizabeth made its final Atlantic crossing on 5 November 1968. It had now already been sold to a group of Philadelphia businessmen for £3.25 million. After this it sailed to Port Evergaldes and opened to the public in February 1969. By the end of the year it had been closed down by the local authorities as a fire hazard and was losing money.
By late 1970 the ship had been auctioned and bought by C.Y.Tung shipping group in Hong Kong and was intended to become a floating university. It was soon renamed Seawise University and sailed for for Hong Kong on 10 February 1971. Due to machinery problems it did not arrive until July and anchored off Tsing Yi Island near Kowloon.
Work soon began on a £5 million refit to convert the ship into a university and by January 1972 work was almost complete. Security on board, however, was lax and on 9 January several fires were discovered in various parts of the ship. The fires spread and the ship burned throughout the night. Soon the ship rolled on to its side and then the hulk continued to burn and smoulder for over a week.
Fortunately there was only one casualty but it was clear that the ship was now only fit for scrap. An enquiry in July 1972 confirmed that it had been the work of an arsonist but the culprit was never found. In December 1973 it was decided to scrap the hulk. The ship’s final protest came on 5 November 1975 when it rolled over and disgorged several tons of oil which polluted the surrounding waters and beaches.