In the 1920s, and into the 30s, British and American shipping companies were able to boast that they operated the biggest trans-Atlantic passenger liners afloat. It was a source of national pride. They didn’t advertise that some of them had been built in Germany for the Hamburg-America Line before the outbreak of world war and handed over to the victors as part of the peace settlement. Cunard’s Berengaria, which had sailed under the German flag for over a year as Imperator, was one.
C.R. Vernon Gibbs takes up the story in his book ‘Passenger Liners of the Western Ocean’, (1952).
[Imperator] began a trio of Hamburg-American ‘giants’ which remained the world’s largest liners until 1935. The others were Vaterland (afterwards the United States Line’s Leviathan), and Bismarck (later the White Star Majestic). The subsequent vessels were given extra beam to improve watertight sub-divisions in the light of the Titanic disaster.
Work on Imperator started in August 1910. The ship was launched in May 1912 and began her maiden voyage thirteen months later. The Ambrose Channel up to New York had been deepened just in time to take her and she worked from Cuxhaven [at the mouth of the river Elbe], not Hamburg. A novel detail was a gilded figurehead in the form of a German eagle, but this proved a nuisance, was often damaged and finally removed.
Imperator and her consorts were the first big German turbine liners and nothing was spared to make them the most luxurious ships afloat. The after funnel was a dummy. Uptakes of the other two were split and rejoined above the boat deck so as to avoid passing through the dining saloon.
The beginning of August 1914 found her lying safely in the Elbe, where she stayed until surrendered to the victorious Allied Powers. She ferried American troops homewards between May and August 1919 and was then laid up at New York, to be transferred to Great Britain the following February. The Cunard Line operated her on the Southampton route throughout 1920 and needed the ship to replace the lost Lusitania, but was in no hurry to buy. The Bismarck was also for sale and the only possible purchasers for either were the Cunard and White Star companies. To avoid outbidding each other, the Cunard and White Star bought Imperator and Bismarck jointly from the Government in February 1921.
The Cunard sent Imperator to the Tyne for reconditioning and conversion to oil fuel. She returned to Southampton with her speed improved to run alongside Mauretania and Aquitania, clearing the port as Berengaria* for the first time on April 16th, 1922.
The ex-Imperator completed her last voyage in March 1938 and was sold for breaking up at Jarrow six months later. The final stages of dismantling took place at Rosyth [Scotland] in 1946.
*Berengaria, after whom the ship was named, was the wife of King Richard I of England – Richard the Lionheart.