RMS Majestic (1914)

RMS Majestic was a White Star ocean liner working on the North Atlantic run, originally launched in 1914 as the Hamburg America Line liner SS Bismarck. At 56,551 gross register tons, she was the largest ship in the world until completion of SS Normandie in 1935.

Name: SS Bismarck
Builder: Blohm & Voss
Laid down: 1913
Launched: 20 June 1914
Fate: Awarded to Great Britain in 1920 as reparation for the sinking of HMHS Britannic
United Kingdom
Name: RMS Majestic
Namesake: SS Majestic
Maiden voyage: 12 May 1922
Renamed: HMS Caledonia (23 April 1937)
Fate: Caught fire and sank on 29 September 1939 and scrapped 1943
General characteristics
Class and type: Imperator-class ocean liner
Tonnage: 56,551 gross tons
Length: 956.0 ft (291.4 m)
Beam: 100.1 ft (30.5 m)
Draft: 36 ft (11.0 m)
Installed power:
  • 48 boilers
  • 66,000 shp (49,000 kW)
Propulsion: 4 Parsons steam turbines, 4 screws

23.5 knots (43.5 km/h; 27.0 mph)

25 knots (46 km/h; 29 mph) (maximum)
  • 2,145 passengers:
  • 750 first class
  • 545 second class
  • 850 third class

The third and largest member of German HAPAG Line's trio of transatlantic liners, her completion was delayed by World War I. She never sailed under the German flag except on her sea trials in 1922.[1] Following the war, she was finished by her German builders, handed over to the allies as war reparations and became the White Star Line flagship Majestic. She was the second White Star ship to bear the name, the first being the RMS Majestic of 1889. She served successfully throughout the 1920s but the onset of the Great Depression made her increasingly unprofitable. She managed to struggle through the first half of the 1930s before being sold off for scrapping to Thos W Ward. She was taken possession of by the British Admiralty before demolition commenced after an agreement was reached with White Star and Thomas Ward. She served the Royal Navy as the training ship HMS Caledonia before catching fire in 1939 and sinking. She was subsequently raised and scrapped in 1943.[2]

Design/construction and early history

Bismarck was built by the Blohm & Voss shipbuilders in Hamburg, Germany. She was laid down in 1913 and launched on 20 June 1914 by Countess Hanna von Bismarck, the granddaughter of the 19th century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. During the launching ceremony Countess Bismarck had difficulty breaking the bottle of champagne herself by swinging it too late and Kaiser Wilhelm II had to assist by quick-wittedly snatching the bottle that had missed the ship's hull and throwing it himself, finally causing it to break as it should. The ship was to have been the flagship of the Hamburg America Line and the final of Albert Ballin's "Big Three" (Imperator, which later became RMS Berengaria, and Vaterland, which later became SS Leviathan). Majestic was intended to be the same size as Vaterland, in both tonnage and length, but a miscommunication that Cunard's Aquitania would be larger made HAPAG demand an extra 6 feet (1.8 m) in length, increasing her gross tonnage. Aquitania was actually 50 feet (15 m) shorter than both Vaterland and Bismarck.[3]

Though Bismarck was third of the "Big Three", she was most similar to her immediate predecessor SS Vaterland and was essentially a slightly enlarged version of that ship. There were significant differences between her and the first of the three, SS Imperator. Bismarck had an overall length of 956.0 ft (291.4 m), a breadth of 100.1 ft (30.5 m) and according to her British registration papers a gross tonnage of 56,551 tons. Excluding the tank-top, there were 11 decks ranging from Deck-A to Deck-L (there was no Deck-I). Decks J and K were only present at the ends of ship. Transversely the ship was divided into 14 watertight compartments. Like her sister Vaterland, the boiler uptakes (used to carry exhaust gases from the boilers to the funnels) instead of coming up through the centre of the ship's width, were divided in two and came up on opposite sides of the ship's centre line. The immediate effect was to allow the allocation of enormous public rooms of unprecedented length and volume. Traditionally the boiler uptakes ended up in the middle of large public rooms and were considered a major obstacle to well proportioned rooms.[4]

Bismarck was propelled by a set of quadruple screws driven by four direct drive Parsons turbines. The port centre propeller shaft was driven by a high-pressure turbine, which exhausted to an intermediate pressure turbine that drove the starboard centre shaft. These two turbines were located in the forward watertight compartment. Exhaust from the intermediate turbine was divided equally and fed into two low-pressure turbines on the outer shafts located in a separate compartment aft. The steam turbines generated approximately 66,000 shaft horsepower (49,000 kW) when running at 180 rpm. Each one of the low-pressure turbines weighed 375 tons. Steam was supplied to the turbines at 260 psi by 48 Yarrow & Normand water-tube boilers located in four watertight compartments. The boilers had a heating surface of 220,000 square feet (20,000 m2) and there was a total of 240 oil burners fitted to them.[5] Three funnels were fitted to the vessel but only the forward two were used to carry boiler exhaust. As with many large liners, the third funnel was used to ventilate the engines rooms. Bismarck was originally designed to burn coal but was converted to oil while being completed at Blohm & Voss.

After launch, fitting out of Bismarck proceeded until the start of the First World War in August 1914, when it slowed and substantive work on the vessel stopped altogether. Other than maintenance work, not much more work was done on the vessel, as naval priorities occupied the ship yard until 1918. By the time the war was over, the funnels had still not been erected. During the war brass and copper components were scavenged from the Bismarck for munitions.[6] After being ceded to Britain under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the as-yet uncompleted ship was purchased jointly by the White Star and Cunard Lines, together with Imperator. Construction of the ship resumed after the end of World War 1. Majestic was ostensibly a replacement for the pre-war 50,000-ton Olympic-class ocean liner Britannic which was lost after hitting a mine in the Aegean in 1916, while the Imperator went to Cunard and became the RMC Berengaria, a replacement for the Lusitania which had been sunk by a German U-boat in 1915. On 5 October 1920, the as-yet uncompleted Bismarck was gutted by fire while fitting out at the shipyard and badly damaged. At the time of the fire substantial progress had been made on the vessel and sabotage by shipyard workers was suspected. A number of other German liners that were due to be handed over were also damaged by fire.[7]

After Bismarck was sold to the White Star Line, a team of engineers were sent by Harland and Wolff, White Star's shipbuilders, to supervise completion of the vessel and gather experience on her operation. In March 1922, Commodore Bertram Hayes and a number of officers were ordered to Hamburg to take command of the vessel prior to handover. The ship's handover, though not friendly, was not openly acrimonious. When Hayes and his men arrived, they found their quarters incomplete, whereas their German colleagues' cabins were finished perfectly. In the case of Captain Hayes, his temporary quarters were being used to store wash basins.[8]

Bismarck was taken on her sea trials by Captain Hans Ruser of the Hamburg Amerika Line on the afternoon of 28 March 1922. The shipbuilders completed the ship in the colors of the Hamburg-Amerika Line and with the name Bismarck painted on her bow and stern. As she departed the Hamburg docks the following day she was watched by a large number of locals in silence. Once down the river, she anchored at Cuxhaven for the night and commenced her trials proper the next day. The basic requirement was that the ship develop 66,000 horsepower (49,000 kW) and therefore she was steamed for three hours into the North Sea and back again. Briefly she ran aground after leaving at Pagensand, Schleswig-Holstein,[9] but was refloated on the peak of high tide on 30 March and under way again.[10] After another week of work on the accommodation, Bismarck was accepted by the British representatives. In early April a chartered steamer arrived at Hamburg with the bulk of her new British crew, they were conveyed on board on one side of the ship, while her German crew were taken off on the other side. Upon boarding, men started painting out the name "Hamburg, Bismarck" and replacing it with "Liverpool, Majestic." Also the funnels were re-painted in White Star colours. Majestic departed Hamburg on 9 April 1922 and arrived at Southampton the next day (10 April) at 9.00 a.m. As a curiosity, exactly ten years earlier, the RMS Titanic left Southampton at the same day, three hours later on her maiden voyage.[11]

Career history

Majestic was placed on the North Atlantic run from Southampton to New York in tandem with Olympic and Homeric. She sailed on her maiden voyage from Southampton on Wednesday, 11 May 1922 at 11.30 am under the command of Sir Bertram Hayes.[12][13] She reached New York in 5 days, 14 hours and 45 minutes at an average speed of 22.69 knots (42.02 km/h; 26.11 mph). When she docked in New York, she was so large that 41 feet (12 m) of her stern projected into the Hudson River not flanked by the pier, at the time no pier in New York was long enough to take her.[14] On the eastern leg of her maiden voyage, Majestic managed to travel from New York (Ambrose Channel Lightship) to Eddystone Light, a distance of 3,139 nautical miles (5,813 km; 3,612 mi) in 5 days, 9 hours and 42 minutes at an average speed of 24.2 knots (44.8 km/h; 27.8 mph).[15]

On 4 August 1922, Majestic arrived at Southampton and her crew were told that the next day they would be departing and anchoring off Cowes where they would be inspected by the British monarchs George V and Queen Mary. Over night the ship was cleaned and the next day, the ship arrived at Cowes at 9.00. Not long after arriving, a "yeoman of Signals" from the Royal Yacht arrived with the Royal Standard. The launch carrying the King and Queen arrived shortly after 11.00 a.m. and the Royal Standard was broken on the main mast as the visitors came aboard. The royal guests were received by Harold A Sanderson – the Chairman of the International Merchant Marine, owners of the White Star Line and Majestic's captain; Bertram Hayes. They were given an inspection of the ship lasting an hour and a half where the major public rooms and the three classes of accommodation were inspected before sitting down to lunch on B-Deck. The visit to a merchant ship by a reigning monarch was considered a great honour at the time.[16][17] George V had been a naval officer until placed in the direct line of succession by the death of his brother and took an interest in the merchant marine.

The ship served as the flagship of the White Star Line from 1922 until 1934. After her May 1922 maiden voyage Majestic became one of the most popular liners afloat and in 1923 she carried more passengers than any other Atlantic liner. In 1924, 1926, 1928 and 1930 she carried more passengers than her sister ships. She earned the affectionate nickname 'Magic Stick'.

Due to a structural defect in her topsides, Majestic suffered a 100-foot (30 m) crack in December 1924 and underwent permanent repairs and strengthening along B-deck before returning to service in April 1925. Small cracks were also noted on her sister Leviathan around the same time, but only minor repairs were carried out and she developed a similar 100-foot crack five years later.

In 1925, she completed an eastbound crossing at 25 knots, which was the fastest she ever managed, and faster than either of her sisters' best efforts. However, her older sister Leviathan often had a slightly higher average speed each year than Majestic.

In 1928, Majestic was extensively refitted and modernised and enjoyed a boom year for passenger lists, but numbers fell slightly in 1929 and then the Great Depression set in by 1930. During slack periods as Atlantic crossings fell during the Depression, Majestic was employed in summer recreational cruises from New York to Halifax, Nova Scotia.[18]

Berengaria and Majestic remained jointly owned by Cunard/White Star until 1932, when Cunard terminated the joint ownership agreement.[19]

In 1934 in the North Atlantic an enormous wave smashed over the bridge of Majestic, injuring the first officer and White Star's final commodore, Edgar J. Trant, who was hospitalised for a month and never sailed again.

Also in 1934, Majestic became the first commercial vessel to use the newly constructed King George V Graving Dock.

Following the merger of the White Star and Cunard Lines in 1934, Majestic served the new company until 1936.[20] In 1935, it was announced that her sister Berengaria would be retired first after several fires aboard caused by the original wiring and Cunard arguing with the American Board of Trade who stated that the ship was no longer fit for American travellers, but the decision was reversed and Majestic was retired instead.

HMS Caledonia

After being laid up at Southampton, she was sold on 15 May 1936 for scrap to Thos W Ward. However, due to a stipulation in her original agreement of being a prize of war handed over to the White Star Line as compensation for lost tonnage, she could not be sold to Thos W. Ward, so an exchange was set up where the shipbreakers were given 24 outmoded destroyers as compensation for the equivalent scrap value of Majestic. In July 1936 the ship was converted into a Boys' and Artificers' training ship and renamed HMS Caledonia.

The conversion of Majestic was undertaken at Southampton and comprised the shortening of her masts and funnels so that she could pass beneath the Forth Bridge, and a reduction in the number of lifeboats.

On 8 April 1937, Caledonia departed Southampton for her new base in Rosyth and was commissioned on 23 April 1937, with a capacity of 1,500 trainees. The conversion of the liner meant that 100 Officers, 180 Chief Petty officers and petty officers, 300 ship's company, 1500 Seamen Boys and 500 Artificer Apprentices could be accommodated on board. By the end of 1937 there were 800 Seamen Boys and 230 Apprentices on the ship's books. At the peak of her training career during 1938–1939, her books were full.[21]

After the outbreak of World War II, the trainees were removed to accommodation ashore and the ship's berth was emptied for Naval use. Caledonia was temporarily anchored in the Firth of Forth pending a decision as to her disposal.

On 29 September 1939, Caledonia caught fire and burnt out, sinking at her moorings. The wreck was sold in March 1940 to Thos W Ward for scrap, but it was not until 17 July 1943 that the remains of Caledonia were raised and towed to the scrapyard. The bell was later placed in St Nicholas Church, Dereham.


  1. "RMS MAJESTIC". Archived from the original on 13 August 2012. Retrieved 28 May 2012.
  2. "RMS MAJESTIC THE DETAILS". Archived from the original on 13 August 2012. Retrieved 13 August 2012.
  3. "Bismarck / R.M.S. Majestic (II)". www.greatships.net. Retrieved 26 February 2017.
  4. "Titanic and Other White Star Ships – RMS Majestic". titanic-whitestarships.com.
  5. Engineering, July 1922, p. 6
  6. Hull Down: Reminiscences of Wind-Jammers, Troops and Travellers, p. 279
  7. The New York Times, 6 October 1920
  8. Hull Down: Reminiscences of Wind-Jammers, Troops and Travellers, pp. 277–280
  9. "World's largest liner aground". The Times (42993). London. 30 March 1922. col G, p. 11.
  10. "The Majestic refloated". The Times (42994). London. 31 March 1922. col E, p. 14.
  11. Hull Down: Reminiscences of Wind-Jammers, Troops and Travellers, pp. 280–285
  12. The Times, 8 May 1922
  13. The Times, 11 May 1922
  14. The New York Times, 17 May 1922
  15. Engineering, July 1922, p. 5
  16. Hull Down: Reminiscences of Wind-Jammers, Troops and Travellers, pp. 299–304
  17. The New York Times, 21 August 1922
  18. "SS Bismark/RMS Majestic", Monsters of the Sea: The Great Ocean Liners of Time Archived 9 November 2014 at the Wayback Machine
  19. The New York Times, 25 August 1932
  20. "Majestic". Chris' Cunard Page.
  21. HMS Caledonia – the Royal Naval Engineering School – a short history by Lieutenants KP Hunter & RJ Rogers, RN:

Further reading

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