Queen Mary The ‘Grey Ghost’: From Luxury Liner to the Largest and Fastest Troopship

Queen Mary

Queen Mary: When is a luxury liner no longer a fancy ship for the A-list elite to book as a way to get from one location to another in comfort, class and style? When the country that owns it gets involved in a global conflict, that’s when.

When a country goes to war, virtually everything in that nation is likely to be called into service to help win the war.

Queen Mary. Mike Fernwood – CC BY-SA 2.0
Queen Mary. Mike Fernwood – CC BY-SA 2.0

Factory production lines are altered so they no longer make, say, baby bottles and instead are equipped to manufacture mess kits. A company that once made guns for civilian police forces are drafted to contribute to the war effort by making arms for the military.

Queen Mary’s forward superstructure, shown here in Long Beach. When she came to Long Beach, the Sun Deck windows were enlarged and an anti-aircraft gun was placed on display astride the foremast to represent the Second World War days of the liner.
Queen Mary’s forward superstructure, shown here in Long Beach. When she came to Long Beach, the Sun Deck windows were enlarged and an anti-aircraft gun was placed on display astride the foremast to represent the Second World War days of the liner.

Every country that has engaged in war has engaged in this kind of co-opting process in order to supply their armed forces with what they need to come out as victors in the fight at hand.

In 1930, ships traversed the Atlantic Ocean regularly, ferreting folks from England and Europe over to North America. Jet travel was, back then, not even a distant bell; no one but a few aviation visionaries ever imagined planes would one day supersede travel by boat.

The three biggest ships in the world: Normandie, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, 1940.
The three biggest ships in the world: Normandie, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, 1940.

And so this luxury liner, named the Queen Mary by King George V, as a tribute to his wife, was one of the finest, and fastest, vessels in the Canard cruise line. It was more than 1,000 feet in length, and could accommodate more than 2,000 passengers.

It rivalled any ship sailing the seas at the time, and was a credit to the craftsmen and shipbuilders who had constructed the vessel over the course of more than five years.

By then, Adolph Hitler was in power in Germany, and while Great Britain and her allies were not happy with the fascist leader, at that point war was still not something government officials were considering.

Three unidentified men possibly on board RMS QUEEN MARY near Port Jackson in Sydney, May 1940.
Three unidentified men possibly on board RMS QUEEN MARY near Port Jackson in Sydney, May 1940.

After all, the Great War was only 18 years in the past, and no one – certainly not English citizens – had the appetite for another long, drawn out and miserable war. Everyone wanted to get on with their lives, and travelling by ship to America was one of the luxuries many people craved. If they could afford it, that is.

But politics has a way of overcoming even the best intentions and most fervent wishes for peace. Great Britain and Germany did ultimately go to war with Germany, in 1939, after the Nazis invaded and occupied first Poland, and soon France.

Australian Army soldiers, possibly on board RMS QUEEN MARY, 1940.

Australian Army soldiers, possibly on board RMS QUEEN MARY, 1940.

In what must have seemed like monumental, profound change occurred within the blink of an eye, as England moved from peace to war, and civilians turned their attention from luxury travel to hiding during air raids.

As for ships like the Queen Mary, they were taken by the government and Royal Navy to help move soldiers and sailors to the many fronts and battlegrounds the war engendered.

Because of the vessel’s speed and turning ability, it was able to move around the Atlantic and keep out of harm’s way, avoiding German submarines that were stalking the waters. It earned the nickname “Grey Ghost” because of this ability, and because the Royal Navy painted it battleship grey.

Troopship Queen Mary in Sydney, World War II, 1942.
Troopship Queen Mary in Sydney, World War II, 1942.

For the six years England was at war, this ship served as a military transport vessel, transporting thousands of armed forces personnel to their postings on land and at sea.

When the war finally ended in 1945, the ship once again became a cruising vessel. But within only a few years, the lure of airline travel began to outweigh the appeal of travelling by ship. Soon, ships like the Queen Mary were of little use to a global transportation industry that saw planes and jets as the way of the future.

Queen Mary
Queen Mary

In 1967 this marvel of British maritime engineering was decommissioned and moored in Long Beach, California.

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It served as a museum, a hotel, and had several restaurants on board. What was once a glorious example of luxury travel became, instead, an object of curiosity and nostalgia, giving people a peek into a time when people travelled by sea.