Build the Ships – Chapter 9 – Build the Little Ships

This chapter begins with a description of the Dieppe raid on August 19th 1942 comparing the vision of the fleet of destroyers, motor gun-boats, torpedo boats, escorts and landing barges as seen from above to looking onto hundreds of war canoes of the South Sea Islands. He then explains how, 18 months later, an even more peculiar fleet approached the coast of Sicily, American troop carriers, all of which had been built in Britain. Likewise, when the British invasion forces were taken to Normandy, some 2000 of the 2400 strong landing ships and craft were British built.

He goes on to explain that many were not built by shipyards, but by firms which, pre-war, were constructing locomotives, rolling stock, steam rollers, bridges, steel frames for office buildings and blocks of flats and fitted out departments stores in peace time. A far flight from fitting staircases, counters, wardrobes and shop windows to building ships inland! Whole ships or sections were transported by heavy lorries to the launches or to be assembled.

Meantime the small boat builders up and down the coasts and rivers, including those who had built pleasure boats and fishing boats, worked flat out under the supervision of the old-time boat builders. Every kind of ship you could imagine – landing craft, torpedo boats, gunboats, minesweepers, harbour-defence vessels, rescue tugs, corvettes, wooden drifters, provision boats, boats to collect dummy torpedoes after practise runs.

Landing craft were split into two classes – major being those which would travel the whole journey under their own steam and minor those which were carried by ship to the scene of action. Many minor landing craft had been built before the war, but the demand for such assault boats rose rapidly in 1941. They were simple, flat-bottomed vessels which could be built by joinery and building firms with converted motor-car engines such as the Ford V-8 to power them, leaving the shipyard artisans free to work on the more complex vessels requiring their skills. The major landing craft, known as tank barges, were built of steel, not timber, and began to be constructed in large numbers in 1940. The demand for these, however, was tying up shipyards so they could not construct the other large shipping needed for the war effort, so gradually construction engineers were trained to carry out this work and produce the invasion fleet. Old Thames barges – lighters and dumb barges, were converted to carry vehicles by cutting a ramp in the stern and fitting Chrysler engines. The author describes the building of tank landing craft as “the beginning of prefabrication in England” with sections from the engineers being assembled to make 200 foot long, forty foot beam tank carriers. I find it hard to believe that shipyards in England had not, like Robb’s had done for many years, already created, delivered and assembled prefabricated ships.

Pritchett compares the sounds and sights of the building of the small wooden boats with the heavy machine sounds and work of the shipyards. Hammered copper rivets, which could be rat-a-tatted in by girls; the ability to build hulls upside down starting with the bulkheads, which the author likens to building a house beginning with the inside walls all helped towards quick, bulk production. The lighter work on these boats meant that youths and women could contribute to the production of the many craft needed to work towards victory. The more skilled would work on sheet metal, the highly skilled would adapt aero engines for marine use, in all contexts practical skills were the valuable commodity to push the whole initiative forward.

Small yards, which had previously taken the time to produce well-crafted specialist boats now set to work on standard designs which could be speedily completed. Supplies were centralised to ensure all the materials required were to hand. Ships were assembled more than built.

In the sheds and yards one would see: “dozens of compasses, wheels, bells, engines. Here stand a score of brass rudders. Here are bins of pipes. Five tons of screws, nuts and bolts to into every boat: here they are. There are 1,500 different sizes of fastenings, from the long copper nails to the smallest screws. There are thirty five different types of nails. You see the day’s delivery to the boatyards being made up.” He sees the large areas of timber on benches “like pieces of a giant’s jigsaw puzzles”. 

Hundreds of rivets were tapped in, Pritchett describes the sounds in relation to the pre-war sounds of the shipyards thus: “That tap of the hammer on wood, like the sound of the caulker’s mallet on the wooden decks before the war, is the natural hypnotising music of the industry.”

He explains about the timber arriving from Africa up the river and its transformation into planks and finally the shapes of the pieces needed, each carefully numbered according to its type. Above all, the order and organisation ensured the best possible rate of production. He describes the strangeness of the “partnership of the very latest methods with the least modern yards-least modern in the sense of speed of production” but also comments on the pride of craftsmanship which might have been lost, but was not.

Copyright: Ruth Patterson 2010

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About Ruth Macadam

Great Granddaughter of Henry Robb. School teacher.
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1 Response to Build the Ships – Chapter 9 – Build the Little Ships

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

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