During World War Two, the losses of Britain’s merchant ships rapidly overtook their replacement rate, either from new construction, or by the acquisition of second-hand tonnage from abroad.
One of the measures taken by the British authorities was to standardise the types of vessels being built, to avoid duplication of effort at the design stage, and to expedite the production process. Britain never built its war emergency tonnage in anything like the quantity, or to the level of standardisation that the United States achieved by way of the huge numbers of Liberty Ships they produced. The standard British war emergency vessel of the earlier stage of the war was typically a 7,000 ton steam tramp design.
Building yards that were proficient in the production of diesel engines manufactured and fitted these, but the majority of the British standard type vessels were turned out with a triple expansion steam-reciprocating engine to give a speed of just over ten knots. Steam-raising plant invariably consisted of smoke tube boilers of the Scotch type and these were often constructed to utilise either coal or oil as fuel, though not simultaneously.
Most of the ships acquired by the British Government at this time were given the prefix Empire to their names, whether they were new tonnage or acquisitions from other sources. For most persons familiar with the ships of that era the expression “Empire Ship” would conjure up a vision of a basic tramp steamer type with the superstructure split between the navigating bridge, and the engine room casing together with the funnel. The split superstructure represented long-established British mercantile practice and probably kept the smoke from coalfired boilers away from the navigating bridge.
When the Americans built their Liberty class ships, vessels of similar size and capability to the British Empire type ships, and in fact derived from their basic design, they amalgamated the superstructure and positioned it between numbers three and four cargo holds. Despite being built primarily for war service many of these vessels soldiered on into the early 1960s, mostly in the bulk trades until they could no longer compete with more modern tonnage.
In the summer of 1957, as a fifteen-year-old schoolboy I was given the opportunity to experience life aboard an Empire type vessel at first hand. My father was superintendent engineer with the Glasgow shipping company of Maclay and Macintyre, which at that time operated four vessels, all war-built ships and mainly engaged in the iron ore trade. Most of the ore loadings were either in Canada or North or West Africa with discharging at UK ports such as Glasgow and Middlesborough. Maclay and Macintyre had once been a much larger shipping organisation but two world wars and changing trading patterns had greatly reduced their fleet. All their vessels’ names at this time had the prefix Loch.
It had been agreed that I could do a short trip on one of these vessels during my school holidays. Prior to joining any vessel in the Maclay and Macintyre fleet I was taken to be introduced to the then Lord Maclay, company head, to ensure that I was suitable material to be sent off to sea in one of his ships. Whether he was favourably impressed or otherwise I don’t know, but it was decided that I could do a short voyage as soon as a suitable sailing date became available. It was arranged that I should join the Loch Morar at Rothesay Dock, Glasgow, ready and eager to set sail. The ship would probably be bound for one of the African iron ore exporting ports, a big adventure for a fifteen-year-old in those less travelled times.
The Loch Morar was a standard Empire “B” Type built by Short Brothers at their Pallion Yard in Sunderland as the Empire Camp in June 1943 with their yard number 468. Having a GRT of 7,073 tons and a length of just over 446 feet, she was equipped with a triple-expansion steam engine built by the North East Marine Engine Company of Newcastle, developing approximately 2,500 shp using steam from three Scotch boilers to give a service speed of about ten and a half knots. The bridge superstructure was situated just aft of number two cargo hold, and the engine casing and its superstructure just aft of number three cargo hold. Numbers four and five cargo holds were aft of the engine room casing. After war service as the Empire Camp the ship was bought by the Cunard White Star Line and renamed Valacia. The ship lasted with Cunard until 1951 when she was bought by the Bristol City Line and named New York City.
Maclay and Macintyre took her over in 1955 when she became the Loch Morar. At this stage there was little to distinguish her from other Empire vessels apart from the uncharacteristically large funnel. I can only assume it was a post-war modification, perhaps carried out during her time with Cunard. Loch Morar also had a refrigerated cargo capacity of 260,219 cubic feet, although this was no longer in use by 1957. Ships of this size and vintage were the workhorses of the bulk trades in the late forties and fifties, and Empire and Liberty type ships were a common sight in the ports of the world.
I joined the Loch Morar at Rothesay Dock, a mineral handling complex on the River Clyde, close by John Brown’s Shipyard in Clydebank, in mid-July, and was signed on as a supernumerary on a nominal rate of pay. My accommodation was to be the ship’s hospital. At the time Loch Morar was discharging a cargo of iron ore, to be transported by rail to the Ravenscraig steelworks just outside Glasgow. Discharging iron ore from these ‘tween deck vessels was a slow and messy process. The ships were not designed to be particularly accessible for cargo grabs and much bulldozing and shovel work came into it.
Health and safety was barely a concept in those days and being out on deck when cargo was being discharged meant being very aware of what was passing over your head. Large lumps of ore frequently escaped from the cargo grabs and were potentially lethal. Hard hats were not in evidence anywhere at that time. There was an interesting variety of ore being discharged from other vessels and stored in dumps on the quayside, some dark grey and some red. The dust was everywhere, being tramped into the accommodation and, when it rained, it washed out of the deck scuppers and stained the ship’s sides.
OUT TO SEA
With one delay after another it was over a week before the last shovelful of ore dust was cleared out, a frustrating wait for one so eager to sample life at sea. Late one wet summer evening, with the deck crew duly recovered from a nearby pub on Dumbarton Road, we crept out of Rothesay Dock and into the river. I have a vivid memory of how close to the lights of Custom House Quay at Greenock we passed before clearing the Tail of the Bank and going out towards the Irish Sea. We were bound for West Africa with orders to load iron ore at Conakry in French Guinea, and with a brief stop at Las Palmas for bunkers.
Loch Morar had a largely British crew. The deck and engineer officers were British, as were the seamen and stewards. In those days of national service some of the younger crew members had joined the Merchant Navy as an alternative to service in one of the armed forces. The firemen and engine room hands were Yemeni Arabs from Aden, who generally kept to themselves and went about their duties without any fuss.
The captain was a bit of a character. Captain John J Rose, somewhere in his forties at that time, was originally from Newfoundland and had done his early seafaring on sailing schooners on the Grand Banks, surely as sound a training as one might get. Captain Rose was not a particularly humorous man as I recall, but was as straight as a die, stood no nonsense and kept the Bible by his bedside. He had an unwavering habit of addressing all adult males he encountered as “Mister”, be they deckhand or company director. A skipper of the old sort and none the worse for it.
Mine was not to be a gentle introduction to life on the ocean wave as we went straight into a force eight south westerly gale in the Irish Sea, which lasted until well down into the Bay of Biscay. With the ship being in ballast she rolled and wallowed to an extent which surprised me, as the ship had seemed so huge and immoveable when berthed in Rothesay Dock. Surprisingly, I was not seasick, apart from a few moments of queasiness which were dispelled by a quick foray out into the abundant fresh air blowing about the superstructure.
By contrast the captain suffered badly from “mal de mer,” apparently a lifelong affliction. He would appear on the bridge at intervals to check up on what was going on and then retire to his easy chair. I have since met others who never conquered seasickness in a lifetime at sea. On one occasion going from my cabin up to the bridge I nearly went over the port side in way of the lifeboat during a particularly heavy roll. An early lesson to be wary.