SS Normandie Home

SS Normandie Home


A port side view of the Normandie sometime after May 1936. (J. Kent Layton Collection)


Ship Statistics:
Built By: Chantiers de l’Atlantique
Yard Number: T6
Length Overall: 1,029 feet, 4 inches
Width: 119 feet, 5 inches
Draught: 37 feet
Gross Tonnage: 79,280 (1935)
82,799 (1936)
83,423 (1936)
Displacement: 66,400
Carrying capacity (1935): 1st class: 848
2nd class: 665
3rd class: 458
Crew: 1,355
Total: 3,326
Career: May 29, 1935 – August 28, 1939. Laid up in New York at outbreak of war. Seized by United States on December 12, 1941. Renamed USS Lafayette on January 1, 1942.
February 9-10, 1942: Caught fire during reconversion, capsized.
– Scrapped

A Brief History of the SS Normandie:

In the late 1920s, it was becoming clear that most of the premier pre-war liners were beginning to get a little long in the tooth, and would need to be replaced in short order. All of them had been designed to cater to a now-dwindling emigrant trade, thus making much of their early steerage spaces unappealing to a new class of traveler: the holiday tourist. Stopgap measures such as “Tourist Third Class”, or “Tourist Class”, along with some clever advertising, had helped to make up for lost revenue. However, even the First Class spaces of these liners were now becoming painfully passe in their interior decor; they had looked to the past for inspiration. However, the new generation in the post-war era was beginning to look for new experiences in interior design.

However, the CGT did not think in the same way that their better-known British counterparts did. While Cunard and White Star built classes of ships which entered service within just a short period, the French Line took the tactic of building one ship, followed a few years later by a better ship, followed a few years after that by an even better ship.

CGTs SS France, which had entered service in 1912, was certainly a grand liner of the classic pre-war style. The next entrant to their fleet, the Paris, was laid down before the war started, but her maiden voyage did not come until 1921. But it was the next ship, the Ile de France of 1927, which really broke the molds. Outside she looked like an ordinary liner, but her interiors were breathtakingly modern, instantly dating all preceding liners.

The powers-that-were at the French Line decided that their next ship would not merely push the boundaries of interior design: it would smash them. Meanwhile, they simultaneously decided to push for records as the world’s largest and fastest ship. She was to be nothing short of a French Revolution at sea… a symbol of modernity in every way.

If it was an aggressive move, it was a vital one. The building contract was signed in late 1930, with a Great Depression raging worldwide. Meanwhile, Cunard was planning their own new record-breaker, and White Star was making a similar move. CGT had to make sure they remained competitive in a new and very unstable market. The success of the 1931 l’Atlantique, an ultra-modern liner built for CGT’s subsidiary Compagnie de Navigation Sud Atlantique, which ran routes to South America, showed that such a course was not only viable, but was well-received among prospective passengers.

Her official name was revealed on October 18, 1932, some eleven days before launch: Normandie. When she was launched on October 29, it was the first time that the most revolutionary liner hull ever built met the waves. The uniquely hydrodynamic hull was designed by ex-Russian engineer Vladimir Yourkevitch. It featured a bulbous underwater bow along with an arching, clipper-shaped curving stem that completely eschewed the vertical stems of previous steamers. The unique form of her hull would help her to reduce water resistance and achieve higher speeds with greater stability.

Her engines were also astonishing. The previous generation of liner had almost universally been powered by direct-drive turbine engines–with the notable exception being the Olympic-class liners, which bore a combination reciprocating/turbine engine powerplant. Yet what drove these engines was the same: high pressure boilers would funnel hot steam directly into engines, thence turning the propellers. However, the Normandie would sport a turbo-electric drive system, where the boilers would funnel steam into electrical engines; the electricity would then be used to drive the propellers. It was an extraordinary leap forward for a crack trans-Atlantic liner.

Normandie began her maiden voyage on May 29, 1935. While passengers fussed over her startling interior design, and enjoyed fine French cuisine in her Dining Rooms, her engines were unleashed at high speed. Docking in New York on June 3, she had maintained an average speed of 29.98 knots, taking the Blue Riband. Her return to Europe was made at an average of 30.35 knots, taking the Blue Riband in that direction, also. France officially had the largest, fastest, and most luxurious ship in the world.

After her first full season, the Normandie was withdrawn from service in order to make some extensive modifications. Her propellers were improved and her hull reinforced in an attempt to combat moderately severe vibration. A Tourist Class Lounge was installed aft on the Boat Deck, along with some other modifications and improvements (or, some would say, merely modifications rather than improvements). The ship emerged bearing a greater gross registered tonnage of 82,799. When the British questioned the revision, CGT had the ship remeasured again, arriving at an even higher 83,423 tons. Cunard subsequently dropped the issue.

The reason this change in tonnage was important was that the newly-amalgamated Cunard-White Star Line had made progress with their own superliner: the Queen Mary. She was about to enter service, and had been measured at 80,774 gross tons. This figure was larger than the Normandie‘s original tonnage, and thus she could have laid claim to the title of world’s largest ship. However, before she had ever had a chance to enter service, the Normandie‘s revised tonnage made her even larger than the Queen Mary‘s new registry.