In the aftermath of World War 1 and suffering heavy losses, The Cunard Line embarked on an ambitious building programme to replace a number of vessels ‘lost in action’. Around 20% of vessels capable of carrying passengers on the Trans-Atlantic route had been lost during the conflict, as had the 79 German registered vessels. Cunard decided to rebuild their trans-Atlantic cruise liner business with the six ship A-class which were all around 14,000 GRT. These were followed by ‘intermediate’, 19,000-tonne ships (of which Scythia was one of the first), rather than the enormous liners they had previously employed.
Having completed the design work in-house, Cunard turned to Vickers Limited at Barrow-in-Furness, one of the largest shipbuilders in the world to build a new class of ocean-going liners, able to accommodate up to 2,200 passengers spread across 3 classes of travel (350 1st Class, 350 2nd Class and 1,500 3rd Class).
RMS Scythia was thought to have been named after the ancient region of Eurasia, extending from the Danube on the west to the borders of China on the east. Aptly, Scythians were said to be a semi-nomadic race who traded livestock and grain with the Greeks inhabiting the North Coast of the Black Sea around 500 BC and of course the choice of her name conformed with Cunard’s unwritten convention of having vessels whose name ends in ‘IA’.
She was laid down as Yard No 493 at Barrow in early 1919, specifically designed as a luxury liner for the services between Liverpool and Queenstown, Cork (also known as Cobh) as well as transatlantic via Nova Scotia to New York and Boston. She also carried out a number of charters from the USA via the Mediterranean.
Launched on 23rd March 1920, by Mrs S. Maxwell (the wife of a Cunard Director M H Maxwell Junior), RMS Scythia set off on her maiden voyage on 20th August 1921, across the Atlantic from Liverpool to New York.
Under the command of Captain W Prothero, she experienced only minor issues with her new turbines, and no real problems were encountered. In fact, the only notable aspect of her first voyage with fare-paying passengers was that she sailed into a quite different storm – prohibition in the USA, a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages. The application of prohibition laws on American owned ships was devastating as discerning passengers opted to sail with British companies who were exempt until they entered the 3-mile limit off the North American Coast.
Despite the court cases and the often-explosive nature of the debate surrounding prohibition, RMS Scythia continued unhindered, carrying thousands of passengers on frequent crossings between Liverpool and New York, soon becoming one of the most popular amongst the Cunard Fleet. On one particular crossing, during a stopover at Queenstown on 30th September 1923 due to fog, she was struck by the White Star Liner ‘RMS Cedric’. Neither vessel was seriously damaged although the Scythia was unable to continue its voyage and was forced to return to Liverpool for a survey and repairs, an expensive delay of three weeks.
Throughout the 1930s RMS Scythia crossed the Atlantic on numerous occasions and in September 1930 they introduced a number of ‘Sports’ events contested by third-class passengers.
This allowed a rare interaction as 1st and 2nd class travellers were presented with the opportunity to place wagers on the outcome of various deck games and races.
A movie theatre was also added in 1932, which also featured appearances from many of the music hall acts of the day. For those ‘with more discerning taste’ concerts and recitals were frequently held in aid of various Seaman’s Institutions.
In 1934, her ownership was transferred to Cunard – White Star Line, a financial amalgamation during the Great Depression which saw both companies in financial difficulties.
At the end of 1939, RMS Scythia was requisitioned by the War Office and after a period of conversion, she departed Liverpool on 24th September 1940, carrying 48 children bound for Boston, USA. The evacuation was sponsored by readers of a Boston newspaper who still held strong links with the UK and Europe.
She became a troop ship on 1st November 1940, and her first mission was to sail to the Middle East carrying the 1st King's Dragoon Guards. After her safe return, she departed once again with a consignment of evacuees from Liverpool to New York.
In 1942, the now HMS Scythia took part in the Allied invasion of French North Africa and on 23rd November she was struck by an aerial torpedo off Algiers. She managed to limp into harbour at Gibraltar, thankfully sustaining only five casualties out of a complement of 4,300 men.
HMS Scythia was salvaged and taken to New York for repair in January 1943, whereafter she ferried American troops back and forth to Europe.
As the war subsided, she carried out repatriation voyages, returning battle weary US troops back from Europe, many of them accompanied by their new brides, some of which were married onboard. She also acted as a ‘war bride ship’ taking Canadian war brides and their children from Liverpool to Pier 21 in Halifax, especially in the early part of 1946. During the same period she sailed between Southampton and India, bringing home UK troops from the war in the East.
Ironically, one of her last missions as a troop ship was to bring the 1st King's Dragoon Guards home to Liverpool, on 11th March 1948.
Later in 1948, and with Cunard facing extensive costs in returning her to luxury service, Scythia was handed on to the International Refugee Organisation, primarily transporting economic refugees from Europe to Canada.
Eventually in 1950, she was restored as a passenger ship once again, sailing from Britain to Canada and later to New York, a route she charted regularly for the next decade.
One sailing of note was in 1957 when RMS Scythia was used to transport Hungarian refugees to Canada. She departed Southampton on 19th Jan 1957, landing in Halifax (Nova Scotia) at Pier 21 which is considered to be Canada's equivalent to New York’s Ellis Island, and the starting point of a new life. By this time, the aeroplane was now starting to bring in immigrants in 7 hours instead of 7 days and her days seemed numbered.
In 1958, RMS Scythia was retired and broken up at Inverkeithing in Scotland. At the time she was one of the longest serving Cunard Liners at 37-years, a record only surpassed by RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2) on 4th September 2005.
But she still lives in the hearts of thousands of British, American, and Canadian families, as well as hundreds of thousands of emigrants and refugees, who embarked on their new future aboard this important ship.
|Launch Date||23rd March 1920|
|Gross Registered Tonnes (GRT)||
|Length||600.7 ft (183.1 m)|
|Beam||73.8 ft (22.5 m)|
|Draft||32 ft 8 in (10.0 m)|
|Depth||40.7 ft (12.4 m)|
|Installed Power||2,528 NHP|
|Maximum Rated Speed||16 kn (30 km/h)|
|Capacity at Launch||350 1st class - 350 2nd class - 1,500 3rd class|
|Fate||Broken up 1958|