Any debate about the single most important military invention during World War Two would probably become heated and unlikely to reach a definite agreement. The iconic Spitfire; U-Boats; T 34 tanks; kamikaze planes and, of course, the Atom Bomb are invariably mentioned. However, to my mind, one of the most crucial war-winning pieces of equipment had a limited offensive capacity and rarely features in most popular histories. It was a weapon of attrition and was an unsung heroine of the Allied naval campaigns around the world.
Only the United States of America, the ‘arsenal of Democracy’ had the vision, confidence and resources to conceive and then install the system to mass-produce the desperately required merchant shipping to maintain the Atlantic lifeline to Great Britain. Based on a British design, the now legendary Liberty Ship programme began as a partnership between the British Shipbuilding Mission and the US Maritime Commission in 1940. Allied losses at sea had rapidly become worryingly high, necessitating replacement from new sources – and quickly. Using the tested principles of mass-production of preconstructed component parts, Liberty Ships were built at eighteen shipyards. The ships were constructed of sections that were welded together instead of the slower and more expensive riveting techniques, and, following the strictest production line model, were produced ready for service in ever decreasing time. In November 1942, SS Robert E Peary was assembled and launched in less than five days – although this was a publicity exercise. Nonetheless, Liberty Ships were built at an unprecedented rate to meet ever-growing demands.
It is also worth noting that these production methods were largely undertaken by a workforce with little – or often no direct relevant work experience. These workforces, across a then largely racially divided society, brought men of all backgrounds together in the shipyards and factories producing armoury for the growing US forces and their allies. The Liberty workforces also saw, for the first time, the employment of large numbers of women in jobs previously felt to be all-male roles. The famous ‘Rosie the Riveter’ who inspired millions of American women into such work even had an opposite number in the fleet, called ‘Wendy the Welder’.
The construction programme suffered a potentially catastrophic set-back in 1942/3, with several incidents of ships in very cold climates experiencing severe stress fractures to the weather deck hatch area. But the design remedy was successful, and suitably improved ships were soon being sent down the slipways and into the war.
By the end of WWII, 2,710 Liberty Ships had been produced, easily the largest number of ships ever constructed to a single design, and their role in supplying every imaginable type of war material across the globe cannot be understated. They had active roles in many campaigns, including the amphibious landings in the Mediterranean, North Africa and Normandy where thirteen were deliberately beached for use as an artificial dock.
Without a doubt, the Liberty Ship was one of the major factors in first maintaining the war effort and then winning the struggle. The sheer scale of manual planning and operation of the Liberty Ship building programme is hard to conceive today with our sophisticated computer-assisted just-intime programmes. It was both courageous and inspiring.
Liberty Ships could hardly be described as aesthetically pleasing. Indeed, President Roosevelt himself described the design as an ‘Ugly Duckling’. But what they lacked in looks was more than compensated for in functional capacity and utilitarian effectiveness. With a largely civilian crew of around 45, augmented by 17 naval armed guard or military gunners, a ship had a typical cruising speed of around 11 knots. It is claimed that for every hour of every day of WWII Liberty Ships delivered six tonnes of war material.
Liberty Ships were built for many Allied countries, and served in every theatre of operations until the end of the war in 1946. Their role continued to be important in the post-war years as the backbone of the recovering national merchant fleets which had suffered during the conflict. The US maintained many vessels in reserve; 600 were used in the Korean War, and more than 175 were deployed to serve off Vietnam. For a design which was originally intended to return its investment with just one fully laden voyage, the Liberty Ships helped make many fortunes. Their most valuable role, however, was that of supplying the various campaigns to win WWII.
Today, there are just two sea-going Liberty’s, the SS Jeremiah O’Brien in California, and SS John W Brown (built 1942 in the Bethlehem-Fairfield Yard in Baltimore). Thanks to the efforts of many dedicated volunteers, both ships are maintained largely in their wartime configurations and used as working museums. Given the deserved legendary status of Liberty Ships, the chance to sail in one – albeit just for a day run out of Baltimore – was too good to miss. And so, in May 2017, my partner Voirrey and I were at Baltimore Docks for a commemorative trip on the John W Brown. The allvolunteer crew proudly sailed her towards the Chesapeake, taking us past Fort Henry where we saw the Stars and Stripes flying as recorded in the lyrics of the in the US National Anthem. In overcast but calm conditions we explored the ship – an impressive 441-foot-long with high freeboard and vast internal storage areas.