The story of the Imperator seems to me, Stephen Guy, to be one of the great ironies of the First World War. The Imperator was built by Germany in an attempt to create the ultimate luxury liner but she ended up as the flagship of Britain’s Cunard fleet. This symbol of the prestige of the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm II – complete with a huge bronze Imperial eagle figurehead on her bows – was launched just five weeks after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. As a result, changes were made to both her hull design and the equipment on board to increase safety.
Imperator was the last word in luxury and comfort - for the First Class passengers, at least. The 52,226 ton, 919 ft long leviathan – the biggest ship in the world at the time (and larger than Titanic) – boasted incredible attractions. Its public rooms included a relaxing Palm Court, a smoking room in the style of a Bavarian hunting lodge and huge Pompeian marble baths befitting a Roman emperor.
Her maiden voyage was on 20 June 1913 and she worked on the Germany to New York run until just before the outbreak of the First World War. Anxious not to loose such a valuable ship, officials of the German Imperial Navy ordered her to stay in port. Imperator spent the war moored to a pier on the River Elbe. After Germany’s defeat she was handed over to Britain as part of war reparations – compensation for losses such as the Lusitania, sunk by a German submarine.
Imperator was acquired by Cunard and first sailed under its colours – without the eagle - in June 1920 following a refit in Liverpool. Her name was later changed to Berengaria after the wife of Richard the Lionheart, England’s crusader king. Berengaria regularly sailed between Southampton and New York and is still the largest liner ever to enter Liverpool docks. She worked largely without incident on the transatlantic run for many years until she was withdrawn in 1938.
There is a stunning model of the Berengaria in Merseyside Maritime Museum (shown above). It is 19 ft long and can be viewed from all angles, making a memorable opening exhibit in the Lifelines gallery focusing on Britain’s Merchant Navy. Also in the museum collections are six photographs of the ship’s luxurious public rooms filled with fittings of the highest quality. There is an early publicity brochure published when she was the Imperator in 1913 which proclaimed: “The world’s largest ship embodying maximum comfort and safety for all”.
You can see more on the model of Berengaria on our main site.
A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.