SS Île de France
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|Name:||Île de France|
|Owner:||Compagnie Générale Transatlantique|
|Port of registry:||France|
|Builder:||Ateliers et Chantiers de Saint-Nazaire Penhoët, Saint-Nazaire, France|
|Launched:||14 March 1926|
|Christened:||14 March 1926|
|Maiden voyage:||22 June 1927|
|Out of service:||1959|
|Fate:||Scrapped in Osaka, Japan, 1959|
|Notes:||Used as floating prop in the movie "The Last Voyage".|
|Class and type:||Ocean liner|
|Length:||791 ft (241.1 m)|
|Beam:||91 ft (27.7 m)|
|Speed:||23.5 knots (42.5 km/h)|
The SS Île de France was a French ocean liner that was built in Saint-Nazaire, France, for the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (or CGT, also known as the "French Line"). The ship was christened in 1926, and commenced her maiden voyage on June 22, 1927. It was the first major ocean liner built after the conclusion of 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 being the favored ship of the pre-World War II era, carrying young, wealthy, and fashionable Americans to Europe and back.
Ironically, all of the ship's luxurious fittings were removed for 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 hurrah 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
The construction of the Île de France (meaning island or isle of France) was part of an agreement between the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT) and the French government dating back 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 having its keel laid down in 1925, the 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.
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.
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 the 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. 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 been given a new designs.
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
After its sea trials, the Île de France traveled to its 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 the 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, the Île de France, like the 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".
Even though the 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 the Île de France and the Paris were joined by a new mate, the new superliner SS 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 the 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
Île de France was the last civilian ship to leave France before the outbreak of war. It 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). The Île de France carried 1,777 passengers, 400 more than her usual number. 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. Other ships were not so lucky. The 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.
Once the Île de France 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, it was towed to Staten Island by ten tugs and was laid up after special dredging that cost $30,000. Its crew of 800 persons was reduced to a security staff of 100 while it 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, it traveled to Singapore where, after the Fall of France, it was officially seized by the British. In 1941 it returned to New York 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.
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. 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".
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.
In October, 1942, the Île de France was spotted off Port Elizabeth, by aircraft of the South African Air Force. While in the city she was converted into a troopship. The extensive alterations, the largest ever undertaken in the harbour, was completed in 1943.
Post-war career and demise
In autumn 1945, the 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.
At first the 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 the 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. The 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.
On September 21, 1953, the Île De France rescued 25 of the 26 man crew off the Liberian freighter Greenville which was damaged and later sunk in an Atlantic tropical storm.
On July 26, 1956, the Île de France had a major role in the rescue operation after the collision of the passenger liners SS Andrea Doria and MS 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 1959 the ship was sold to a Japanese breaker and departed Le Havre on February 16.
Before scrapping, the Île de France was used as a floating prop for the 1960 disaster movie The Last Voyage with the name SS Claridon. 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. The CGT sued the film-makers to get an order to have the funnels repainted and prohibit the use of the name Île de France from appearing in the movie.
Eaton's Ninth Floor
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 transatlantic on the liner and requested the style of the Ile de France.
- SS France (1910)
- SS Paris (1916)
- SS Normandie
- SS Liberté
- Compagnie Générale Transatlantique
- Pierre-Marie Poisson
- Great Luxury Liners 1927–1954, A Photographic Record by William H. Miller, Jr.
- Designing Liners: A History of Interior Design Afloat by Anne Massey
- "A Fine Romance lyrics".
- "Times Wide World (1939, Sep 10). Ile de france here with 1,777 aboard. New York Times". Missing or empty
- "Times Wide World (1939, Sep 10). Ile de France here with 1,777 aboard. New York Times". Missing or empty
- "Times Wide World (1939, Sep 10). 16 ships sunk in 7 days; 9 of them were British. New York Times". Missing or empty
- "Ocean Liner Museum- Ship History".
- "1944 WWII Troop Ship Crossings".
- 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.
- AIR27/109 RAF records National Arvices.gov.uk
- Eastern Province Herald, April 29, 1959
- Eastern Province Herald, April 29, 1959
- Secret War Diary. 42 Air School, South African Air Force
- John H Marsh, South Africa and the War at Sea.
- Belling, Ron. A Portrait of Military Aviation in South Africa. Struikhof Publishers,1989.