The construction of the Queen Mary represented the zenith of passenger ship building for Cunard. Plans began for a new record breaking liner to replace the Mauretania as early as 1926. It was not until 1930, however, that Cunard announced that a new 1000 ft, 81,000 ton liner was to be built by John Brown & Co Ltd. The keel of the ship was laid down on 31st January 1931.
The building proceeded well and the launch was scheduled for May 1932. On 11th December 1931 the Cunard Board announced that work on the ship was to be suspended. The world economic depression had hit the shipbuilding industry and Cunard were forced to pay all outstanding bills and lay off the Clydeside workforce indefinitely.
It was during 1931 that Cunard started negotiations to buy out its main rival, the White Star Line. Although these early attempts failed Cunard entered negotiations with the Government in 1933. In December 1933 an agreement was reached whereby the two companies would merge to form Cunard White Star Ltd and the Government would lend the company £9.5 million.
The majority of this sum was to be used to complete the Queen Mary and build a sister ship. In April 1934 work began again on the ship. The work was completed by August and the ship was launched on 26th September by Queen Mary. It was then taken to its fitting out berth.
The work on the ship was completed in March 1936 and it sailed out of the Clyde as far as Arran for preliminary trials. After sailing to Southampton to be painted, the Queen Mary was handed over to Cunard on 11th May. The propulsion machinery of the ship produced a massive 160,000HP and gave it a speed of over 30 knots. She made an inaugural cruise from Southampton on 14th May and then made her maiden voyage, on the Southampton-Cherbourg-New York route, on 27th May. Despite expectations that the ship would try to break speed records on its first voyage, a thick fog destroyed any hope of this. The Queen Mary spent a short time in dry-dock during July whilst adjustments were made to the propellers and turbines. When the ship returned to service, in August, she made a record voyage from Bishop's Rock to Ambrose Lighthouse and took the Blue Riband for the first time from the French liner Normandie.
The ship went into dry-dock in December and alterations were made to the bulkheads in order to reduce vibrations. By May 1937 the Queen Mary had completed one year's service and had carried a total of 56,895 passengers. In August 1938 it regained the Blue Riband form the Normandie and set new records for both the eastbound and westbound crossings. It made its last pre war commercial voyage from Southampton on 30th August 1939 and then remained berthed at New York until the end of the year whilst it was decided what role the ship would play in the war.
On 7th March 1940 the newly completed Queen Elizabeth arrived to join the Queen Mary, Mauretania and Normandie at New York. On 21st March the Queen Mary left New York under orders to sail for Cape Town and Sydney. On arrival work began converting the ship into a troopship. The luxury furnishings were removed and tiers of bunks and hammocks were fitted. Although small caliber guns were fitted on the ship its main protection was to be its impressive speed. On 4th May the ship left for the Clyde with 5,000 troops of the Australian Imperial Force on board. She arrived there on June 16th and then sailed for Singapore carrying troops to bolster the defence in view of Japan's increasing threat. After an overhaul there it returned to Sydney and then made trooping voyages between Australia and India for the rest of the year.
The ship was dry-docked again in February 1941 and then sailed between Australian ports and Singapore and Suez until November. As the Indian Ocean was becoming increasingly dangerous, with war looking imminent in the Far East and Pacific, the Queen Mary sailed to Boston. Here its trooping capacity was increased to 8,500 and she was fitted with heavier calibre guns and anti-aircraft cannons. The Queen Mary's future role was to be on the North Atlantic, however one urgent trip carrying US troops to Sydney was the priority. By late July 1942 Queen Mary had returned to New York. In the following months she sailed to the Clyde and Suez and then returned to the USA with a complement of German POW's. On 2nd August 1942 she began making fast eastbound voyages carrying between 10,000-15,000 US troops at a time.
On one of these voyages the ship had the worst collision of her career. When she was approaching the Clyde the Queen Mary required an anti-aircraft escort, amongst these was the cruiser HMS Curacoa. On 2nd October the escort ships were sighted. The Queen Mary was steaming at 28 knots in zigzag pattern whilst the Curacoa, whose best speed was 26 knots, kept as close as possible. The Queen Mary overtook its escort and then the zigzag pattern of the two ships converged and Queen Mary collided with the Curacoa close to its stern and sliced straight through the smaller ship. Out of 430 crew members on the cruiser, only 101 survived. Although there was damage beneath the waterline the Queen Mary was able to continue. With over 11,000 troops on board the Queen Mary could not stop to assist and she sailed straight to the Clyde. A long legal battle between the Admiralty and Cunard eventually laid the blame equally on both vessels.
From October to December 1942 Queen Mary was repaired in Boston and then she returned to the Clyde. On 23rd December Queen Mary left for Cape Town, Suez and Sydney carrying British troops to the Middle East and Australian troops back home. Queen Mary returned in April 1943 and then berthed in New York in May. After this she began a ferry service for US troops which was to be its role for the remainder of the war. The Queen Mary's role in this capacity is the one for which she is best remembered. The end of the war in Europe in May 1945 meant that there was an urgent need to redeploys thousands of US combat troops to the conflict in the Pacific and Far East. The Queen Mary sailed to New York to be refitted and then began the long process of repatriation. In January 1946 she began transporting war brides to their new homes. By May Queen Mary transferred to Halifax to repatriate the wives and children of Canadian servicemen, which continued until September.
On September 27th, the Queen Mary was handed back to Cunard Line. During its war service she had traveled over 600,000 miles and carried nearly 800,000 people. A ten month refit was then embarked upon at Southampton. Besides being refurnished for the commercial service a new stem was fitted. The passenger accommodation was also altered to house 711 1st class, 707 cabin class and 577 tourist class passengers. Queen Mary made its first post war sailing on July 31st, 1947, from Southampton to New York. Before the end of 1947, however, industrial troubles started to affect the service. Air travel was becoming increasingly popular and after the ship ran aground at Cherbourg on 1 January 1949, many passengers chose to fly to the USA instead. Although the ship was still capable of making fast crossings it was unable to compete with the new American liner United States, and in July 1952 the American ship took the Blue Riband with an average speed of 35.59 knots.
In March 1958 the ship was fitted with Denny-Brown stabilizers. By the beginning of the next decade there was already speculation about the ship's future. In December 1963 Queen Mary made her first cruise, to the Canaries. By 1965 this had become a larger part of the ship's role. A seamen's strike in May 1966 cost Cunard £4 million and spelt the end for the Queen Mary. In 1967 Cobh was added to the ship's Southampton-New York route but by now it was losing thousands of pounds a day. Queen Mary made her last transatlantic crossing on 16th September 1967. There was a large turn out of people to see Queen Mary for the last time.
Queen Mary is now docked in Long Beach California as a floating hotel, a fitting retirement for one of the worlds greatest ships.