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The Ocean Class of the Second World War

07 Mar 23

The Ocean Class of the Second World War tells the story of the sixty 10,000dwt merchant ships built by the United States for the British. These were ordered at the end of 1940, with all of the vessels being delivered between October 1941 and November 1942. These ships were the pre-cursors of the more widely known Liberty ships built by the Americans, of which some 2,710 vessels were completed. These astonishing achievements clearly contributed to the Allies’ ability to withstand the high level of shipping losses experienced during the early years of the conflict, whilst sustaining the ability to wage war across the various far-flung theatres of operations.  Whilst 19 of the Ocean class were lost during the war (four of them never completing an Atlantic crossing and seven of them in the Mediterranean), it is a tribute to their utility that a further 19 of these vessels were still in service as late as 1967.

The Ocean class were a British design, with welded hulls (the Americans were not good at riveting!) and coal-powered, triple expansion steam engines. The negotiations with the Americans were handled by a small team sent out to the USA in September 1940, with the three principal issues to be agreed being cost, delivery and design. In practice, the first two matters were swiftly resolved; however, agreeing the detail of the design was more problematic, not helped by micro-management from the Admiralty and the then Ministry of Shipping.

A construction programme of this scale could only be facilitated through the construction of new yards. The two new facilities funded by this British project, located at Richmond, California and at South Portland, Maine, were the forerunners of the many additional yards required to meet the growing demand for shipping necessitated by the wider war effort. The first ship, the aptly named Ocean Vanguard, was delivered just 169 days after the keel was laid, with some follow-on ships being completed in under three months – approximately half the time taken by a British yard!

Two chapters address ‘the Oceans at war’ and ‘wartime casualties’. The deployment of the ships throughout the period of hostilities is covered in some detail, supplemented with additional paragraphs setting out the circumstances of each of the vessels that was lost and describing the impressively heroic actions of their crews. Oceans, however, served in all of the major theatres of war, and they were amongst the better ships with regard to crew survivability, in part due to their superior survival equipment and in part due to their size and their welded construction.

With a further chapter detailing the employment of the surviving ships post-hostilities, the book finishes with extensive appendices detailing the key dates of each of the ships and insights into the manning and operation of the ships.

This possibly little-known class of ship, to a British design, was the genesis of the iconic Liberty class, and can lay claim to being the start of perhaps the largest ship-building effort on record.  Far from being emergency-only vessels, the surviving Oceans went on to provide good service post-war and are worthy of a prominent place in history.

As is abundantly clear from this well-presented book, Malcolm Cooper is an experienced historian, researcher and writer on maritime affairs. The book, complemented with detailed tables of information and many evocative black and white photographs, contains an impressive amount of detail and must surely lay claim to being the definitive work on this subject.