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War Economy

Shipbuilding and Repair

Shipbuilding and Repair

Soon after the outbreak of war it became apparent that, although the Royal New Zealand Navy had taken over most of the small coastwise cargo vessels suitable for conversion into minesweepers, there would still be insufficient minesweeping craft to adequately protect New Zealand coastal sea lanes and harbour approaches under war emergencies. Other allied countries, with similar and even more pressing needs of their own, could not be expected to fill the gap. New Zealand had to try her hand at building minesweeping ships and their machinery.

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Shipbuilding was not a new industry in New Zealand. Prior to the war a steady flow of small ships had been built, and the knowledge so gained laid the foundation for the war programme. From the beginning of European settlement in the early nineteenth century, small wooden ships had been built in localities where kauri and other suitable timbers were available. Later some had been built entirely of steel, examples being the s.s. Earnslaw, a passenger ship for Lake Wakatipu, of 330 tons, built at Dunedin, and the tug Dunedin, 345 tons, constructed at Port Chalmers. The 205-ton motor ship Hokitika, well-known on the coast, was also built at Dunedin.

To meet the wartime emergency, it was thought that vessels of the minesweeper–trawler class could be constructed of composite design, that is, steel frames with wooden planking. However, a bottleneck occurred. Engines, although they were eventually built in New Zealand, could not be constructed quickly. The impasse was resolved when five old condemned vessels, lying in the ‘Rotten Row’ of the Auckland harbour, were inspected and it was found that their engines still had about a five-year life in them, the estimated duration of the war. Composite hulls could be built and the minesweepers powered with the engines from the condemned steamers.

Early in 1941, plans of the Castle type all-steel trawlers had been received from the Admiralty and construction of composite ships based on the Castle design started. In at least one case the boilers from the old ships had to be placed back to front, and the general arrangement of the composite vessels, having regard to the difficulties of installing old engines in new hulls, was a feat of engineering. Eventually four minesweepers were successfully constructed and launched. They were in service with the Navy for over five years.

In 1940, while these composite vessels were in course of construction, an urgent appeal was received for the construction of all-steel vessels, nine for the New Zealand Navy and five for the Admiralty—the latter order was eventually cancelled. Sufficient steel for hulls and propelling engines was made available by Australia, and boilers were ordered from England. The Railways Department co-operated with private firms in building the engines.

The programme for the construction of steel minesweepers was hardly under way before the Admiralty requested the construction of twelve ‘Fairmile’ patrol vessels for anti-submarine warfare. Arrangements were made, in July 1942, for the work to be done by a combination of the smaller wooden shipbuilding firms in Auckland and the twelve were completed by September 1943.1 All the components necessary for the assembly were imported from the Fairmile

1 Parliamentary Paper H–15, Report of Marine Department, 1946, p. 4.

page 170 Company, England, excepting keels, sterns and other foundation members and the whole of the deck planking, which were made of kauri and other suitable New Zealand timbers.

In addition, the Public Works Department arranged for the construction of twenty-seven small vessels, to act as refuelling barges, crash launches, flarepath dinghies and the like, for air bases in New Zealand and in the nearby Pacific Islands.

Towards the end of 1942, the United States authorities inquired whether New Zealand could construct small craft for them for use in the Pacific areas. At that stage, with yards already hard pressed by a full programme of construction for the New Zealand Navy and to meet Admiralty requirements, it seemed, at first, that nothing could be done. However, the New Zealand Government was anxious to assist the United States as much as possible and a conference was called to see whether special arrangements could be made. The Americans were told that New Zealand could help. Mr James Fletcher1 was appointed Controller of Shipbuilding in November 1942, and set out to make this extra task possible. Two Government shipyards were constructed in Auckland, one for steel tugs and the other for wooden tugs and powered lighters. Prefabricated parts were made by over two hundred smaller firms and delivered at the shipyards for final assembly.

The ship and boat building industry employed seven hundred men in 1939, but by 1944 was employing over seventeen hundred. This, however, takes no account of those in general engineering and other establishments which played a role in repair work or in prefabricating parts of ships. For most of the war, there were very considerable difficulties in finding sufficient skilled labour, and these difficulties were accentuated when the United States orders were accepted.

For the construction of steel minesweepers, the difficulty in securing skilled labour was even more acute than it was for the wooden ships. This was one of the reasons for changing from steel to composite minesweepers at Auckland. With steel-workers, there was no reserve of labour whatever, and, to obtain skilled labour at short notice, workers had to be transferred from some other branch of the engineering trade. At Port Chalmers the work was done by transferring men on loan from the Railway Workshops, while at Auckland a few were obtained from the Railway Workshops at Otahuhu. This was, at best, a temporary measure. Before long the heavier demands on rail transport were reflected in an increase in maintenance work, and the Railways Department not only required the loaned men back, but was forced to reduce the contribution its own workshops could make to the shipbuilding programme.2

1 Later Sir James Fletcher – then Commissioner of Defence Construction.

2 The Railways Department is the largest single employer of engineering tradesmen.

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Wartime ship-construction work is summed up in the following table:1

Wartime Ship Construction
For the New Zealand Navy £
Composite Minesweepers 4 at £60,000 240,000
Steel Minesweepers 9 at £60,000 540,000
Fairmile Anti-Submarine Vessels 12 at £35,000 420,000
Steel Oil Barge 1 at £50,000 50,000
Small Vessels for RNZAF, etc.
Refuelling barges, crash launches, flarepath dinghies, etc. 27 20,000
For the Administration, Western Pacific
Wooden Vessels, 60 ft 5 at £11,000 55,000
For U.S.A.
Steel Tug Boats, 75 ft 22 at £26,700 587,400
Wood Tow Boats, 45 ft 50 at £7,250 362,500
Powered Lighters, 114 ft 15 at £71,400 1,071,000
Wooden Barges, prefabricated, 50 ft 40 at £1,000 40,000
Wooden Barges, completed, 50 ft 100 at £1,200 120,000
Amphibian Trailers, steel 100 at £270 27,000
Wherries, wood, 12 ft and 14 ft 60 at £85 5,100
For Eastern Group Supply Council
Tow Boats 24 at £5,500 132,000

Acceptance of the United States programme made it necessary to bring in carpenters and joiners with no previous shipbuilding experience and to put them to work alongside experienced hands. Under this expedient, referred to as ‘dilution of labour’, the new men mastered the trade in a surprisingly short time. Hundreds of housebuilding carpenters were transferred to shipbuilding, a seemingly entirely different trade, and within a few months they had become proficient in their new industry.

When an order for wooden barges was received from the Americans, there was no spare capacity in the industry and again it was necessary to call on firms outside the usual run of boatbuilding. These barges were made by a syndicate of coachbuilding firms in Christchurch and Dunedin.

1 Based on Parliamentary Paper H–15, Annual Report of the Marine Department, 1946, pp. 4 and 5.

2 The basis for payments to shipbuilders is discussed in Chapter 13.

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Labour problems arose also in the construction of seagoing tugs to an all-welded design. There were not enough welders. A training school was set up and, after three or four weeks' tuition, trainees were passed out for welding on the tugs, their work being supervised by a more experienced welder. The hull of each of these vessels was constructed in three separate parts, the bow portion, the middle body and the stern. During this period early-rising motorists might have been startled to come upon the bow portion on the way by road from the Railway Workshops at Otahuhu, round about daybreak when interference with traffic would be at a minimum.

Normal repairs to the New Zealand coastal fleet had to be maintained while this shipbuilding programme was going on. In addition, because of ship and machinery repair congestion in other countries, there was extra repair work to be done on overseas vessels in New Zealand ports. For example, New Zealand engineering establishments played a part in effecting repairs to over a thousand United States ships.

New Zealand's only floating dock, at Wellington, played an important part in ship repair work. Taylor writes:1 ‘The only one of its type in New Zealand, and one of the largest anywhere nearer than Capetown, the Wellington Harbour Board's Floating Dock gave efficient and most valuable service in the maintenance and repair of British and Allied vessels during the war. In a special measure it helped to relieve the considerable war pressure on British docks, and in its maintenance and repair of United States vessels it played no small part in relieving the shipping problems of the Pacific campaigns.’

The speed and quality of New Zealand shipbuilding and repair work made a considerable impression on United States naval authorities. The following comments are extracted from a United States Navy war history narrative:2

‘… there was a quality of self-sufficiency about the little shops and a pride of workmanship that was most impressive.’

‘The skill of the average New Zealand mechanic should be noted, as it is of the very highest order.’

‘Phenomenal records were put up in building these ships. The rate of building compared favourably with similar construction in the States, only more were built in the States, but the rate was not exceeded.’

‘Considering the pre-war demand for ship repair facilities in

1 T. D. Taylor, New Zealand's Naval Story, p. 145.

2 ‘New Zealand Sea Frontier Organisation’, unpublished manuscript, copy on Department of Statistics file 100/20/43.

page 173 New Zealand, an incredibly large tonnage of American vessels received urgent attention in Dominion ports in the last three years.’

Many of the ships built under special difficulties as part of the wartime shipbuilding programme would still be found usefully serving peacetime pursuits around New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Islands twenty years later.