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Vessel type: Transatlantic liner passenger vessel

Designers: Owners CGM, Builder Penhoet and Vladimir Yourkevitch

Builder: Penhoet, Saint Nazaire, France

Keel Laid: 1931

Date Delivered: 29 May 1935

Date Modified: Modification to troop ship started 1942, never completed

Date Scrapped: 1948

Length on deck: 1,029 feet

Length over all: 1,029 feet

Beam: 119. 4 feet

Depth: 12 decks

Draft: 37 feet

Gross Tonnage: 83,423

Lightweight Tonnage:

Maximum Displacement: 71,300 metric tons

Construction Material: Steel

Rig Type: None

Sail area: N/A

Crew Size: 1,345

Passenger Capacity: 1,972

Propulsion Plant: Steam Turbo Electric, quad screw

Horsepower: 160,000 (200,000 max)

Cruising Speed: 29 knots

Maximum Speed: 32.2 knots

Armament: none

Model Scale: 1:400

Vessel Description

The SS Normandie is considered by many to be the most revolutionary passenger ship ever built. It was built as the largest, fastest, most luxurious and most technologically advanced passenger vessel and succeeded on all counts.

Even today the vessel would be considered to be modern in appearance, and when the Disney Company decided to enter the cruise trade in the 1990’s their first ships, the Disney Wonder and the Disney Magic, used the Normandie exterior design as the starting point. The moment the Normandie entered service, every other passenger ship looked old fashioned. 

The vessel was built at the start of the depression as a French government sponsored project, and required the construction of a new building way and a new drydock at the builder’s yard. In addition the vessel’s size required the construction of new berths in Le Havre and New York.

The vessel’s hull was designed by Vladimir Yourkevitch, a Russian expatriate ex-naval architect, who, through an extraordinary set of circumstances returned to ship design while working as an assembly worker in a Renault car assembly plant. Yourkevitch’ hull design was quite revolutionary and allowed a very significant reduction in horse power for the vessel compared to more conventional designs. Part of the hull’s innovation relates to her bulbous bow (although it had been applied to other vessels). Rather than having a knife edged bow, the lower part of the bow is bulbous, and, while this may seem counterintuitive, this type of bow produces less resistance than a knife edged bow. This counterintuitive feature was not something that was easily accepted by the world’s naval architects and not until the 1960’s did bulbous bows become standard for large ocean going vessels.

During the depth of the great depression only one other super liner, the RMS Queen Mary, entered service. Comparing the Queen Mary against the Normandie is almost an embarrassment to the designers of the Queen Mary, since the Queen Mary more closely resembled the Titanic built 20 years earlier than the Normandie. The next super liner, the Queen Elizabeth, took quite a number of design features from the Normandie, but never achieved the level of innovation of the Normandie.

The only transatlantic passenger vessel that surpassed the Normandie in any way was the United States, but that vessel did not surpass the Normandie in looks, size, elegance or technical sophistication, it simply had more installed horsepower to surpass her in speed.

Today there are substantially larger passenger cruise vessels, but none have been able to capture the overall excellence of the Normandie. 

Vessel History

Upon entry into the transatlantic passenger trade the Normanie was an immediate sensation and while the passenger trade was not particularly profitable during the great depression (she décor was considered to be too radical by many translatlantic passengers), undoubtedly the vessel became the leading ship of the Atlantic trade and thereby the world’s leading passenger vessel and carried many of the world’s luminaries across the Atlantic.

The Normandie continued in her trade up to the French surrender in World War II and while technically she was part of the nominally independent Vichy French government, the Normandie found herself tied up at her berth in New York City in operational limbo. When the United States entered the war, it took possession of the vessel and President Roosevelt immediately suggestion a change of name to the Lafayette, and asked the various government agencies to determine what the use of the vessel would be.  This resulted in a discussion as to whether the vessel should be turned into a troop ship or an aircraft carrier.

After substantial debate between various government agencies and department that also included the involvement of Francis A. Martin , as a government consultant, and Francis Gibbs, as a naval architect eager to get his hands on this excellent vessel, it was decided to convert the Normandie into a ship that could carry as many as 18,000 troops.

The conversion was started at the vessel’s berth in Manhattan and was expected to be completed in a few months. During the conversion activities the vessel caught fire from a welding torch on 9 February 1942, after a large portion of the vessel’s furniture decorations and art work had been removed. While the vessel had excellent fire detection and fighting systems, during the conversion process this system was not functioning properly and resulted in the spread of a massive fire aboard the vessel. The fire was fought by a confused combination of New York City land based fire fighters, New York City fire fighting boats, private fire fighting boats, the Navy and the Coast Guard. While the vessel was on fire, Vladimir Yourkevitch , the designer of the hull and who now was working in New York City, went to the berth to offer his assistance but never managed to get in touch with the fire fighting commanders. Over time and due to a badly directed fire fighting effort, the vessel became unstable on February 10, 1942 from the fire fighting water that collected on the upper decks and she capsized at the berth. This capsize was entirely avoidable, since the vessel could have been safely flooded down to settle on the bottom only about 10 feet lower than its usual draft after which no amount of fire fighting water could have made her capsize.

Since the vessel was wider than the water depth, after capsize, approximately one half of the hull remained above water for everybody in Manhattan to see and became a huge visual embarrassment to the agencies that had been involved in the conversion and firefighting effort. This embarrassment even resulted in an effort to explain the fire as an act of sabotage, but eventually it was decided that the vessel would be salvaged and returned to service. The salvage was performed during the war years at an extraordinary expense and in 1943 the ship, with its superstructure removed, was shifted to a less public berth for further evaluation. By that time the war had pretty much ended and the need for a troop carrier or aircraft carrier was much reduced and therefore the US government offered the vessel back to France. The new French government also was not interested in restoring the vessel due to the rapidly changing economics of transatlantic travel due to the development of large transatlantic aircraft, and the hull was sold for scrap. By 1948 the last bit of the hull was cut up in Port Newark New Jersey, and the Normandie was gone. But not quite, since a large portion of her art and furnishings had been stored ashore during the war in many places in New York City and the rest of the world, pieces of the Normandie continue to delight us with their beauty and romance.       

Technical Model Description

This model was built by Henry Schaefer in 2001. The construction of the model is interesting since it uses a scratch built hull and components from a cardboard model kit. Cardboard ship model construction is a ship model building subculture that is quite popular in Europe and these kids come in books similar to paper doll books. The builder cuts out sections of the hull and superstructure, and each section has fold-over tabs. These tabs are then used to glue all the parts together. Building cardboard models has its own tricks and it is very difficult to get the model to come together without wrinkles or waves in the cardboard model panels. Cardboard models rarely are full models and instead generally are waterline models (models that appear to float rather than sit ashore). Mr. Schaefer decided to actually build the whole hull rather than just the above water hull, because a big portion of the uniqueness of the Normandie was its revolutionary hull.   The cardboard model components mainly show up in the superstructure of the vessel. The superstructure is solid, but covered with the cut outs that show very high color and feature details.  This allowed Mr. Schaefer to consistently model the many windows on the vessel.  The railings were purchased model railings and installing the railing is quite a time consuming job. Mr. Schaefer managed to contain himself in his quest for detail by not installing railings on the external ladders, but each lifeboat and davit was also individually carved and fitted.

Francis A. Martin provided a valuation of the vessel to the US Government to provide a basis for possible repayment of the value of the vessel in case of her loss during WWII. Francis A. Martin was the principal in a marine consulting firm that had been founded by his grandfather Francis A. Martin in New York City in 1875. This firm has an interesting connection with Bahrs and Monmouth County since Hendrik van Hemmen, the principal author of this book is the President of this firm and today the firm is located in Red Bank, NJ. This firm also has an interesting connection with the Morro Castle incident having represented the vessel’s owners with regard to her salvage after she stranded in Asbury Park New Jersey in 1934. This vessel also caught fire and since she was a US flag vessel, this resulted in significantly more stringent fire protection measures on newly constructed US flag ships.   

These “coincidences” are not as unusual as they appear. The maritime community has always been incredibly tight knit and, due to the great mobility of the industry, people weave into the maritime historical narrative, fade away, and then weave back again in a completely different location. This is just one example, but for each vessel there are dozens of similar examples that have been omitted for brevity. These “coincidences” are the subject of much joy and conversation in waterfront bars, clubs, shipyards and funerals and is a special glue that makes the marine industry what it is.    

Copyright © Navesink Maritime Heritage Association

Navesink Maritime Heritage Association is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving knowledge and appreciation of Monmouth County's maritime heritage through programs  that responds to its mission: DISCOVER, ENGAGE, SUSTAIN.

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