By F.J.W and D. Innola


Sources:    Liberty Ships and Associated Designs By Sam Peters, The Liberty Ships by L.A. Sawyer and W.H. Mitchell, The National American Archives.

The vessel to which all Liberty ships, Forts, Parks Victory’s whatever can all be traced back to one basic design and that was the Donington Court, a ship designed and built by J.L.Thompson & Sons of Sunderland in 1939. A British Merchant Shipbuilding Mission sailed to the USA in 1940 with plans based on the original ship which had impressed the British Admiralty as to its carrying capacity, some 10,000 tons, fuel consumption and speed of eleven knots attained using a very basic triple expansion engine.


Designed by North Eastern Marine Engineering Co. Ltd.

Prior to the Missions visit American shipbuilding had declined at an alarming rate, during the First World War it had produced some 2,500 merchant ships but from the early twenties the industry had fallen into serious neglect and subsequent decline. From 1922 to 1936 the industry built only two cargo ships, twenty-seven passenger ships and the odd few tankers. However the Merchant Shipping Act of 1936 declared the following principles:

1) That it is necessary for National Defence and for the development of both domestic and overseas commerce to have a new, modern and efficient Merchant Marine.

2) That such fleet should be capable of serving as naval or military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency.

3) That the ships should be constructed in America and owned and operated under the US flag.

With these words the said American shipping industry could compete on a level playing field or to put it another way it became subsidised. As an example it cost twice as much to build a ship in America as elsewhere and to compound the issue they cost fifty per cent more to operate.

When the newly formed United States Maritime Commission was established in 1936 there were only ten yards and forty six slipways capable of building ships of 400ft in length and half of those were constructing ships for the US Navy. In 1937 the Commission instigated a ten-year plan, it provided for the completion of fifty ships a year to replace all ships, which had an anticipated life span of five years. Ships to be built were tankers and three types of dry cargo; the latter were of three standard types and each to be powered by steam turbines giving a high service speed of sixteen knots. The three designs of freighters were designated as C1, C2 and C3 dependant on their commercial theatre of operation and initially contracts were placed for one hundred ships with another five hundred required over the coming years to re-establish the American fleet.

Standardising ships was one thing but that of their respective owners was another, however each and every single owners aesthetic requirements were dealt with right down to the shape of the funnel and by 1939 the original estimate of ships to be completed had doubled. By August of 1940 the number of ships built had doubled yet again but so had the number of yards from the original ten to nineteen. In the November of the same year the first all welded ship was commissioned saving approximately 600 tons of steel in the building, a new concept was born.

On the fifth anniversary of the Commission some 92% of US registered ships totalling 1,422 was still over twenty years old and the US Governments mothballed fleet dating back to the 1st World War was of the same vintage. Of the laid up American fleet Britain had purchased approximately 178,000 dwt and this only after intervention by Winston Churchill who stated at the time ‘to delay no longer but to make the best possible bargain’. This paltry amount of shipping was not even keeping pace with ships lost in the Atlantic, clearly another solution had to be found.

The plans submitted to the Americans for their consideration were loosely based on those used to build Donington Court in 1939 but had been revised, being less complicated and rather narrower in the beam, in fact a ship had been constructed using the said plans called Empire Liberty of 7,157 grt in a British Shipyard.

The Commission met with Admiral Emory Scott Land in New York, Admiral Land was the Chairman of the United States Maritime Commission, the meeting was not favourable to say the least and Land pointed out that supplying a Nation that faced disaster with slow ships would be a waste of American energy. He closed by saying that they could have the next sixty ships planned for the American fleet and also because there was a shortage of yards, they would have to be of the all weld design. Faced with no other option the British Commission concurred and a new consortium was set up called Six Services Incorporated formed by Todd Shipyards and Henry J Kaiser’s group of west coast engineering firms.

It would appear that the Admiral's faith in America’s ability to produce turbines in such great quantities was more than a little off the mark, whilst hull production was on the increase other requisites for shipping had not kept pace and with war looming there was an even bigger demand for tonnage and methods of propulsion.

In an embarrassing volte’face the Americans had to announce a new shipbuilding programme whereby ‘ships built by the mile and chopped off by the yard’ would have to be the order of the day and the more sophisticated types of ships would just have to wait until the time was more appropriate.

However a school of thought prevailed amongst diehard Americans that an alternative design vessel known as the ‘Los Angeles’ class was more appropriate to the job in hand. Of this type 238 had been built directly after the 1st World War, what the protagonists of this design failed to mention at the time was as follows:

1) That the ship was in fact a half-knot slower.

2) It suffered from weak skegs and unrigid engine foundations.

3) Heavy and expensive boilers.

4) The engine builder had gone out of business.

5) No plans of the machinery survived.

6) The ships' type without revision did not lend itself to welding.

In all not a viable solution to the problem in hand and without further delays being incurred attempting to better the British design it was therefore decided to adopt the British ‘Empire Liberty’ type vessel, not I hasten to add without some ill feeling. Some of the American yards graciously conceded that with their background of building ships the British option was far and beyond anything that could be achieved by their own designers in the time scale given. They also conceded that the fabrication of this type of ship as opposed to the USMC design would only add an insignificant amount of man-hours. I dare say that it was with ‘teeth firmly clenched’ that Admiral Land finally conceded defeat and adopted the British design of as he put it ‘Slow’ ships. In an attempt to save some sort of face Admiral Land boasted in the October that sixty of the turbine Ocean class had commenced to be delivered, the first launched by the Admirals wife on the 15th and named Ocean Vanguard, sadly the ship was to last just under a year being sunk on the 13th of September 1942. At the same time that the British Commission ordered the sixty ‘Ocean’ class vessels it also placed orders for a further twenty six from yards in Canada, these ships were known as ‘Parks’ and were built with lease-lend funds. The only difference between the American built ships and that of the Canadian was that the latter’s funnels had cowl tops.

In a radio broadcast in February of 1942 President Roosevelt when announcing the 200-ship build programme couldn’t hide his dismay at the appearance of the ships referring to them as ‘dreadful looking objects’. Thereafter they were dubbed ‘ugly ducklings’ and one newspaper even went so far as to change a famous British wartime slogan to ‘Sea scows with blunt bows will carry the tools to Britain’!

In an attempt to diffuse any consternation caused by their acerbic comments as to the design of the ship Admiral Land renamed the vessels ‘Liberty Fleet’ and declared the 27th of September 1941 as ‘Liberty Fleet Day’ the same day that the first ship was launched, her name was Patrick Henry. Lauded by the press and public alike the vessels became known as ‘Liberty Ships’ and their contribution to the war effort was to be immense.

For clarification the ‘emergency built ships’ were as follows:

1) Fort and Park, standard British design, 7,130 grt, 10,000 dwt, 441ft long with a beam of 57ft, Single screw, Triple expansion, 10/11 Knots.


2) Oceans and Empires, design of a general tramp, approximately 7,170 grt, 10,000 dwt, 442ft long, beam 57ft, Single screw, Triple expansion, 10/11 Knots, fuel consumption 40 tons a day.


3) Sam’s and Liberty’s (EC-2) U.S. standard type, 7,176 grt, 10,800 dwt, 442ft long, beam 57ft, Single screw, Triple expansion, 10/11 Knots, fuel consumption 26 tons a day.


4) Victory (VC-2) type U.S. standard ship, 7,600 grt, 10,600 dwt, 455ft long, beam 62ft, Single screw, Turbine, 15 Knots.


The United States still maintained its ‘C’ series of ships that it had first started to construct in 1939, C1, C2, C3 and the later C4, each type underwent various modifications to machinery and as to whether or not it was to carry passengers.


There were two types to this class that varied slightly in appearance and dimensions. C1-A: 5,100 grt, 412ft long, 60ft beam, C1-B: 6,710 grt, 9,047 dwt, 418ft long, 60ft beam, single screw 2 x geared steam turbines.


Again two types of this ship were built, C2-S-J1: 8,373 grt, 459ft long, 63ft beam, single screw 2 x geared turbines 15.5 Knots. C2-S-B1 6,220 grt, 8,540 dwt, 460ft long, 63ft beam, fitted with more powerful turbines and steam plant raising its service speed to 18.5 Knots, crew of 49.


This type varied in its appearance and was 7,940 grt, 12,100 dwt, 492ft long and a 72ft beam, single screw, 2 x geared turbines, 16.5 Knots, 12 passengers and 56 crew.


This class underwent several modifications, 10,662 grt, 14,860 dwt, 523ft long, 72ft beam, single screw, 2 x geared turbines, 20 Knots, 4 passengers and 56 crew.

People used to say of the Liberty ship that they were built and designed for one crossing of the Atlantic and the same nonsense was said of the LST’s., no one certainly told the crews that manned them. In fact although their primary purpose was for the transport of war requisites and food a Congress Committee actually gave them a shelf life of five years, many were to surpass even that estimate.

The first step that America took in the massive enterprise of building ships was the one in 1941 when they approved of nine new shipyards of which two were designated to the building of the Ocean type. The remaining seven commenced the building programme of the two hundred ships ordered on the 3rd of January 1941. The next step was the authorisation of the Lend Lease programme which included not only releasing Merchant Ships from its mothballed fleet but the building of new ones. Towards the end of 1941 America increased its output of ships and with the advent of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour the increases in tonnage built increased dramatically and the total tonnage proposed for 1942/43 was a staggering 24,000,000.

Go to     Part Two