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An Empire ship was one a group of merchant ships given names beginning "Empire" in the service of the British Government during and after the Second World War. Most were used by the Ministry of War Transport (MoWT), which owned them and contracted their operation to various shipping companies of the U.K. Merchant Navy.
Empire ships came from two main sources: new construction, and capture and seizure. New Empire ships were built for the MoWT or obtained from the United States to increase Britain's shipping capacity and offset losses to German U-boats, Commerce raiders, bombing and other enemy actions in the tonnage war Germany was waging against Britain's sea transport around the globe. Others were captured or seized from enemy powers and some were acquired by requisition or normal purchase or lease.
New Empire ship construction represented an enormous undertaking that included classes of freighters, tankers, aircraft carriers, fast cargo liners, tank landing ships, Deep Sea Salvage and Rescue Tugs and several other categories. Total production numbered in the hundreds.
Empire ships were supplements to Britain's normal peacetime merchant fleet, swelling its wartime numbers to 12,000, then the largest merchant ship fleet in the world. Approximately 4,000 ships on the British register were lost between 1939 and 1945, a considerable number being sunk during the Battle of the Atlantic.
Significantly before Britain entered the Second World War on 3 September 1939, preparations had been in hand to put the shipping industry of Britain on a war footing. All shipbuilders had specified the capability of their yards to produce cargo ships, cargo liners, tramps, tankers, colliers, coasters and naval ships.
The Ministry of Shipping, formed in October 1939 quickly adopted a standard naming system, applying the prefix "Empire" for all merchant ships built in Great Britain for the Government. With some exceptions, the prefix was also extended to purchased or requisitioned ships and to those acquired as prizes.
From 1 February 1940, the Admiralty took control of all shipbuilding and repairs, including merchant shipping. From that date, ships could only be built either on orders of the Admiralty or, for private owners, under licences that required the ships to be built to Admiralty specifications of wartime requirements.
Tramp ships were built to a standardised prefabricated design. The ships were 425 feet (130 m) in length with a beam of 56 feet (17.1 m), with a deadweight of around 10,000 tons and a speed of around 10 knots (19 km/h). The first standard to be used was the PF(B) of about 7,050 GRT. These incorporated one 30-ton, two 10-ton and eight 5-ton derricks for cargo handling.
The PF(C) design was introduced in 1942 to handle heavier military equipment, and was equipped with one 50-ton, one 30-ton, five 10-ton and five 5-ton derricks. PF(C) were around 7,320 gross tons. The later PF(D) was similar to PF(C), at 7,370 tons, but could be distinguished by a full-height poop (which was only half height in the PF(C)). Some had 250,000 cubic feet (7,100 m3) of refrigerated space.
Empire F was a series of small coasters of 142 feet in length with a gross tonnage of 410 GT. with one single diesel engine, two holds and two 1.5 tons derricks. The hull was the same as the small coastal tanker series (CHANT). Despite being a completely separate class from the tankers, the dry cargo Empire Fs were always known by coasting seamen as "CHANTs", possibly because they had the same hull form and initially all the tankers were sold to foreign owners and therefore there was no conflict in nomenclature. Accommodation was good because the five berth cabin for the DEMS gunners was available and several vessels were modified after the war to make better use of all the spaces. The major shortfall of the class was undoubtedly their poor deadweight carrying capacity coupled with their varied engine fit, particularly those with the Petters engine which caused problems in all the vessels in which they were fitted. Four Empire F class and one Empire S class vessels crossed the Atlantic in the late fifties for service on the St. Lawrence River: Empire Fairway, Empire Fabric, Empire Fang, Empire Fathom, and Empire Seagreen.
The beach craft were refuelled by a shuttle service of coastal tankers that bunkered in southern UK ports whilst five 12,000 ton tankers carried the water, two always at the beachhead with the remaining three in transit. From the two tankers at the beachhead other smaller tankers then shipped the water to depot ships and warships they also replenished the LBW's. This method of replenishment was in operation until D-Day plus forty when it became possible to use the captured channel ports. Their respective peacetime crews manned the Store and Replenishment crews of all the ships and barges albeit dressed in naval uniform; the ten CHANTS (Channel Tankers) were allocated to the Beach services of the Royal Navy. The bulk of these ships came under the Ministry of War Transport and carried oil to the storage tanks at Port-en-Bessin, others under control of the Royal Navy carried diesel, petrol and water, all destined for the advancing armies. This particular class of ship was not renowned for its stability and when loaded had to carry lots of ballast, as well as cargo in their tanks they also carried up to ten tons of lubricating oil on deck and were well armed considering their vulnerability. On D-Day plus three Chant 60 turned turtle when manoeuvring under full helm, fortunately her entire crew were rescued later, carrying a full load of petrol she was towed away from the beach and sunk by a British destroyer. Chant 69, this time carrying water performed a similar evolution a short while later. It was then decided to bring all the class into the confines of the gooseberry shelters until a Royal Navy Constructor could carry out stability tests. Others carried out sterling service, Chant 23 lying off Sword Beach had been hit by an enemy shell in her engine room and disabled but still continued to fuel anything that came alongside. Chant 7 was driven ashore after capsizing during the gales of 18/20 June when loaded with petrol and Chant 26 drove ashore on the crest of a wave, straight up the beach, through a hedge and landed in a field the right way up. After discharging her precious cargo to army bowsers she was dragged back to her natural element and towed home, the author Captain E. E. Sigart made the observation that Chant 26 was the only British merchantman to fly proudly the Red Ensign and discharge her cargo, literally in a foreign field! Chant 24 beached at Le Hamel carrying 200 tons of oil fuel for the RAF needed for the building of runways previously LBO's had carried out this duty with the muscle power supplied by the infantry on their hand pumps. Finally some of the Chants were used as accommodation ships as there uses diminished and after the landings had been completed most returned to the UK and after the war were sold on to commercial operators.
In wartime all ships carried the prefix "Chant" followed by a number. A total of 43 were built and were named Chant 1–12; Chant 22–28; Chant 42–45 and Chant 50–69. Chant 7, Chant 61, Chant 63 and Chant 69 were lost during the war. They were all built in 1944 and had a gross register of just over 400 tons and a deadweight of 400 tons. They measured 148 ft oa by 27 ft beam. They had oil engines giving them a speed of 7½ knots. Chant 12 and Chant 28 were sold to France in 1946 retaining their names. The remaining survivors served various ship owners until their eventual scrapping mostly in the fifties and sixties. The last Chant vessel (Success III, ex-Chant 12) was scrapped in 2002.
The 'Ocean' type tankers were sometimes known as the 'Three twelves type', being about 12,000 tons deadweight with a speed of around 12 knots (22 km/h) and a fuel consumption of 12 tons per day. They were used for the transport of fuel and also for refuelling at sea. Some were fitted with triple expansion steam engines; others were diesel powered.
The 'Norwegian' type were slightly larger and were constructed only by two builders, Sir James Laing & Sons, at Sunderland (who had built the prototype) and by Furness Shipbuilding Co, Ltd. The first of the type were fitted with 3,800 horsepower (2,800 kW) triple expansion steam engines, later models with 3,300 horsepower (2,500 kW) diesel engines and finally with 4,000 horsepower (3,000 kW) diesel engines.
The design for the 'Wave' prefixed faster tankers was introduced in 1943. With a speed of 15 knots (28 km/h), these fast tankers were able to operate outside the convoys.
Catapult-armed merchantmen or CAM ships, were merchant cargo ships operating with the convoys and converted to launch a Sea Hurricane fighter by means of a catapult. As there was no means to land the Hurricane on the ship again, it was only possible for a single launch and the aircraft then had to return to land or ditch in the sea. However they did provide important convoy cover when no other air cover was available. Eight requisitioned private ships and 27 Empire ships served as CAM ships. Ten of the Empire ships were lost in service.
Merchant aircraft carriers or MAC ships superseded the CAM ships. Their role was defensive in protection of the convoys. Unlike the CAM ships, they carried a flight deck so the aircraft were able to land again. The merchant air carriers were adapted standard grain ships or oil tankers. The grain ships had a flight deck of 413 feet (126 m) to 424 feet (129 m) ft and a breadth of 62 feet (18.9 m). A hangar on the lower deck was equipped with a lift to the flight deck and accommodated four Fairey Swordfish aircraft. The oil tankers had longer flight decks – 461 feet (141 m) – but no hangars. Three Swordfish reconnaissance planes were stowed at the aft end of the flight deck.
In the early part of the war shipyard capacity was fully engaged with naval ships, including aircraft carriers, repairs to ships following Dunkirk and in orders for tankers and tramps. By 1941 there was criticism that ships being built were too slow. A few fast ships (capable of 15 to 16 knots (28 to 30 km/h)) were however being built; many of them with refrigerated capacity. In 1942 a new standard for a fast cargo liner of around 9,900 gross tons was introduced with a length of 475 feet (145 m) and a breadth of 64 feet (19.5 m). Thirteen "Empire"-prefixed standard class cargo liners were completed. Another was laid down intending to be given the prefix but was acquired by the Royal Netherlands Government and completed as Modjokerto.
The design of the heavy lift ship was based on a Norwegian design with a prefix – Bel- (Belmoira and Belpareil were two of this type) intended to carry bulky and heavy cargo such as locomotives and tugs. The ships had three large unobstructed cargo holds and heavy lifting equipment. The first pair of ships built for the Ministry of War Transport, Empire Charmian and Empire Elaine were diesel powered. The remainder, Empire Admiral, Empire Athelstan, Empire Byng, Empire Canute, Empire Ethelbert (launched as Beljeanne in 1946), Empire Marshal, Empire Viceroy and Empire Wallace, were powered by steam turbines to provide more speed and power. These ships were able to carry smaller vessels, such as tugs and landing craft, to support combat operations around the world.
A number Salvage and Rescue Tugs were built during the war and most were owned by the MoWT and operated by Merchant Shipping companies (notably the United Towing Co.). These ocean going vessels (armed under the DEMS programme) bore little resemblance to the small Harbour or Docking tugs seen in most large ports and often worked alongside the naval tugs of His Majesty's Rescue Tug service, the only distinctions being that they were crewed by Merchant Seamen and flew the Red Ensign instead of the White.
Two classes of ship were based on the Scandinavian design general cargo ship. The smaller 'three island' type of around 2,800 gross tons were built between 1941 and 1944. These vessels played an important role as crane ships in unloading the Arctic convoys at the Russian ports. In the three island class, the boiler was amidships and the cargo handling was grouped around three 'islands' on the superstructure, at the stern, bow and amidships. Ten ships were built in the later and larger (3,500 gross tons) Empire Malta class, which had the boiler aft and the cargo handling grouped around the fore- and main-mast.
The tank landing ships (LST Mark 3) had a speed of eleven knots and were 4,820 tons when loaded. The length was 330 ft and the breadth 54 ft. The bridge and engines were aft. A bow ramp gave access to the interior and onto the open upper deck. 168 troops could be accommodated in narrow dormitories. Landing craft were generally only identified by number (for example LST 3512). However, some were completed as merchant ships after the end of hostilities. Seven were charted from the Ministry of War Transport as ferries and given the "Empire" prefix, operating between Tilbury and Hamburg from September 1946 and also between Preston and Larne from May 1948.
Three Empire ferries (Empire Chub, Empire Dace and Empire Roach), were completed to the same design as an order from the Government of Turkey. They had ramps at both ends and could carry passengers and vehicles but could also be converted for minelaying. They were also equipped with a 25-ton derrick at the front of the superstructure amidships. They were 716 gross tons, length 179 feet (55 m) and breadth 40 feet (12.2 m).
Four vessels all of 2,922 gross tons, length 315 feet (96 m) and breadth 44 feet (13.4 m) were built as ore carriers. These were Empire Moat, Empire Ness, Empire Ridge and Empire Stream
Five Castle-class corvettes were completed as Empire convoy rescue ships to join 29 previously-requisitioned ships. The requisitioned passenger ships had a speed of 11 to 12 knots to enable them to catch up with the convoys travelling at 10 knots after completing their rescue operations. Convoy rescue ships were also generally armed with AA guns for protection when they were separated from the convoy and vulnerable to enemy attack. The five Empire ships were 1,333 gross tons, length 236 feet (72 m), breadth 36 feet (11.0 m) with a speed of 16 1⁄2 knots (30.6 km/h). After the war they were used as troopships in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Empire ships were generally involved in convoy duty, including the Atlantic convoys bringing essential supplies from the United States; military convoys to North Africa; military convoys around the Cape of Good Hope to prosecute the war in the Middle East; coastal convoys around the shores of Britain; Mediterranean convoys, including those supporting the defence of Malta and Arctic convoys to North Russia.
They took an active role supporting the invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Italy and in the Normandy assault and in the assaults on German-held ports of Western Europe. In June 1944 ninety-seven Empire merchant ships were involved in the cross-channel convoys that carried troops and supplies ready for the Normandy invasion. Empire landing craft were involved in the assault phase, and Empire coasters were involved in the beaching of supplies and in ferrying cargo from the larger merchant ships anchored off-shore.
The success of the Normandy invasion depended on the successful construction of the Mulberry ports. These were prefabricated ports, constructed at Southampton, Gosport, Portsmouth, Tilbury Docks, and even as far north as Birkenhead and Hartlepool. Two hundred tugs then took three months to tow the components of the harbours from where they were constructed to assembly areas on the South Coast. Between 7 June 1944 and the end of July, the tugs towed the materials across the channel to Normandy.
Before D-Day, sixty old merchant ships and four old warships were selected as blockships, to be scuttled in a line to give protection to the small craft. The blockships were stripped before setting out in convoy across the channel. Empire tugs were used to ensure the safe crossing. On reaching Normandy they were scuttled in five groups, codenamed Gooseberry 1 to Gooseberry 5. Gooseberry 4 at Juno Beach included four Empire ships: Empire Bunting, Empire Flamingo, Empire Moorhen and Empire Waterhen. Gooseberry 5 at Ouistreham included three Empire ships: Empire Defiance, Empire Tamar and Empire Tana. Between the 19 and 23 June 1944 a severe gale, damaged many of the Mulberry harbours and wrecked some of the blockships. Additional blockships were added in July 1944, including one more Empire ship, Empire Bittern, and two of the former Empire ships that had been transferred to the Norwegians: Norfalk (formerly Empire Kittiwake) and Norjerv (formerly Empire Eagle).
At the end of the war, tankers were released from requisition as they completed voyages after 31 December 1945 and dry cargo ships after voyages completed after 2 March 1946. However, passenger and troopships were still involved in the repatriation of servicemen, prisoners of war and refugees. The government therefore converted several captured German passenger ships to Empire troop ships. These included Empire Fowey, Empire Halladale, Empire Ken, Empire Orwell, Empire Trooper and Empire Windrush.
Empire Comfort, Empire Lifeguard, Empire Peacemaker and Empire Shelter were smaller troopships operating in the Mediterranean Sea; Empire Parkeston and Empire Wansbeck operated as troopships between Harwich and the Hook of Holland.
In 1942, shipowners who had lost ships (either as a casualty of war or requisitioned by the Government) during the war, were able to buy ships built for the Government. Such ships were then managed by the shipowner on behalf of the Ministry of War Transport, until the end of the war. Tramps and colliers built before 1942 were sold on in this way, although some smaller ships remained unsold.
Empire ships were also transferred to the representatives of governments of countries that had been invaded by Germany, in recognition of the losses suffered by the fleets of Britain's allies.
24 Empire ships were purchased by the French Government after liberation in 1945. All were transferred in 1945–46. Empire Gala and Empire Jupiter were later placed with the Gouvernement Generale de L'Indo-Chine, along with 10 Park-type Canadian-built ships.
Nineteen Empire ships were transferred to the Norwegian Government in 1941–42.
More were transferred to the Norwegian Government in 1946.
Three Empire ships and a number of US ships were built or transferred to the Polish Government in 1942–43.
A number of Empire ships were transferred to the Soviet Union during and after the war.
Transferred in 1944: Empire Nigel
Transferred in 1946: Empire Ayr, Empire Conclyde, Empire Concord, Empire Confederation, Empire Congleton, Empire Congreve, Empire Conisborough, Empire Conleven, Empire Connah, Empire Connaught, Empire Connemara, Empire Consett, Empire Constable†, Empire Constellation, Empire Contees, Empire Contest, Empire Convention†, Empire Conway, Empire Conwear, Empire Dart, Empire Dee, Empire Douglas†, Empire Dovey†, Empire Durant, Empire Forth†, Empire Gable†, Empire Gabon, Empire Gage, Empire Gala, Empire Galashiels, Empire Galaxy, Empire Galleon, Empire Gallic, Empire Galveston, Empire Gantry†, Empire Garner, Empire Kennet, Empire Lea, Empire Neath, Empire Nidd, Empire Ock, Empire Orwell, Empire Tageland, Empire Tageos, Empire Tarne, Empire Tegaden, Empire Tegados, Empire Tegaica, Empire Tegalta, Empire Tegamas, Empire Tegleone, Empire Tegoria, Empire Teguda, Empire Teguto, Empire Teme, Empire Teviot, Empire Tigarth, Empire Tigbart, Empire Tigina, Empire Tigombo, Empire Tigonto, Empire Tigost, Empire Tigouver, Empire Venture, Empire Viking I, Empire Viking II, Empire Viking III, Empire Viking VI, Empire Viking VIII, Empire Viking IX, Empire Viking X, Empire Weaver, Empire Welland†, Empire Wey, Empire Yare†.
Transferred in 1947: Empire Cherwell
One hundred and eighty two Empire ships were lost through enemy action, including to mines, submarines, enemy aircraft, E-boats and blockships. The first lost was Empire Commerce in 1940 and the last was Empire Gold in 1945. Eight Empire ships were sacrificed as blockships to support the Normandy invasion. Some of the blockships were later raised and scrapped.
In 1946 numerous of the British-built Empire ships, as well as ex-German prize ships were offered for sale or for three- or five-year charter.
At least three Empire ships survive today. Empire Sandy, built as a tug, has been converted to a schooner and is active on the Great Lakes. ST Cervia, a tug built as Empire Raymond is preserved as a museum ship at Ramsgate, Kent. A recent survivor was ST Sea Alarm, formerly Empire Ash, which was controversially scrapped in 1998. The 2,471 GRT former Empire Forth, a cargo ship built in Germany in 1939 as Mars, was renamed Vityaz and is preserved at Kaliningrad, Russia.
Of the numerous Empire ships that have been wrecked over the years, at least two have become features on tourist beaches. The 7,055 GRT former Empire Trumpet, latterly Khoula F, has been beached on the coast of Kish Island on the Persian Gulf since 1966. She is a sight popular with Iranian tourists, particularly at sunset. The 7,355 GRT former Blue Star Line ship Empire Strength, latterly E Evangelia, has been beached at Costinești, Romania, since 1968.