From War to Peace: The Conversion of Naval Vessels After Two World Wars

28 Feb 23

This book is a bit of a hotch-potch, in that it is partly a detailed, but incomplete, list of warships that were converted for merchant service after WWI & WWII and partly a description of how they were converted & then used as everything from steam yachts to ferries to emigrant passenger liners. I would much have preferred more of the latter, but that is not to say that I didn’t enjoy reading it.   The author strays from his sub-title by including a few pre-WWI conversions & brief mention of the Falklands era LSLs, but sadly does not stray far enough to include HM Ships Beagle, Challenger and at least one Ton class MCMV – I think the only RN post-WWII ships to be converted.[1]

There is a good introductory chapter on the basic problems of converting warships to commercial service. Warships are mainly much less ‘tubby’ than merchant ships & so have less carrying capacity. Allied to the larger number of watertight bulkheads and smaller size of compartments, many warships converted to cargo ships only served for short periods after the wars, until the shipyards were reconfigured for peacetime work. The exceptions were those converted for passenger service – for example the 185’ US-built patrol craft HMS Kilbirnie (launched 1943) was converted in 1946 as a Norwegian ferry (Haugesund), became the Sicilia Ponte of Naples in 1973 & then, still under the Italian flag, the Tucalif.  She was finally scrapped in 1997.[2]  Not bad for a hull built with a ‘5 year’ life.

There are three chapters on post-WWI conversions – two British & one German. Perhaps the oddest was the use of the 1893 protected cruiser HMS Charybdis as a ferry between Bermuda & New York from 1918-1920. She had 65 passenger berths, but mainly carried Bermuda’s agricultural exports.  She was clearly completely unsuited to this role and was replaced as soon as possible.

During WWII, there were many warships built on merchant ship hulls – the escort carriers are one obvious example. These were comparatively easy to convert back to merchant ships & many became passenger liners or fast cargo & refrigerated cargo ships. Several worked the immigrant runs from post-war Europe to Australia & survived until the late 1970s. Tugs and fishing vessels were easy to transfer to, often back to, civilian life & most did. After WWII, there was also a good market for landing craft, of all types and sizes. They could easily be used as vehicular ferries when there were no, or inadequate, port facilities.

One of the post-WWII types of ship that was very easy to dispose of was the wooden Fairmile patrol boat, of which about 1000 were built to 12 different specifications. Many members will remember summer holiday ‘trips around the bay’ on one of these. Two examples were the Channel Belle of Bournemouth & Western Lady III of Torquay – probably the longest surviving, functioning Fairmile – acquired by the NMRN in December 2015 and presently in Hartlepool. There were many other smaller vessels converted – for example, minesweepers (Jacques Cousteau’s Calypso was originally BYMS 2026[3]) & there are still a few HDMLs around,[4] but they are certainly now well past being licensed for any kind of commercial use & must be labours of love in terms of how much maintenance they need to keep them seaworthy. Overall, an interesting book, but one that could have been of more general interest if there had been more stories of conversions & their civilian uses.

Reviewed by ANDREW WELCH

[1] Beagle, initially to MY Titan & now sailing in Indonesian waters as the 30-passenger luxury cruise ship Aqua Blu.  Challenger is now mining for diamonds off Namibia & is operated by De Beers as the Ya Toivo and Houghton became a diving support ship.

[2] The author uses scrapped, broken up & demolished somewhat randomly.  The last grates to the naval ear.

[3] British Yard Minesweeper – US built for the RN.

[4] Harbour Defence Motor Launch.