Build the ships – chapter three – The Shipyards Turn to War

In my view, this is where things start to get particularly interesting, as the author turns his attention to the range and output of the hundreds of yards which contributed ships of all shapes and sizes to WWII and describes the changes which took place to methods of shipbuilding due to wartime needs.

He begins by pointing out that, at the time, it would have taken months to visit all the shipyards in Britain from the banks of the Clyde and Tyne to the Wear, the Tees, Birkenhead, Barrow across to Belfast, not to mention the Scottish coast yards and those on the English Channel as well as on estuaries and rivers where previous pleasure craft yards were making small ships and barges in sections. He describes the variety of ships thus:

“from the motor torpedo boat to the aircraft carrier, from the tank landing barge and the wooden minesweepers to the tanker and fast cargo liner”.

The link between the Durham mines, Northumberland and Middlesbrough branch lines and the location of shipbuilding despite being awkward, difficult sites for shipbuilding is made – as iron ore and coal were available it made sense to build ships as near as possible. Rarely was there room for a right angle launch, but undeterred these yards turned out a large proportion of the world’s tonnage in the form of a huge variety of specialised ships.

Describing travelling on the buses and trams around the towns on Tyneside, we are told of the knowledge of the locals about when individual ships were launched, the discussion at the time as to whether welding was to become the future preferred method over riveting or “try him on Russian icebreakers and the speeds of destroyers and he can flood you with facts and sink you with judgments.” Not only that but they also knew who were the brains behind the various different shipbuilding businesses, where different yards were going right or wrong, the family history and investments of the shipbuilders all were known in depth. No surprise, then, that when Robb’s workers talk of their experiences, they too are as informative and as knowledgeable about the yaird as were their southern counterparts. (see some of my previous posts, for example: here, here, here and here)

As well as the welding/riveting debate, there were also discussions ongoing about the merits of “English and American” methods of building. The US mass production methods similar to car manufacturing, using conveyor belt production and putting the machinery in before the ship was launched versus the hand-crafted British traditions. However, as the book points out, the conditions on each side of the pond were different. In Britain, they created the prototype of the Liberty ship on the Wear, took the lead in hand-welding and were also in the front line of the war, so did not have time to reorganise the industry, let alone the labour available to do so. Welding saved steel but used more labour, and the latter was in short supply in Britain, although, on the other side of the coin, it was easier to train welders and it was a job which could be taken on by women.

So a compromise was reached. Fancy lines were ditched in favour of straight plates which were quicker to make. A mix of riveting and welding was used. Traditional construction was integrated with some degree of prefabrication so that parts of the ships could be welded or riveted on the ground beside the ship or in a factory so producing vessels more quickly and efficiently. Given that Great Grandfather Robb began his business with no water to launch onto, he prefabricated ships right from the beginning in 1918, so this was not an entirely new technique for UK builders (see my Small Beginnings post).

Pre-war the shipping companies would decide on what type of ship they required, with drawing offices then working out the design. During the war the Admiralty took over the issue of design, and in consultation with the Ministry of War Transport decided which designs were best suited to wartime requirements and requisitioned ships to replace losses from the yards most suited to building them.

Similarly, to save steel which means there is an inch or so of overlap saved on every plate, welding was preferred. Wooden decking was replaced with light metals and plastics and a similar revolution occurred in the production of ship’s fittings. Paint reduced from the three or four coats in peacetime to one or two of a thinner paint. Upper masts and high funnels which would give away a ship’s position were done away with giving ships a simpler outline. However, they concealed a more complex detail with more gear so ships could unload their own cargoes. Bridges were given asphalt armour, gun emplacements similarly protected and a whole range of secret instruments were installed. Simple engines were favoured provided they were still efficient and safe, and firms without experience in this field were drafted in to help produce them, alongside the well known, long standing marine engineering firms.

Shipbuilding was changing!

 Copyright: Ruth Patterson 2010

About Ruth Macadam

Great Granddaughter of Henry Robb. School teacher.
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6 Responses to Build the ships – chapter three – The Shipyards Turn to War

  1. Pingback: Build The Ships – book review – Chapter 6 – The Ship is Born | Henry Robb's Shipyard

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  3. Pingback: Build the Ships – Chapter 8 – Ships on the Operating Table (Part 1 of 2) | Henry Robb's Shipyard

  4. Pingback: Build the Ships – Chapter 8 – Ships on the Operating Table (Part 2 of 2) | Henry Robb's Shipyard

  5. Pingback: Build the Ships – Chapter 9 – Build the Little Ships | Henry Robb's Shipyard

  6. Pingback: Build the Ships – Chapter 10 – Epilogue (A Review) | Henry Robb's Shipyard

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