What Price Canada's Ships?

Canada’s billion dollar shipbuilding program is a great wartime achievement—but it’s also a headache, now and for the future

LEONARD L. KNOTT April 1 1944

What Price Canada's Ships?

Canada’s billion dollar shipbuilding program is a great wartime achievement—but it’s also a headache, now and for the future

LEONARD L. KNOTT April 1 1944

What Price Canada's Ships?


Canada’s billion dollar shipbuilding program is a great wartime achievement—but it’s also a headache, now and for the future


SOMEWHERE in Canada today a ship was launched. A ship was launched in Canada yesterday, too. Another one will be launched tomorrow and still another on the day following. Canada’s 70,000 odd shipbuilders—only yesterday many were farmhands or garage mechanics or grocers’ helpers—are launching a ship a day, six days out of seven.

The ship that took the water today, whether she rode down the ways in an eastern Canadian port, on the Pacific coast, or on the Great Lakes may be destined to become a sleek well-armed frigate, one of the last of the Canadian-built corvettes, or a speedy patrol boat, fit for days and nights of dashing about in coastal waters. She may be one of the Tribal class destroyers, the biggest naval craft ever built in Canada, or she may be a cautious slowmoving but nonetheless adventurous minesweeper. Or she may be one of the ugly ducklings of Canada’s wartime shipbuilding trade, a 10,000-ton cargo ship.

At Victoria and Vancouver and Burrard and Prince Rupert; down east at Halifax and Pictou N.S. and Saint John, N. B.; in the ancient ports of Quebec and Sorel and Montreal, on the St. Lawrence; and at inland Toronto and Collingwood and Port Arthur on the Great Lakes—in 21 major shipyards in all, the sound of pneumatic hammers driving home red-hot rivets into ships’ steel dressings is almost unceasing. And in 10 times as many other towns, shops and factories and foundries and laboratories, filled with landlubbers, are fashioning the million and one bits and pieces, some of them weighing a ton or more, that go into the making of ships—ships for the Royal Canadian Navy, for Canada’s wartime Merchant Navy, for the United States and the United Kingdom.

Canada today is in the midst of the biggest shipbuilding spree in her history. On the surface it has all the appearances and sounds of another great wartime achievement. But there’s many a slip twixt a launching and a fitting—and between a fitting and a sailing. And launching a ship a day—for the benefit of the landlubber—is by no means the same

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Canada’s shipbuilding program has accounted for any number of official and unofficial production headaches and has been one of the activities about which the ubiquitous Munitions and Supply Department has spoken infrequently and not too loudly. There are, according to informed critics, plenty of hulls still waiting in the shallow water off the shipyards, still unfitted and unready for sea. There has been confusion and some muddling through in the shipyards, resulting in delays which in 1942 caused experts to say that Canada’s shipbuilders are much too slow. There have been labor shortages and labor disputes and the cargo ships that have been built are, it is claimed, too slow to be profitable present or postwar carriers. There are also charges, inside Parliament and out, that cargo ships in the Canadian program, although of standard design, are being built at approximately 120% higher cost than the average nonstandard ship is built in British yards.

Perhaps these criticisms could have been avoided but the critics, with some justification, point to the division of authority and lack of co-ordination in the sections responsible for spending a billion Canadian dollars on ships. Until the beginning of this year naval ships and merchant ships were built, sometimes in the same yards, under different

direction and different orders. There was no stable shipbuilding policy and no central technical board.

Ambridge In Charge

Now, however, that has been officially changed. Mexican-born Douglas W. Ambridge, Thorold, Ont., construction and paper company engineer, vice-president of the Governmentowned Polymer synthetic rubber company plant at Sarnia, is Canada’s 1944, full-time shipbuilding czar. With two notable exceptions—the Tribal class destroyers now being built in Nova Scotia for the Navy every ship now under construction in Canada is being built under the authority of Douglas Ambridge. Director General of Shipbuilding for the Department of Munitions and Supply, he is commander in chief of the nation’s shipbuilding forces and a unified command has at last been achieved.

In spite of the fumbling, much of which was to be expected when a new billion dollar program was launched in wartime, Canada has built ships. It has outfitted them, manned them and sent them to sea, where they have performed notable services. Just how many of any type have made the full journey from the launching ways to service cannot yet be disclosed. The latest ministerial figure of delivered ships, all types, is 330 fighting vessels, 220 freighters and close to 100 special service ships, including landing barges. Added to these are

some 3,500 small craft, a classification which includes almost everything that will float, right down to a lifeboat or canoe. Finally there is the ship repair program for which, obviously, no figures are available and which now has priority even over shipbuilding itself.

In all Canada when the war started there were not a dozen berths capable of building the ships Canada would need and there were probably a thousand workers, or less, who knew that the shipbuilder’s vocabulary begins with “abeam” and ends with “windlass.”

At first the need was for escort ships. Consequently Canada’s shipbuilding program went all-out for the Navy and was devoted almost 100% to the construction of corvettes and minesweepers and patrol boats to keep open the shipping lanes to Britain. Then France fell; Britain, fighting for her life, found she was engaged in a more devastating submarine war than ever before. The need for cargo space became ever more pressing.

Work on escort vessels was speeded, most urgent requirements of the RCN were met and by the middle of 1941 it was possible to convert certain yards to the construction of merchant vessels. But instead of setting up a national, co-ordinated technical council to administer the whole shipbuilding industry the Government split the shipbuilding program four different ways.

Until the middle of January this year that four-way split into more or less distinct sections continued.

The first section, the destroyerbuilding program, consists at the moment of two Tribal class destroyers, being built for the RCN under naval ; supervision at Halifax. This is a direct ! contract placed by the Navy. About j the only information available is that ! the first of the two ships was launched last September, approximately 15 months after her keel was laid.

The second section is the naval shipbuilding program (escort ships), which is undertaken for the RCN by the Department of Munitions and Supply, shipbuilding branch, under the direction first of Desmond Clark, Montreal shipping line head, who was replaced in May last year by Mr. Ambridge. Within a few weeks after taking over he had ironed out some of the wrinkles which were apparently holding up the program and was mainly concerned with halting strikes, obtaining manpower and slashing some of the red tape that was a natural accompaniment of an unco-ordinated program.

At first, Director General Ambridge says, the problem was getting steel. F or the time being that problem is over, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to get workers for the naval shipyards. The armed forces take some of them, he says; others just seem to disappear, and there aren’t enough to go round anyway. The Ambridge remedy for this difficulty is to take construction workers from the construction industry now that the period of war plant expansion is over.

Frigates Under Way

Frigates, described as new, larger and faster corvettes, are being built for the United Nations in five Canadian yards. Costing over a million and a quarter dollars each some are already in action and others are being delivered at regular intervals. Contracts have been placed altogether for 424 frigates, corvettes and steel minesweepers. By ! the end of 1943, 330 of them had been delivered. May, the best month in 1943, saw the launching of 17 escort craft. Contracts were also placed for I 178 wooden patrol ships and wooden

minesweepers and 100 of these were in the water by the end of May, 1943.

The third section in the program is that devoted to the building of cargo ships and most of the criticism to date is wrapped around this vital activity. Cargo ship building has been directed and supervised by Wartime Merchant Shipping Company, a crown company headed by the British Columbia lumberman, ship operator, financier, H. R. MacMillan, who dislikes personal publicity as much as he dislikes workers who stay away from shipyards unnecessarily. Mr. MacMillan was responsible to the minister, Mr. Howe; he had no responsibility to Mr. Ambridge or any other shipbuilding authority. His company, which has now been renamed Wartime Merchant Shipbuilding and brought directly under the director general, doesn’t own a single shipyard, builds no ships, pays no dividends and operates no ships. Its only job has been to get ships built— by others—and fast. The criticism has been mainly that it didn’t buy the right kind of ships or get them built quickly enough and that it paid too much for them.

Wartime Merchant Shipping Company was founded in April, 1941, and it immediately discovered that there were less than 12 berths in Canada capable of building 10,000 ton ships. At the same time it was told that it had to produce 154 10,000 tonners and 18 of the 4,700 tonners as quickly as possible.

P’irst cargo ship to be built was the 10,000 tonner “Fort Ville Marie” at Vickers yards in Montreal. Her keel was laid on April 23, 1941; she was launched on Oct. 9 and delivered on Dec. 21.

Since her launching the increasing number of trained workmen, improved equipment and more extensive experience have resulted in constant speedups in production time. At the beginning of 1942, for instance, one cargo ship was being launched every eight days; by June, 1942, the rate was one every four days and by December one every three days. During 1943 a cargo ship took the water every other day.

Best building time in the U. S., where Henry Kaiser has become almost as well known as a movie star, is well under the 56 day average for all U. S. Liberty ships. In Canada the best record to date was made in a British Columbia yard—45 days from keel to launching, 89 days from keel to delivery. For Canada that’s pretty fast building.

Canada has no Henry Kaiser who. turns out ships on an assembly line like Henry Ford used to turn out cars. In the first place Canada lacks the necessary lifting equipment, the huge cranes and derricks. And this equipment is not easily obtained during wartime. Then, too, Canadian ships are mainly riveted, while most American-built cargo ships are welded. U. S. shipbuilders believe in all-welded jobs; first, because welding speeds up production and, second, because, they say, it makes better streamlined ships. British shipbuilders, on the other hand, believe in riveted ships. Since most of the production executives, foremen and veteran shipbuilders in Canada were trained originally in the Old Country, they, too, still have their fingers crossed on welding and stick to the slower process of riveting. Finally, Canada is short on both welding equipment and good welders anyway and both are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain.

Two Main Types

The cargo ships Canada is building are of two main types, plus oil tankers. The first is the Northsands type (named after the British shipyard district

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! in which she wan designed ;, 10.000 tons, 11 knots, British designed with cargo space coming Irefbre speed; second is the Gray type, 4.700 tons, British design, mostly for coastal or the West Indies trade. The Northsands type,

1 the basic design for U. S. Liberty ships as well as Canada’s Victory ships, is suited for mass production and has proved to be comparatively easy 1.o build and efficient to operate. Jn Canada, too, she has been adopted for oil tanker construction.

Shipbuilding methods are pretty well standardized with those of British yards and there is practically no original ship designing of any import! anee done in Canadian yards. But ! occasionally a bit of Canadian ingenuity changes the pattern and horrifies the traditional British builder. At Sorel, for instance, there is the only yard in Canada possibly the only j yard anywhere that launches ships ! with a marine railway. Although there 1 are only six berths at the Sorel yard j large enough for the big cargo ships, Sorel shipbuilders lay 10 or I 2 keels at a time. As the hulls progress the one nearest completion is moved alongside j a marine railway which carries it along and lowers it into the water, bow first.

There is much in the W. M. S. record of which to be proud, but there have been faults too. Some experts feel there has been no adequate check on either costs, operational methods or production. There has been no official and very little unofficial questioning about the suif ability of the cargo ships being built for both the present and postwar needs.

hike the naval shipbuilding section. Wartime Merchant Shipping’s main problem, since its inception, has always been manpower. At first, the trouble was to find workers who knew anything about building ships, and finally the company had to set up the largest, worker-1raining school system in Canadian industry. Today, however, by manpower the company means not. finding new workers but keeping those workers already found or trained on the job. The absentee rate in shipyards continues to be high. One reason is not hard to find. The Canadian winter does : not make handling steel plates outside a particularly pleasant occupation, j And in the summer Canadian workers,

! in the Kast, at least, dislike working j outside in the rain. Summer rains and j winter cold spells send the absentee rate j soaring, except in British Columbia ! where, t he personnel director at j W.M.S. points out, “If people quit j work when it rained the yards would be closed every day in the week.”

Section four of the shipbuilding program includes the 65 smaller boatbuilders across Canada, with approximately 4.000 employees, who have delivered to date well over 75% of the 4,000 small boats of all types ordered. This section also covers parts and components for ships of all types which are subcontract jobs from the shipyards, and the naval guns and mountings which are built on contract for Department of Munitions and Supply.


From lifeboat to ship’s bell a Canadian ship’s components are now manu! factored on Canada’s home grounds ; and even wood, which used to be ■ imported, is now home-grown. laterally Î thousands of workers contributed to i her making and probably every I province of Canada is represented in her fittings. Fifty-three different classes of components are needed for Canada s Victory cargo ships alone and some of these classes involve 100 or more different items. And for naval vessels the quantity is even higher.

Down on a wharf jutting out into Halifax harbor, for instance, is one of the oddest companies in Canada, a company engaged in making vivid scarlet and yellow sails. Lifeboats and life rafts are equipped with these spectacular sails so that they may more easily be sighted at sea. In one year this company has supplied sails to more than 2,000 ships, ranging from big naval craft to small cargo vessels.

On the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence the machine shops of Quebec North Shore Paper Company, Baie Comeau, a young metropolis in the wilderness, are turning out metal parts for naval vessels and merchant ships.

In Timmins and Cobalt and Porcupine the small shops, whose only customers before the war were the gold mines, now turn out ships’ parts and pieces. Anchors for 10,000 tonners are made in Winnipeg, midway across the continent, 2,000 miles from either sea; compasses and binnacles originate in Toronto and Ottawa and parts for them come from factories in Montreal; and steering winches are made by citizens of Belleville. Canadians in Vancouver make anchor chains for ships on both Pacific and Atlantic, and propellers for all types of craft are fabricated in Owen Sound.

Building the hull is perhaps the simplest part of shipbuilding. When the keel is laid, the backbone is there. Then comes t he frame, to serve as ribs. Steel plates, applied over the frame, form the skin. And if that was all there was to it, it would be comparatively simple. But ships, like humans, are bundles of nerves. Into one corvette go 10 miles of piping and tubing, 14 tons of anchor chain, 38 tons of copper wire, 600 electric light, bulbs and nearly 1,500 bronze valves weighing anywhere from less than half a pound to more than 700 pounds. Only 190 feet long, corvettes carry at least one gun, usually a four inch, as well as machine guns, anti - aircraft weapons and depth charges. They are equipped with the latest in wireless devices and carry a series of secret as well as intricate instruments, some of them developed and engineered and most of them made in Canada.

Cargo ships, too, make heavy demands upon Canada’s electrical shops and foundries. The hull of a 10,000 tonner alone requires 3,000 tons of steel plates and shapes, riveted with 400,000 rivets. Each ship needs 110 tons of piping and tubing, 25 tons of copper wire, 11 tons of bronze, 13,000 feet of wire rope for cargo handling, 600 types of valves and fittings and 200 electric lights.

Building Vs. Operating

Building ships is one thing and operating them is another. For the naval shipbuilding branch the solution is simple. You simply build the ships on contract for the Navy, or for other United Nations navies, and when they are finished you turn them over to the Navy and it operates them. With cargo ships, however, it was not quite so simple and so the Government set up another crown company, the Parke Steamship Company, which takes delivery of the Wartime Merchant Shipping Company ships from the builders and then turns them over, on charter, to Canadian operating companies or to the United Nations.

At the beginning of January this year Parke Steamships had chartered to Canadian operators approximately 30 Victory ships (10,000 tonners), eight of the smaller coastal type 4,700-ton ships and 10 tankers all Canadian built. Thirty 10,000 tonners have been chartered to the United Kingdom Ministry of War Transport because

Canada was unable to furnish crews. These will be returned to Canada after the war and become part of Canada’s postwar merchant fleet. A few ships have also been sold outright to the United States in order to obtain needed American exchange and these, of course, will not come back to Canada.

Canada’s policy in operating Canadian flag ships in the war period is the same as that of both the United Kingdom and the United States. Ships are not operated directly by the Government but are turned over to the operating company, Parke Steamships, which, in turn, allocates them to existing shipping lines which over the years have operated out of Canadian ports. Ships are chartered for one voyage only and may be transferred from one company to another. They are operated for the Government, though not by it, on a small fee basis and their earnings are placed in a special fund to write off the building costs. At war’s end, therefore, a substantial part of the construction costs of those ships which are still in service should have been paid off through earnings.

And now to turn to that postwar business and Canada's place in the postwar shipping and shipbuilding sun. Most adults remember the sad end that came to Canada’s Merchant Marine after the last war. It’s just about 10 years ago now that the last of the rusting hulls, known as the “Ballant.yne fleet,” disappeared from the river’s edge down in eastern Montreal. All of them ended up on the auction block and were sold to foreign owners.

While there is a strong similarity between Canada’s shipbuilding and shipping program during and immediately after the last war and the program that is under way today— it must also be recognized that something new has been added. In the last war there were wooden ships and few Canadians trained to sail them. There was an infinitesimally small Canadian Navy. There was a shipbuilding industry but beside its British and American wartime partners and postwar competitors it was pretty small and inefficient.

Today Canada has home-made ships of steel, strongly and in many cases completely built and equipped in Canada —and it has the men to sail them. It has thousands of newly trained merchant seamen, their number increasing every day. It has a small but extremely efficient fighting Navy which has grown in four years from a force of 1,700 with a dozen odd ships of various sizes to a force of almost 70,000 men with more than 500 fighting ships. Finally, Canada has its 70.000 odd shipwrights (more if you count the hundreds engaged in making small craft), including a few hundred imported from the Clyde and the Tyneside, and better shipbuilding and repairing facilities and equipment than it has ever had before. That is all on the credit side of the ledger, but there is a debit side as well.

After the war, certainly, Britain will not be content to sit back and let the world’s shipping business, upon which her economic existence depends, slip through her fingers. And it is well to remember a ship built in Canada is stated to cost approximately 120% more than the same, or a better, ship built in British yards.

Biggest Under U. S. Flag

But the biggest merchant marine of all time will be in operation under the Stars and Stripes. After the war there will be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of U. S. Liberty ships still in service—cargo hunting. There will be at least

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a million and a half shipbuilders

determined to hang onto their jobs

and to keep on building ships, and

neither Henry Kaiser nor any of the

other big time shipbuilders will be

particularly anxious to go out of busi-


That is the kind of competition Canada will face after the war from its closest friends. The only logical answer seems to be subsidies, and there are people in Canada, as well as in other countries, who see political as well as economic dangers in a system of paid for shipping or trade losses.

Final item on the debit side of the ledger is the disagreement that still exists about the suitability of the ships Canada is building for postwar trading. One shipping expert declares Canada’s cargo vessels are “much slower in speed and less suitable for postwar trading than the ships being built in

U. S. and British yards.” And Mr. Howe himself oddly enough has entered both sides of the argument. Speaking in Parliament in June, 1943, he declared: “Canadian export trade consists mainly of bulk cargo, agricultural, forest and mineral products, and 10 or 11 knot ships will carry cargoes at a lower cost than any faster ship.” A month previously, also in Parliament, Mr. Howe solemnly stated; “We are studying designs for a faster ship to be suitable for certain trades after the war.”

Jn the meantime Canada is building ships. She is equipping her own Navy •—and helping other United Nations equip theirs.

Perhaps she is building two great industries for the future—perhaps she will be better advised to forget the whole thing when the war ends. But she has proved she can make ships and sail them.