Holland-America Cruise Liner MS Veendam at Nassau, December, 1997

Last Updated: October 5, 2008

Ocean Liners Favorites - Early 20th Century:

Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse, Kronprinzessen Cecilie, Lusitania, Mauretania, Olympic, Titanic, Normandie, Queen Mary 

The German bid for the cream of the Trans-Atlantic trade - 1897-1914:

Few people realize that the Germans had a siginificant share of the trans-Atlantic trade giving the British a good run for the money between 1897 and 1914 with some of the fastest and most fashionable ships on the Atlantic. They held the trans-Atlantic speed record, the legendary 'Blue Ribbon' from 1897 until 1907. They had the two largest ships in the world in 1913-1914 (Hamburg-Amerika's Imperator and Vaterland), until World War I intervened. Albert Ballin, the Managing Director of Hamburg-Amerika invented the Ala Carte ship-board restaurant in cooperation with Ritz-Carlton Hotels, (the first one was on the Amerika of 1905, Hamburg-Amerika often went in for American-style names like George Washington, Columbus, St. Louis to cultivate an 'immigrant friendly' image) Ballin's ships interiors done by Charles Mewes, a Frenchman from German-occupied Alsace, designer of the Ritz Hotel in Paris, as a whole design concept, rather than an eclectic collection of period designs. Mewes was the first to have the funnel uptakes divided to allow an unbroken central vista in the public rooms from one end of the ship to the other in the Vaterland of 1913 (not seen again until the advent of the French Line's splendid Normandie of 1935). Hamburg-Amerika (HAPAG) went the extra mile to really be the carrier of choice for immigrants to the U.S. Since shipping lines had to carry back rejects for free, HAPAG made sure that once an immigrant signed on, they were taken good care of, with free medical exams and attention, living in an 'Immigrant Village' so they didn't stray into the dives of Hamburg and get hurt or sick. They took exceptionally good care of them, which was sound business practice if nothing else, even throwing a 'Bon Voyage' party for them before sailing to America. Unfortuantely, the First World War ended pretty much for good the German's important role on the Atlantic.



Steamship Line:

No. of Ships:


Hamburg-Amerika Line



North German Lloyd



White Star Line



Cunard Line



Taken from "Geschichte der Deutschen Passagierschiffahrt"

by Arnold Kludas

This ranking includes ships under construction.

Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse - Picture from an old web site: Liners of the Golden Age

Norddeutscher Lloyd's Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse entered service in 1897. Named for Kaiser Wilhelm the Great - first emperor of a united Germany in 1871, she represented Germany's bid for a larger share of the trans-Atlantic trade dominated by Britain. She was, at the same time. the world's largest, fastest and the first of the modern, four-funneled ocean greyhounds that were to follow in her footsteps. 648 ft. long, 14,349 tons, twin-propellers, two four-cylinder, triple-expansion reciprocating (pistons and cranks three-decks high!) steam engines drove her at over 23 knots.

The Kaiser Willhelm Der Grosse arriving New York (Hoboken N.J.) after a typical fast run. The paint in those days could not stand the pounding of the Atlantic waves on a fast steamer. Paint stripped in this manner indicated a record-breaker.

The Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse took the speed record from the British in 1897, and between her and Hamburg-America's Deutschland of 1900 (a virtual look-alike to the Kaiser) the Germans kept the trans-Atlantic speed record until the British launched a pair of four-funneled (of course), turbine-driven greyhounds, the famous Lusitania and the legendary Mauretania, (with funding from Parliment) that re-took the speed record, the Mauretania being slightly faster than the Lusitania, in 1907.

The gallant old Mauretania kept the speed record unitl 1929, when the Germans built a pair of modern super-liners using the then-radical 'bulbous bow' hull design, re-took it. The old Mauretania attempted to keep the record and the crew was authorized by the Cunard Line to make the attempt and bested her own time, but was unable to out-perform the modern Bremen and Europa. However, throughout the 1920's the ageing Mauretania retained the affections of her loyal clientel, inspite of her lack of modern amenities and private baths and even after she lost the speed record in 1929. She was known as the "Rostron Express" for her exceptional on-time performance.The affectionate nickname was coined due to her long-time captain Arthur Rostron, who, it was said, never missed his train to London because Mauretania was so reliable.

Such was the reputation established by the Kaiser and her three running-mates: Kronprinz Wilhelm - 1901, and the larger Kaiser Wilhelm II - 1903 (known as 'Rolling Billy' to her loyal clientel) and her sister, the famous Kronprinzessin Cecilie - 1906 that 'four funnels' became an important marketing tool - synonymous with size and therefore safety, speed and reliability - so much so that White Star Line's Olympic and Titanic's fourth funnel was a dummy - just for appearances and as an engine room vent.

Until 1907 and the advent of Lusitania and Mauretania, which were over 790 feet long and 31,938 tons, the Germans with the Nord Deutscher Lloyd and Hamburg-America Line had the fastest and most famous ships on the North Atlantic. Until World War I, the German's had a large share of the Atlantic market. Under the creative guidance of Albert Ballin, Hamburg-America Line specialized in large, luxurious ships with superb service. Herr Ballin traveled often and always had an eye for improvements and innovation. One of three Hamburg-America super liners larger than the Titanic and Olympic were already being built when the Titanic embarked on her fatal maiden voyage. But the First World War ended the German's bid for the cream of the trans-Atlantic trade. Herr Ballin was Jewish, and after Germany lost the war, he committed suicide rather than face defeat of his beloved Fatherland.

The Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse and her sister Kronprinz Wilhelm were converted into Armed Merchant Cruisers in 1914 by installing naval guns and stores. The Kaiser and the Kronprinz's captains were always chivalrous and allowed the crews to escape before turning their guns on the intended victim and even carrying the crews and passengers of their prey to neutral ports.

The Kaiser was cornered off the coast of Africa by a British cruiser and was sunk in a gun battle. The Kronprinz Wilhelm, after a 251-day cruise and having sunk many tons of allied shipping was in bad shape. Leaking, the crew sick with beri-beri and almost out of supplies, she made a run for Norfolk, Virginia in the still-neutral U.S. on night of April 10, 1915. The engineers coaxed the maximum revolutions from the worn out old reciprocating engines and according to some accounts, the engines were practically leaping off their bed-plates and shaking the ship so much that the crew had to hold on to remain standing. The worn-out old Kronprinz sailed like an express train right under the nose of patrolling British cruisers into the U.S. territorial waters and safety. Refitted when the U.S. entered the War, she was renaimed the Von Steuben, after the Prussian General who drilled the armies of the American Revolution, and served as a troopship.

Kronprizessen Cecilie - Picture from an old website: Liners of the Golden Age

The Kronprinzessen Cecilie (Crown Princess Cecilie), a virtual sister to the Kaiser Wilhelm II, was the largest of the four NDL ships: 19,360 tons, 707 feet long, steam quadruple-expansion reciprocating engines, twin propellers drove her at over 23 knots, as fast as her sisters. The most obvious difference between two older ships, the Kaiser Willhelm Der Grosse; Kronprinz Willhelm and the two newer ones, the Kaiser Willhelm II and Kronprinzessen was the two newer vessels had two Promenade Decks rather than just one.

Kronprinzessen Cecilie's moment of fame was in August, 1914, when she was en-route to Germany, half-way across when war was declared. She was carrying millions in gold bullion. Captain Polack (known as 'Champagne Charlie' according to Mr. Swift) turned around in mid-ocean and headed back to the U.S. rather than face certain capture by the British or French if he attempted to run for home. Despite protests by passengers and an offer to buy the ship by some American millionaires on board so they could legitimately fly the U.S. flag, Captain Polack headed for the neutral United States. Volunteer crew members, choking on soot and stack gasses, painted the tops of the yellow funnels black in an effort to disguise the ship as White Star's Olympic. The distinctive paired funnels would not fool the navy but might fool a passing merchant ship. The Kronprinzessen had vanished and newpaper headlines wondered about the whereabouts of the 'Kaiser's Treasure Ship.' In consultation with an American banker and yachtsman C. Ledyard Blair, Captain Polack decided to put into the summer resort of Bar Harbor, Maine as a safer alternative than to risk further interception by French and *British naval units. During the early morning hours of August 4 at 4:55 am, Blair joined Captain Polack on the bridge and assisted in piloting the Kronprinzessen into Bar Harbor. Residents awoke to find the 'Olympic' moored in Bar Harbor. The ship's real identity was quickly ascertained and the mystery of her dissapearance was resolved.

(The following details were supplied by Mr. Shippen Swift, a resident and historian of Bar Harbor:)
According to international law, (1907 convention) any ship of a foreign power at war is required to leave a neutral port within 24 hours and be beyond the 3 mile limit.. Due to Bar Harbor's lack of facilities, everything had to be transferred by ferry, including 1,216 passengers and their usual mountain of luggage, 3,500 bags of Europe bound mail, 204 kegs of gold and 652 80 lb bars of silver bound for European clients. The ship also had to take on coal and supplies. (Coaling one of the early behemoths was a major undertaking, requiring coaling ports to be opened in her sides, and coal transferred by rather small buckets. It could usually take all day, and coal dust would get everywhere on the ship.)
It took four days to accomplish this. Since they were clearly in violation of international law, due to circumstances beyond their control, Captain Polack was able to confer with Asst. Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and clear up any misunderstandings.

People today don't realize that there was a lot of sympathy for Germany in the U.S. until later in the war. The Germans were highly regarded as leaders in science and medicine. Dr. Koch who isloated the Tubercular bacillus in 1880's, Dr. Erlich who used the German-invented aneline dyes to stain microbes and found cures for Tuberculosis, Diptheria and Syphilus, Dr. Diesel, the Diesel engine, Count Zeppelin, whose DELAG zeppelin line began scheduled passenger service in 1913 and until the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, never lost a passenger. Needless to say, there were no 'Titanic' disasters on German ships. The Kronprinzessen remained in Bar Harbor from August  until November 1914. She was then escorted by two U.S. Navy destroyers to East Boston where she remained until 1917 when the U.S. declared war on Germany and the Central Powers..

*Note, according to Mr. Shippen Swift, who possesses some original documents and was kind enough to share them with me, the Germans were not actually at war with the British on August 4th a.m., as the British had merely given Germany an ultimatum to leave Belgium by 11 p.m.. The French cruiser Frain was hot on the trail of the Kronprinzessen, as was the British cruiser Essex, to intercept as soon as war was actually declared later that night.

When the U.S. entered the war, she and her sisters were taken over and served as troopships. The Kronprinzessen was re-named Mt. Vernon and while loaded with American wounded returning home in September, 1918, she was torpedoed in the rear boiler room, killing 37. Her magnificent watertight subdivision kept her afloat and she steamed back to France under her own power, making 15 knots! After the war, the Kronprinz, the Kaiser Wilhelm II and Kronprizessen Cecilie sat and rusted for years and were eventually scrapped, a sad end for so proud a fleet.

For more information please visit the following excellent websites:

New Steamship Consultants Museums

Ocean Liner Memorabilia

Passenger Steamers.(In German)

Helge Barth's website containing interesting information on some German passenger steamers.

Aleksander Isaenko's Russian Warship and ship modeling page from Russia

Aleksander Isaenko's interesting website concentrating on Pre-World War Two Russian warships and information on ship modeling from Russia. Most interesting.

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