Blue Riband: the original World Cup

Long before bouffant hairstyles, politics, and sponsorship deals changed the face of FIFA’s football world cup, there was an international competition upon the Atlantic’s unpredictable waters – contested by cruising’s big guns – that separated the captains from the dribblers. Here’s the score on the Blue Riband.

To state that being awarded the Blue Riband was once viewed as a proud national accomplishment will perhaps sound satirical, or Monty Python-esque. Yet, the term ‘Blue Riband’ once meant far more than biscuit wafers and chocolate.

Modern-day cruising remains a far cry from the well-vexed world of transatlantic necessity from which it spawned. Contemporary cruising is a far more relaxed affair that evokes thoughts of leisurely pursuits to far-flung historical destinations - where the only timely dictation stems from dinner service.

However, it wasn’t always so relaxed. During the 1920s, just when the Football World Championship struggled through its infancy, travelling by ship was a means of transportation where speed became paramount to success. Before football took the world by storm, there was already well-natured combat taking place upon the seas - with national pride at stake.

The Blue Riband: Origins

Individuals and businesses depended on fast transatlantic crossings for various reasons, and when those reasons became intertwined with geo-political climates that spearheaded the dignity and self-esteem of ocean-going nations, an unofficial and symbolic award came to fruition; The Blue Riband.

In essence, The Blue Riband was born out of necessity. Until the dawn of affordable transatlantic flights, responsibility for cargo and passengers lay firmly with shipping. For the best part of two centuries, liners were the only way to cross Earth’s second-largest ocean.

And while it’s easy to become absorbed with the greatly celebrated liners that dominated the era of Art Deco styling and coal power, the competition for the swiftest Atlantic crossing began long before Britain’s Olympic Class liners made headlines.

Ever since the first recorded transatlantic voyage of SS Great Western – built in 1838 and recognized by historians as the first purpose-built transatlantic steamship – rival firms geared up for the contest.

Although the chivalry of transatlantic one-upmanship burned on as early as the 1840s, the coined ‘Blue Riband’ phrase didn’t fully materialize until 1910, with the term borrowed from horse racing activities of the time.

Even then, The Blue Riband wasn’t issued by an industry body, state, or company. Yet, shipbuilders and shipping lines fell over themselves in a bid to claim the high-spending client base that followed the Blue Riband from ship to ship.

Sovereign states wanted the associated prestige, and governments supplied funding benefits to create liners capable of claiming the title. Across the 19th century, and up until 1952, countries rivalled each other in pursuit of the coveted Blue Riband, with the symbolic trophy in high demand.

No less than 35 Atlantic liners held the title, with the gentlemanly conduct and race for the award – both directly and indirectly – transporting millions of emigrants, shortening world wars, changing our culture, and advancing technology. Not to mention bolstering relationships – or a lack thereof – between countries; something that we can still feel the results of in our modern world.

Germany Scores!

While the first crossing of an iron-hulled, screw-driven passenger liner occurred in 1845, it wasn’t until liners evolved and beckoned in their Golden Age that competition hit fever pitch.

The first country to score points as the Golden Age dawned was Germany, which steamed into the record books with SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse; the Franz Beckenbauer of liners.

This German leviathan successfully won back the Blue Riband initially held by the British, and did so with devastating style. Whereas previous ships that traversed the Atlantic beforehand were cramped and somewhat lacking in comforts, SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse offered luxurious appointments - grace, pace, and space.

Germany’s achievement upped the ante and pushed the Blue Riband beyond a conceptual focus on speed alone – it was now essential to provide opulence and representation of ascendancy.

Over the next few years, Germany ruled the waves with a thunderous fleet of lavish juggernauts, employing three cruise liners – SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, Deutschland, and Kronprinz Wilhelm – and revolving the Blue Riband between them as record-breaking speeds fractionally increased with each attempt.

The German Team remained triumphant and unchallenged to a degree that it became a common assumption nobody could dethrone them. That was until the British Admiralty had something to say.

Britain 2 – Germany 1

The German shipping lines had provided the benchmark for Cunard and White Star Line to breach. As the main competitor for custom of Transatlantic passengers during the opening years of the 20th century, Cunard sought assistance from the British Admiralty to craft two new ‘ocean greyhounds’.

With a considerable promise for an annual subsidy of £150k, and a low-interest £2.5 million loan from the British government, British shipbuilders were tasked with crafting two new liners – the RMS Lusitania and RMS Mauritania – on the understanding that the vessels would be commandeered for military use during times of conflict.

These ships were to be dual-purpose. It was more than just an incentive for national pride; it was future planning. And that planning was exercised throughout the tenure of the First World War.

By constructing the ‘ocean greyhounds’, Britain successfully claimed the Blue Riband back, spending the next two decades as titleholder. However, the reign was somewhat hollow, as the outbreak of war effectively changed the face of shipping activities; largely preventing further attempts at the title.

The Lusitania, mortally wounded by a German U-boat, paid the price for the Admiralty arrangement. However, the RMS Mauritania re-entered service and operated until decommissioning saw her scrapped in 1935. Her post-war comeback was worthy of Roy Keane, Ian Rush, and Lazarus combined. Crowds cheered. Passengers outright refused to travel on any other ship. She was, quite literally, Queen of the Atlantic.

Britain’s fallen warrior was not forgotten, though. Although the RMS Lusitania was lost some 11-miles off the coast of Ireland, her legacy ensured that the record set by her crew throughout a four-day run across 8 – 12 August, 1909 (at an average of 25.65 Knots) remained unchallenged for just shy of twenty years.

Germany Equalises

Having simmered with bitter jealousy at Britannia’s rule of the waves, Germans set plans for constructing the Gerd Müller equivalent of liners. Christened the SS Bremen, the new ship was originally to have made her maiden transatlantic crossing in tandem with her sister ship – the Europa.

Fate had other ideas, as Europa suffered a catastrophic fire following an accident during the fitting-out process. The direct consequence forced SS Bremen to travel solo. Sailing to New York from Bremerhaven, the new-age German vessel smashed Britain’s westbound Blue Riband record (averaging 27.83 knots over a course of four days, 17 hours, and 42 minutes) as though possessed.

To add insult to blistering injury, the SS Bremen then took the eastbound Blue Riband with a recorded time that shaved three hours from the prominent British standard. Although SS Europa missed out on the inaugural run, it took less than a year for German operators Norddeutscher Lloyd (NDL) to crack the record for a second time with Bremen’s consort in 1930. Sibling rivalry had never been so profitable or humiliating for the British.

However, the Italians were lurking over the horizon with their state-of-the-art SS Rex, and it wasn’t long before another contender went vying for the trophy.

Italy: Back of the Net!

European headlines were awash with celebration upon each new record-breaking transatlantic crossing and, naturally, Italy’s cruiseline firms wanted a piece of the action. Following the successful capture of the Blue Riband by German’s duelling sisterships, the Italian SS Rex went forth as Italy’s effort to bring the award home.

Focus quickly became an intense flurry of extensive publicity and brand awareness around the SS Rex and her sibling ship, the Conte di Savoia. Both ships were termed “the Riviera afloat”, and to enhance the new dubbing, owners Navigazione Generale Italiana (later to be nationalised into Italian Line) scattered sand around the outdoor swimming pools, enhanced the areas with multicoloured umbrellas for the ultimate beach-like effect, and ensured passengers enjoyed a Mediterranean experience upon the sea.

SS Rex fulfilled her promises in August 1933, bringing the Blue Riband to Italy after a westbound crossing of four days and thirteen hours, at an average of 28.92 Knots. For the next 18 months, Italy proudly displayed the courtly smugness of Blue Riband ownership, but things were about to shift.

The Italian ships may have energised transatlantic travel with the vivacious gusto of Giuseppe Meazza, but other countries were working on direct adversaries. France was not to be outdone and, with the launch of French Line’s SS Normandie, was set to change the world.

SS Normandie: A Firm Midfield Anchor

Constructed in Saint-Nazaire for the renowned CGT (Compagnie Générale Transatlantique), Normandie’s new-age design and sumptuous interior can still bring tears to the eyes of naval historians. The ship is regarded by many as the finest and greatest ever built.

Indeed, the SS Normandie’s styling heavily influenced shipbuilding of the time, and her innovations in engineering created a legacy that still floats today as the most powerful turbo-electric-propelled passenger ship ever designed. A celebrated icon even before launch, some fifty-thousand people gathered to bid her luck as her maiden voyage began.

Entering service in 1935, her first transatlantic crossing found the SS Normandie joining the Blue Riband club, reaching New York in a record 4 days, 3 hours, and 3 minutes. To put that into perspective, such a result is similar to the France-Brazil final of World Cup ’98. National confidence was restored.

Yet, despite the impressive credentials and reputation, SS Normandie struggled to break even; the French government had to repeatedly offer lump sums of cash to ensure operations continued. That’s partly because Normandie was pricey to run, but mainly because she didn’t have the Atlantic to herself for very long. There was a stern rival on the horizon; Bobby Moore with a hull.

RMS Queen Mary: A Class Act

As a direct response to the German Bremen and Europa, White Star Line placed an order for a newfangled diesel-electric 1000-ft ocean liner capable of 200,000 SHP. Originally to be christened the Oceanic, construction commenced during June of 1928.

But there was a major problem. Put simply, White Star Line did not have enough money to complete the liner, and the build was put on hold indefinitely. By 1932, Oceanic’s hull has been unceremoniously scrapped.

Those within the company knew that the engine design was advanced enough to win the Blue Riband back for Great Britain, but while the engineers lamented their missed opportunity, all was not lost. The transfer window had just opened.

Stemming from the Great Depression of 1929 and its economic domino effect thereafter, Cunard’s recently commissioned ship – simply known as Hull 534 – had also hit financial difficulty. By 1934, both Cunard and rival White Star Line were on the brink of oblivion. And, just to amplify the humiliation felt, arch-French rivals enjoyed heavy subsidiaries for constructing an even bigger project.

That’s where the British government stepped in. As the shipping depression intensified, job losses became a constant worry, and contemporary rivals steamed ahead, a plan had to materialise for survival.

Cunard was offered a £3 million loan to complete Hull 534 (RMS Queen Mary), plus a further $5 million to build a second ship – RMS Queen Elizabeth – on the condition that Cunard and White Star merged to form a single company.

Slicing through the waves one year after SS Normandie won the Blue Riband, RMS Queen Mary represented the hopes of Britain during a turbulent financial time. The French initially guffawed over the Queen Mary’s maiden crossing time (mostly down to unfavourable weather conditions) but the laughing stopped when, only a few months later, the Cunard-White Star newbie became history’s first liner to cross the Atlantic in less than four days; averaging 30.14 knots.

The Blue Riband was brought home to Britain, yet the celebrations were short-lived. France refused to back down, giving birth to the most exciting rivalry of the age.

France vs England

Throughout the 1930s, rivalry between Cunard-White Star (later to be boiled down purely to ‘Cunard’, as we know it today) and SS Normandie became the darling of media reporters worldwide.

The Germans and Italians may have been valiant in their feverish attempts to regain the coveted Blue Riband, but the roaring gentlemanly feud between Great Britain and the French pushed other contenders firmly into the annexes of history.

Not to be shoved from the limelight, Normandie went for a hattrick the following year. Reaching an impressive average speed of 30.58 knots, Britain handed the award back to the French. This was to be the last time the Blue Riband would rest on French soil.

In 1938, RMS Queen Mary managed to outpace SS Normandie’s record from the previous year. To demonstrate the prowess of Britain’s fresh ocean-going liner, engines were ramped up to create a phenomenal crossing of 3 days, 21 hours, and 38 minutes.

This record-breaking performance may not sound all too impressive when compared to modern achievements, but this achievement would not be surpassed for nearly 14 years.

However, it wasn’t just one-upmanship that kept the Blue Riband on Albion turf. The sportsmanship, and indeed our way of life, was to be permanently altered by the outbreak of more war.

War Stops Play

World War II ended the famous and friendly rivalry between states. RMS Queen Mary returned to Britain with the protection of a naval convoy after the announcement of conflict on September 1st, 1939, to be stripped out and converted into a troop carrier.

Her speed and agility proved to be a major asset in deterring German U-boats, the likes of which had sent previous Blue Riband holder RMS Lusitania to the seabed.

The SS Normandie’s fate was sealed in a different manner. When the United States seized her for the war effort, renaming her SS Lafayette in the process, they accidentally destroyed everything when a fire broke out during the process of troopship conversion.

She capsized while tethered at Pier 88 on the Hudson River and although eventually salvaged, she was deemed a write-off and sent for scrap.

The RMS Queen Mary was more fortunate. Having earned her stripes carrying hundreds of thousands of allied troops overseas, and even credited with shortening the war by a full year by none other than Winston Churchill, Cunard reinstalled the ship’s appointments and dominated the North Atlantic route together with her consort; RMS Queen Elizabeth.

The “great duel” of Normandie and Queen Mary may have been stunted by Hitler’s government, but it defined the golden era of transatlantic luxury, and pushed the limits of naval architecture towards the innovations modern-day cruisers enjoy.

The celebrated Atlantic tête-à-tête between vessels may well have cracked further records had the war not provided developments that allowed air travel to flourish. Once aircraft absorbed the clientele that once frequented liners by the dozen, the demand for luxurious transatlantic shipping began to dwindle. Not that such a market trend deterred the Americans from seeking the Blue Riband for themselves in a finale straight out of Hollywood.

SS United States Enters The Game

Nobody does big budget quite like the United States of America. You need look no further than the SS United States to discover that, built to take on the oceans at a cost of US$79.4 million (equivalent to $850 million by today’s inflation standards).

Bigger, faster, and more modern than anything that had gone before, the SS United States became the David Beckham of Atlantic vessels.

Designers took the best of popular European design and adjusted the mantra to fit brash yet affluent clientele, injecting subtle clues that underlined the USA’s massive post-war wealth.

Her maiden voyage in 1952 stripped RMS Queen Mary of the Blue Riband, breaking the record by more than 10 hours. And to close victory and proclaim themselves as world champions, SS United States then claimed the westbound trophy, too. Just for fun.

In typically self-assertive style, the North Americans had swept in for the first time, with a new ship, and departed home with the entire collection. The press braced for an anticipated battle between Britain and the USA for supremacy, yet something had changed. There was very little retort from Europe.

Not that anybody knew it at the time, but this was to be the last triumphant hurrah for the Blue Riband. As innovations in aircraft boiled down travel from Europe to North America into a matter of hours, rather than days, ocean liners lost their monopoly on transatlantic passage.

The North Americans may have waxed lyrical about claiming the Blue Riband, but Cunard’s interest in the competition had waned. The Italian shipping industry was in trouble, and the Germans were still deep within a post-war economic plunge. America was late to the party, and interest didn’t strike the chord expected.

Cunard recognised that people would view transatlantic liners as somewhat obsolete. In less than thirty years, a second round of investment had to be made to emerge from the remaining smouldering embers of a once Golden Age.

It was time to focus on luxury and reinvigorate the cruiseliner for a new generation. Time’s onward march had brought air travel to the masses, and by 1969 it was all over for the celebrated liners of yesteryear. The SS United States still holds the unofficial record. Focus on the Blue Riband was now something for the history books.

The globe goes mad for ‘heroism’ throughout the FIFA World Cup. Yet, if you clarify the definition of heroism, you’ll find the term applies more directly to those who proudly brought the Blue Riband home to their respective nations.

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About Calum Brown

Calum holds a deep interest in all things heritage and remains one of Britain’s most enthusiastic historians.

As a seasoned journalist, he has spent considerable time abroad and relishes all forms of transport. Shipping is in the blood, with a family connection to Stena Line embedded in his DNA. He also refuses to admit that 21st Century music exists.

Calum has developed a skill for bringing history alive, and always insists on making heritage accessible for everyone.