The Shape of Ships to Come
Shipbuilding in Canada threatened to become a lost art between wars —but now the yards are booming
CANADA'S wartime shipbuilding program, as it stands at the end of the first quarter of 1942, has about it the incredible dimensions of a fairy tale. You must turn to Jack and the Bean stalk for an appropriate analogy. Its growth has been phenomenal. These are the salient facts.
During the first month of the war, until October, 1939, our shipbuilding activity was limited to repair work and preliminary preparations for converting vessels of peace into vessels of war. At the outbreak of war our shipyards employed 3,490 workers.
Today seventy-five Canadian yards—seventeen major shipyards, fifty-eight smaller boat worksare building naval and merchant marine vessels. They employ 40,000 men and women. Their contracts add up to a value of more than $500,000,000 and a tonnage of 2,500,000. Scheduled production for this year is upward of 1,000,000 tons.
Now Canadian yards are building corvettes, five types of minesweeper, patrol boats and special duty ships in the larger classifications for the Navy. This year we are beginning to build bigger and faster corvettes and Tribal class destroyers. Keels have
been laid for two of the new destroyers and for an unstated number of the larger corvettes. Some 325 vessels in these categories have been ordered.
Supplementing these are thirty types of small boats, among them crash boats, aircraft tenders, bomb-loading dinghies, salvage and supply boats, refueling scows, flat scows and derrick scows for the Royal Canadian Air Force; harbor utility craft, motor torpedo boats, gate vessels, whalers, pulling boats and service dinghies for the Royal Canadian Navy; service boats and collapsible assault boats for the Canadian Army; battle practice targets for the British Admiralty, and rescue launches for the British Air Mission.
The program for new merchant shipping construction calls for 172 steel vessels in two standard classifications—of 10,000 tons and 4,700 tons dead weight. Most of them are of the larger type. At the end of 1941 thirty-five keels had been laid. Seven ships had been launched. (The .first of them to be completed crossed the Atlantic on her maiden voyage last January, docked safely at a British port during the first week of February, with a capacity load of foodstuffs and munitions.) Delivery of one hundred finished ships is scheduled for 1943.
On the East Coast a new floating dry dock is to be completed this summer, 600 feet long, 135 feet wide, capable of handling any ship up to 25,000 tons. Cost around $3,000,000.
Since the war began Canadian shipyards have equipped thirty merchant vessels to defend themselves against enemy attack, including three passenger liners now serving as auxiliary cruisers.
This is the official record up to the beginning of 1942. It is still more impressive this spring; but exact, last-minute production figures are not being released.
Began With Resuscitation
WE HAVE come a long way since the summer of 1940, when the pot boiled over. After Dunkirk and the capitulation of France, Britain was very much alone. Norway, Denmark, Holland, all maritime nations and allies, had been overrun. The French fleet and merchant marine, with a very few exceptions, was under Nazi control. The United States was still no more than a friendly spectator, with lease-lend only an idea at the back of Franklin Roosevelt’s mind. The old Neutrality Act functioned. Great Britain was in desperate straits for ships; all sorts, almost any kind of ships. As the maritime Dominion nearest to her shores, it was inevitable that Canada should pick up and bear as big a share of Britain’s burden as she could carry.
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We were then in no sort of shape to handle a job this size. In 1939 our shipbuilding industry was comatose. In all of Canada only fourteen shipyards existed where any type of steel ship over 130 feet long had been built for twenty years. Those yards were largely inactive, their building berths partially dismantled, their machinery idle and rusting from disuse, their skilled workers scattered. Boatbuilders were making pleasure craft in a score of different coastal and lake harbors; but they had been hit hard through the depression years, lacked both equipment and men for speedy mass production even of small vessels.
The first step was to re-establish the old yards: Vickers in Montreal, Halifax Shipyards, Saint John Dry Dock and Shipbuilding, and others at Sydney, N.S.; Sorel, Lauzon, Levis, and Quebec City in Quebec; Pictou in Nova Scotia; Vancouver, North Vancouver, Victoria and Prince Rupert, in British Columbia—all of them dormant for two decades— took on fresh life, became bustling ant heaps swarming with workers. New buildings mushroomed; some additions doubled the yards' capacity. Entirely new plants came into being. The latest of these, a new plant in an eastern harbor, now nearing completion, will specialize in standard freighters exclusively.
Obviously the big ships must be built at ocean ports; but the smaller craft, including corvettes, can be assembled at any point wdiere there is water deep enough to launch them and an open route to the sea. Corvettes are being built at such far-inland ports as Collingwood and Midland on Georgian Bay and at Kingston, just above the Thousand Islands.
The fifty-eight smaller boat yards, holding contracts for auxiliary craft, crash boats, motor torpedo boats and so on, are spread all over the map. The little fellows are coming off the ways in a steady procession from vest-pocket plants in Charlottetown and Summerside, P.E.I.; Dartmouth, Liver-
pool, Shelburne, Weymouth, Baddeck, Lower La Have, and Sheet Harbor, N.S.; Brockville, Owen Sound and Penetanguishene, Ont.; and New Westminster, B.C., as well as from others located in the larger shipbuilding centres.
More and more contributory machine shops making parts for water-borne craft had to be located and brought into line for mass production. Since these plants work on subcontracts, nobody knows exactly how many of them there are, or how many workers they employ; but an estimate generally accepted by people familiar with conditions guesses them to number around 500 with perhaps 30,000 men and women employees turning out engines, propellers, winches, ropes, electrical equipment, instruments and similar gear for the ships that the big and little yards are launching. Ninety-five per cent of the equipment and material used in the ships now being built is Canadian made.
Consider the immensity of the organization job, and it is easy to understand why it has taken us two years to reach the present production peak. We had to construct acres of new buildings, even whole new shipyards, find new heavy machinery, new tools, and new workers by the thousand; especially new workers. Some phases of shipbuilding require specialized education backed by years of practical experience to produce high quality efficiency. There were very few such experts in Canada when war broke out. A number of keymen were brought over from British yards: Tynesiders, Clydesiders, Belfast men. They have taught Canadians how to build ships; and those Canadians have been culled from all sorts of peacetime occupations—garage mechanics, office workers, salesmen. Youths and girls have been trained in a score of technical and vocational schools to fit them for jobs as precision instrument makers, electricians, welders, riveters, metal and woodworkers.
Designs of all types of vessels now being built in Canada have been standardized and “frozen.” That has helped materially to speed up parts production. The 10,000-ton freighter, the corvette, the minesweeper, the motor torpedo boat that slides down the ways from a shipyard in Nova Scotia, Quebec or Ontario is exactly the same as any ship of the same
class launched in British Columbia; and the aircraft tender assembled in a Charlottetown boat yard will be the identical twin of an aircraft tender produced in Penetanguishene.
Although the design of the ships may be identical, the conditions under which they are produced are vastly different in various parts of the Dominion. At the Vickers yard in Montreal they have sufficient space to build the hulls for three of the big freighters and two of the new type corvettes simultaneously, all in one huge, completely enclosed shed. In the Pacific Coast’s milder climate construction goes on under the open sky the year round. At Halifax and Saint John, and at most other eastern shipyards, the bulk of the work is done in berths exposed to the elements, and sometimes the elements play very rough indeed. The fitting of hulls already launched has to be completed while the vessel floats at her berth. During winter months in the eastern yards men toil
in blizzards, chop ice inches thick from decks and superstructures before they can get at the job with tools sometimes so cold that they burn bare flesh.
Again, the workers in coastal shipyards have the smell of ocean breezes in their nostrils. Sometimes they may, if they so desire, watch the finished product of their skill and sweat as she moves proudly out to sea on her appointed rounds. There is a certain satisfaction in that sight, denied to the men of the lake ports who are building beside fresh water ships whose destiny lies thousands of miles away where the water is salt.
A Ship Is Built
ALL SHIPS begin as a set of blueprints pinned on - a drawing board. The first step toward actual construction is a mold loft where the blueprints are translated into an intricate pattern of fine chalk lines drawn to the exact dimensions of the ship to be built, on a floor of hardwood painted dull grey. A mold loft is a long low-roofed, barnlike room of which the floor is the most important feature. It would make a grand dance hall. Mold lofts vary in size, but most of them are big enough to take care of the ground plan of a 10,000-ton freighter and a corvette at the same time, with space to spare for drawing tables and wood storage.
Trained loftsmen work here, plotting the design of every curve and every straight line of the hull’s structure, indicating through a series of cabalistic figures and initials where each plate must be riveted, where the propeller shaft must pass through the stern, where funnels and ventilators are to be located in the finished vessel. There can be no margin of error in these calculations, and they are checked and rechecked, scaled and calibrated to the fraction of an inch.
Thát is the first step. From the design on the floor templates of basswood are constructed, following the chalk lines precisely. In shipbuilding there is no such thing as a reasonable facsimile. Only the perfect is good enough. You could compare this process with the paper patterns dressmakers use, only the ship’s patterns are of wood.
The atmosphere of a mold loft is dim, monastically hushed. Wooden border lines are nailed to the floor so that no inadvertent foot may stumble into the space covered by the design, smudging its accuracy. The men at the drafting tables work with intense concentration, ignore intruders, are completely absorbed in their demanding tasks. You feel you should walk on tiptoe.
Then, following the process step by step, you move from the mold loft into the plate shed, and that’s like stepping from a cloister right into an inferno. The plate shed is a long, towering, cavernous structure with a dirt floor on which brawny, sweating workers cut, hammer and bend the reluctant steel into the shape and dimensions demanded by the wooden templates the mold loft has created. At one spot half a dozen men are pounding stubborn shapes of metal with heavy sledges, one blow descending after another in a rhythmic cacophony of ear-shattering din. Around them, saws shriek through steel and compressed air drills chatter maniacally.
Another half-dozen steelworkers are holding a length of steel plate in the jaws of a mighty power cutter, shearing it to the exact line marked with white chalk along its edges. It is a frightening operation to watch. The knife is a giant, the men pygmies. They carry the plate between them, clutching it by the outer edge, with the inner edge beneath the menacing blade, moving the steel forward as each cut is completed. The knife rises. The men, their muscles swelling tautly, tug the heavy plate a few inches farther along. The knife falls, shearing through the steel as you might cut cardboard with a cleaver and with no more apparent effort. Tug and cut; then tug again and cut again. No place here for weaklings.
No place here for weaklings.
Picking your way over hose lines carrying compressed air, over narrow railway tracks where electrically driven loading carts clatter past turntable switches, you come to a place where the fires of a long, narrow oil-burning furnace glow redly from shielded portholes set at regular intervals throughout its length. Here they bend the steel for curved sections of the hull.
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This process, seemingly so staggeringly difficult, is accomplished by a device so simply designed as to command admiration. They call it a bending block. Beside the furnace, holes have been drilled in a synchronized pattern through a section of thick steel set into the floor. Heavy spikes, flatly hooked at the top, fit closely into the holes. It is possible to so arrange the spikes in the holes that they will follow a curve of almost any degree or dimension required.
The men take a fashioned cold steel plate, run it through the furnace until it is white hot, remove it from the farther end with small powerful electric cranes, then deposit it on the bending block between the spikes that have previously been set in the required pattern. The spikes hold the now pliable plate in position until it cools. That gives you a rough idea of how it is done; a tough job in a plant full of tough jobs. Furnace men and handlers have to be expert as well as husky. These chaps wear asbestos clothing and gloves when they are bending steel. They need them.
First step in the actual construe-
tion of a ship’s hull is to lay the keel on a row of huge wooden keel blocks, like squared tree stumps, fixed in the bottom of the berth, with a slope toward the water. Once the keel is truly laid, the rest is largely a matter of riveting one meticulously fabricated steel plate on top of another as rapidly as possible, of welding seams, giving the whole a coat of paint complete with Plimsoll marks, and arranging the christening and launching ceremonies. The riveters begin their work on the floor of the berth, then as each succeeding layer of plates is completed a framework of scaffolding grows with the ship, rising higher week by week until the entire hull is concealed beneath a spider’s web of woodwork. As the structure grows, holding blocks are wedged against the sides at strategic points. The ways upon which the lower hulls rest are plentifully greased.
When the time comes for launching, a swarm of muscular experts who have been stationed beside those strategically placed holding blocks go into action at a given signal, swinging sledge hammers. They smash the blocks loose. Released, the great hulk begins to move, stern first, over the greased ways toward the water, slowly at first, then faster and faster as gravity takes hold of
the ponderous weight, until at last the hull finds water for the first time.
The hull may now be safely in its element, but the ship is a long way from being ready to put to sea. She has to be fitted, and the amount of stuff that goes into a completed vessel would astonish you. Her engines must be lowered into position by travelling cranes. Ventilators and smokestacks, radio equipment, miles of pipes, many of them made of copper to resist the corroding effect of constant contact with salt water, furnishings for the cook’s galley and the captain’s bridge—all have to be added.
It Takes Just Six Months
CANADIAN shipyardsat thisstage figure six months for construction of one of the 10,000-ton freighters from keel laying to sailing date. It takes four months to build a hull, another two months to fit the ship after she is launched. Improvements in construction methods, especially in the increasing use of the welding process, have speeded up the work greatly. In some yards as much as one third of the entire steel work is welded. Corvettes and the 1,870-ton Tribal class destroyers are largely welded jobs.
In the realm of higher statistics it is possible to present some astonishing figures concerning the capacity of these cargo carriers. One of the 10,000-tonners, on a single voyage, can load 2,150 tons of metals, 2,850 tons of food, 1,900 tons of bombs, and enough motorized equipment to supply an infantry battalion, as well as two completed bombers, and still have space for numerous miscellaneous items. Multiply that by the number of trips made in a year, and some idea of the importance of each new launching may be had.
Three divisions of the Department of Munitionsand Supply are handling this big job. Desmond A. Clarke is Director-General of Shipbuilding, responsible for naval construction. David B. Carswell is Director-General of Ship Repairs, in itself a task of major proportions. Harvey R. MacMillan is president of Wartime Merchant Shipping, Limited, a government-created corporation set up in April, 1941, to carry out the program of cargo vessel production.
Desmond Clarke is a veteran shipping man, former head of the Clarke Steamship Company operating between Quebec and eastern Canadian ports, and Newfoundland. He also organized Quebec Airways, ran his own shipbuilding yard along with other successful ventures.
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Scottish David B. Carswell has been a shipbuilder all his life. During the first World War he was superintendent of a Detroit shipyard where as many as sixteen ships were under construction at one time. Later he became superintendent engineer for Canadian National Steamships, then moved to the post of general manager of the Montreal Dry Dock Company, a Vickers subsidiary. He was general manager of Vickers at the time he joined the Department of Transport,
to move later into Munitions and Supply.
So far we have increased the original shipbuilding expenditure planned in 1939 by tenfold. We have multiplied the number of producing shipyards and boat yards by three, the number of shipyard workers by seven. Scheduled production for 1942 is twenty times the production of Canadian shipyards in 1918, five times greater than the total production of 1914-1918, and almost three times the aggregate tonnage of all ships built in Canada during the fifteen-year period between 1925 and 1939.