Liner Notes: Paying for War in Angola

There’s  a common military aphorism that amateurs talk tactics but professionals talk logistics. Despite that famous statement, histories of logistics can be hard to find and among those histories of finance (beneath the strategic level) even harder. The obscurity extends beyond historians even to the militaries you would expect to know better. According to a short monograph recently published by Air University Press, the US Air Force went into both Gulf Wars without a financial management system capable of operating in a war zone.

One of the more innovative experiments in managing finance in the theater of operations comes from the Cuban intervention in Angola. It’s particularly interesting for me because it hinged on one of the more unusual instruments of postwar power, the cruise liner.

Between 1975 and 1991 more than 430,000 Cuban soldiers and civilians served in Angola. The troops, who were a mix of professionals, reservists, and conscripts, were all ostensibly volunteers. Though conscripts got the perk of reducing their service from three years to two, in general pay was poor. An ordinary soldier received seven Cuban pesos and 150 Angolan kwanzas per month, disbursed at the end of the soldier’s tour. The kwanzas could be used to buy discounted luxury goods in special subsidized shops in Luanda. The pesos were for home. To avoid having to funnel all returning troops through Havana or operate pay counters in every port of arrival, the Cubans hit on an unusual solution. For most of the 1980s they hired the Soviet cruise liner Leonid Sobinov to float off the Angolan coast as a “money ship.” Troops were shuttled out to the Sobinov to receive their back pay before the long transatlantic voyage home. Under close escorts because it carried so much money, the Sobinov usually stayed in Angolan waters for three days at a time. At least once it remained for a month.

The original designers of the Sobinov had probably never considered such as use for the ship. That said, they had probably also never considered that it would be owned by the Soviets. Like many of the Soviet Union’s larger passenger ships, it had been constructed outside the Soviet sphere entirely. Built for the Cunard Line in Britain as the RMS Saxonia in the mid-1950s, the Sobinov was sold to the Soviet Union and renamed in 1973. In addition to its unique duties as a “money ship,” it operated as an occasional troopship and cruise ship in the south Pacific and Mediterranean. It was laid up in the mid-1990s and scrapped in 1999.

Source: Edward George, The Cuban Intervention in Angola, 1965–1991: From Che Guevara to Cuito Cuanavale (Frank Cass, 2005)

Liner Notes: Cruise Ships in Military Service

Commercial ocean liners played an important role in both World Wars and in the early years of the Cold War as troop transports. The development of jet airliners like the Boeing 707 and military cargo aircraft like the C-141 made such ships more or less irrelevant for the movement of troops in either war or peace. Those same developments also put the nail in the coffin of regular oceanic passenger service. Though shipping lines kept a few large liners like the SS United States operating as symbols of national prestige, most either went out of service or had to shift from point-to-point service to pleasure cruises that were vacations in and of themselves.

Some lines had seen the writing on the wall and designed their ships to switch between regular passenger service and pleasure cruising, but in the 1970s the industry began to move to purpose-built ships with slower speeds (which were more economical), shallower draft (to visit smaller Caribbean ports), and single-class accommodations. These ships had even less military utility than their predecessors and the strategic significance of the passenger industry appeared to have declined even further (despite some ongoing concerns with Soviet cruise fleet).

The notable exception was during the Falklands War of 1982, when the vast distance between the Falklands and the closest British territory (Ascension Island) made movement by sea necessary. The British reconquest of the islands was supported by a substantial flotilla of commercial Ships Taken Up From Trade (STUFT) that included three ocean liners: the Queen Elizabeth 2 and the Canberra, as troop transports, and the older and smaller Uganda, converted into a hospital ship for the duration of the conflict.


The Cunard liner RMS Queen Elizabeth 2, requisitioned as a British troopship during the Falklands War, May 1982.

None of these ships, though, were built from the keel-up as ships for leisure cruising. The Canberra, launched in 1960, was one of the last large liners built in had been constructed to serve on P&O’s UK-Australia route. The Uganda, launched in 1952, had been ordered by the British-India Steam Navigation Company for its UK-East Africa service. Even the Queen Elizabeth 2, the last of the three to be built, was expected to split its time between service on the Southampton-New York run in the summer and pleasure cruises in the winter.

The only purpose-built cruise ship to make the journey to the South Atlantic only arrived after the war was over. Built in Denmark for an American line that went bankrupt before the ship was completed, the Cunard Countess was bought unfinished by the Cunard Line. About a quarter the size of the Queen Elizabeth 2, the Countess was one of a generation of ships designed to fit the requirements of leisure cruising within the same general profile as previous ocean liners. The ship entered service in 1976, sailing in the Caribbean market. Six years later, the UK Ministry of Defence chartered the ship to serve as an interim troop transport to rotate personnel between Ascension Island – which had a runway usable by large jets – and the Falklands – which did not. For six months following the Falklands War, the Countess carried troops and equipment to maintain the Falklands Islands garrison, as well as bringing relatives of British servicemen who were killed on a special memorial visit to the islands.

The former Cunard Countess at Helsinki in 2010. Photo by by Kalle Id. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The former Cunard Countess, now Ocean Countess, at Helsinki in 2010. Photo by by Kalle Id. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Remarkably enough, the Cunard Countess’s sister ship Cunard Princess was also taken into military service, albeit by a different country and in a different war. During the first Gulf War, the US military chartered the Princess as a floating rest and recreation base. Without even leaving port – the Princess was docked in Bahrain – it offered a chance to drink alcohol (forbidden in the rest of the theatre of operations) and flirt with the opposite sex (similarly discouraged on land). The Los Angeles Time dubbed it the “Love Boat of the Gulf.” The Princess’s captain was John Burton-Hall, who had also happened to be the master of the Cunard Countess during its Falklands service. Profiled in the Daily Mail a few years later, he told the newspaper that its American guests were “very well behaved … but they were also very big and very young, and they broke things. Just like puppy dogs – very large puppy dogs. We fed them and entertained them and gave them showers, and they did very well with the beer … Still, there were occasional breakdowns. One day, I went below to inspect and found one of our laundrymen ironing a tent.”

The former Cunard Princess, now MS Golden Iris. Photography by Jebulon. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

The former Cunard Princess, now MS Golden Iris. Photography by Jebulon. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

Though Cunard sold both ships in the mid-1990s, both had long lives. Under the name Ocean Countess the Countess was scrapped in 2014; the Cunard Princess continues to operate, under the name Golden Iris.

Tourism’s Cold War, Part Six

How large was the Soviet cruise industry? The fifth edition of The Naval Institute Guide to the Soviet Navy, published in 1991 just before its topic ceased to exist, credited the Soviet Union with a passenger fleet of 50 ships. One mid-1980s estimate of their earnings was $153 million in US dollars.

As their presence in a guide to the Soviet Navy suggests, some commentators saw the Soviet passenger fleet as a potential geopolitical threat. The Guide‘s judgement was relatively restrained. Its author, naval analyst Norman Polmar, wrote that the ships “earn hard currencies for the Soviet Union, help to capture trade routes, provide an opportunity for political influence, and offer the potential for moving large numbers of troops by sea.” Others were less sanguine. A writer in Marine Policy darkly observed that “Morpasflot cruise liners quietly carry home Cuban wounded from Moscow’s current colonial war fronts.” The idea that the Soviet Union’s cruise ships were an invasion fleet in waiting was a little more plausible after the Falklands War, when the Royal Navy transported troops to the South Atlantic on the liners Queen Elizabeth 2 and Canberra, as well as using the Uganda as a hospital ship.

When it came to the battle for tourist hearts and minds, though, how significant were Soviet cruise ships? Though they attracted plenty of passengers, both Europeans and Americans (at least until Soviet ships were banned from US ports in 1980), the standard of service was not necessarily considered to be high. The occasional defector leaping overboard – like Liliana Gasinskaya, “the girl in the red bikini” – was embarrassing, as was the occasional collision – the Mikhail Lermontov ran aground off New Zealand in 1986, the Admiral Nakhimov collided with a freighter in the Black Sea in the same year.

While the hard currency earnings were significant, Soviet cruise ships were, like Soviet tourist hotels, insufficiently prepared to win the tourism war. It was a stark contrast with the American model, with its shining Hiltons overseas, and even with Soviet domestic tourism (beginning, as it did, with far lower expectations and far more rigid alternatives).

A Note on Sources: Annabel Jane Wharton’s Building the Cold War Hilton was essential for the first international Hilton hotels. Diane P. Koenker’s Club Red, Anne E. Gorsuch’s All This is Your World, and their jointly-edited essay collection Turizm cover Soviet tourism in admirable detail, though they are hardly the only sources on the subject. In contrast, the Soviet merchant marine is still waiting for a good history of either its business or naval design aspects. Most of what I found was gleaned from nautical reference material or from general, mostly Western, cruise ship histories. For that topic, Philip Dawson’s various books have been hugely useful, starting (but not ending) with Cruise Ships: An Evolution in Design.

Back to Part Five

Tourism’s Cold War, Part Five

The Soviet Union came to the cruise industry from a different direction than the West. In Western Europe, cruising was began as an off-season use for port-to-port ocean liners. Dedicated cruise ships tended to be older, less attractive liners, and purpose-built cruise ships were effectively unknown. The first ships built as single-class cruise liners were Nazi Germany’s Robert Ley and Wilhelm Gustloff, launched right before the Second World War.

Neither the Russian Empire or the early Soviet Union had a large passenger liner fleet, so off-season cruises weren’t the origins of the industry in the Soviet Union. Instead, Soviet cruising began as a proletarian mass tourism experience. River and coastal cruises were popular proletarian vacations both in the 1930s and after the war, when many of them were carried out on ex-German passenger ships acquired as war reparations. Liner service from Odessa to the Black Sea coastal resorts soon became a vacation in and of itself. In 1968, an eighteen-day luxury cruise cost as much as 230 rubles, more than twice the price of a twenty-day bus tour of the Caucasus and eighty rubles more than than a twenty-day Moscow-Caucasus tourist train. The Black Sea market was large enough to sustain major ship construction. The Soviets ordered five cruiseferries (car-carrying ferries with accommodations sufficiently luxurious that they qualified as a vacation in their own right) in the early 1970s to serve the Black Sea routes. When they were launched in 1975–1976, they were (briefly) the largest in the world.

Early postwar Soviet liners were also a necessary aspect of overseas tourism. It was ships like the Pobeda (“Victory”), which carried the Soviet tourists Anne Gorsuch discusses to and from Western Europe. Ironically, the Soviet liner experience was distinctly inegalitarian. The Pobeda had five classes of cabin, which led American travel writer John Gunther’s to comment that “if anybody still thinks that Russia has produced a classless society, he should travel on the Victory.”

Although the Soviets, Poles, and East Germans did build some ocean liners, a notable chunk of the Soviet liner fleet was, like the German war reparations ships, foreign built. For many years, the largest Soviet passenger liner was the Maksim Gorky, built as the Hamburg for the German Atlantic Line and sold to the Soviets in 1974. (As it turned out, the ship would host the Soviet delegation to the 1989 Malta summit, right as the Cold War was ending). Of the other eight large liners in Soviet service in 1989, two were ex-Cunard liners – the Ivernia and Saxonia – and one was the West German-built cruise ship Astor, bought by the Soviets in 1988.

By the time the Soviet Union was going on its Western-built cruise ship buying spree, the target audience was no longer Soviet citizens (who had been treated in the 1950s and 60s to a stream of movies featuring glamorous Black Sea cruises). Instead, it was budget-conscious European travellers who would book passage on a Soviet ship and deliver much needed hard currency. Just like Conrad Hilton took American luxury to the front doorstep of the Soviet Union (at least in his mind, and the minds of some Americans), Morflot (the Soviet Union’s maritime administration) was taking Communist (albeit European-bought) leisure to the coasts, or even the harbours, of NATO. And that made some observers unhappy.

Forward to Part Six
Back to Part Four

Blame Cruise Ships on the Nazis

If you’re not a fan of the modern cruise ship, you may be surprised by who you have to blame: the Nazi Party.

Of course, the Nazis didn’t invent the idea of the commercial pleasure cruiser. According to Philip Dawson’s Cruise Ships: An Evolution in Design, the first known commercial cruise advertisement appeared in the Leipzig Illustrated News in 1845. The first purpose-built ship for cruising was the yacht St Sunniva, built for the North of Scotland & Orkney & Shetland Steam Navigation Company in 1887 for ten-day cruises along the Norwegian fjords. (Not coincidentally, it was the Norwegians who brought the modern cruise liner to the Caribbean in the 1960s.) Between the 1890s and the 1930s, cruising was something done mostly by older ocean liners in the off-season, when there weren’t enough regular bookings.

The problem was that in regular ocean liner service passengers were segregated into two or three classes which were confined to their own parts of the ship: separate dining rooms, separate recreation areas, separate cabins and decks. Cruising, on the other hand, involved single-class service where all passengers had similar accommodations and the run of the ship, which made the duplication of services and the wide variation in cabin type wasteful.

Enter the Nazis, or specifically the Strength through Joy, or Kraft durch Freude (KdF) movement. KdF was the recreation wing of the German Labour Front, and whose offerings to German workers included cruises in the Baltic, Atlantic, and Mediterranean. The cruises began in 1934 using otherwise unemployed German liners, but KdF soon began planing for a massive fleet of specially-designed cruise ships.

The first, and only, two to be laid down were the Robert Ley and the Wilhelm Gustloff. They featured standardized two- and four-person cabins, all featuring portholes to the outside. There were no inside cabins on either ship, a major change from usual liner design. Both the Robert Ley and the Wilhelm Gustloff also had large public spaces, substantial recreation facilities for swimming and exercise, and no segregation into classes or even between passengers and crew since everyone was supposedly equal members of the KdF. Of course, as a Nazi ship some were more equal than others: the Robert Ley featured a sixteen-room suite for the Führer that could be isolated from the rest of the ship.

To compensate for all of this, the ships also dropped many common ocean liner features. There was no baggage or cargo space, since the cruises were short, and maximum speed was only 15.5 knots (at a time when the Queen Mary could do 30+ knots).

Launched in 1938 and 1939, the two ships had very short careers as cruise liners. At the outbreak of the war, both were taken over by the German navy and neither survived the war. Their features, though, lived on in postwar designs. Many of them turned up in the East German worker’s cruise ship Fritz Heckert, which offered a very similar service to the KdF ships, and then in the Soviet Alexandr Pushkin ocean liners, as well as in West Germany’s first postwar dual-purpose liner–cruise ship, the Hamburg. More generally, the idea of a lower-speed, single-class ship would become the basis for modern cruise ships introduced by Norwegian Caribbean, Royal Caribbean, and Royal Viking in the 1960s and 70s. In fact, the idea of “all outside cabins” would become a major design concept again in the 1980s.

And there you have it: how the Nazis embraced the cruise ship, and the design ideas they pioneered in the Robert Ley and the Wilhelm Gustloff ended up as the basis for today’s 17+ million passenger industry.

Source Note: I’m deeply indebted for this story to Philip Dawson’s Cruise Ships: An Evolution in Design, which is an incredibly extensive resource on the design, construction, and operation of cruise ships throughout the twentieth-century.