Maritime tales: Liberty lifelines

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A model of a long grey ship with a red hull

Model of the Samarina. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

To me, Stephen Guy, the story of the Liberty Ships shows brilliantly what can be done when people and nations are threatened and have their backs to the wall. The United States built three Liberty Ships a day to boost the convoys which acted as Britain’s lifelines during the Second World War. In early 1942, President Franklin D Roosevelt set in motion probably the greatest shipbuilding programme in world history. The aim of this huge US-Government sponsored scheme was to produce 750 new ships by the end of 1942 and a further 1,500 in 1943. This amounted to three new ships every day. To meet these targets, many new shipyards were opened and thousands of extra workers – male and female – were recruited. Ships were built in sections and then assembled, like cars, on huge production lines. The first of the 2,700 Liberty Ships built in the USA during the war slid down the slipway in mid-1942. By the end of the year, the Americans were building ships faster than the German U-boat submarines could sink them. The astounding success of the Liberty Ship programme was to be a major reason for the Allied victory in the Atlantic. At least 290,000 civilian seafarers served in the US merchant marine and army transportation service during the war. Of these, 114,000 received the Merchant Marine Combatant Ribbon, indicating that they had been in combat action. More than 6,000 were killed while serving in merchant ships. The United States lost about 278 ships on the north Atlantic and Arctic routes, almost one half of the total US merchant ship losses during the war. At the Merseyside Maritime Museum there is a model of the 7,200-ton Liberty Ship Samarina of 1943. Built by the Bethlehem-Fairfield company of Baltimore, USA, she carried valuable war cargoes throughout the rest of the conflict. Like all Liberty Ships, she was based on a British tramp steamer design and was rather an “ugly duckling”. She had good anti-aircraft armament and her bridge was shielded by “plastic armour”. This was a British invention made from granite, limestone mineral and bitumen which could be moulded, hence the term “plastic”. It was applied in a layer two inches thick and backed by half an inch of steel. Plastic armour was very effective at stopping armour-piercing bullets from German war planes. The plastic armour was applied by pouring it into a cavity formed by the steel backing plate and a temporary wooden frame. A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.