Build the Ships – Chapter 8 – Ships on the Operating Table (Part 1 of 2)

Looking through the torpedoed side of the Atheltemplar

The opening of this chapter seems to beautifully capture the mood of the times …. “In war, a ship may catch a torpedo, or strike a mine, or a bomb may blow a hole in her. This does not mean that she will sink. They close the doors of the bulkheads, and if one part of the ship is flooded the air in the other compartments will keep her afloat.”

True, but so sanguinely described!

To be fair, Pritchett does go on to explain that a hit to the engine or boilers may be a different matter and that a hit in the magazine (apart from one ship he know of which took a bomb there but it did not explode) would definitely be the end of a ship.

He describes the incredibly lucky ship which had both ends blown off simultaneously, and so, still with an even keel, was able to be taken back for repair; another which came back with her superstructure flattened by bombs leaving the deck looking like “a blitzed street”; a ship which returned in two pieces and a tanker floated in on a mattress of compressed air when her bottom was mostly gone.

The consequence of these and other damages was that “The repairing of ships became one of the most urgent jobs in the industry.” Of course, such work requires ingenuity and a determination to succeed, and shipyard workers certainly had that! The author describes one repair job which involved heating water in a dry dock until the oil gone solid in the tanks melted and another where workers found out the direction a ship which had had its polarity disorganised by an electric storm had been built in, returned it to the same orientation and then hammered a new polarity into her.

The stern of the Imperial Transport limps home

He describes the burning down of half a ship and fitting a new half to her as the “sawing-the-lady-in-half act” and describes how this was done for the tanker “Imperial Transport” on the Clyde. She was in the Atlantic some 300 miles from land when she was torpedoed. She began to sink by her bows, so the crew took to their lifeboats. But she then broke in two and both portions floated, the watertight bulkheads at the end of her tanks had saved her. The captain returned to the stern (where there was steering and engine) and with a tow, managed to get her back to Britain where she was beached. Having manoeuvred her onto centre and bilge blocks they cut away the wreckage, built a cradle to receive the new forward portion. Standing ways were built and on a day of dead slow water, the new fore-end was shunted in taking three hours to move the nine feet due to the precision with which the alignment must be made. Seven hours after they had begun the operation, the two halves were dovetailed together and a new ship was ready to sail.

New bows being taken to afix to the Imperial Transport

Copyright: Ruth Patterson 2010

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About Ruth Macadam

Great Granddaughter of Henry Robb. School teacher.
This entry was posted in British War Ships, Scottish Shipbuilding, Shipbuilding, Shipyards, WWII and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Build the Ships – Chapter 8 – Ships on the Operating Table (Part 1 of 2)

  1. Isabelle Procter (nee Robb) says:

    My father, Magnus Robb, worked at Henry Robbs from 1939 – throughout WWII. He worked alongside a young man called Marshall Miller. I recently discovered that a choirmate, who was born in Edinburgh, had a grandfather (last name Osborne), who also worked at Robbs. I live in Canada, but can remember at least one photo of my Father and his friend working on a ship and I will post it when I find it. Are there any staff records available or photos of workers?

  2. The Loftsman says:

    You may be interested to know that a brand new website has now gone live onto the net, you can find it at

    • Your old site was great, this new one is excellent, congratulations.

      I am sure both our readerships will find it helpful and informative.

      Sorry for the delay in replying, but I now have that elusive job back home, starting at the end of January and will then be able to concentrate more on researching and the blog!


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

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

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

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