The SS Île de France was a
French ocean liner built in Saint-Nazaire, France for Compagnie Générale
Transatlantique. The ship was the first major ocean liner built after
the conclusion of World War I, and was the first liner ever to be
decorated entirely with designs associated with the Art Deco style. She
was neither the largest ship nor the fastest, but was considered the
most beautifully decorated built by CGT (also known as the "French
Line") until the Normandie.
Construction and launch
The construction of the Île de France was part of an agreement between
the CGT and the French government dating back to November 1912. This
agreement was for the construction of four passenger-mail ships, with
the first ship named Paris and the second, Île de France. World War I
delayed construction until the 1920s, with the Paris being launched in
1916 and not entering service until 1921 and the Île de France during
1927. The Île de France was launched on 14 March 1926 at the shipyard
Chantiers de Penhoët and was greeted by thousands of government and
company officials, workers, press, and French citizens. The ship would
experience fourteen months of fitting-out before it left the shipyards
on 29 May 1927 for its sea trials.
In 1926, the CGT released an elaborate gold-covered booklet devoted
entirely to the company's new ship. The illustrations depicted huge,
ornate yet modern public rooms, female passengers carrying feather fans
and smoking cigarettes, and passengers being led around the uncluttered
Never before had a ship had its own style of interior design like the
Île de France. During the past, ships had imitated the shore-style. The
Mauretania, the Olympic and the Imperator had all shown an interior that
celebrated styles of the past and could be found in manors or châteaux
situated on land. By contrast, the interiors of the Île de France
represented something new. For the first time, a ship's passenger spaces
had been designed not to reproduce decorative styles of the past but to
celebrate the style of the present.
The ship's degree of modernity was unlike that of any ship previously.
The first-class dining room's decor was simple. The dining room was also
the largest of any ship, rose three decks high, and had a grand
staircase for an entrance.
In addition to the luxurious dining room, there was also a chapel with a
neo-gothic style, a grand foyer which rose four decks, a shooting
gallery, an elaborate gymnasium, and even a merry-go-round for the
younger passengers. Every cabin had beds instead of bunks, and even many
of the chairs aboard the Île de France had a new design.
As each of the major liner companies subsequently planned their next
passenger ships, many of the planners visited this extraordinary and
trend-setting French vessel.
Maiden voyage and early career
After its sea trials, the Île de France traveled to its home port of Le
Havre on June 5, 1927. The novelty of Art Deco aboard a ship was an
immediate sensation and the reaction of the visiting press would be
evident by favorable reviews the next week.
On June 22, 1927 the Île de France traveled from Le Havre for its maiden
voyage to New York. Upon its arrival in New York it received great
attention from the American media and thousands of people crowded the
docks just to see the new ship.
Her official accommodation was for 1,786 passengers, but her normal
capacity was closer to 1400. With a listed capacity of 537 in
first-class, the Île de France, like the France and Paris, became
fashionable. Captain Joseph Blancart and his chief purser, Henri Villar,
With the contribution made by this splendid vessel, the CGT ended the
year 1928 with record earnings. For the first time the company's
receipts exceeded a billion francs, and half of this derived from the
New York service, which had transported more than 90,000 passengers. Its
popularity was such that by 1935, the ship had carried more first-class
passengers than any other transatlantic liner.
The ship was popular especially among wealthy Americans. It quickly
became the chosen ship of the youthful, the stylish, and the famous. But
they did not choose it for its speed- it was about as fast as the
Aquitania of 1914, and no larger. In 1936 it was immortalised in the
song A Fine Romance performed by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the
film Swing Time with the lyric "You're just as hard to land as the Île
Even though the Île de France was not the fastest vessel in the world,
it briefly pioneered the quickest mail-system between Europe and the
United States. In July 1928, a seaplane catapult was installed at the
ship's stern for trials with two CAMS 37 flying boats that launched when
the ship was within 200 miles, which decreased the mail delivery time by
one day. This practice proved too costly, however, and in October 1930
the catapult was removed and the service discontinued.
In 1935 the Île de France and the Paris were joined by a new mate, the
new superliner Normandie. With these three ships the CGT could boast of
having the largest, fastest, and most luxurious ships traveling the
But this was not to endure, and two events ended the CGT's new
prosperity. The first occurred on April 18, 1939, when the Paris was
destroyed by fire while docked in Le Havre. The second was on September
1, 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland which began World War II and
ended civilian transatlantic traffic.
World War II
Île de France was the last ship to leave France before the outbreak of
war departing from Le Havre on the morning of September 3, just hours
before France and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. (The last
ship to leave Europe during the war was the paquebot Jamaique that left
in May 1940 from Bordeaux to South America). The Île de France carried
1,777 passengers, 400 more than her usual number. Most of the passengers
were Americans, many of whom were tourists clamouring to leave France
before the war broke out. During the voyage, the passengers were not
only inconvenienced by the overcrowded conditions, but their activities
were limited because the ship sailed with her lights extinguished. Other
ships were not so lucky. The Île de France arrived in New York harbor on
September 9, and while she was crossing the Atlantic Ocean, 16 vessels
were sunk by torpedoes, mines, or gunfire.
Once the Île de France was berthed at its New York pier, her career as a
passenger ship was temporarily ended. Since the French were not anxious
to return the ship to its homeland, it was towed to Staten Island by ten
tugs and was laid up after special dredging that cost $30,000. Its crew
of 800 persons was reduced to a security staff of 100 while it was
inoperative for the next five months. Then during March 1940, commanded
by the British Admiralty, to which it had been lent, the ship was loaded
with 12,000 tons of war materials, submarine oil, tanks, shells, and
several uncrated bombers that were stowed on the aft open decks. On 1
May 1940 she departed for Europe, veiled in gray and black. From there,
it traveled to Singapore where, after the Fall of France, it was
officially seized by the British. In 1941 it returned to New York and
made several crossings from the northeast as a troop ship such as the
one on February 14, 1944, sailing from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to
Greenock, Scotland, carrying among others the 814th Tank Destroyer
In August, 1942, the three-funnelled Île de France tied up alongside the
Charl Malan Quay in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. She had been escorted
part of the way by various RAF squadrons based on the West Coast of
Africa, including No.204 Squadron on 13 June 1942. During one of her
visits to the city she was subjected to one of the less happy events to
befall this magnificent ship. Furniture, chandeliers, carpets, fittings,
all the evidences of her former luxury, including hundreds of square
feet of rare and beautiful panelling, were ruthlessly torn out and flung
on the quayside as "she was gutted as thoroughly as a herring".
A small party of workmen fitted the luxury liner out as a floating
prisoner of war camp, "with festoons of barbed wire sprouting from her
decks and disfiguring her graceful lines" as the ship was prepared for
the task of bringing POWs back from north Africa.
In October, 1942, the Île de France was spotted off Port Elizabeth, by
aircraft of the South African Air Force. While in the city she was
converted into a troopship. The extensive alterations, the largest ever
undertaken in the harbour, was completed in 1943
Post-war career and demise
In autumn 1945, the Île de France was returned to the CGT after five
years of military service with the British Admiralty. In honour of its
wartime performance, the Southern Railway company named one of its
locomotives French Line CGT.
At first the Île de France was used to ferry American and Canadian
troops home. Then in April 1947, the ship returned to its builder's yard
at Saint Nazaire for a two-year restoration. The outcome included the
removal of its third "dummy" funnel and an upturn of the straight black
hull to meet its upper forepeak, in keeping with the new style of the
CGT's ships beginning with the Normandie in 1935. These changes
increased Ile de France's gross tonnage to 44,356.
She travelled to New York on her first postwar luxury crossing in July
1949. The Île de France proved to be just as popular as before the war.
In 1950 the ship received a new running mate, Liberté, the former German
Blue Riband-holder SS Ile De France.
In 1949 Île de France was the setting for part of the first act of the
Jules Styne Broadway musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes starring Carol
On September 21, 1953, the Île De France rescued 25 of the 26 man crew
off the Liberian freighter Greenville which was damaged and later sunk
in an Atlantic tropical storm.
On July 26, 1956, the Île de France had a major role in the rescue
operation after the collision of the passenger liners SS Andrea Doria
and MS Stockholm off Nantucket. Of 1,706 passengers and crew of the
Andrea Doria, approximately 753 were transferred to the Ile de France
during the approximately 6-hour rescue operation.
With the development of jet transport, and the decline of ocean travel,
the CGT wished to dispose of the ship quietly. In 1959 the ship was sold
to a Japanese breaker and departed Le Havre on February 16.
Île de France as the SS Claridon in The Last Voyage, with a broken
Before scrapping, the Île de France was used as a floating prop for the
1960 disaster movie The Last Voyage with the name SS Claridon. During
filming the ship was partially sunk, explosive devices were detonated in
the interior, and the forward funnel was sent crashing into the
deck-house. The CGT sued the film-makers to get an order to have the
funnels repainted and prohibit the use of the name Île de France from
appearing in the movie.