Ship History


RETURN TO THE HOMEPAGE                                                                                                                                                                                                                       RMS AQUITANIA 1914

Perhaps no other ship in the history of the Cunard Line was more revered than was the RMS Aquitania. The Aquitania was the longest serving Cunard liner built in the 20th century and survived service in both World Wars. Her exquisite and tastefully executed interiors earned Aquitania the title “The Ship Beautiful” – a fitting title for this transatlantic queen.

Design and Construction (1910 – 1914):

The 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. Originally the ship was planned to operate on the North Atlantic service alongside the Lusitania and Mauretania thus allowing a 3-ship weekly service to New York. The contract to build the ship went to John Brown & Co. Ltd and great publicity was given to the fact that it would be the largest liner in Britain. Her keel was laid in 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 merchant cruiser in the event of war. The Aquitania was launched on 21st April 1913 by the Countess of Derby in front of a crowd of over 100,000 people. Cunard made sure that lifeboat accommodation was provided for all those on board, in the light of the Titanic disaster. It was announced in February 1914 that Captain William Turner would be the first master of the ship.

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.

The Aquitania’s passenger accommodation was superior to anything seen on the North Atlantic before. The first class drawing room was decorated in the Adam style, copied from certain features in Lansdowne House in London. The walls were adorned with prints of English seaports and portraits of Royalty and prominent people of the day. The smoking room was modelled on Greenwich Hospital with oak panelling and beams, the restaurant was decorated in Louis XIV style and the grill room was decorated in Jacobean style. With public rooms of this standard and passenger cabins superior to those on previous Cunarders it was no surprise that the Aquitania became one of the best-known Cunard liners.

In May 1914 Aquitania was ready for her 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 30th May 1914. Tragically, the Empress of Ireland of the Canadian Pacific Steamships Ltd had collided with the Norwegian 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.

The First World War (1914 – 1919):

The Aquitania left Liverpool on her maiden voyage on 30th May 1914, bound for New York. The tragic loss of the Empress of Ireland, and 1,000 of those on board, the day before overshadowed this event. The ship made two more transatlantic crossings to New York before the outbreak of the First World War. She was then requisitioned by the Government to serve as an armed merchant cruiser and was converted for this role in Liverpool. She was then commissioned into the Royal Navy on 7th August 1914 and her first assignment was to patrol the Western Approaches, returning to the River Mersey on 16th August 1914.

On her next voyage in this role she collided with the Leyland ship Canadian on 22nd August 1914, during thick fog, and had to return to Liverpool. The subsequent enquiry concluded that the Aquitania was too large to be used as an armed merchant cruiser. Repair work on the ship was finished by the end of 1914. On 18th June 1915 she was again requisitioned by the Government, this time to serve as a troopship and assist in the Gallpoli campaign. On 25th June 1915 she left Liverpool with a full complement of over 5,000 troops on board. After three voyages as a troop transport she was then converted into a hospital ship and served this role during December 1915 and January 1916.

On 10th April 1916 she was de-commissioned from Government service and was reconditioned by Harland & Wolff in order to return to Cunard service. When this was almost complete the Government was forced to requisition the Aquitania once again to serve as a hospital ship in November 1916. The ship served in the Mediterranean for the rest of the year and was then anchored in the Solent for the whole of 1917. The entry of the USA into the war in December 1917 brought the ship back into service to transport the American Expeditionary Force. After the war she was also used in the repatriation of Canadian troops.

Cunard Line – The Interwar Years (1919 – 1939):

From November 1919 until June 1920 the ship underwent an extensive refit at Armstrong Whitworth & Co. on the Tyne. Whilst this was being done the opportunity was taken to convert the ship to oil burning, as opposed to coal. After trials north of Scotland, she made her first postwar transatlantic crossing from Liverpool to New York on the 17th July 1920. 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 Berengaria (formerly the Imperator of the Hamburg Amerika Line) and the Mauretania (the Lusitania sadly having been lost in the war), Aquitania became part of the Cunard Line’s 3-ship weekly express service from Southampton to New York. During annual winter refits in 1926, 1927 and 1928 the passenger accommodation was extensively modernised. In 1930 she was even used as an art gallery for one voyage.

In 1932 the Aquitania was used as a cruise ship for the first time. She left New York on the 3rd February 1932 and cruised around the Mediterranean. Further cruises on this route and New York-Bermuda route were accomplished later in the year. In November the ship underwent considerable internal reconstruction. First class accommodation was reduced to 650, tourist class was enlarged but the passenger accommodation reduced to 600 and third class was altered to cater for 950 passengers. All public rooms were renovated and a theatre was added. For the rest of the period up until the Second World War she continued a mixture of Atlantic crossings and cruises.

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 initially with the new ship as a running mate. It was planned she would be sent to the breakers when Queen Elizabeth entered service in 1940, but the Second World War intervened and Aquitania had to give sterling service in her second global conflict. In fact she is one of the few ocean liners to have served during both World Wars.

The Second World War (1939 – 1948):

When war broke out in September 1939, the Aquitania was then requisitioned as a troop transport on 21st November 1939 able to carry 7,724 troops. At first she was used to transport Canadian troops. During 1940 she underwent a refit in America and was defensively armed with six inch guns. From March onwards she was based in Sydney transporting Australian and New Zealand troops.  In April 1940 the Aquitania was part of one of the greatest convoys ever mustered for the transport of troops from Sydney to Africa. With her were the Canadian Pacific ships Empress of Britain, Empress of Canada and Empress of Asia, along with her Cunard fleetmates Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and the new Mauretania as well as the Holland America liner Nieuw Amsterdam. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941, the Aquitania was located in that region of oceans, a far cry from her normal sphere of operation but fortunately not too close to the action. Continuing her cautious return home across the Pacific she became the largest liner ever to call t Hawaii when she entered the devestated naval base at Pearl Harbour for a brief replenishment call. She also make two passages between Pearl Harbour and San Fransisco in this period. For the remainder of the war she was employed on the Atlantic, and after the war had ended in the repatriation on Canadian and American troops. Later she was also used to carry the war brides and children of Canadian servicemen over to Canada. In 1948 she was returned to Cunard Line, having steamed some 500,000 miles and transporting 300,000 troops.

The Final Years (1948 – 1950):

On 1st April 1948 she was released by the Ministry of Transport and returned to Cunard. Sadly she was never returned to her prewar splendour. She was then chartered by the Canadian Government to carry Canadian emigrants between Southampton and Halifax. This contract was renewed in 1949. By the 1st December 1949 this role had been fulfilled.  Her final departure from Halifax to Southampton taking place in November 1949. Her advancing age was taking its toll and she was becoming prone to mechanical and structural problems. She was not granted an operating certificate for 1950. As a result in December 1949 Cunard Line announced that the Aquitania would be withdrawn from service thus ending one of the most enduring careers of any transatlantic liner. In her 36 years she had steamed over 3 million miles and had carried 1.2 million passengers. She had made 475 scheduled voyages across the Atlantic, or 580 in total if her wartime crossings and emigrant passages are included. On 9th January 1950 Messrs Hampton & Sons Ltd were employed to auction the vessel’s furnishings and equipment. Later that month the venerable Aquitania was sold to the British Iron & Steel Corporation Ltd for £125,000. The ship then sailed from Southampton to Faslane, in Scotland where she was broken up. She was not replaced in the Cunard Line fleet. After the illustrious Aquitania was broken up at Faslane in Scotland, as a tribute to this famous ocean liner one of her ship's bells was placed on board Cunard Line's RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 in 1969 and another is displayed in the All Saints Cathedral in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

With a long and illustrious career spanning 36 years, she remains the longest serving Cunard vessel, and perhaps the most successful. This record stood until 2004 when Aquitania’s record was surpassed by the legendary QE2.

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