On 1 September 1939 RMS Queen Mary made her last pre-war commercial voyage to New York. She stayed in that harbour until early 1940 while Allied commanders decided what role she would play in the second world war. On 21 March 1940 the Queen Mary left New York Harbour bound for Sydney, where the plan was to convert her into a troopship.
In early 1940, with Australia less than a year into World War 2, a 17-year-old George Shirley used his father’s 16mm movie camera to film two grand visitors to Sydney Harbour. These visitors were the modern passenger liners Queen Mary (built 1936) and Mauretania (1938) after their conversion from luxury liners to no-frills troop transport ships. Here are George Shirley’s memories of what he filmed.
‘In April 1940, word passed around Sydney that Queen Mary had arrived and was stationed at a swing mooring in Athol Bight near Bradleys Head in Sydney Harbour. My family and I heard that all luxury fittings were being stripped from the ship, loaded onto barges and sent via road transport to the Grace Bros storage warehouse at the Sydney suburb of Artarmon.’
‘Sydney ferries ran scenic tours that circled Queen Mary twice per journey. I was a passenger on one of these trips and used my father’s 16mm camera to shoot Kodachrome film of the big ship, whose hull had been repainted from black-and-white to battleship grey, leaving its name barely visible. As I filmed, I was elbow to elbow with other passengers on the ferry deck who were filming and taking photos. Another liner that I filmed in Sydney Harbour was the Mauretania, which was converted to a troopship in Sydney at the same time as the Queen Mary. In May 1940 a vast convoy of troopships that included the Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and Mauretania, sailed from Sydney with 2,000 troops headed for the war overseas.’
‘The Queen Mary and Mauretania footage that I shot in 1940 is now part of my family’s home movie collection at the NFSA.’