Empire Liberty

From the brush of David Bray

“Empire Liberty”
Sea Breezes issue: January 2023

In 1960, my old friend Captain Peter Elphick found himself in command of a vessel under repair in Osaka, Japan. In a nearby berth an elderly cargo ship, the “Mentor” was being scrapped. Peter didn’t pay much attention to this old-timer, but he would have done if he had been aware of her story. This ship was built as the “Empire Liberty”, and her design had a significant effect on the progress of WW2.

In the late 1930s Britain imported about half of her food, all of her fuel oil, and huge quantities of raw materials. As the war progressed, she also imported huge quantities of munitions and war materiel. All of these commodities were carried in cargo ships, and all transited the Atlantic ocean, one way or another.

This vital lifeline was vulnerable to attack from U-boat and from the air. Back in 1917 U-boats of the German Navy had sunk huge numbers of allied merchantmen, rendering the ultimate survival of the nation in serious doubt. It is on record that during April of that year a total of 397 British and allied vessels were lost to U-boat action. Very quickly the convoy system was introduced, and casualties declined. Nevertheless, in the early years of WW2, large numbers of merchant ships were being lost to enemy action; between 30 and 100 ships were being sunk per month. Replacement hulls were urgently required.

At the time the UK had thirty shipyards capable of building ocean-going ships, but the construction of new cargo ships was not top priority. Warship construction took precedence, as did repair jobs. It was quicker and cheaper to repair than to build new. Also, yards were unable to work at full capacity. Blackout requirements precluded the working of night shifts, and, of course all British yards were open to the elements. Shipyards were a prime target for the administrations of the Luftwaffe. Shortages of skilled labour and materials exacerbated the difficulties.

The town of Sunderland had the nation’s biggest concentration of shipyards and engine builders. About 13 shipyards built mostly workaday cargo ships and tankers. Sunderland yards didn’t build battleships, aircraft carriers or liners. Sunderland built cargo ships.

One long-established, family-owned yard was that of Joseph L Thompson, at North Sands. Owned by Major Sir Robert N Thompson, the yard was ably run and managed by his son Robert Cyril Thompson – “Mr Cyril”. During the early 1930s the yard, in common with every other shipyard came upon hard times. The Wall Street crash in 1929 had led to the world’s deepest recession. International trade collapsed, and thousands of merchant ships were laid up or scrapped. Orders for new ships were non-existent, and many orders were cancelled. Shipyards laid off men and closed their gates, many for good. The irony was that the twenty or so yards that were closed permanently would have been priceless assets a few years later, as would have been the many ships which had been scrapped.

Thompson’s were able to survive the depression with a small amount of non-ship steel construction keeping a small workforce employed, meanwhile improvements were being made to the yard for the more efficient building of ships. 

At the same time Mr Cyril and his drawing office staff were conducting research into the optimum hull-form for the low-powered cargo ship of the tramp type, which Thompson’s had specialised in. Using the test-tank facilities of the National Physical Laboratories at Teddington, an improved hull form was evolved. This featured a much bluffer bow with full sections forward combined with a much finer stern. Water flow into the propeller was much improved, and a balanced rudder improved manoeuvrability.

At about the same time, up the road, engineers North Eastern Marine were also busy with innovation. North Eastern Marine had merged with George Clarke , and built main engines and auxiliary plant for many of the Sunderland yards. Their chief engineer Harry Hunter was carrying out improvements to the venerable triple-expansion steam engine.

The triple-expansion engine was something of an enigma. It was old technology, having first gone to sea as main propulsion in the “Aberdeen” in 1881. It became the standard installation for main propulsion in many thousands of ships. The introduction of the steam turbine around the turn of the century was a major innovation, but more suited to higher-power, higher-speed vessels; passenger vessels and warships. Diesel engines of the era still suffered reliability problems, thus the good old three-legged steam “up-and-downer” was still first choice for low-powered cargo ships and the like. They were still being installed into the 1950s.

One weakness of the triple-expansion plant was condensation at the low-pressure stage. To explain – the tripe-expansion engine was a three-cylinder arrangement. High-pressure superheated steam passes from the boiler into the high-pressure cylinder, driving the piston therein. The steam then passes to the Intermediate pressure cylinder, thence to the Low pressure cylinder. Thus the steam is used three times. This gave high efficiency, but by the time it got to the LP cylinder it had cooled and started to condense back to water. As there is no energy in water, this represented a loss of efficiency.

Under Harry Hunter, North Eastern Marine devised the “reheater” engine, in which a heat exchanger was placed in the steam line between HP and IP cylinders. This unit reheated the steam, raising steam temperatures in IP and LP cylinders. This eliminated the condensation problem, resulting in greater efficiency and power from the engine.

Greater power meant that for a given power the engine could be smaller physically, lighter, and use less coal. The reheater engine represented a significant improvement in the power plant, and subsequently was widely fitted in cargo ships.

But, the nation and the shipping industry was in the throes of the depression, and it was 1934 before orders started to pick up. The first order placed with Thompson’s was for a cargo tramp of around 6,000 dwt for Hall Brothers of Newcastle. This ship, the “Embassage” was the first to feature the modified hullform devised by Mr Cyril, and the NEM reheater engine. It was a gamble, as the engine was smaller (1,500hp) than would normally have been installed in a ship of this size. Nevertheless, “Embassage” easily made her contract speed on trials, with significantly lower coal consumption (18 tons per day compared with 25). The industry paid attention, and further orders flowed into Thompson’s offices.

A larger design was equally successful, the first of which was the “Dorington Court” for Court Line of London, entering service in 1938. After war broke out, shipping construction became a government responsibility, all merchant vessel orders being to government account. Thompson’s had further expanded their cargo ship design to something over 10,000 dwt. Ships of this design were laid down from 1940. One of these was yard No 611. But more of that later.

Mr Cyril was called to a meeting at the Admiralty in London in September 1940. He was asked to head up the British Shipbuilding Commission to the USA, tasked with the ordering and construction of up to 60 cargo ships from US yards. He chose Harry Hunter as his number two, and they travelled to New York on the Cunarder “Scythia”. The other three members of the Commission joined them; marine surveyors from the New York offices of Lloyds Register.

Their first meetings were with Admiral Emory C Land, chairman of the United States Maritime Commission. This body had been formed in 1930 to rejuvenate the US mercantile marine. Co-ordinating vessel design, shipyards and construction, USMC had produced three standard designs of ocean-going cargo ship, the C1, C2 and C3 classes. Very quickly Thompson and the other members of the UK commission learned that there was no spare shipbuilding capacity in US yards. Nevertheless, the Commission members embarked on a whistle-stop tour of new shipyards all over the US.

What they saw was a world apart from the shipbuilding scene in the UK. New yards in America were laid out on an assembly-line basis, with major prefabrication of large units, and welding instead of riveting. Most yards had huge amounts of space, heavy-lift cranage and multiple slipways and fitting-out berths.

Much shipbuilding capacity in the US was under the control of Henry J Kaiser, construction magnate responsible for many major projects including the construction of the Hoover Dam. His Todd shipbuilding corporation offered to build two shipyards specifically for the British project. This would be an expensive solution, but the only one possible. Not only would the UK have to pay for the construction of the yards, they would have to pay high prices for the construction of the ships. But an agreement was reached, and Mr Cyril prepared to return to the UK carrying the vital documentation in his briefcase. He embarked aboard the “Western Prince” in December 1940. On 14th December “Western Prince” was torpedoed off Iceland by U-96. Several lives were lost but Mr Cyril survived, finding himself pulling an oar in a lifeboat, with his precious briefcase awash with bilgewater between his feet. A few hours later they were rescued by one of Hogarth’s Baron boats, the “Baron Kinnaird”, and Mr Cyril was able to dry himself and the precious papers out in the boiler room.

On their visit to the US, the Commission had taken drawings of Thompson’s yard No 611. This was a ship not yet laid down, but one of a series which was the linear development of the “Embassage” and “Dorington Court” types. This design would become known as the “North Sands” type. These drawings were the basis of the 60 ships built in the two US yards. Modifications were made to allow for welded construction, and detailed drawings were prepared by New York naval architects Gibbs and Cox. The design featured the NEM reheat engine, drawings of which were taken to the US by Harry Hunter. The two yards were built in Richmond, California, and Portland, Maine. The latter yard had three drydocks for construction, two of two berths, and one of three, total seven building berths. At Richmond there were seven conventional slipways. The ships built were the “Ocean” class, with names prefixed “Ocean”. It was thought that, considering UK/USA history, it would not be politic to use the British “Empire” prefix! The first delivery was the “Ocean Vanguard” launched on 16th August 1941 and delivered on 27th October, buildtime 169 days. The last of the 60 ships was the “Ocean Glory” delivered in November 1942. The yards were subsequently sold to the US.

The North Sands design was also taken to Canada, and resulted in the construction of 353 ships of the North Sands design and two sub-variants, the “Canadian” type (oil burning) and the “Victory” type (dual oil/coal). The Victory type not to be confused with the American Victory ship programme. The Canadian ships were built in two categories; the “Fort” ships, intended for the UK, sold to the US and passed to the UK under lend-lease. The Canadian government realised that it’s International commerce would be adversely affected by war conditions; most Canadian trade was in British ships. These ships were now not available to Canada, so a tranche of the ships were purchased by the Park Steamship Company, owned by Canada, for their import and export trades.

While all this was going on, discussions were taking place at the USMC. With impending war in both the European and Pacific fronts, the USMC had identified a need for emergency construction of basic cargo ships. Initially Admiral Land was insistent that this vessel be of a US design, but no modern design was available. The closest was the “Hog Islander”, a standard general cargo ship built in numbers at the Hog Island shipyard, Baltimore, during the First World war. This design was out of date and unsuitable in many ways. A new design would take months to prepare, so, reluctantly, Admiral Land conceded that the best way forward would be to utilise the Thompson North Sands type, with the NEM reheater engine, as the basis for the new construction. Again, the drawings of yard No 611 went to Gibbs and Cox, and the design was suitably modified.

The modifications included all-welded construction for the hull, and oil firing with water-tube boilers for the main engine. Also the profile was altered. The North Sands type had the typically British split superstructure, with No 3 cargo hatch separating the bridge structure and officer’s accommodation from the engineers accommodation beneath the funnel. Ratings were accommodated below the main deck aft, above the propeller. The new design consolidated all crew in a single three-deck block amidships.

A major programme of construction of new yards was put in hand. Altogether, 18 new shipyards were responsible for the construction of 2,710 of these basic workhorse ships. The first was launched from the Bethlehem-Fairfield yard in Baltimore on 27th September 1941. She was named “Patrick Henry” after the lawyer who, during the American War of Independence famously uttered the words “Give me Liberty, or give me Death”. 27th September saw the launch of 14 merchant ships in US yards, and was referred to by President Roosevelt as Liberty Fleet day. The new standard design ships were thereafter known as Liberty ships.

When I was cadet in the 1960s there were still numbers of Liberty ships (or “Sam boats” as they were often called) trading, usually looking fairly decrepit and careworn, coming to the end of their days. I was often told by old timers “oh, that’s a Liberty boat. They were a British design, the first one was the “Empire Liberty”, that’s how they came to be called Liberty ships”.

The truth is a little different.

Yard No 611 was finally launched late in 1941, after the Liberty ship programme had been initiated. A letter from the Admiralty naming committee to Thompson’s states that the name “Empire Liberty” be assigned to acknowledge the design as being the basis of the Liberty Fleet programme in the USA.

So “Empire Liberty” was named after the Liberty ships, not the other way round!

Over 3,000 ships were built to Thompson’s North Sands design and variants. These ships ensured that the allies were not to be starved into submission due to lack of ability to import vital supplies. Thompson’s never received any royalties for the design, and precious little recognition. Mr Cyril continued at the yard after a spell serving with the RAF, but died prematurely of heart attack in 1967 aged 59.

“Empire Liberty” was completed and entered service in November 1941. She was 441 ft overall, and 7,157gt. In 1943 she was sold to the Greek government, becoming the “Kyklades”. In 1947 she was bought by H. C. Dracoulis, renamed “Mentor”. In common with many ships of this type “Empire Liberty” traded in the spot market under Greek ownership after the war, finally succumbing to the scrap man’s torch in 1960. I’ve shown her plugging across the Atlantic in typical winter conditions, loaded to her marks with … who knows? An unremarkable ship but an amazing pedigree.P


Elphick, Peter.       Liberty, the Ships that Won the War. Chatham publishing. 2001

Cooper, Malcolm.      The Ocean Class of the Second World War. Seaforth publishing. 2022

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

Mitchell, W. H. and Sawyer, L. A.    The Empire Ships, 2nd edition. Lloyds of London Press. 1990

Terraine, John.       Business in Great Waters. Pub. Leo Cooper. 1989

This article, and others,  follow a series which Sea Breezes magazine is publishing, featuring David’s paintings, and the stories behind them.