End of the Line for Floating Palace; after a Failed Preservation Attempt, the Last Siren Has Sounded for Birkenhead's Windsor Castle. the Biggest Ocean Liner Built in England Is Sailing to the Ship-Breakers Next Week. Peter Elson Reports on a Ship That Once Epitomised the Best of British
Byline: Peter Elson
WHEN she sailed on her maiden voyage 45 years ago, it was said that every passenger travelling in first class was titled.
Costing pounds 10m, RMS Windsor Castle was the last great South African mail ship and the finest vessel that Cammell Laird's Birkenhead workforce could produce.
As flagship of Union-Castle Line, she slashed two days off the schedule of the 7,000-mile voyage from Southampton to Cape Town from the previous 13 and a half days.
Windsor Castle was launched in brilliant sunshine on June 23, 1959, by the Queen Mother, before a crowd of 50,000 and watched by millions more on television.
The Queen Mother broke a bottle of sparkling South African wine against the bows and spoke the traditional words: 'I name this ship Windsor Castle, may God bless her and all who sail in her.'
The bottle smashed with such gusto it splashed over the Queen Mother. What should have been an unadulterated celebration of the country's maritime supremacy was marred by a nine-week dispute, which started on the ship.
Dubbed by the press as the 'who twangs the twine war', striking boilersmiths argued with shipwrights about who should draw chalk lines on the ship's plates. Thousands of Laird's workers were laid off, the launch postponed and the large ceremonial luncheon cancelled.
Yet the event was so popular that traffic grid-locked in Birkenhead and police shut the shipyard gates 30 minutes before the launch, fearing a crush. This caused uproar among the crowd, with hundreds of ticket-holders excluded.
Even Bob Bird, the famous Wirral press photographer, couldn't get in, recalls his son Robin: 'Instead Bob went to the riverfront and took a dramatic picture of Windsor Castle surrounded by tugs. This was well received by news desks as all the other press photographers couldn't get out of the yard.'
Whether through stress or atmospherics, the Queen Mother suffered a severe nose-bleed, jeopardising the event, timed for the vital high tide.
Somehow she recomposed herself and christened the ship just one minute after its scheduled time of 1.30pm. She alluded to the shipyard row in her speech later, saying: 'I am so glad to be here and to launch the Windsor Castle in spite of the difficulties which I know you have had to contend with.'
Bob Hunt, also from Prenton, was a charge-hand supervisor on launch day for Windsor Castle, working in a 5ft-high space beneath the ship.
He says: 'It was a beautiful day, but there was a big strike going on. Using a seven pound hammer I had to split out the supporting pine keel blocks so Windsor Castle would sit down on the heavily greased launched ways.
'When we finished, the foreman alerted the launch platform and the Queen Mother smashed the bottle on the bows. Simultaneously, a bell was pressed telling the men to trigger the release on the hydraulic rams, holding the ship in place.
'Immediately the ship's weight started carrying her down the slipway. It was a fantastic sight seeing this massive ship sliding into the water. It wasn't noisy, just the sound of grease cracking under the ship and a few crashes and bangs.
'With so much water displaced, there was a big backwash onto the slipway, so the stewards had to keep the surging crowds back.'
Mr Hunt, who retired from Laird's in 1993 as steel construction manager, says: 'Windsor Castle was a fabulous ship. The best one I ever worked on.'
Bob Jones, 79, from Prenton, says: 'I remember when we laid the first keel plate. Cammell Laird was delighted with such a prestigious contract. This was before pre-fabrication and the workforce could adapt to building anything, having completed the aircraft carrier Ark Royal a few years earlier. We could do tankers, tugs, anything.'
Mr Jones, who started as a shipwright, later becoming manager for accuracy control on steel welding and in charge of the mould loft, says: 'Windsor Castle is a beautiful ship and the fact that she lasted so long is a great tribute to Laird's. …