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CYRIL THOMPSON C.B.E.
HISTORY OF THE LIBERTY SHIP
(Extracts from David Aris's Writings)

 

Mr Cyril Thompson

S.S. Jeremiah O'Brien

S.S. John W. Brown

Henry John Kaiser

Of the 2710 Liberty ships constructed in the USA during W.W.2 there are only two remaining today, S.S. Jeremiah O'Brien , in San Francisco, and SS. John W. Brown in Baltimore.

Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty at the outbreak of W.W.2, becoming Prime Minister in May 1940. He quickly realized that the U.K. would fall to Germany if we could not supply our needs by sea and so he set up a British Shipbuilding Mission to the USA. This small group sailed to New York on the Cunarder Scythia in September 1940. The leader of the mission was Mr. Cyril Thompson, of J.L. Thompson's shipyard in Sunderland, along with Mr. Harry Hunter, of the North Eastern Marine Eng. Co. of Wallsend. In New York Mr. Bill Bennett, a ship Surveyor and Mr. Stuart Heck, an Engineering Surveyor, both from Lloyds New York office, met them. A Mr. R.R. Powell representing the British Admiralty completed the team.

They had brought drawings with them as a sample of a modified version of S.S. Dorrington Court a tramp steamer of 10.800 tons DW built in 1938 for Court Line of London. The principal terms of the Mission were to purchase some sixty 10,000 TDW cargo ships per year. Unfortunately it was very soon discovered that no shipyards were available due to there being inoperative from the 1930's depression, and those that were working were engaged in building for the US navy. They then set out on a tour of all the main shipyards in the US and Canada; the Mission was then instructed to BUILD TWO SHIPYARDS , each to produce 30 ships as soon as possible, the first being, the Todd Bath Iron Works yard, constructed on vacant land at Portland Maine; to be known as the East Yard. Conventional slipways were not used but a massive dry-dock was excavated which could hold seven vessels under construction at one time, this dock was further divided into 2-2-3. When 2 or 3 ships were ready the docks were flooded, the gates lifted and the ships floated out to a nearby fitting out berth. Some time later this company built a second yard, with seven conventional slipways and this was known as the West Yard. From December 1940 to November 1942, this yard was built and delivered 30 ships in just 23 months. The S.S. Jeremiah O'Brien was built on slipway No1.

The second yard, Todd California, was the first yard to be operated by Henry Kaiser , and was built on reclaimed land at Richmond California, on the east shore of San Francisco Bay. Here seven parallel conventional slipways were used for construction of the ships. This yard was built, and delivered 30 vessels in a mere 19 months from the signing of the contract.

There were some differences in these 60 ships from the prototype, built in Sunderland. There was much more welding of the shell, although rivets were still used for all shell and frame connections.

Also at this time it was difficult to source a supplier of the traditional British Scotch type fire tube boilers as the US practice had moved on towards water tube boilers, but eventually railway engineers provided the answer with the American Locomotive Company building 90 boilers for the east coast vessels, whilst two companies, one in Seattle, the other in Los Angeles, built 90 for the west coast vessels.

In Canada the Mission initially ordered 26 ships, virtually identical to a Sunderland ship, which was fully riveted and named the North Sands Class after the Sunderland shipyard. Canada went on to build a total of 353 ships of the class, some prefixed Park and others Fort due to minor differences mainly in the method of firing the boilers and the fuel used, i.e. coal or oil.

After these sixty ships were completed, Mr. Thompson's party set off home from America in the Western Prince , which was torpedoed, in mid Atlantic in rough weather. He spent some nine hours in one of the lifeboats, before being rescued. For his successful mission and saving precious documents, he was awarded the C.B.E. Harry Hunter remained in the US for some time helping organize the building of the main engines, the NEM triple expansion unit. On his return to the U.K he was awarded the O.B.E. Considering their vital responsibility in a project, which could have lost Britain the war, had it not succeeded, some feel that they should have had a much higher award.

Unusually Mr. Thompson did not return to his shipyard but attempted to join the Royal Navy; but he was rejected, so he joined the RAF as a Flight engineer in Bomber Command before returning to J.L.Thompson's at the end of the war.

In 1942, Mr. Thompson and Mr. Hunter presented a technical paper to the now defunct Northeast Coast Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Newcastle, entitled “The British Shipbuilding Programme in the USA, 1940-42.” This paper gives details of the whole project and the original is now lodged in the archives of Newcastle University. I have had copies placed in the archives of the two remaining Liberty ships, in San Francisco and Baltimore. All the vessels built in the UK to Government order during W.W.2 were prefixed Empire regardless of size or type but for the 60 US built ships they chose the prefix OCEAN as it was thought that Empire would offend Americans! Atlantic was considered as a prefix but also rejected as half the ships were built on the Pacific seaboard and half on the Atlantic. Hence the emergence of the OCEAN class from which the LIBERTY ship was developed.

Henry Kaiser operated many of the yards and usually gets the credit for building most Liberty ships but the single yard, which built the most ships, was Bethlehem Fairfield of Baltimore whose output was 384 Liberty's plus many other types. Kaiser was not a shipbuilder but a very skilful organizer of men and materials who thought big.

Henry John Kaiser was one of America's greatest industrialists, born in Montgomery County, New York, USA. On leaving school at the age 13 he became a photographer's apprentice, eventually buying the business at the age of twenty. In 1907 he moved west to work for a construction company. Seven years later, he started his own construction company in Vancouver, Canada, building government-funded projects including a 300-mile highway in Cuba. In 1931 he organized along with other companies to build the Hoover Dam. Other projects included the piers for the Oakland, San Francisco Bay Bridge, and the Parker, Bonneville, and Grand Coulee Dams, and he produced the cement for the Shasta Dam (1939). In the same year he began building ships in Seattle and Tacoma.

Kaiser excelled at labour relations, and in 1942 founded what has became the largest American health maintenance organization in the country, now known as Kaiser Permanente.

He went on to found his own steel company, an aircraft company with Howard Hughes, Kaiser Aluminium, and Kaiser Community Homes Corp. The automobile company he formed with Joseph W Frazer in 1945 produced number of models, which ceased production in 1954.

Kaiser organised a record attempt (possibly to demoralise the enemy!) and this took place at the Kaiser yard in Richmond where the S.S. Robert Peary was completed, keel laying to launch in 4 days, 15 ½ hours with a further 3 days afloat for final fitting out.

There is a story, which persists whereby Kaiser invited a lady sponsor to the launching platform and handed her the champagne bottle; the lady looked down the berth and remarked to Kaiser, “There is no ship there”. Kaiser replied, “Lady don't worry, just start swinging….”

Yet there is another side to these wonderful production results to quote the Editorial from the local newspaper the Baltimore News of 13th November 1942 as follow:-

“AND YET, FOR ALL THIS DAZZLING SPEED IN TURNING OUT INDIVIDUAL SHIPS FASTER THAN SHIPS HAS EVER BEEN BUILT BEFORE, AMERICA MUST FACE THE FACT THAT THE OUTPUT PER WORKER IN OUR SHIPYARDS, IN TONS OF STEEL, IS ONLY ABOUT HALF THE OUTPUT PER MAN IN BRITISH SHIPYARDS. THAT IS A CHASTENING THOUGHT! CRAMPED AS THEY ARE FOR SPACE, HAMPERED BY A RIGIDLY ENFORCED BLACKOUT, HARASSED AT INTERVALS BY GERMAN BOMBERS, MANNED BY WORKERS WHOSE DIET IS INFERIOR TO THAT OF AMERICAN WORKERS, NEVER THE LESS BRITAIN'S SHIPYARDS ARE OUT PRODUCING US, MAN FOR MAN, BY ABOUT TWO TO ONE.

IT IS A FINE THING TO STARTLE THE WORLD BY PRODUCING A SHIP IN LESS THAN FIVE DAYS BUT IT SEEMS OBVIOUS THAT OUR SHIPYARDS WILL HAVE TO STEP UP GENERAL PRODUCTION A LONG WAY. WHILST CHEERING LUSTILY FOR SPEED RECORDS WE MUST ALSO ASK WHY THE BRITISH, MAN FOR MAN, ARE OUT PRODUCING US.”

In shipbuilding it is generally accepted that steelwork output is a good measure of the progress of a ship, other trades, carpenters, fitters, electricians, etc. following up at the same rate.

The building man-hours for steelwork at J.L.Thompson's yard in Sunderland for an Empire ship, was 336,000.

The building man-hours for steelwork at the Bethlehem, Baltimore, for a Liberty ship were 510,000. Hence, Bethlehem required 52% more hours than Thompson's yard in Sunderland.

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