Liberty's Provenance By John Henshaw

Liberty's Provenance By John Henshaw

The name Liberty Ship is somehow totemic, and ranks alongside Willy's Jeeps, Flower Class Corvettes, and Spitfires as one of the Cogs, that assembled together, won the Second World War. Warfare is largely a matter of Logistics, and the 2710 of these vessels, manufactured in America at a phenomenal rate, proved to be, if not war winning, then a major factor is maintaining logistical lines moving, whilst the Germans attempted to sink them.

Both Battles of the Atlantic (WW1 and WW2) were simple arithmetic. The Germans needed to sink ships faster than the Allies could replace them, and the Allies needed to sink submariners faster than they could be replaced. In fact, as Marder agrees, the Maths is far simpler than this - as long as the status quo was maintained, the Allies would win. That is to say, as long as ships got built and submarines could be kept away, victory was assured. Killing U-Boats was a bonus.

Liberty Ships therefore actualised this status quo. The tenet of Henshaw's Book, however, is that, whilst the 'Ugly Duckling' Liberty ships were American made, the original provenance of their design was very much British, coming from a small shipyard on the River Wear.

Britain was producing ‘Emergency Ships’ as far back as 1916, however it was the American genius for Mass production that saw a remote site on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, Hog Island, turned from rough ground into the largest shipyard in the world, and then closed, all in the space of 4 years. The 200 or so prefab vessels produced here came too late for WW1, but some served for 35 years in various guises.

The true forebear of the Liberty ship was the SS Embassage, launched in 1935 from the Joseph Thompson yard in Sunderland. Thompson was to take British designs with him to the USA in 1940, and Henshaw conjectures that a lineage exists through the Liberty ship designs back to Embassage. which is a new approach.

The initial UK order of 60 Ocean Class to replace Merchant Losses was began in 1941. The Americans took this design, modified it, and went into Mass production, replacing time consuming riveting with welding, and a ship could be produced in around 230 days, though a publicity stunt Liberty Hull, the SS Robert. E Peary was produced in just under 5 days.

This is an attractive book, which introduces new scholarship into what is known about the subject. The author is a qualified draughtsman, and he has used this skill to construct beautiful drawings of the lines of some of the vessels concerned. In some cases he has done this based on surviving fragments of plans or even a few faded photographs that may exists of a particular vessel. Henshaw sets out to be iconoclastic in his thesis and his scholarship backs this up.

The book is technical and perhaps not one for the casual military enthusiast. However, anyone with a serious interest in Naval Architecture will find this an interesting read.