Saturday, October 20, 2018
John W Brown

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.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - October 2018 Issue
Click here to subscribe

Subscribe Graphic

Latest Issue - Look Inside!

Nexus

Most Popular

  • 1
  • 2

Top Ten Books and DVDs of 2018

Latest Products

Maritime Log

  • Focus on Historic Photographs of Lifeboats +

    Beken Lifeboat Collection Photographs of lifeboats dating from the turn of the 20th Century are the centrepiece of a new RNLI exhibition that Read More
  • Vehicle Carrier Runs Aground +

    Makassar Highway The vehicle carrier Makassar Highway, 17,735gt, of the Japanese company K Line, ran aground off the Swedish coast on the Read More
  • Keeping Port's Waterways Safe for Ships +

    UKD Orca The trailing suction hopper dredger UKD Orca, 3,087gt, of UK Dredging, of Cardiff, arrived at Ipswich in August for its Read More
  • Spotlight on Future Port Technology +

    Port of Southampton The next generation of port technologies that will help to keep the British industry trading are being jointly developed by Read More
  • Bridge Sections Transported on Giant Barge +

    Lowestoft Barge One of the largest barges ever handled at Lowestoft was safely moved out of the port early in July on Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

North America

  • Forest of Giant Cranes and a New Wharf +

    Port of Houston The Port of Houston, in Texas, took delivery of three new neopanamax ship-to-shore cranes on Aug 6 and five rubber-tyred Read More
  • Garbage Patch Clean-up Set to Start +

    garb The first offshore cleaning system was to be installed last month in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch located halfway between Read More
  • Line's Big Investment in Puerto Rico Service +

    El Coqui At the end of July, the new container/roll on-roll off cargo ship El Coqui, 36,796gt, of the Crowley Maritime Corp, Read More
  • Cleaning Up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch +

    Garbage System 001 This month, a new floating clean-up system to tackle what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was due Read More
  • Panama Canal Ban on LNG Ships to Go +

    Panama Canal On Oct 1, the Panama Canal Authority will lift its daylight and encounter bans on LNG vessels to offer more Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Asia-Pacific

  • China is World's Top Shipping Nation +

    China Containers China is the world’s leading international shipping nation, according to a new report presented at a Hamburg trade fair on Read More
  • Automatic Berthing Project Test +

    Shioji Maru The proposed joint demonstration project by four Japanese organisations relating to the safety of vessels’ auto berthing and un-berthing has Read More
  • Record Voyage for Northern Sea Route LNG Cargo +

    Christophe de Margerie A new record for crossing the Northern Sea Route was set up in July by the icebreaking LNG carrier Christophe Read More
  • Antarctic Ship is Re-Chartered +

    Aurora Australis The contract for the icebreaker and research ship Aurora Australis, 6,574gt, to resupply Australia’s Antarctic stations has been extended until Read More
  • Wreck of Cruiser From 1905 Battle is Located +

    Kea Trader The South Korean company Shinil Group said it has found the wreck of a Russian cruiser that was sunk 113 Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Naval Focus

  • HMS Albion Proves Big in Japan +

    HMS Albion British News The assault ship HMS Albion, at time of writing, had just completed a five day visit to Tokyo Read More
  • Royal Navy Commissions New Survey Ship +

    HMS Magpie British News The latest survey vessel to join the Royal Navy was commissioned into service at her homeport of Devonport Read More
  • F-35 Stealth Fighters Land in UK +

    F-35 British News The first four of Britain’s next generation F-35 Lightning supersonic fighter jets touched down in the United Kingdom Read More
  • Upgrade Planned for Russia’s Only Aircraft Carrier +

    Admiral Kuznetsov Russian News Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, will be refitted to prolong the warship’s operational life. Read More
  • HMS “Astute” in Cat-And-Mouse Pursuit by Russian Ships +

    HMS Astute British News Ahead of the American led missile strikes against suspected chemical weapon manufacturing plants in Syria in early April, Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Ferry World

  • Tragedy in Tanzania +

    Nyerere A country well used to tragedy, saw another, on Lake Victoria in September. Read More
  • Trouble for "Loch Seaforth" +

    Loch Seaforth Ferry services between Ullapool and Stornoway were disrupted when Caledonian MacBrayne’s Loch Seaforth lost power just over an hour into Read More
  • Stena Adds Extra Freight Capacity to Liverpool Service +

    Stena Forerunner In response to growing market demand, Stena Line has upped freight capacity on the popular Belfast – Liverpool route. Read More
  • Honfleur Hull Sections Craned Into Place +

    Honfleur Brittany Ferries has celebrated the second milestone in the build of its next ship Honfleur with the keeling laying - the Read More
  • Trinidad and Tobago to Sell T&T Express +

    T&T Express Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Keith Rowley has announced that the Incat 91 wave piercing catamaran Incat 046, otherwise known Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Sail Review/Coastal Comment

  • Sunderland to Esbjerg Race +

    Oosterschelde On the north east coast of England, it was Sunderland’s proud claim that more ships had been built here than Read More
  • Tall Ships at Liverpool +

    Belem At the end of May, a Tall Ships fleet met at Liverpool. Read More
  • New Bridge Challenges Melissa +

    Melissa The organisers of the charter barges working from Ipswich are worried by plans to build a road bridge across the Read More
  • German Schooners +

    Thor Heyerdahl Two German schooners based at Hamburg are regularly making voyages under sail with general cargoes across the Atlantic. Read More
  • RFA Pearleaf +

    RFA Pearleaf Thanks to Orkney Image Library for this view of the RFA Pearleaf. Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

From the Lookout

  • Less (K)Notts, More Speed! +

    Sir Keith Speed A recent addition to my book collection is Sea Change, a commentary on the battle for the Falkland Islands and Read More
  • UK P&I Club Launches Interactive Video Series +

    Lessons Learned Video I am always in favour of any steps taken to improve safety of life at sea and I feel that Read More
  • Seaking Electrical Delivers DFDS Upgrades +

    Dave Gillam I was interested to learn that Marine engineering specialist SeaKing has recently completed extensive upgrade work on three shortsea ferries Read More
  • Edinburgh Named Top Cruise Destination for 2018 +

    Balmoral In my ‘Message From the Bridge’ in August’s edition of Sea Breezes, I mentioned the burgeoning cruise market in the Read More
  • Naming Ceremony for Forth Tug and Pilot Boat +

    Forth Puma and Craigleith In my Message From The Bridge in the August edition of Sea Breezes I highlighted the Firth of Forth. Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Cruise News/Superyacht News

  • Back to Back Transatlantic on the Queen Mary 2 +

    Queen Mary 2 In the past I have been fortunate in that I have been on a cruise to a number of the Read More
  • Turnkey Explorer Yacht +

    Explorer 67 An exciting opportunity for an owner looking to build one of the finest explorer yacht projects available has presented itself. Read More
  • Great Perseverance +

    Meira Behind the construction of every great yacht there is a story and in the building of Meira, it is one Read More
  • Keel Laid for Hapag-Lloyd’s First Expedition Cruise Ship +

    Hanseatic Inspiration A keel-laying ceremony was held on June 20 2017 for Hanseatic Nature, the first of two expedition cruise ships being Read More
  • Superyacht Season - Cannes +

    Numarine 26 XP Loved and hated in equal measure by those who exhibit at the Cannes Yachting Festival, as it is correctly known, Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Ships, Ports and Places

Maltese Maritime Museum

A Visit to Ye Olde Naval Bakery

Malta’s “Maritime Museum” is housed in the former Naval Bakery on the quay of Valletta’s urban ward Birgu. Construction of Read More
Presidente Peron

"Eva Peron"

If someone in 1939 had decided to sit out the Second World War they might well have done so in Read More
  • 1
  • 2

Companies, Events and Other Features

Islamount

The Last Voyage of the Islamount

Submitted by T. D. DAVIES, Caernarvonshire - Reprinted from Sea Breezes June, 1936. Thomas David Davies, author of the 1936 Sea Read More
John W Brown

A Cruise in a Liberty Ship

Any debate about the single most important military invention during World War Two would probably become heated and unlikely to Read More
  • 1
  • 2