SS Île de France

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Île de France at sea.jpg
Île de France at sea
  • Île de France (1927-1958)
  • Furansu Maru (1958-1959)
  • Claridon (1959)
  • Furansu Maru (1959)
OwnerCompagnie Générale Transatlantique
Port of registryLe Havre, France
BuilderAteliers et Chantiers de Saint-Nazaire Penhoët, Saint-Nazaire, France
Laid down1925
Launched14 March 1926
Christened14 March 1926
Maiden voyage22 June 1927
In service1927
Out of service1959
FateScrapped in Osaka, Japan, 1959
NotesUsed as floating prop in the movie "The Last Voyage".
General characteristics
Class and typeOcean liner
  • 43,153 GRT(1927)
  • 44,356 GRT (1949)
Length791 ft (241.1 m)
Beam91 ft (27.7 m)
Speed23.5 knots (43.5 km/h; 27.0 mph)
  • 1,786 total passengers:
    • 537 First class
    • 603 Second class
    • 646 Third class

SS Île de France was a French ocean liner that was built in Saint-Nazaire for the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (or CGT, also known as the "French Line"). The ship was named after the region around Paris known as "L'Ile de France", launched in 1926 and commenced her maiden voyage on June 22, 1927. It was the first major ocean liner built after World War I, and was the first liner ever to be decorated almost entirely with modern designs associated with the Art Deco style. She was neither the largest ship nor the fastest, but was considered the most beautifully decorated ship built by CGT, becoming the favored ship of the pre-World War II era, carrying young, wealthy and fashionable Americans to Europe and back.

All of the ship's luxurious fittings were removed for its conversion into a prison ship during World War II. After the war, Île de France resumed transatlantic operations. In 1956, she played a key role in rescuing passengers from the SS Andrea Doria after the latter ship's fatal collision with the MS Stockholm off Nantucket. Her last public appearance came just before she was scrapped in 1959, "starring" in the movie The Last Voyage as a doomed ocean liner, and actually being partially sunk, while scenes were being filmed with actors playing their parts in the flooded ship. She was subsequently refloated and taken to Japan to be scrapped. The movie was released in 1960.

Construction and launch[edit]

The construction of Île de France was part of an agreement between the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT) and the French government dating to November 1912. This agreement was for the construction of four passenger-mail ships, with the first ship named Paris and the second, Île de France. World War I delayed construction until the 1920s, with the Paris being launched in 1916 and not entering service until 1921. After her keel was laid down in 1925, Île de France was launched on 14 March 1926 at the shipyard Ateliers et Chantiers de Saint-Nazaire Penhoët (or Chantiers de Penhoët) in Saint-Nazaire on the west coast of France, and was greeted by thousands of government and company officials, workers, press and French citizens. The ship would experience fourteen months of fitting-out before it left the shipyards in 1927 to begin sea trials on 29 May, and then for its maiden voyage on 22 June.


The liner's Grand Salon as it appeared in the 1950s, following post-WWII remodeling

In 1926, the CGT had released an elaborate booklet with a gold cover devoted entirely to promoting the company's new ship. The illustrations depicted huge and elegant but modern public rooms with female passengers carrying feather fans and smoking cigarettes, and passengers being led around the uncluttered sun deck.[1]

The interiors were designed by architect Pierre Patout, one of the founders of the Art Deco style.[2]

The trend in ship interior design up to this point, including the Mauretania, the Olympic and the Imperator, all had interiors that celebrated various styles of the past, and which could be found in the most expensive, upper-class manors or châteaux on land. In contrast, the interiors of Île de France represented something new: for the first time, a ship's passenger spaces had been designed not to reproduce decorative styles of the past, but to celebrate the progressive style of the present, with a degree of modernity unlike any previous ship.[citation needed] The first-class dining room's decor was simple, in contrast to past styles which had vied with each other regarding extent of decoration and detail. The first class dining room was also the largest of any ship existing at the time, rising through three decks high with a grand staircase as its entrance.

In addition to the luxurious dining room, there was also a grand foyer that was open to four decks, a chapel in the neo-gothic style, a shooting gallery, an elaborate gymnasium, and even a merry-go-round for the younger passengers. Every cabin, including the least luxurious, had beds instead of bunks. Even many of the chairs had been given new designs.[3]

As each of the major liner companies subsequently planned their next passenger ships, many of the planners visited this extraordinary and trend-setting French vessel.

Maiden voyage and early career[edit]

Flown cover carried on the first US to Europe "catapult" air mail from Île de France at sea on August 23, 1928
Île de France's stern view in Le Havre, 1929

After her sea trials, Île de France traveled to her home port of Le Havre on June 5, 1927. The novelty of Art Deco aboard a ship was an immediate sensation and the reaction of the visiting press would be evident by favorable reviews the next week.

On June 22, 1927 Île de France traveled from Le Havre for its maiden voyage to New York. Upon its arrival in New York it received great attention from the American media and thousands of people crowded the docks just to see the new ship.

Her official accommodation was for 1,786 passengers, but her normal capacity was closer to 1400. With a listed capacity of 537 in first-class, Île de France, like France and Paris, became fashionable. Captain Joseph Blancart and his chief purser, Henri Villar, became celebrities.

With the contribution made by this splendid vessel, the CGT ended the year 1928 with record earnings. For the first time the company's receipts exceeded a billion francs, and half of this derived from the New York service, which had transported more than 90,000 passengers. Its popularity was such that by 1935, the ship had carried more first-class passengers than any other transatlantic liner.

The ship was popular especially among wealthy Americans. It quickly became the chosen ship of the youthful, the stylish, and the famous. But they did not choose it for its speed – it was about as fast as the Aquitania of 1914, and no larger. In 1936 it was immortalised in the song A Fine Romance performed by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the film Swing Time with the lyric "You're just as hard to land as the Île de France".[4]

Even though Île de France was not the fastest vessel in the world, it briefly pioneered the quickest mail system between Europe and the United States. In July 1928, a seaplane catapult was installed at the ship's stern for trials with two CAMS 37 flying boats that launched when the ship was within 200 miles, which decreased the mail delivery time by one day. This practice proved too costly, however, and in October 1930 the catapult was removed and the service discontinued.

In 1935 Île de France and Paris were joined by a new mate, the new superliner Normandie. With these three ships the CGT could boast of having the largest, fastest, and most luxurious ships traveling the north Atlantic.

But this was not to endure, and two events ended the CGT's new prosperity. The first occurred on April 18, 1939, when Paris was destroyed by fire while docked in Le Havre. The second was on September 1, 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland which began World War II and ended civilian (as opposed to military) transatlantic traffic.

World War II[edit]

Île de France and Aquitania underway as troopships (taken during Operation Pamphlet in 1943)

Île de France was the last civilian ship to leave France before the outbreak of war. She departed from Le Havre on the morning of September 3, 1939, just hours before France and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. (The last ship to leave Europe during the war would be the paquebot Jamaique that left in May 1940 from Bordeaux to South America). Île de France carried 1,777 passengers, 400 more than her usual number.[5] Most of the passengers were Americans, many of whom were tourists clamouring to leave France before the war broke out. During the voyage, the passengers were not only inconvenienced by the overcrowded conditions, but their activities were limited because the ship sailed with her lights extinguished.[5] Other ships were not so lucky. Île de France arrived in New York harbor on September 9 and, while she was crossing the Atlantic Ocean, 16 vessels were sunk by torpedoes, mines, or gunfire.[6]

Once the ship was berthed at its New York pier, her career as a passenger ship was temporarily ended. Since the French were not anxious to return the ship to its homeland, she was towed to Staten Island by ten tugs and was laid up after special dredging that cost $30,000. Her crew of 800 persons was reduced to a security staff of 100 while she was inoperative for the next five months. Then during March 1940, commanded by the British Admiralty, to which it had been lent, the ship was loaded with 12,000 tons of war materials, submarine oil, tanks, shells, and several uncrated bombers that were stowed on the aft open decks. On 1 May 1940 she departed for Europe, veiled in gray and black. From there, she traveled to Singapore where, after the Fall of France, she was officially seized by the British. In 1941 she returned to New York[7] and made several crossings from the northeast as a troop ship such as the one on February 14, 1944, sailing from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Greenock, Scotland, carrying among others the 814th Tank Destroyer Battalion.[8][9]

In August, 1942, the three-funnelled Île de France tied up alongside the Charl Malan Quay in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. She had been escorted part of the way by various RAF squadrons based on the West Coast of Africa, including No.204 Squadron on 13 June 1942.[10] During one of her visits to the city she was subjected to one of the less happy events to befall this magnificent ship. Furniture, chandeliers, carpets, fittings, all the evidences of her former luxury, including hundreds of square feet of rare and beautiful panelling, were ruthlessly torn out and flung on the quayside as "she was gutted as thoroughly as a herring".[11]

A small party of workmen fitted the luxury liner out as a floating prisoner of war camp, "with festoons of barbed wire sprouting from her decks and disfiguring her graceful lines" as the ship was prepared for the task of bringing POWs back from north Africa.[11]

In October, 1942, Île de France was spotted off Port Elizabeth, by aircraft of the South African Air Force.[12] While in the city she was converted into a troopship. The extensive alterations, the largest ever undertaken in the harbour,[13] was completed in 1943.[14]

Post-war career and demise[edit]

In autumn 1945, Île de France was returned to the CGT after five years of military service with the British Admiralty. In honour of its wartime performance, the Southern Railway company named one of its locomotives French Line CGT.

Île de France after her post-war reconstruction, c. 1948

At first Île de France was used to ferry American and Canadian troops home. Then in April 1947, the ship returned to its builder's yard at Saint Nazaire for a two-year restoration. The outcome included the removal of its third "dummy" funnel and an upturn of the straight black hull to meet its upper forepeak, in keeping with the new style of the CGT's ships beginning with Normandie in 1935. These changes increased Ile de France's gross tonnage to 44,356.

She travelled to New York on her first postwar luxury crossing in July 1949. Île de France proved to be just as popular as before the war. In 1950 the ship received a new running mate, Liberté, the former German Blue Riband-holder SS Europa.

In 1949 Île de France was the setting for part of the first act of the Jules Styne Broadway musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes starring Carol Channing.

On September 21, 1953, the ship rescued 25 of the 26 man crew off the Liberian freighter Greenville which was damaged and later sank in an Atlantic tropical storm.

On July 26, 1956, Île de France had a major role in the rescue operation after the collision of the passenger liners Andrea Doria and Stockholm off Nantucket. Of 1,706 passengers and crew of the Andrea Doria, approximately 753 were transferred to the Île de France during the approximately 6-hour rescue operation.

With the development of jet transport, and the decline of ocean travel, the CGT wished to dispose of the ship quietly. In November 1958 she departed New York for the last time and, in 1959 was sold to a Japanese breaker and departed Le Havre on February 26. She was renamed Furansu Maru; the French flag was replaced with the Japanese flag

Just before being scrapped, the ship was used as a floating prop for the 1960 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer disaster film The Last Voyage with the fictional name SS Claridon. The CGT sued MGM to have the ship's funnels repainted and prohibit the name Île de France from appearing on the ship in the movie. She was filmed almost entirely in the Sea of Japan off the coast of Osaka. During filming, the ship was partially sunk, explosive devices were detonated in the interior, and the forward funnel was sent crashing into the deck-house. After the film was finished, the Japanese scrappers refloated the vessel and towed her to the scrap yard. She was fully scrapped by 1961.[15]

Eaton's Ninth Floor[edit]

Eaton's Ninth Floor restaurant in 1987

In 1931 the ninth floor restaurant in Eaton's Department Store, Montreal, Canada, was styled after the first class restaurant aboard the ship. Lady Eaton, the store owner's wife, had just travelled on the liner and requested the style of the Île de France.

In popular culture[edit]

In the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie Swing Time, Rogers, Dorothy Fields's lyrics to "A Fine Romance", sung by a frustrated Rogers to a disinterested Astaire, include the line, "You're just as hard to land as the Île de France."[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Great Luxury Liners 1927–1954, A Photographic Record by William H. Miller, Jr.
  2. ^ Oudin, Bernard. Dictionnaire des Architectes, Sechiers, Paris, (1994), (in French), page 372.
  3. ^ Designing Liners: A History of Interior Design Afloat by Anne Massey
  4. ^ "A Fine Romance lyrics". Archived from the original on 2016-03-26.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  5. ^ a b Times Wide World (Sep 10, 1939). "Ile de France here with 1,777 aboard". The New York Times.
  6. ^ Times Wide World (Sep 10, 1939). "16 ships sunk in 7 days; 9 of them were British". The New York Times.
  7. ^ "S.S. Ile de France 1926 - The First Art Deco Ocean Liner". Retrieved 25 March 2019.
  8. ^ "1944 World War II Troop Ship Crossings".
  9. ^ Boykin Jr., Calvin (1995). Gare la bete (beware the beast) a history of the 814th Tank Destroyer Battalion 1942–1945. College Station, Texas: C & R Publications. p. 228. ISBN 0-9646161-0-6.
  10. ^ AIR27/109 RAF records National
  11. ^ a b Eastern Province Herald, April 29, 1959
  12. ^ Secret War Diary. 42 Air School, South African Air Force
  13. ^ John H Marsh, South Africa and the War at Sea.
  14. ^ Belling, Ron. A Portrait of Military Aviation in South Africa. Struikhof Publishers,1989.
  15. ^ "Île de France – TGOL".
  16. ^ Aldous, Jon. "A Fine Romance". The Dorothy Fields Website. Retrieved 12 April 2022.

Further reading[edit]

  • Miller, William H. (2013). Île de France and Liberté: France's premier post-war liners. Classic Liners series. Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press. ISBN 9780752474861.

External links[edit]