Sunday 19 May 2019

Book Review: Liberty's Provenance, John Henshaw

Subtitled The Evolution of the Liberty Ship from its Sunderland Origins, John Henshaw's new book on these vitally historically important vessels aims, in his own words, to 'once and for all' settle the issue of their provenance. Whether or not he succeeds in this once and for all aim, this is without doubt a fascinating and beautifully presented account of the evolution of a particular maritime lineage, during a very generally exciting and interesting period of world history.

I'm no expert on things nautical, but I'm finding my interest in the logistical side of both real military history and my mini-military stuff is leading me, seemingly inexorably, towards a deeper interest in sea warfare generally, and The Battle of the Atlantic in particular. As Henshaw notes, Churchill said the war on the oceans was the 'dominating factor throughout the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea, or in the air, depended ultimately on its outcome.'

And in keeping with this perspective, it's salutory to remember that whilst other theatres of conflict would have short periods of intense activity and longer periods of stasis or inactivity, the war at sea lasted the entire duration.

The fantastically named Hog Island shipyard. [1]

The level of detail here is quite daunting to a landlubber like me. Fortunately there's a glossary. The glossary is very helpful - they should be a mandatory standard feature in specialist books, in my view - but could've been better. E.g. the nautical meaning of terms such as beam and draught are given, but sheer isn't. And whilst many of the acronyms used are expanded and defined, not all are.

The book begins by looking at how in WWI a similar project was undertaken at more or less wars end, the ships made not seeing wartime service at all, and overproduction contributing to postwar shipbuilding slumps. Also late in coming was the adoption of convoys. In contrast, in WWII these projects were set in motion much earlier, and a mission to the US headed by the very young Cyril Thompson, of Sunderland shipbuilders Thompson's, was integral to the story told here, of the development of the Liberty ships.

Henshaw dedicates his book to Cyril Thompson, the 'unsung hero in the evolution of the Liberty ship', and extols their virtues by not only clearly tracing their lineage, but also highlighting how they not only met but exceeded their original brief, doing the job intended for them, and then going beyond that, forming the basis of numerous variants, and often surviving and serving long after WWII.

Liberty ship EC2-SC1.

There are plenty of photographs, liberally sprinkled throughout, many of which are great. There are also a good number of relatively poor quality. But as Henshaw explains, they're as good as he could find, and illustrate important points. Using such surprisingly scant reference material - scant when you consider over 2,700 of Liberty ships were built - Henshaw has produced what is probably the most attractive aspect of this book, the numerous line drawings.

Some of these are quite accurate, where plentiful reference such as other detailed drawings could be sourced, whilst others, as Henshaw is at pains to point out, are educated guesses based on the available evidence. I love them, and hope they might one day help me build models.

A fascinating book, well worth having/reading. 

[1] Built expressly for the construction of these ships, and now the site of Philadelphia International airport.

This looks like a great kit. Definitely on my wish list!

As usual, when I read a book like this and find it exciting and inspiring, I want to get a model to build to further explore the interests that have been aroused. Trumpeter do a couple of 1/350 Liberty Ship models. I'd love to get and build one of those. Perhaps the SS John W Brown? This is also one of the only surviving seaworthy examples some of this once numerous class.

The real McCoy.

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