Friday 27 September 2013

Give me Liberty

. . . or give me death.  Because so few of my readers are US Citizens, I have to complete a phrase like that.  It was the last resounding sentence in a speech made in March 1775 by Patrick Henry: one of the key revolutionaries in the American War of Independence. He wasn't about to accord either option to the 5 dozen slaves that he owned, but the phrase has become part of the rhetoric of right-wing democracy ever since. It has been reduced to a Globish soundbyte on the New Hampshire licence-plate:
It also had the curious effect of naming the most numerous class of mass-produced uniform shipping ever produced.  In WWII as the the U-boats of the Kriegsmarine were sinking far more ships than the British could replace, the British government designed and put in orders for a new type of 10,000 ton general cargo ship that would be made of steel plates welded together rather than rivetted.  This reduced the construction time and required fewer skilled workers, so it was hoped that sufficient replacement ships would be produced before the beleaguered Brits were starved into submission.

The first ship of this new design was laid down in the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard in Baltimore and launched by President FD Roosevelt on Liberty Fleet Day, 27th September 1941. 14 ships were launched at yards all over the country on the same day but Baltimore is just down the road from Washington, so it was the obvious place for the President to make himself available to break a bottle of champagne against the bows of a ship.  In his speech at the slip, FDR alluded to the 1775 speech, named the vessel the SS Patrick Henry and said that the new ships would bring liberty to Europe.  So the whole class became known as Liberty Ships.  It seems an extraordinarily partisan statement to make given that neutral and isolationist USA was holding aloof from a war in Europe that was then more than 2 years old.  It was 75 days before Pearl Harbour.

The design proved to be extremely successful and eventually more than 2700 were built.  The time for construction was dramatically reduced from an average of 230 days to about six weeks as the ship-yards geared up, got more skilled and practiced economies of scale.  The economics inevitably meant the corners were cut in the quality of some of the materials and some of the sub-standard steel had a tendency to brittle fractures: small cracks tended to propagate from stress-points like the square corners of hatches. Cracks could propagate across welds where they would have been stopped by a rivetted joint.  So a number of Liberty Ships, which were 135m long, broke in half during or immediately after storms like a paperclip after repeated bending back and forth.  The key work of metallurgical forensics was carried out by a brilliant British crystallographer and engineer called Constance Tipper.  If there were real problems in the design of Liberty ships rather than the quality of the workmanship or materials, then a lot more than 12 of the 2700 would have worked themselves to oblivion.  With a design-life of only 5 years, several of them were still working at sea 30 years later. With so many Liberty Ships at sea they collectively experienced everything that could happen to ships in general.  At least 89% of them survived the war but others sank, ran aground, the struck mines (several going down years after the war was over), a couple blew up in spectacular fashion and two of them survived The Beloved's Dad:
Hull #1863 was launched in August 1943 as SS William I Kip, renamed SS Sampan and leased to the Union-Castle Mail Company
Hull# 2196 launched Nov 1943 as SS Barrett Wendell and leased to Royal Mail Lines as SS Samphill.  Because they were all essentailly the same, I need only show you one:
SS Samphill
It made Pat's job as a cook-steward a lot easier because the cocoa, tinned butter, powdered eggs and (most importantly) the tea were all stored in the same place on both ships.  Aristotle Onassis, who married President Kennedy's widow, made his fortune by buying surplus Liberty Ships after the War and parlaying them into a shipping empire.

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