Saturday, 11 April 2020

How a Cargo Ship helped win World War 2: The Liberty Ship Story





They made history because of the way they were built. Their design was deliberately basic, which allowed them to build thousands, as most of them were constructed in just few weeks. And they weren’t expected to last long. Their lifespan was only five years. The sole purpose being, the ships make at least one trip across the ocean with much-needed cargo. That’s how desperate the situation was. The task of constructing Liberty class ships was assigned to 18 shipyards, spreading across the coastal United States. The task was to build the ships at an incredible rate.....

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The World War was at its peak with the allies and German in a fight for control of territory. In the frigid autumn of 1940, hundreds of cargo ships sailed across the Atlantic in a desperate effort to keep Britain supplies in its war effort against Nazi Germany. But they were decimated by enemy ships and submarines. In 1940 alone Germany sank over 1,000 allied ships. Britain was at a great risk of being starved of supplies. The Allies response was simple. Build thousands of cargo ships and build them faster than Germany can ever hope to sink them. In just four years, American constructed over was 2,700 Liberty class cargo ships and each was built not in months but mere weeks and some in matter of days.
These hastily built ships were loaded to the brim and sailed overseas. And they were to help the Allies win the war.

By late 1940, much of Europe had fallen to Nazi Germany and the British Commonwealth now stood alone in its fight. But the island nation was being starved of much-needed supplies for its war effort. German U-boats, warships and aircraft were inflicting heavy losses to the shipping traffic, sinking ships faster than Britain could replace them. The United states, although not yet at war, was playing a vital role in supplying Britain in its war effort. And its enormous industrial capacity was critical to helping Britain stay in the fight. But with Germany sinking ships daily, Britain and America desperately needed a way to keep all that war material moving.


The problem was, in the entire decade prior, America had only built a couple of dozen ships. So at the start of 1941, US President Franklin Roosevelt announced the emergency shipbuilding program. It was an enormous effort to produce ships on an unprecedented scale. But to do that, they would need to build a special kind of ship, dreadful looking objects. That’s how President Roosevelt described Liberty ships when he first saw their design. Time magazine nicknamed them ugly ducklings. They were not much to look at and from a design and structure, there was nothing remarkable about them. With 10,000 tons of cargo capacity, they were a large ship of the day, but were also obsolete. The design was 60 years old. Based on a British ship built in the 19th century, they were powered by an antiquated compound steam engine. They are actually under powered. If the Atlantic ocean waters are rough, sailing in the wrong direction, Liberty might not be able to move forward at all. Most Liberty ships were given a 3-inch bow gun and a 4 or 5-inch stern gun along with anti-aircraft weaponry as defense. They were managed by a crew of 45 volunteer Merchant Mariners and 12-24 Navy armed guards. But in reality, the heroic men served aboard these ships were vulnerable and paid a heavy price. Liberty ships weren’t remarkable for their capabilities out at sea.


They made history because of the way they were built. Their design was deliberately basic, which allowed them to build thousands, as most of them were constructed in just few weeks. And they weren’t expected to last long. Their lifespan was only five years. The sole purpose being, the ships make at least one trip across the ocean with much-needed cargo. That’s how desperate the situation was. The task of constructing Liberty class ships was assigned to 18 shipyards, spreading across the coastal United States. The task was to build the ships at an incredible rate. By 1943, these shipyards would have to launch on an average a new ship every eight hours.

The two revolutionary changes in the technique of working would make a great impact in the fast construction of the ships. The first was welding as until then almost all ships were built by riveting pieces sheet metal together, a slow process requiring skill and physical strength. But the workforce would not be all skilled as most were farm hands and a third of the workforce would be women. Welding would drastically speed up the assembly process.

Sailing in a convoy
The second revolutionary step would be assembly line logic applied to the shipbuilding industry. Instead of building a ship from start to finish, thousands of components will be manufactured at the same time at different locations and then brought to the ship yard for final assembly. Earlier, when it used to take six months to construct a Liberty class ship; by 1944 it was taking on an average only 42 days. And shipyards would compete to see how fast they could build the ships. One yard would finish a ship in a month and another would break this record, doing in just three weeks. In November of 1942, the Richmond shipyard in California managed to build a Liberty class ship in just four days and fifteen hours.

And one ship broke in to two just as some early Liberty did break in half. These ships were notorious for developing serious structural cracks. Welding instead of riveting meant that cracks could easily spread throughout the hull. Revolutionary changes in shipbuilding had some drawbacks and it had to be set right.



Out at sea, Liberty ships were vulnerable not because they lacked defense weapons, but mainly because they were slow. Convoys of 50-60 Liberty ships would sail along at just 10 miles per hour. And at full throttle could push to 13 miles per hour, while the German U-boat could do 20 miles per hour at sea. And this made them easy target for the Germans especially at night. To improve the odds, Liberty ships were guarded by escorts.

The more vulnerable Liberties, those loaded with ammunition or fuel, would travel at the centre of the formation. But the men serving on a Liberty Ship always faced danger and were stressed as hundreds were sunk or critically damaged by the Germans throughout the war. But by mid 1941, the sheer number of Liberty’s out at sea along with an increase in their armed escorts, overwhelmed German forces. Advance in anti-submarine technology also reduced the U-boat threat. By mid 1944, the United States began to focus on producing a new type of wartime cargo vessel – the Victory ship, which would never be built on the scale of Liberty, as these were larger and faster, making them less vulnerable to attack.

After the war, many Liberty’s were put into reserve fleet or sold off to post-war merchant cargo fleets. By 1960's their obsolete design made them far too expensive to operate and most of them were sold as scrap. Today only two or three remaining Liberty’s of the 2,750 survived reminding us of their enormous contribution of winning the Second World War.








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