The man who overcame Dönitz

Autor: František Novotný 🕔︎︎ 👁︎ 11.305

In the early 1920s, the British Admiralty declassified documents stating that, despite all efforts, the British shipbuilding industry was unable to cover the losses of shipping space caused by Kaiser submarines, and that it would not have recovered them until 1921 at best. Captain Karl Dönitz carefully released from captivity, and after becoming commander of the U-Bootwaffe on September 1, 1939, applied the strategy created on this fact when deploying U-boots in the Battle of the Atlantic. It was estimated that bringing the United Kingdom to its knees would require monthly losses of around 500,000 GRT.

The British also counted it and looked for merchant ships where possible. In the fall of 1940, a British mission sailed for the United States to order 60 " Ocean " vessels according to the documentation of the Empire Liberty cargo ship.


At that time, a program of building standard " C " type cargo ships powered by steam turbines was already running in the USA, which after the entry into the war was taken over by the US Navy as attack transport ships. Admiral Land, chairman of the US Naval Commission for Merchant Shipbuilding , did not support the British "Ocean " order, but the US shipyards of the West Coast in California and the East Coast in Maine each built 30 ships . The Empire Liberty documentation was based on a much older project of a tramp steamship, built in Newcastle upon Tyne since 1879, so that the " Ocean " type ships had a simple, albeit already welded, plating, but still riveted to the ribs, and were equipped with outdated but reliable steam engine with an output of 2500 pcs. The fuel required was coal, which the United Kingdom had enough of its mines, as opposed to the oil that had to be imported. The plans for the main propulsion machine came from the British company North Eastern Marine Engineering Company Ltd. and in the United States, General Machinery Corporation of Ohio was commissioned to manufacture. Compared to the original project, the British order specified a 457 mm increase in draft and an increase in the ship's displacement by 800 tonnes to 10,100 tonnes. The bridge superstructure and engine room were located in the center of the ship, so that the main propulsion machine was connected to the propeller by a long shaft in the tunnel below the aft cargo hold.

The problem was that the British had not found a supplier for another order for "oceans " due to the occupancy of American shipyards. When someone advised them to turn to a newcomer to the shipping industry, Todd-California Shipbuilding. It offered capacity for its new shipyards in Richmond ( Gulf of San Francisco ) and Portland ( Oregon ), but was just building the latter. Half of the company was a consortium of construction companies that had no experience with shipbuilding, but were led by one of the American self-admirers, Henry J. Kaiser ( 1888–1967 ).

Henry J. Kaiser

He came from a family of Silesian emigrants, left school at the age of twelve and began working as a photographic apprentice. He was not yet twenty and already owned three photo studios between New York and Florida. He then moved to the west coast and entered the construction business there. In 1927 he was already a successful road builder, known for his honesty and speed. The successful completion of a contract for road construction in Cuba provided him with the financial means and confidence to apply for a mammoth dam project on the Colorado River ( Boulder Dam, now Hoover's ). He joined several other construction companies and won the bankruptcy. Each of the participating companies was responsible for its area of activity, Kaiser for the supply of sand and gravel.Over the next ten years, Kaiser's company and partners built the Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams on the Columbia River, then his construction companies built the pillars of the San Francisco-Oakland Bridge, cement plant, dry docks, subway, aqueducts, roads, a U.S. naval base, and a third. a group of locks in the Panama Canal. He managed it because he was characterized by extraordinary energy and boundless confidence, and behind him stood an army of five thousand experienced builders, who, however, needed more work. They were soon to receive the real challenge not only in building shipyards, but also in ships. Although most of them had no experience with shipbuilding, Todd-California Shipbuilding has proven to be reliable and fast in this field as well, as the first British " Ocean " ships began to be built three months after the shipbuilding work began.

The emergence of Liberty ships

Probably because he lacked experience, Kaiser was open to new ideas. Instead of pouring all the building materials into the shipyards and building ships from individual sheets from the keel to the bridge on the chute, as was the standard so far, he decided to deal with mass production by prefabrication - its designers divided the hull into assemblies that were built in halls and up to they slid together and welded on the chute. He then distributed the production of prefabricated sections throughout the country, to 32 states of the union. He used the massive cranes left over from the dam structures to move the huge sections of the hull. And to speed up the preparation of basic structural elements, he had wooden templates created on the basis of approved drawings, which were then used in all shipyards involved in the construction of the corresponding parts and sections to unify steel parts and reduce tolerances to such an extent that prefabricated parts can be welded together. . At the same time, his philosophy was: " Why drill holes for rivets when you can weld, why weld when you can bend, and why bend when you can leave it straight ."

Cross section of a Liberty cargo ship


Originally a road and dam builder, he transformed the " Ocean " project into a single new type kit called " Liberty " ( and another "Victory" type ), in which each ship consisted of a quarter of a million different but standardized components, 180 kilometers of welds, 10 kilometers cabling and 14 kilometers of pipelines. He then converted the shipyards into assemblies for this kit, so he didn't mind the fact that most of the staff lacked adequate experience, as of the ninety-six thousand Kaiser shipyard employees, only about twenty thousand were experienced shipbuilding craftsmen ( and a third were women! ).

Former waitress Eastine Cowner is working on the construction of the SS George Washington Carver

When the US Naval Commission announced the Merchant Navy Construction Emergency Program in 1941, it was based on the EC2-S-C1 project, which was nothing more than a standard Liberty ship, now a fully welded 7,000 GRT cargo ship, heated by fuel oil. whose prefabricated method of production has passed virtually all American shipyards. While in 1939 the Naval Commission built a cargo ship in an average of thirteen days, in 1941 it was only three and a half days, and in 1943 it reached a record when US shipyards delivered five Liberty ships a week. Most vessels were built by shipyards on the west coast, especially Henry J. Kaiser's shipyards.From 1941 to 1945 it was 1,552 Liberty ships out of a total of 2,710 ships delivered.

In 1942, the construction of the Liberty took an average of 108 days, in 1943 only 50 days, but the competitiveness of the employees, which Henry Kaiser supported, led to breathtaking records. The first was reported by the shipyard in Portland, where in September 1942 the workers managed to launch the Liberty ship 10 days after the laying of the first section. Two months later, the Richmond shipyard responded, where management and workers began preparations for the construction of ship number 440 in the shortest possible time. More than half of the welding and riveting work was completed before the assembly on the number two shipyard Permanente Metals Corporation began on November 8, 1942. The bow was transported to the shipment in two pieces, even with the ship's name painted, the stern in three parts. In total, the ship consisted of ninety-seven large sections. The race with time began a minute after midnight on November 8, 1942, two hours later the bottom was assembled, in twelve hours the engine room was installed, in twenty-four hours the hull was completed and the engine room tested, the third day a superstructure was set up ( already equipped with furniture, mirrors, clocks, hangers and even life jackets ), the fourth day the coatings and cabling were completed and on November 12, 1942 at 3:00 PM the ship was launched and christened Robert E. Peary . In four days, fifteen hours, and twenty-nine minutes, a quarter of a million parts weighing 6,350 tons were built, and the ship was equipped over three days at the finishing embankment, tested on November 15, 1942, taken over by the Naval Commission, and put into service. Despite the record construction time, the ship served well for twenty-one years until June 1963, when it was scrapped in Baltimore.

To further increase cargo ship production, the Maritime Commission invested $ 300 million in the construction of eight new shipyards with sixty-two slipways on the Atlantic coast, four shipyards with thirty-five slipways in the Gulf of Mexico, and six shipyards with sixty-two slipways on the Pacific coast. Most of them worked using the linear work belt method. The entrance of steel sheets and profiles from the interior passed through a large prefabricated zone, where the main sections were assembled and welded from them. These were then transported on rails or by mobile cranes to the ship's slide, and there heavy cranes made the final establishment of the section in its place on the slide. Subsequent welding work accounted for about one-third of the volume of manual shipbuilding work. Once the main hull was completed and its underwater part provided with a protective coating, the ship was launched and towed to the nearby finishing embankment. The keel of another ship was laid on the loose slide within 24 hours at the latest. At the finishing embankment, they painted the ship, completed the installation work, equipped and equipped it. On the day the work was completed, it was handed over to the Maritime Commission, the crew was embarked and the ship was put into operation.

Sophisticated preparations helped to speed up the construction. For example, since the end of 1942, the three-storey ship's superstructure has been assembled in four rotating jigs, so that even ceiling welds could be performed by welders underfoot. Then the workers dragged the four prefabricated sections that made up the superstructure on massive chassis under a crane, which transported the sections to the hull and carried them aboard. The heaviest sections of the 72-tonne superstructure were lifted onto the ship by two articulated cranes.

The tangle of steam, water and fuel pipes in the engine room was also subject to prefabrication. Somewhere in the interior, the workers installed pipes in the created wooden model of the machinery department ( basically it was a spatial template ), which they later dismantled in blocks and prepared for transport to the shipyard for final assembly.


Most of the steel used to build the Liberty ships was made of thick sheets.During the First World War, cutting and cold bending of steel elements was work for massive shears and presses, but in the EC2-S-C1 project this process was much easier and faster using acetylene torches and electric welding machines. Arc welding has only been used in shipbuilding for ten years, but for several decades to make steel products. The Unionmelt semi-automatic welding machine has now been developed for flat and direct hull joints, which significantly speeds up work. Sixty-one percent of Liberty's structure was prefabricated, and 3,425 tons of steel, 2,727 tons of sheet metal, and 700 tons of shaped steel fell on the ship's construction.

Day 2: Establishment of the hernia

Day 6: Internal partitions and beams are located

Day 14: The upper deck is completed

Day 24: The vessel is ready to launch

SS John W. Brown

Fifty aircraft carriers a year

" Rush Henry, " as Kaiser was nicknamed, was not just a pioneer in merchant shipbuilding. When the escort aircraft carriers proved useful not only in escorting convoys, but also in landing operations in the Pacific, the Kaiser did not stay away. As early as the beginning of 1942, his shipyard Todd Shipbuilding in Tacoma, Washington, was involved in the construction of the first Bogue-class escort aircraft carriers. Specifically, it built 10 ships that fell to the US Navy (the second half of the twenty-piece series was given to the British ). "Rush Henry " entered the construction of these vessels in full force at the end of 1942, when the US Department of the Navy issued an order for 55 ( later reduced to 50 ) "Casablanca " escort aircraft carriers on the hull of the " S4-S2" fast cargo ship. BB-3 “with a displacement of 6,730 tons, length 152 m and powered by a reciprocating steam engine of the Unaflow type by Skinner, to which four boilers supplied steam. The machine had an output of 11,200 pieces and gave the vessel a design speed of 19 knots. The takeoff deck was equipped with an elevator at the bow and stern and there was also a catapult. The order was to be fulfilled in a gallows period of about 20 months, and therefore all renowned American shipyards rejected it. However, Kaiser lifted the thrown glove, even though it was a much more complicated vessel than the Liberty cargo ship, and signed a contract that obliged him to deliver the first vessels by February 1943 and the rest evenly by the end of 1944. Kaiser commissioned Vancouver, Washington to build escort aircraft carriers. , and not only met the delivery deadlines, but exceeded them, even though the start of production was delayed.The leading ship of the USS Casablanca ( CVE-55 ) was taken over by the US Navy on July 8, 1943 and the last USS Munda ( CVE-104 ) on July 8, 1944. The " hurried Henry " was able to deliver 50 escort aircraft carriers in exactly one day in one year. !

USS Casablanca , July 1943

Aboard the USS Liscome Bay for aircraft transport

Logistics and social services

Kaiser has also introduced innovations in the field of work organization and work education. There were thousands of staff training courses. Work procedures were divided and adjusted so that even less skilled or unskilled workers, of whom thirty percent were women, could perform some of them. Experience from previous jobs was used, for example a group for work at heights was created from former acrobats.

Kaiser's next successful move was the " expedienti " - men who provided timely supplies of vital machinery and materials. It was not an easy task during the war. Their rule was " never give up " and " without coercion ". Instead, Kaiser asked them to always find out why the delivery was delayed. Delivery of cranes to Richmond was once delayed, and when the expedient found that the factory had all the material ready but no assembly space, he hired land, obtained enough fitters, and helped the factory assemble the cranes in the open air. Expedient visits to subcontractors with appropriate " cleaning " of supply channels were also frequent. Often the expedients took the tools in person and did everything they could to ensure that the delivery was not delayed.

Henry Kaiser was not only a tough businessman and man who considered himself the father of the modern American shipbuilding industry, but also a man whose life had taught him that he could expect good work performances only from satisfied and healthy workers. That's why he set up a health insurance fund for his employees, so that in August 1944, for example, 92.2% of workers in Richmond were insured for health insurance, something unseen in the United States. In 1945, he transformed this corporate insurance with Dr. Sidney Garfield into a public health consortium called Kaiser Permanente, which provided health care to its policyholders in its own hospitals and now has 8.5 million clients.

So World War II was really a factory war, and it is probably true that the 300,000 employees of Henry Kaiser's factories and shipyards were worth 20 divisions of well-armed and elite-trained soldiers. But even if that weren't true, " Hasty Henry " reversed Dönitz's strategy, which, according to an analysis from World War I, calculated that it was not humanly possible to make up for the tonnage losses of half a million GRT per month. Henry Kaiser proved it, and contributed to the fact that even in the " Happy Times ", when German submarines reached this value, the Allies not only compensated for the loss of ship space, but from 1942 significantly increased it.

According to the book: Jan Bek, Liberty, ships of freedom , organized and edited by František Novotný , Mare-Czech publishing house, Prague 2012

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