A Brief Overview of the Queen's Wartime Service

The Queen Mary was often called "The Gray Ghost" during the war because of her color and the way she traveled secretly about the globe (click on the thumbnail image below to view a larger version).


The Queen Mary left Southampton on 28 August 1939 packed with people trying to flee to America in the face of the threat of war in Europe. This was to be the ship's last peacetime voyage, for she arrived in New York to find that war had been declared between Britain and Germany on 3 September. Even before this, the portholes had been painted over to offer less of a target to submarines.

The Queen Mary stayed at her berth in New York for six months, before orders were received to paint the ship in camoflage gray. She them sailed for Cape Town, South Africa, and from there to Sydney, Australia, where her luxurious fittings were removed, and bunk beds were installed to enable her to carry troops. The Queen Mary then took 5,000 men to Gourock, Scotland. Later troop-carrying voyages were to take her all over the world, to places such as Bombay, Suez, Florida, and frequently Sydney again and Singapore, where she was drydocked twice. Work was carried out here to service the engines, and the ship was even outfitted with guns on the Sun Deck as a measure against both aircraft and surfaced submarines.

Eventually, the ship's troop-carrying capacity was increased to 16,000 men. She could move an entire U. S. division in one voyage. This was an incredible feat, duplicated by the Queen's sister ship the Queen Elizabeth, which had also been adapted for troop-carrying. It was not comfortable. Soldiers on board took turns in the bunks, sleeping in shifts as there were not enough bunks for all the men (click on the thumbnail image at right for a larger version).


The Queen Mary was intended for the North Atlantic weather, and it transpired that she did not have adequate ventilation for the tropical climates she sailed through. Many men died from heat-exhaustion. Nevertheless, Churchill (who was occasionally a passenger during the war under the pseudonym "Colonel Warden") later said that the two "Queens" had shortened the war by a year. It was not surprising that Germany tried to destroy the ships, and it was rumored that Hitler offered the Iron Cross and a huge sum of money (some said $250,000 USD) to any U-Boat captain who could sink either of the Queens.

The Queen Mary's greatest defense against torpedoes was her speed. Sailing at 28.5 knots, the Queen was a fast moving target, much faster even than a warship could manage, and very difficult to aim at. To make it even more difficult, she zig-zagged at regular intervals, following set patterns.


One day, 2 October 1942, an escorting warship, HMS Curacoa, which had been sent to meet and protect the Queen Mary on her approach to Britain, misjudged the liner's speed and zig-zag. The Queen Mary hit the Curacoa amidships, cutting it in two. 331 of 432 crew were lost from the Curacoa. Crew on the much larger Queen Mary felt only a small bump. The liner could not stop for fear of lurking submarines, and had to steam onwards (the crew had orders to this effect). It was the most tragic incident in the Queen Mary's career. The Queen Mary's bow was badly bent (click on the thumbnail image at left for a larger version). The damage was patched up with cement, and later made better in Boston, but the damage was not fully repaired until after the war when a new stem was fitted.


After the war ended, the Queen Mary not only served to take American and Canadian G.I.s home, but also the wives they had met and married in Britain. The Queen Mary carried about 10,000 of these brides (about a third of the total), along with 3,700 children. At this time, the bunk beds had been removed from the ship, and later in September 1946 she began a ten-month refit during which she was returned to her pre-war condition and color. Radar was also fitted to her at this time. She resumed her normal trans-Atlantic service on 25 July 1947. Click on the thumbnail at right to view a larger image of the ship arriving back in Southampton after its release from war service. Note that her funnels have already been painted in Cunard colors again, after being completely gray during the war.

Additional Information

Complete Record of the Queen's World War II Cruises:


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GI Life Aboard the Queen

You Needed A Map on that Ship!

LAYOUT CARDAs it became apparent that the Queen could carry more and more men, a new organization of her spaces was needed (especially when entire divisions were to be involved). As a result, the ship was subdivided into various troop accommodation zones. This "efficient" reordering of the ship's berthing spaces came to be called "the red, white, and blue plan," and it caused much confusion among the embarking troops. Each GI, upon boarding, was handed a copy of this diagram (click on the thumbnail for a larger version), which indicated locations of various PXs, barber shops, mess halls, chapels and synagogues, etc. (Click on the thumbnail at right to view a larger version.)

Sleeping in the Swimming Pool

BUNKS IN POOLEvery available space aboard the Queen was used to set up her 12,500 standee bunks, including the swimming pool! (Click on the thumbnail for a larger version.) Owing to such crowded conditions below decks, many GIs preferred to sleep on deck as part of the rotational "hot-bunking" system.

Dinner is Served

DINING ROOMThe Queen's prewar First Class Dining Room served as the enlisted men's mess hall. In the photo (click on the thumbnail for a larger view), USAAF personnel wait on line for chow. The mural of the Atlantic Ocean in the background was used to depict the ship's course and position during each voyage, using a small likeness of the ship.

Racing Across the Atlantic

RACING ACROSS THE ATLANTICPictured in 1943 somewhere in the North Atlantic, the Queen knifes toward Scotland. (Click on the thumbnail for a larger version.) Along with her sister ship, the Queen Elizabeth, some of the world's most famous passenger steamships were key components of Operation Bolero, the Allies' plan to ferry troops to England as part of the massive buildup for the invasion of Europe. Hard to imagine that there might have been as many as 16,000 GIs aboard her when this picture was taken, jamming every space, including her famous "Picadilly Circus."

Almost There

RACING ACROSS THE ATLANTICYou knew the voyage was almost over when you sighted an RAF Coastal Command Catalina patrol plane off the coast of Northern Ireland. The final leg of the trip, however, was the most dangerous, since German planes and E-boats often tried to catch up to the Queen as she reduced speed to navigate the Irish Sea approaches to the mouth of the River Clyde. In this photo (click on the thumbnail for a full-size version), the Catalina is banking over the Queen's fantail. Note the four antiaircraft mounts (in front of the first and second funnels and just behind the second).

Bunkside Serenade

BUNKSIDE SERENADEIn the crowded confines of the ship, with little to do except count the claustrophobic hours between New York and Britain, GIs entertained each other. Here, a guitar-pickin' soldier is sandwiched by his buddies in a tier of standee bunks (click on the thumbnail image to view a larger version). There's barely enough room for the neck of his guitar! Imagine another five bunks above those in the picture and it's suprising that vertigo wasn't a close second to seasickness in the seagoing illness sweepstakes.

Party at Sea

PARTY AT SEAThe Queen's "mess halls" (formerly referred to by such terms as "First Class Dining Room") were the street corners of the ship. Here (click on the small image to view a larger version) two GIs perform for a few dozen of their mates. Such moments of relaxation were a sharp counterpoint to the dangers inherent in each crossing: Hitler had made a standing offer of thousands of Reichsmarks to any U-boat crew who could sink the Queen.

Fully Loaded

FULLY LOADEDHoping to catch a final glimpse of home, GIs swarm across the fantail of the Queen as she leaves New York Harbor and enters the Atlantic. Clearly visible (click on the thumbnail for an enlarged view) is the girdle-like degaussing ring that surrounded the ship's hull during the war. This device was designed to "degauss" the ship so that magnetic mines could find no purchase on the steel plates.


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