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Kaiser Wilhelm IIFor centuries, Britain was the undisputed power on the high seas, both militarily and with their vast merchant feet. Nevertheless, in the latter decades of the nineteen century, under the guidance of Germany’s new leader, Kaiser Wilhelm II, German shipbuilding firms and shipping lines were encouraged to develop a startlingly brilliant fleet of liners for Germany, that would challenge Britain’s long hold on the Blue Riband.

The Kaiser, was present at the British navel review at Spithead in August 1889, when the new White Star flagship, Teutonic, caught his eye. He was said to be most impressed with the size of the ship and her amenities, which included a barber shop, when he is often quoted as saying, "We must have some of these!". And have them, they did. Less than a decade after making this prophetic comment, Germany had displaced Great Britain as the pre-eminent passenger carrying nation.

The new German nation had constructed a series of ships designed to wrestle profits and the prestige of holding the Blue Riband for the fastest ship across the Atlantic, away from British hands. The first record breaker launched, was from the North German-Lloyd company, founded in 1857. German-Lloyd would win the Blue Riband from Britain in 1897 with their brilliant new flagship, Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. She was not only faster than the leading British ships, Kaiser Friedrichbut larger and more luxuriously appointed than all that had come before her. Moreover, she was only the first in a series of lager and faster ships planned by the company. Speed was so important that the Kaiser Friedrich, a fleet mate for the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, was returned to her builders Vulkan at Stettin, by the North German Lloyd company, because she failed to produce her designed speed in operation. She remained laid up for fifteen years before a buyer was found.

But the Kaiser Wilhelm wouldn’t hold the record for long. Another German shipping line, Hamburg-Amerika, established in 1847, set a new Atlantic speed record in 1900, with their new 16, 500 ton Deutschland. Unfortunately, the Deutschland was a sporadic performer and vibrated badly at any speed over 18 knots. This convinced the lines director Albert Ballin, to concentrate on size, rather than speed thereafter. The Deustschland was removed from service in 1910 and transformed into a cruising liner, renamed Viktoria Luise. With the success of The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, North German-Lloyd would build a series of liners over 15,000 tons, all with four funnels and two masts, these would include the, Kronprinz Wilhelm and the Kaiser Wilhelm II. Britain would take back the Blue Riband in 1907 with the Lusitania, and later the Mauretania would hold the record for Britain for over twenty years.

DeutschlandBut speed didn’t necessarily guarantee profits and while the Lusitania and Mauretania were large and fast, they could be uncomfortable vessels. Vibration and stability could be problems in these sleek narrow ships, built for speed above all else. Albert Ballin, had just this problem with his Blue Riband holder of 1900, the Deustschland. Instead of speed he would concentrate on building the largest ships the world had yet seen. His ships would rival the size of the fabled Titanic and would be the largest sips constructed for almost twenty years. In 1912, Kaiser Wilhelm II would launch the 52,117 ton Imperator, originally to be called the Europa, a last minute change had been made to satisfy patriotic demands. When the Imperator went in to service in 1913, there was no ship that could approach her. Inside she would resemble an imperial palace afloat. Her public room were designed by architect Charles Mewes, collaborator with the great hotelier Cesar Ritz. The first class room on the Imperator became the Ritz at sea, incorporating quantities of marble and guilt, to stunning effect. ImperatorThe swimming pool, was modelled on the Automobile Club building in Pall Mall, and was literally a marble hall. Outside the ship was criticised for having a "heavy" look, an appearance not helped by the form of a monstrous bronze Imperial eagle, 30ft in length that was mounted on the bow. When the ship took to the water, she would scare her owners by rolling on even calm seas, she proved to be top-heavy and was subsequently nicknamed "Limperator", by New York port authorities. (Wall, 1978:108).

In 1914, the 54,117 ton Vaterland would begin Atlantic service for the Hamburg-Amerika line. She was even more luxurious than her fleet mate the Imperator. Vaterland’s public rooms would be the first to divide the huge funnel uptakes and rout them along the side of the ship, thereby achieving vast open spaces for her first class public rooms. The last of Ballin’s trio of superliners, the 56,551 ton Bismarck, was launched by the Kaiser himself, in 1914, but she would not see Atlantic service for the Hamburg-Amerika line. World War one would intervene, and the Bismarck, named after a peace loving German ambassador, would remain uncompleted for the remainder of the war. At the outbreak of war, very few of the German superliners would make it back to their home ports in Germany. The Kaiser Wilhelm II, Kronprinz Wilhelm and the Vaterland, would all be tied up in American ports. Upon entering the war in 1917, America took over all these large German liners and used them for trooping, fondly dubbing it, "The Fleet the Kaiser built us". The enormous Vaterland, was used as a trooper and renamed the Leviathan.

After the signing of the armistice at the end of the war, Germany would loose all their high speed liners to allies. The Imperator would be ceded to the Cunard line and become the Berengaria, the Vaterland went to the America Line as was renamed the Leviathan and the uncompleted Bismarck would become the White Star flag ship, Majestic. After the war, all the big Atlantic shipping firms rebuilt their lines with more modest sized vessels. But in 1922, North German Lloyd, launched their biggest liner since the war, the 32,300 ton Columbus. She would be the company’s new flagship until the company boldly announced in the late 1920’s plans to construct two huge, high-speed liners. They were to become the Bremen and Europa. Bremen was constructed in Bremen and the Europa in Hamburg. BremenThese two ships were launched on successive days in August of 1928. The vessels were a radical departure from the ship architecture of old. Both had rounded sterns for increased speed and efficiency and below the waterline both liners had a bulbous bow, a unique design feature that, among other benefits, greatly reduced drag at sea. The ships would also sport two squat funnels, a distinct improvement from the usual four, though the funnels were later raised on their annual refits to stop the deposit of smuts on the decks.

Europa was planned to be the first of the pair to go into service. However, this was delayed after a serious fire almost destroyed her and sank her in the Hamburg docks where she was built. Initial estimates suggested scrapping the 936ft ship. But her North German Lloyd owners agreed to repairs, which lasted another year. Amazingly when the Europa was ceded to France after World War two, during a gale she would slip her moorings and wreck herself on the wreck of the French liner Paris, and again she would sink on an even keel, was raised, and live on as the Liberte. But the Bremen would be delivered on schedule and immediately prove herself a thoroughbred. In 1929, Bremen would shatter the record held by the Mauretania, creating a new average record speed form the crossing of 27.83 knots. In 1930, the Europa would also take her slice of the Blue Riband, but soon after the Bremen would again hold the record. After Germany lost the Blue Riband, to the Italians and later the French and English, they would not again mount a challenge for the record. BremenInstead, during the fascist regime of Hitler, money was better spent on the so-called "Strength through Joy" cruises. These were the first real examples of modern cruise liners, and were to provide an ocean going inducement to the Third Reich workers. The Wilhelm Gustloff and the Robert Ley, both of 25,000 tons were two of these ships. They were the first one-class ship, providing the same levels of accommodation for both passengers and crew.

But soon the second World War would intervene. On the outbreak of war, the Bremen would find herself away from her home port, in the early hours of September the 1st, she would slip away from her New York berth, blacked out, and set a course for home. To avoid allied cruisers and submarines, she would first travel to the Soviet Union navel port of Murmansk, before making it safely back to join the Europa at Bremerhaven. The Bremen and Europa would play no meaningful role in the war. But they were requisitioned as accommodation ships and were later modified for use as troopers in the "Operation Sea Lion", the proposed invasion of England. The Bremen was gutted by fire during an air raid on the night of 18th of March, but it is uncertain if the ship was destroyed by the allies or a disgruntled crew member. The other large German liner, the Columbus, was caught by British cruiser’s, trying to make her way home, 300 miles off the coast of Virginia. The captain ordered the ship to be scuttled, the crew spreading benzene and opening the sea-cocks. The "Strength through joy" ships were both sunk with terrible loss of life In January of 1945, the Wilhelm Gustloff, was torpedoed by the Soviet submarine S13, the ship sank in less than twenty minutes, killing over 6,000 people. After the war, the Germans one last remaining superliner was given to France as war reparations. Germany would never build an Atlantic "superliner" again. ...(bibliography). (german liners gallery)...



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