A CONVERTED liner called the Seawise University sank in Hong Kong Harbour in this week 50 years ago, but why did that event cause grown men and women to weep on Clydeside?

They cried because that ship was really the RMS Queen Elizabeth, arguably the greatest passenger liner of them all, and the pride of the Clyde. There would be one more great liner built at Clydebank’s John Brown yard, the justly famed Queen Elizabeth II, but the Queen Elizabeth was the longest and largest liner ever built for the Cunard Line and her loss really did have an enormous impact on people across Scotland, who knew just how much Scottish effort had gone into the creation of a giant masterpiece.

Apologies to those readers who were expecting the history of the Gordon Highlanders today, but I promise I will return to my Scottish regiments’ series with them next week, and my plans for 2022 include more clan histories and a series on Scotland’s castles, inspired by the legendary Nigel Tranter. I could not let this anniversary pass, however, without telling the history of the Queen Elizabeth and the mysterious tragedy of her sinking.

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Launched by Queen Elizabeth, the consort of King George VI and later the Queen Mother – the liner was named for her by owners Cunard – she was designed to carry more than 2000 passengers and was 1031 ft (314.2m) long, weighing in at more than 83,000 tons.

She was the sister ship of the Queen Mary and would spend much of her life being compared to her and their great rivals the SS Normandie and, later the SS France, SS America and SS United States.

RMS Queen Elizabeth was launched from No. 4 slipway at the John Brown yard on September 27, 1938. Her Cunard designers had left nothing out in their desire to create the finest vessel afloat, and many were the stories on Clydeside of the opulence of her interiors, not to mention the sheer elegance and power of her lines above water – she would be able to cruise at 30 knots, almost 35 mph, and it was confidently predicted she would take the Blue Riband, the title for the fastest transatlantic crossing.

She had not even been fully fitted out when the Second World War started. Perceived as a huge wartime asset as a troopship, Winston Churchill in early 1940 ordered that she be moved from Clydeside to the then neutral USA.

Painted grey, she spent the war ferrying troops in secret voyages between the USA, Singapore, Canada, Australia and the UK. She carried more than 750,000 troops and sailed more than 500,000 miles. The U-boats couldn’t catch her – she was just too fast. Churchill would say the efforts of the two Queens helped shorten the war by a year.

At the end of the war, she went back to the Clyde for proper fitting-out and refurbishment, and then began her career on the transatlantic passenger trade, which the Queen Elizabeth dominated before the rise of the jet airliner made her uneconomical. She never did win the Blue Riband.

After she was retired by Cunard in 1969, having already been pre-sold to act as a hotel and tourist attraction in Florida, the Elizabeth was damaged by the local climate and was sold at auction in 1970 to Hong Kong shipping magnate Tung Chao-yung, who invested millions into re-creating her as the Seawise University, part of the World Campus Afloat programme.

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On January 9, 1972, a few days before her planned maiden voyage in her new guise, flames were spotted coming from below deck and all on board escaped safely. The inferno raged for hours and fireships had no option but to pour many streams of water on the great wounded vessel. She slowly capsized under the weight of the water. The shock of seeing her on fire and then capsized broke many a heart.

An insurance scam was rumoured, but no final verdict has ever been given though an inquiry found evidence of arson with flames erupting in nine places simultaneously. The wreck was declared a hazard to shipping and was broken up for scrap. The last remnants on the seabed were buried under reclaimed land that now serves as a container port.

In early April 1972, a five strong crew from Scottish Television were sent to Hong Kong on an army facility trip, which saw them embed with the Black Watch – recently deployed to carry out border patrols.

They were reporter Bill Kerr-Elliot, cameraman Varick Easton, assistant cameraman Ron Wilkins, sound man Len Southam and director Russell Galbraith (below). They were the first Scottish crew on board the great empty ship.

The National: When Clydeside wept at the loss of its Queen

Galbraith had joined STV from The Scotsman in 1962, and would spend 30 years with the company, ten as head of news and current affairs. A writer and journalist for more than 60 years, his latest successful book is Without Quarter, his updated biography of Tom Johnston, the legendary wartime secretary of state for Scotland.

He recalled: “Our coverage of the Scottish units on patrol near the Chinese border showed how the troops were vital in the fight against piracy and smuggling which was a big problem at the time.

“Hong Kong’s water supply came in from China and they were always threatening to cut if off, so there we were showing that the British Army at least was taking the matter of smuggling seriously.

“Most of the officers did not believe the Chinese wanted the colony back, and funnily enough it was the Black Watch who went back for the handover in 1997.”

It was just three months since the great Queen had capsized, and her bulk was obvious in the harbour. The ever-enterprising STV crew persuaded an army helicopter pilot to take them over the wreck.

“It was just so extremely sad to see her lying there,” Galbraith recalled, “with her once black hull all burned and turned to a dull grey.

“The helicopter pilot flew around her for a bit and then he took us lower so that we were able to see down into her funnels, where it was obvious that the fire had caused tremendous damage internally.

“It was just so sad to imagine what the Queen Elizabeth was like in her heyday.

“The next day we got permission from the harbour master to go out in a pilot cutter and get closer to the Queen than any media team had done up to that point.

“The amount of water poured into her during the fire capsized her, but the angle she was lying at meant that we were able to get alongside and used a rope ladder to scramble up onto her hull. It was quite dangerous using that rope ladder, and Varick, Ron and Len all had equipment to carry, but we all managed it eventually.

“You can imagine the terrible smell of burned material. We weren’t allowed to go inside but we did have a good look around and could see that the superstructure had just gone and that inside the ship was a scene of total destruction – she was absolutely gutted and filled with water.”

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Galbraith did manage to secure a couple of souvenirs, including a rivet.

He said: “Rivets had popped out everywhere as the ship blazed and the water was poured onto her. I managed to grab one, although I wish I’d taken more as museums are always looking for them.

“A friend of mine’s father had worked as a riveter on the Queen Elizabeth, hammering in rivets that were made in Airdrie. We took this rivet home and had it mounted before presenting it to him. He was absolutely delighted.”

Galbraith also found a bit of brass plate which he had polished up on one side and inscribed “Taken from the Queen Elizabeth, Hong Kong Harbour, on the 12th day of April, 1972.”

He told me: “There’s no better example of what happened to her. The bright brass on one side contrasts with the fire-blackened mess on the other.”

The National: When Clydeside wept at the loss of its Queen

Galbraith went on to write Destiny’s Daughter, The Tragedy of RMS Queen Elizabeth. He has his own theories about the end of the great liner, but even now says he will keep his speculation to himself.

That STV crew were witnesses to history. For RMS Queen Elizabeth remains an icon of the River Clyde and its immense contribution to maritime history.