Park Ships

Old Wood & Rusty Iron – by Mike Creasy


The Park Ships

 In September 1939 at the start of World War 2, the Commonwealth had an average of 2,500 ships at sea on any given day. ​​ Around the world, carrying every imaginable cargo, some old, some new, these ships were the lifeblood of trade and commerce for every country on the globe.

 World War 1 had provided some lessons to both sides about the importance of supply lines. ​​ Clearly the Atlantic would be the key strategic battleground: without supplies, England would fall and the Allies would have no marshalling point for the invasion of Europe. ​​ The new German Reich would be secure.

 To attack the North Atlantic, Germany selected both surface raiders and U-boats. ​​ The U-boat wolfpacks quickly began to achieve incredible results, sinking 50 ships or more each month. ​​ Surface raiders were less successful, but they struck terror into the hearts of ,any seamen, and they tied up a lot of valuable resources in the chase.

 In response, the Allies began a system of escorted convoys between Canada and England. ​​ The convoys helped, but it wasn’t unusual to lose 10 or 15 ships from a 60 ship convoy.

 The problem was twofold: how to replace these cargo ships, and how to increase the fleet to support the eventual invasion of Europe. ​​ At the same time, shipyards everywhere were already fully engaged with building fighting ships of every kind.

 Then (as now) the shipyards that built large ships were few in number, and the building process was slow. ​​ It wasn’t unusual to take 2 or 3 years to design and build a ship.

 Something had to change or the war would soon be over.

 The answer was a revolution in shipbuilding – unitized construction of a standardized design; Henry Ford’s automotive production line philosophy applied to ships.

 The design selected was based on a “three-island” cargo steamer designed by Joseph Thompson’s North Sands Shipyards in Sunderland, England. ​​ Actually, this design revolution had been under way since World War 1, when the British government first grappled with the problems of North Atlantic supply lines. ​​ A number of different “standardized” ships had been produced including Harland & Wolff’s A and B class cargo ships, and the famously ugly N (for National) class. ​​ American yards also began producing standard types, such as the “Hog Island” ships – named for the yard that produced them and not because they looked to be “hogged” – sailor talk for drooping at the bow and stern.

In the 1930’s, the British government began a program to scrap older cargo ships and replace them with new, allowing shipyards to modernize and encouraging further work on production line efficiencies.

 With the start of World War 2 in 1939, the British government was able to move quickly with the selection of a new cargo ship design for construction first in American, and then in British and Canadian yards. ​​ The American-built versions were known as the “Ocean” ships. ​​ They were altered in two ways; they were of welded construction, and the design had been revised to eliminate the modest tumblehome of the North Sands design. ​​ 60 Oceans were built, all in American yards for British owners.

 By the end of 1941, Canadian yards began producing a steady stream of North Sands design ships, known as the “Forts” and “Parks”. ​​ Seven west coast yards between them cranked out over 250 of these ships in various configurations. ​​ All were powered by triple expansion steam engines, working off coal or oil-fired boilers.

1. Torpedo hit on the SS Fort Camosun

 No story of west coast shipbuilding would be complete without mentioning the Fort Camosun, a brand-new ship that didn’t even get past Cape Flattery before stopping a Japanese torpedo. ​​ She was completed in June, 1942 at Victoria Machinery Depot and was quickly dispatched to Port Alberni to load lumber. ​​ As she sailed with her load for Panama, she ran across the periscope sights of a Japanese submarine and received a torpedo and some shell hits for her trouble. ​​ The Fort Camosun was towed back in and patched up, only to be torpedoed yet again off the coast of Africa. ​​ She was once again patched up and continued her career until 1960, when she went to the breakers.

 Canadian shipbuilding capacity has never again reached the levels of WW 2, nor is it ever likely to do so. ​​ As the world continually lurches from crisis to confrontation, one can’t help but wonder whether buying everything offshore – from ships to toilet paper – is really such a good idea……

 I have a nice set of plans for a North Sands freighter in 1:100 scale. ​​ I’ll get busy one day.  ​​ ​​ ​​​​ 


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The Unknown Navy, Robert G. Halford, Vanwell Publishing,1995

A Great Fleet of Ships, S.C. Heal, Vanwell Publishing, 1999

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