1940 and after nine months of war Great Britain had lost one million tons of shipping to the bottom of the sea, sunk by German U-Boats. In September, a representative of J L Thompson and Son of Sunderland went to the USA on a merchant ship building mission taking with them the Thompson design plans for the ship Dorrington Court. The USA was to build emergency cargo ships to a modified British design and faster than the Germans could sink them.
These ships were mass produced and prefabricated merchant vessels built using production line techniques, their single hulls, originally meant to be riveted, were 'all welded' due to time constraints and expense. Production/delivery time was originally 230 days per ship but they managed to reduce this to 42 days. One ship was famously made in 4 days but this was not the rule. Three liberty ships were completed daily at the height of production, altogether 2,710 were built between 1941 and 1945.
The vessels came in different sizes and weights, the largest 450ft long and 10,500 tons, able to reach a speed of 11 knots with triple expansion steam engines and two oil fired boilers, made to carry freight, troops and fuel supplies and fitted with 3 or 4 inch guns, 20 or 37mm cannon and machine guns.
The high rate of production by sometimes inexperienced workers resulted in some defective ships and 1,500 suffered significant brittle fractures, later proved to be from using weak grade steel, causing a few ships to break apart and sink without warning although most survived for longer than their original design life of 5 years.
The first ship launched was named after the American founding father and politician Patrick Henry who once said in a speech 'Give me Liberty or give me death' The launch day was then named Liberty Fleet Day which gave the ships their name. 200 Liberty ships were lease let to Britain, known as Samboats, their prefix SAM denoting their type of construction, Superstructure After Midships. The Samboats later had a steel belt riveted midships for extra strength.
Steamship SS Samwater Official Number 169923 of the port of London, a flush deck, steel, single screw cargo ship with steam machinery situated amid ships, one triple expansion reciprocating steam engine and 2 oil fired engines. Built in 1943 by Bethlehem Fairfield Shipyard, Baltimore, Maryland, USA as part of the Liberty fleet. Owned by The Minister of Transport and managed by Herbert Gladstone McDavid of Glen Line Ltd Glasgow. She was classed American Bureau +A1(E) meaning the ship was passed perfectly fit and equipped for the perils of the sea when she sailed in January 1947 on a voyage from Freemantle, Australia to Belgium carrying a cargo of wool, concentrates, 38 crew and 5 passengers calling at Capetown on 7th January to take on 750 tons of oil fuel.
It was a normal voyage until the morning watch of 29th January at about 40 miles south and west of Cape Finisterre, Spain. The watch changed at 4.00 am and the Second Engineer Robert Cumming, Greaser William Griffiths and Fireman Colin Coombs took over. The Greaser oiled around the engines and left the engine room in order to make tea. The Fireman changed the four burners on the starboard boiler, his next duty was to clean the hot oil filter on this engine which was used in the previous watch, firstly closing the drain and changing over to the second filter before cleaning the first, but the oil filter lever on the oil supply line was faulty which allowed leakage of oil under pressure. A fire began, probably due to escaping oil igniting.
Fireman Coombs had signed on in Adelaide six weeks earlier in order to get to England to start a medical degree and was not an experienced Fireman, when the fire started he was splashed with hot oil and suffering from burns and shock, ran from the engine room up the ladder and after gesturing to the Second Engineer by pointing towards the stokehold, disappeared.
Second Engineer Robert Cummings walked towards the space between the two boilers and just past the end of the starboard boiler he saw a large fire on the hot filter area around the service pumps. The fire was over his height by now and spraying over towards the port boiler, it was impossible to reach the pumps to turn them off. He then called to the chief engineer via the voice pipe to his room. Not waiting for a reply, he attempted to reach the valves of the settling tanks which were filled with oil but could not make it any further than the port boiler as there was no smoke helmet available in the machine room. Had the attempt been successful the fire would have probably burned itself out in a short space of time.
The Second Engineer next tried to shut off the fuel oil in order to starve the fire but was unable to get up the ladder to the main deck and starboard forward alley to reach the controls as the smoke was too thick, he therefore ran aft along the the tunnel and up the after tunnel escape, unfortunately he didnt pause to stop the main engines or contact the bridge to do so.
On reaching the deck he ran forward to the starboard forward alleyway to get to the controls of the oil fuel pump valves which he managed to operate successfully and turn off the oil fuel pumps. The Chief and Third Engineers arrived at this time, the Second Engineer went to shut off the port settling tank, he had to go via the Stewards storeroom and further delay was caused by having to summon the Steward to bring his keys, from there he had to get to the after engine room where the T key to the extension spindles for the settling tank was kept but due to smoke, was unable to reach it, again there was no smoke helmet available, it was located with the key.
The Chief engineer, taken by surprise by the fire and its rapid progress, had not informed the Master what was happening. When he found out the settling tank could not be closed he ordered the C02 gas be turned on but this can have been of little use owing to the speed of the ship, the ventilation and the draft would have carried the gas away.
Just then the chief and Second Engineers were trying to reach the main engine stop valve but access proved impossible due to smoke. The Chief Engineer proceeded to the boat deck and reported to the Master the situation.
The first the bridge knew of the fire was at 4.10 am when the Chief Officer in the chart room with the Second Officer noticed the smell of burning. They returned to the bridge and after getting no reply from the engine room telephone the Second Officer went to see what was wrong. The Chief Officer went to report to the Masters room and on returning the war time emergency alarm bell began to sound, this was not the recognised fire alarm, the correct fire alarm failed to sound
The Master, Captain Peter Dunshire awoke to be told that the engine room was an inferno and that it had become impossible to shut off steam. The officers accommodation was burning, the funnel was blazing and everything of wood around the bridge also, flames were coming through the engine room skylight and there was smoke in two of the holds. The Captain asked the Chief Engineer if there was any danger of explosion in the engine room, the reply was "anything can happen now"
The Master then gave the order to abandon ship, it was 4.20 am. He then attempted to signal a nearby ship passing about four miles starboard on a southerly course by Aldis Lamp, the wireless apparatus was inoperable as the ships main power supply failed early on in the fire and the emergency battery supply would not work. He was unsuccessful. No attempt was made to fire distress rockets.
All crew and passengers were mustered at the lifeboat stations on the boat deck. There was no panic. Attempts were made to lower the starboard boats but the vessel was still making substantial headway and there was great difficulty in launching because the releasing gear, not standard issue, was not suitable for use when the ship was moving.
The forward boat starboard side was first to be lowered into the water and at first was unmanageable due to the speed of the ship, it drifted astern under the after boat which was then being lowered, some of the men in the first boat managed to scramble into the after boat and cut the forward falls/ropes with an axe, then the boat drifted astern.
The after boat was lowered into the water and the after fall unhooked and the boat was towed alongside, the forward davit broke and the boat overturned. Those that were thrown into the water managed to re-float it and most of them managed to get back on board.
The next boat to be lowered was the after boat port side, a motor boat. The forward fall became unhooked, probably due to the swell and remained hanging by the after fall. The forward boat here was successfully launched as the ship had now slowed. Chief Officer John K Edmunds, the Master and 12 others went into the last lifeboat. They had seen men from one lifeboat thrown into the water and they searched for survivors, Mr Edwards made everyone sing loudly, pausing between verses to hear any answering shout. 18 crew and two passengers were lost as a result of the lifeboat difficulties and possibly some Victory life jackets (supplied with the ship) failing.
The survivors were picked up by a passing vessel, the Swedish PL Pahlsson which had been signalled by the Master of the Samwater earlier. Twenty three crew including the Master and three passengers with no serious injuries were landed at Lisbon.
Portuguese trawlers took the ship in tow but had to abandon her. Spanish trawlers later towed her to the entrance of Vigo Bay were she sunk close to the shore in deep water north of Cies Islands between Punta Cabello and Punta Escodelo, patches of oil and loose wool marked her spot.
The inquiry, held at Liverpool 22nd-24th May and London 19th July 1947 held no individual in authority to blame and concluded that the fire spread so rapidly that nothing could be done. Hoses and pumps were burned out, steering gear was out of control. The disastrous consequences may have been avoided if more personnel had been available in the machine room at the change of the oil filters and that recommended improvements should be implemented in oil burning ships such as efficient screening of around hot filters, Instruction in use of filters to be available. more drastic measure to prevent smoking in stokeholds, extension spindles to be carried to a higher level in ships and keys for working them to be kept handy.