Many passenger liners have been labelled ‘Ship of State’, but it is doubtful any have more readily captured the collective spirit of a nation, or tapped into its raw emotion, more evocatively than Nieuw Amsterdam. The date was 10th April 1946. The place, Rotterdam. The ship, bedecked with signal flags and sporting recently painted yellow, green and white funnels above her tired, rust streaked wartime grey, was returning to her home port for the first time in almost seven years. To the thousands lining the shore and cheering from every boat and vantage point, the return of their flagship symbolised a final liberation from the travails of war. It was a cathartic experience, for a city laid waste by the Luftwaffe in 1940 and later Allied bombing sorties. Many of the spectators may also have endured Hongerwinter, the great famine which had afflicted the country’s western provinces in the final, fateful, winter of the war. Despite the post-war deprivation the ship was a talisman, tangible evidence of a country getting back on its feet. No wonder thereafter she was affectionately referred to as ‘The Darling of the Dutch‘.
Nieuw Amsterdam was ordered on 5th December 1935 by Nederlandsch-Amerikaansche Stoomvaart Maatschappij, more commonly referred to as Holland America Line (HAL) and the Netherlands’ principal transatlantic operator. Like most shipping lines, HAL had experienced a slump in passengers and profits since the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. Nevertheless, under the pivotal stewardship of a new chairman, Willem van der Vorm, the line had been successfully restructured from 1933, old tonnage laid up or sold and the finances stabilised and ultimately secured. This was essential. Unlike its rivals HAL was unable to obtain state subsidies or favourable loans based on national prestige or potential military use. In fact one of the new liner’s marketing slogans, ‘The peace ship‘, reflected the fact there was no naval consideration or input into her design. By the mid-1930s however, the Dutch government was deeply concerned about rising unemployment, especially in the Rotterdam region. As a solution they looked to bolster the country’s beleaguered shipbuilding industry and so utilising his broad business experience and influential contacts, Willem van der Vorm was able to secure state funding towards the construction costs of the new vessel.
Given the long association between shipyard and shipping line, it was perhaps inevitable that the building contract was awarded to De Rotterdamsche Droogdok Maatschappij (Rotterdam Drydock Company). So keen were they to secure the order that the yard’s workforce took a voluntary pay cut. In return received guaranteed work at a time of widespread austerity. Significantly, one of the stipulations applied to the government loan was that all construction, engineering, and craftsmanship should where possible, be sourced from within the Netherlands. By implication this meant that elements of the ship were sub-contracted to other yards, as with the boilers and turbines (in this case N.V. Koninklijke Maatschappij, the ’De Schelde’ shipyard based in Flushing) which were built under licence, using plans supplied by the British based designers.
Within a month of the contract being awarded the first keel plates had been laid and fifteen months later, on 10th April 1937, the 758ft long hull was launched into the Maas, having been named by Queen Wilhelmina. Although the company initially allocated the name Prinsendam for their new flagship (Stellendam was also considered), by the time of her launch this had been changed to Nieuw Amsterdam, referring to the 17th century Dutch settlement at the tip of Manhattan Island that ultimately spawned New York. It was also a tribute to her 1906 vintage, 16,967 grt namesake, a Harland & Wolff built liner that had been scrapped in 1932.
Technical basin trials were undertaken in late March, before Nieuw Amsterdam left the shipyard on 23rd April 1938 for sea trials in the North Sea. Joining the engineers and observers was an entourage of VIPs, comprising the Dutch Prime Minister and the ambassadors of France, Belgium, Great Britain and Germany. Externally she offered one of the most simple, balanced and beautiful silhouettes of any 1930s passenger liner, arguably amongst the finest of all time. Her long svelte hull, designed by the nation’s foremost naval architect H. Prins, neatly curved forward superstructure and gently terraced aft decks, were topped by two perfectly proportioned 41 foot high funnels, bracketed by tall, raked, fore and main masts. All machinery exhaust smoke and gases were routed through the forward funnel, which initially incorporated six vertical vents, to increase airflow and thereby supposedly take smoke and smuts up and away from the aft decks. In practise the design failed to work and within a year the openings were plated over. The aft funnel was a dummy which contained freshwater filters, suction ventilators for the galley, fuel and sanitary tanks.
The trials primarily tested the new liner’s auxiliary and main propulsion machinery. These comprised a mix of conventional and innovative technology. Six Yarrow type water tube boilers were located forward of the main propulsion machinery, which consisted of two sets of triple expansion Parsons turbines. The resulting 34,000shp of combined power was transferred through a combination of single and double reduction gearing to twin shafts, which propelled the new liner to a maximum speed of 22.8 knots over the measured mile. Although relatively modest by comparison with the great German, French, British and Italian liners of the era, she was the most powerful twin-screw liner afloat and the results proved more than adequate for the 20.5 knots required in transatlantic service. The service speed could be achieved using just five of the six boilers, allowing a degree of redundancy and scope for maintenance and repairs to be undertaken underway.
Steam drawn from the boilers was used to supply the laundry, for general hotel services and pre-heating the viscous bunker fuel. This was achieved by a sophisticated and innovative ‘bleeding’ system, at various stages of the turbine process. Electrical power was provided by three 850kW turbo-generators at sea, and by two 425 kW Werkspoor designed and built diesel generators when in port. HAL were sufficiently satisfied with the trials performance to formally accept Nieuw Amsterdam on her return to the shipyard.
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