Cunard Pays Tribute to War Service

Just some of the 15,000+ troops that would travel on each crossing of Queen Mary

Published May 24, 2015 10:35 PM by The Maritime Executive

Cunard ships have answered the call of Great Britain in every major conflict from Crimea in 1853 to the first Gulf War in 1990.

14 Cunard ships would be requisitioned by the Admiralty for service in Crimea and they carried over 100,000 personnel and large quantities of stores and war materials in their roles as troop transports, hospital ships and store ships. It is remarkable to think that one ship, Arabia, would carry all the horses that charged with the Light Bridge but it is astonishing to think that Arabia carried horses over, 7,500 horses – 203 at a time, on voyages at a very slow speed of four knots.

Cunarders would play a role in the 1861 'Trent' Incident, the 1867 Fenian Troubles, the 1879 Zulu War, the 1891 First Boer War, the 1882 Egyptian Campaign, the 1885 Russian War Scare and the Second Boer War of 1899.

Within hours of the declaration of war on August 4, 1914 Cunard and its ships were ensnared in the conflict. During the next four years of carnage, its ships transported over a million men, served as hospital ships, prisoner-of-war ships, food and munitions carriers and as armed merchant cruisers. Mauretania and Aquitania would all play key roles as the agreement with the government at the time of the building of these ships stated they were to be placed at the nation's disposal in time of war.

At the outbreak of the First World War there were 25 Cunard ships in service and by the end of the conflict 20 had been lost through enemy action including the flagship Lusitania. The loss of that ship was one of the biggest controversies of the war as she was still in passenger service when torpedoed, and it was the huge loss of American lives that perhaps put America on the road to war.

Other Cunard vessels converted successfully to armed merchant cruisers included Laconia, Carmania and Caronia

Carmania had the distinction of being the first British armed merchant cruiser to sink a German armed cruiser in single combat when, in September 1914, it took on and sank the disguised and brand new German liner Cap Trafalgar off the coast of South America. The Cap Trafalgar, bizarrely, had had one of her three funnels removed and the remaining two painted in Cunard’s red and black colors. She looked remarkably like Carmania.

And Ascania, Ivernia and Saxonia were used to house German prisoners of war throughout 1915, but later became transports - as did most of the fleet - carrying both men and supplies to wherever they were dispatched.

Campania, which just after the outbreak of war had been sold for scrap, was recalled by the Admiralty and converted into the country's first ever “aircraft carrier.” One of her funnels was removed, and a rather short flight deck (240-foot long) constructed. In April 1915 she became the first ship to launch a plane while under way and the forerunner of today’s aircraft carriers.

Between the outbreak of war in August 1914 and the armistice in November 1918, the company's ships - not including the managed - sailed almost 3.5 million miles in war service and carried almost nine million tons of foodstuffs, munitions and general cargo - mainly from the U.S. and Canada, but also from the U.K. to Mediterranean outposts and to the far north of Russia. They also moved those 900,000 troops.

It is often not realized that requisite for a large ocean going company is a large and sometimes multi-faceted shore-based organization. At the time of the First World War the Cunard empire included repair shops, laundries, engine works and furnishing departments as well as the army of clerks and administrators - almost all of them based in and around Liverpool. So, on the outbreak of war, as well as continuing to repair and service the company's own ships, the repair shops and engine works were also given over to military use servicing and maintaining naval craft; the laundries, hitherto dealing with all the linen taken from ships now also gave themselves over to dealing with laundry from military hospitals.

But these were activities you might expect. What you would not expect, was the establishment of a Cunard plane factory at Aintree in 1917. This was an enormous undertaking, not least for a company with no experience whatever of building planes. But by 1918 the factory employed 5,000 people and was turning out 100 planes a month.

Similarly, one of the company's vast warehouses in Bootle was given over to the manufacture of shells and became the Cunard National Shell Factory. Employing over 1,000 people, 900 of them women, the factory worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week in three shifts, from October 1915 until November 1918 when it closed down within a week of the Armistice being signed. All told, the factory produced 410,302 shells.

Lusitania was the first of 20 losses for Cunard – 56 percent of the company’s pre-war tonnage or a total of 220,444 gross tons. And, inevitably, many Cunard crew lives were also lost.


Lusitania May 7, torpedoed. 1,201 lives lost.
Caria November 6, torpedoed. 
Veria December 17, torpedoed


Franconia October 4, torpedoed. 12 lives lost.
Alaunia October 19, mine. Two lives lost.


Ivernia January 1, torpedoed. 121 live lost.
Lycia February 11, torpedoed 
Laconia February 25, torpedoed. 12 lives lost.
Folia March 11, torpedoed. 11 lives lost.
Thracia March 27, torpedoed
Feltria May 5, torpedoed. 45 lives lost.
Ultonia June 27, torpedoed. One life lost.
Volodia August 21, torpedoed
Vinovia December 19, torpedoed


Andania January 27, torpedoed. Seven lives lost.
Aurania February 4, torpedoed. Nine lives lost.
Ausonia May 30, torpedoed and sunk by gunfire. 44 lives lost.
Vandalia June 9, torpedoed
Carpathia July 17, torpedoed. Five lives lost.
Flavia August 24, torpedoed. One life lost. 

In addition Cunard-owned company losses included Anchor Line (seven ships / 69,040 gross tons), Commonwealth and Dominion (nine ships / 69,040 gross tons) and Brocklebank (nine ships / 55,155 tons). In all Cunard lost 45 vessels amounting to 389,850 gross tons.

The company was keen to make sure that their injured crew and staff from the Liverpool Head Office were looked after once the war was over and established a welfare fund for them as well as organizing various activities, including days out to the country, in the years after.

In September 1939 the fleet was again quickly requisitioned for war service. One of the most daring voyages of the war was the secret Atlantic dash of the unfinished Queen Elizabeth in 1940 in order to remove her from Scotland and prevent her being a target for German air attacks.

The captain put to sea, with workmen still on board, and once out of the Clyde opened his sealed orders which he expected to instruct him to go to Southampton. Instead, he was told to head at full speed to New York. The secret dash was done with the launching gear still affixed to the underside of the ship, and without proper fitments inside. Men who expected to be going home by trains from Southampton within days did not get home for years.

After trooping from Australia Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth began bringing American GIs across to Europe in 1942 at full speed and unescorted. Not only were they faster than the U-Boats whose crews had been offered £100,000 by Hitler to sink either of them, but they were faster even then the torpedoes. 

In summer, 15,000 soldiers were carried on each voyage – such a huge number that the men had to sleep in shifts, observing a strict one-way system on board. Queen Mary’s master, Commodore Sir James Bisset, noted that the ship was so difficult to handle under such circumstances that he was concerned for her stability. On one voyage Queen Mary carried over 16,000 which is still a record today.

All told she made 28 such trips, taking soldiers eastbound and prisoners-of-war westbound, with Queen Elizabeth undertaking a similar number. On three occasions Queen Mary was the nerve-center of the Empire as Sir Winston Churchill crossed the Atlantic to see President Roosevelt. 

The closest the enemy ever got to him was when he was travelling on Queen Mary as prisoners of war would be transported to the States on the decks below Churchill’s Main Deck Suite – unbeknown to those prisoners at the time. Naked flames were not allowed in cabins at any time but special allowance was made for Churchill to have a candle lit at all times – for his cigars.

In March 1946, Churchill sailed on the Queen Elizabeth to the United States to deliver what would come to be known as his ‘Iron Curtain’ speech in Fulton, Missouri. During the course of that voyage he agreed, at Cunard’s request, to write a foreword for a projected war history of Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth that Cunard planned to publish. 

Churchill wrote: “Built for the arts of peace and to link the Old World with the New, the ‘Queens’ challenged the fury of Hitlerism in the Battle of the Atlantic. At a speed never before realized in war, they carried over a million to defend the liberties of civilization. Often whole divisions at a time were moved by each ship. 

“Vital decisions depended upon their ability continuously to elude the enemy, and without their aid the day of final victory must unquestionably have been postponed. To the men who contributed to the success of our operations in the years of peril, and to those who brought these two great ships into existence, the world owes a debt that it will not be easy to measure.”

Churchill would later bestow the greatest compliment on Cunard when he remarked the contribution of the two Queens and Aquitania had shortened the war in Europe by at least a year.

Cunard Losses in the Second World War:


Bosnia September 5.         


Carinthia June 6, torpedoed. Four lives lost.
Andania June 16, torpedoed. No lives lost.
Lancastria June 16, bombed. 3,500 – 9,000 lives lost.
Laurentic November 3, torpedoed. 49 lives lost. 


Georgic July 14, bombed.             


Laconia September 12, torpedoed. 2,275 lives lost.

The sinking of Lancastria resulted in the biggest loss of life with reports that between 3,000 and 9,500 lives were lost when that vessel sank.

Five ships, including QE2, would see service as troop and cargo transports both during and after the Falklands Campaign. 

On May 4, 1982, en route to Southampton from Philadelphia, QE2 was requisitioned by the Government for service in the Falklands Campaign and so joined the ranks of the great Cunard vessels called upon to serve their country.

Conversion work to prepare the ship for trooping duties began the following day. Helicopter landing pads were constructed on the quarter deck forward from the bridge and aft over the two swimming pools – the former possibly constituting, when the ship was travelling at speed, one of the most hazardous landing areas any pilot could wish to encounter. Valuable paintings and furniture were removed, piping for re-fuelling at sea laid through passenger areas, and hardboard placed over carpets.

Equipment, rations, vehicles, fuel and spare parts were loaded on board – so much that a great deal had to be stored on the open deck.

To man the ship, Cunard asked for volunteers from among its employees to go to the war zone; it required 650, and it got over 1,000.

On May 12, 3,000 men of the Fifth Infantry Brigade comprising units of the Scots Guards, the Welsh Guards and the Gurkha Rifles, along with naval personnel, came on board and QE2, under the command of Captain Peter Jackson, put to sea and headed south.

On the journey southwards from Freetown, the only port of call, every one of the liner’s portholes was covered with black plastic to provide a total blackout: from being the ocean’s brightest star, QE2 – for her own safety – became the darkest.

On the last leg of the outbound voyage, on May 23, the navigation lights were extinguished and the radar turned off in order to silence the ship electronically.

This deprived QE2’s navigating officers of a vital aid, and put them back almost half a century. But the situation became particularly grave once the ship entered ice fields north of South Georgia. Huge icebergs were encountered on the night of May 26 – many bigger than the ship – and to compound a serious situation, fog reduced visibility to less than a mile.

On May 27, QE2 anchored in Cumberland Bay, South Georgia, where the tricky job of transferring troops and supplies to other vessels began. In total darkness, requisitioned trawlers carried out the enormously difficult task of shuttling between the blacked-out vessels.

The transfer of troops and stores was completed on May 29, after which 640 survivors of HMS Ardent, Coventry and Antelope came aboard for the journey back to Ascension Island.

Shortly before the scheduled day of arrival at Ascension on June 4, orders were received from the Ministry of Defence that QE2 was to proceed instead to Southampton with the survivors.

At 0900 hours on June 11, QE2 passed the Needles. Two hours later the survivors of Ardent, Coventry and Antelope mustered on deck to be greeted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, waving from the Britannia. As a further gesture, the Queen Mother radioed a message of welcome to QE2:

“I am particularly pleased to welcome you back as QE2 returns to home waters after your tour of duty in the South Atlantic. The exploits of your own ship’s company and the deeds of valor of those who served in Antelope, Coventry and Ardent have been acclaimed throughout the land, and I am pleased to add my personal tribute”.

So finally, 12.5 days after leaving South Georgia, and almost 15,000 miles since first setting out from Southampton over a month earlier, Queen Elizabeth 2 was home, having done what was required of her in the service of the country.

May 25, 2015 is the 33rd anniversary of the loss of the Cunard cargo ship Atlantic Conveyor with the loss of 12 (six Cunard crew including her captain and six service personnel) and that is the day when Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth will gather in Liverpool to salute the city and tribute and the anniversary of the loss will be marked.

Cunard Princess saw action as a rest and recuperation vessel in the first Gulf War in 1990.

It is difficult to establish the exact number of Cunard personnel who died while serving their country. When the Lusitania sank 401 crew perished alone. Many Cunard people received the D.S.O., D.S.C., M.C., M.M. etc and one was awarded the Victoria Cross.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.