The Queen Mary And Three Other Iconic Ocean Liners

From Titanic’s lesser-known sister ship, to the sleek and chic QE2…

The Queen Mary

The Queen Mary.


One of the all-time great ocean liners, the Queen Mary first set sail in 1936, and was a fixture on the high seas for decades afterwards. But why was she named after George V's consort, Mary of Teck, who was hardly a major monarch in our history? Apparently, the ship's owners had originally intended the ship to be called the Victoria. As the legend goes, company officials had approached George V and asked his kind permission to name the ship after the nation's "greatest queen". To which George reportedly replied that his wife, Mary, would be simply delighted.

And so, to avoid any awkwardness and embarrassment, they did indeed call the ship the Queen Mary. During World War Two, she was put to service as a troopship, with over six miles of carpet, and hundreds of cases of crystal, china, tapestries and other artworks taken out for safekeeping. She was also painted a muted grey, which led to the ship being given the rather glamorous wartime nickname, the "Grey Ghost". It was during the war that the Queen Mary was hit by a rogue wave and very nearly capsized - the incident directly inspired the blockbuster film The Poseidon Adventure. Today, the ship is permanently moored in California, and is reputed to be one of the most haunted places in the world.


Think "tragic ocean liner" and the Titanic will sail to mind. But equally awful was the fate of the Lusitania. Launched years before the Titanic, in 1907, the Lusitania was the biggest, most celebrated and opulent liner of her day. Its decks were decorated with ornate artworks and neoclassical Louis XVI décor, groaning with marble and mahogany. Fitting splendour for the great and the good who wanted to cross the Atlantic in style. But then came World War One, with Germany declaring the waters around Britain a war zone.

A sketch of The Titanic sinking.

A sketch of The Titanic sinking.

The German Embassy even put out an advert in a newspaper, warning civilians NOT to sail on the Lusitania. But sail they did, and on 7 May 1915 she was hit by a torpedo from a U-boat. It took less than 20 minutes for this great ship to sink, with the loss of almost 1,200 lives. There is an enduring conspiracy theory that the British actually wanted the Lusitania to be attacked in order to compel the United States to enter the war, which is why they didn't provide the ship with armed escort. Even if such a plan had been hatched, it didn't really work - it would be two more years before the US plunged into the war.


Many might not be aware that the Titanic was just one of three sister ships. One of her siblings was the Britannic, which - thanks to the outbreak of World War One - didn't have the chance to serve as an ocean liner. Instead, she entered military service and was destroyed by a mine. The third sister was the Olympic, who had a rather happier fate than both the Titanic and the Britannic. She would have an illustrious future as an ocean liner, sailing from 1911 to 1935.

Right down to the grand staircase, the Olympic was visually almost identical to the Titanic. On her maiden voyage, the Olympic was even captained by Edward Smith - who would later meet a hero's death aboard the Titanic. The Olympic had misadventures of her own, however. She once collided with another ship, ripping the hull open, but miraculously nobody was injured or killed. The Olympic also served as a troopship in World War One, emblazoned with surreal, zig-zagging "dazzle" camouflage designed to confuse the enemy. As deadly as she was pretty, the Olympic even managed to destroy a German U-boat, cutting it open with her propellers, as if in retaliation for what had happened to the Lusitania.


Its full name was of course the Queen Elizabeth 2, but this famed liner was universally known simply as the QE2. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't named after Queen Elizabeth II - the "2" in the name was simply a designation, as the ship succeeded an earlier liner called the Queen Elizabeth (which was named after the Queen Mother, as it happens).

Launched in 1967, the QE2 was less flamboyant than the liners of the golden age of ocean travel. Its interiors were sharply contemporary, more sleek than ornate, reflecting the changing tastes of the public. As well as being a favourite with celebrities and royalty, the QE2 became a crucial part of the British fleet during the Falklands War, carrying over 3,000 troops to the South Atlantic. It was re-fitted for this military odyssey, with its luxurious ornaments removed and carpets covered up by wooden planks. That said, the staff retained their impeccable etiquette, with uniformed waiters treating the soldiers no differently than the paying passengers of peacetime.