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1942::The QE: The Largest Ship in the World Sails to Victoria, BC During WW2

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

🌺WW2::The Queen Elizabeth. Vancouver Island's contribution to the Second World War.

1942::The Queen Elizabeth in Dry Dock in Esquimalt, British Columbia During WW1

"The QE: The Largest Ship in the World in Esquimalt, British Columbia"

Photo Clip: Times Colonist (1944)

Victoria, British Columbia

On February 26, 1940, months after the outbreak of the Second World War, Scotsmen along the River Clyde were taken by surprise when out of the fog appeared a massive ship. It was the 'Queen Elizabeth' (QE), the Cunard Line's newest ship and the largest Ocean Liner in the world. She had been launched and christened by her namesake on the Clyde in 1938 and had remained on the river while being fitted as a luxury liner and Royal Mail Service carrier. Before her first luxury cruise, however, the QE was called upon for war service.

1940::The QE sneaking up the River Clyde on her maiden voyage. Plowman in field stopped to watch her sail past.

"QE Sneaks Up River Clyde on Maiden Voyage to Destination Unknown"

Photo Clip: The Scotsman (1940)

Midlothian, Scotland

With wartime spies working the area, QE's skeleton crew of 400 men were sworn to secrecy and worked quietly to paint over her Cunard colours with battleship grey. They were then told to pack for a six-month trip and were given no further information. Whispers around the Clyde suggested that she might sail to Liverpool where further testing and additional work could be performed. But suddenly, without warning and with a secret plan in place, the ship slowly sailed up the Clyde for the very first time. When finally free from the river, she paused long enough to receive fuel and a sealed King's Message which revealed to the captain their secret destination, New York City (NYC).

"Arriving in NYC"

Clip: Illustrated London News (1940)

London, England

The QE had managed to avoid Nazi detection by zigzagging her way across the Atlantic Ocean. She slipped quietly into NYC's harbour on the morning of March 8th, 1940. New Yorker's heralded her surprise arrival at their neutral port. They parked her alongside her sister ship the 'Queen Mary' who had been there since the outbreak of war, and then quickly put together a roaring NYC welcome.

1940::From far upper left to lower centre are Mauritania, the French ship Normandie, the Queen Mary and her sister ship Queen Elizabeth.

"The World's Four Largest Ships Together in New York City Port."

Photo: (tbd)

For several days, four of the world's largest ships were docked side-by-side in NYC's harbour waiting for further instructions. Each ship eventually received its orders and departed one by one until all but the QE remained. 18 months later, with a bolstered Canadian crew aboard, the QE once again dodged detection when she secretly sailed back across the Atlantic to Cape Town, South Africa. After several weeks with no news, word finally got out that she had docked in Singapore for undisclosed repairs, but then quickly got on her way. After Singapore, the QE's whereabouts are unknown. This is likely due to media restrictions imposed in the British Commonwealth and allied countries after the breakout of naval warfare in the Mediterranean during Christmas of 1941. It was later revealed that the QE had managed to sneak away from the area to sail to Vancouver Island.

Ship Size Comparison Chart
Ship Size Comparison Chart

1942::The QE in drydock in Esquimalt, British Columbia

"1942::QE In Esquimalt's Drydock" Photo: (tbd)

When the QE had first arrived in the southern hemisphere, she stayed close to Australia who needed additional troops for their own defense, but she managed to sneak away when the situation began to settle in the Pacific Ocean.

Shortly after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, the QE sailed undetected up the Pacific Coast to Vancouver Island where she was greeted at the entrance of the Juan de Fuca Straits and escorted to Esquimalt's drydock where she underwent her transition into a troop carrier.

1942::The QE Is Converted to Troop Transport Ship in Esquimalt, BC During WW2.

"A New Troop Carrier" Photo: (tbd)

The City of Victoria was under strict 'no discussion' rules before, during and after the QE was there. After almost two weeks in Esquimalt's drydock, with a thousand workers working two shifts 24 hours a day, she returned to Australia in her new wartime role as a troop carrier. The following year, it was heard that the QE was torpedoed in the North Seas, but it wasn't until after peace was declared and restrictions lifted that the ship's captain confirmed that a torpedo was indeed fired at the ship, but that they had managed to speed away to safety when they heard the explosion.

At the end of the war, the QE spent over a year transporting troops home. The first delivery of Canadian troops landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, but the remainder of the trans-Atlantic crossings dropped troops off in New York City where her wartime journey had first begun. It was estimated that between the QE and her sister ship the Queen Mary, they had transported over 2 million troops around the world and by doing so, reduced the length of the war by two years.

1945::The QE Returning 12,000 Canadian Troops Home After WW2

"1945::The QE Returning 12,000 Canadian Troops Home After WW2"

Photo: (tbd)

On her second post-war crossing of the Atlantic, the Queen Elizabeth carried over 12,000 Canadian Troops to New York City. Onboard was Victoria's famed Canadian Scottish Regiment and their world-famous mascot, a St. Bernard named Wallace. Along with Canada's soldiers, the QE transported many dignitaries and famous actors including James Stewart who would immediately begin filming the Christmas classic 'It's a Wonderful Life' to be released the following year.

"Over 12,000 Passengers Onboard"

Clip: The Province (1945)

Vancouver, British Columbia

Knowing that he had many troops from Victoria on board, the ship's captain did his best to get the troops across the ocean as fast as he could so that they could make it home for New Year's Eve. Not long after their journey began, however, their convoy of troop ships ran into a terrible storm. All ships but the Queen Elizabeth returned to port for safety. The QE pressed on and an elaborate Christmas dinner was served to those who could still stomach food while enduring the enormous waves. Thanks to the captain who braved the storm, Victoria's troops arrived at home on January 3rd, 1946.

1972::The Fate of the Queen Elizabeth in Hong Kong's Harbour

"1972::Destiny in Hong Kong's Harbour"

Photo: (tbd)

After the war, the Queen Elizabeth was overhauled and went on to spend over a decade as a luxury ocean liner, her true self. She was later sold to Chinese interests who converted her into a floating university. In 1972, fire broke out on the ship while she was anchored in Hong Kong's Harbour. She was devastated, and partially sank as a result. The following year, filmmakers took advantage of her sorrowful look and featured her in James Bond's newest film "The Man with the Golden Gun' as a covert headquarters for MI6.


"World's Biggest Drydock" Clip: Times Colonist (1944)

Victoria, British Columbia

The QE remained the largest ship in the drydock's history until 2001 when Celebrity Cruise's new ship 'Infinity' ran into trouble on her maiden voyage up the coast and was forced to enter the drydock for repairs.

1940::Queen Elizabeth crewmen reading the headlines about their secret journey.

"Happy to Arrive in NYC"

Clip: The Sphere (1940)

London, England

Members of the QE's skeleton crew who had secretly sailed the ship across the Atlantic to the neutral port of New York City in the United States, read the headlines about their secret journey.

1940::Sydney Harbour being dredged to accommodate the Queen Elizabeth.

"Dredging Sydney's Harbour"

Clip: Aberdeen Press & Journal (1940) Aberdeenshire, Scotland

The reason the QE was held up in NYC for 18 months.


Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth christened the ship that bore her name. Her daughters Princess Elizabeth (soon to be Queen) and Princess Margaret are with her in this clip.

1939::Queen Elizabeth (Queen Mum) on the Princess Marguerite I.

"Queen Elizabeth on the Princess Marguerite 1" Photo: City of Victoria Archives (M04142)

A year after launching the ship that bore her name, Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mum) visited Victoria, BC in 1939 and sailed on the city's beloved Princess Marguerite 1.


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