The Last of a Great Fleet of Ships: HMS Rame Head

On the 76th anniversary of her commissioning, we profile the career and end of HMS Rame Head, the last of any version of the vital wartime built Canadian Park and Fort class merchant ships known to exist.

The Shipsearcher Identification Section (SIS) go to great lengths trying to locate views of the “last” member of whole classes of ships, because it helps us add a broad range of ship types to our listings, and because the staff naval historian feels that locating views of these last ships is a worthwhile “history exercise” HISTEX. Recently, we stumbled across views of what looked like a US Liberty ship being scrapped near Ghent, Belgium. It took some digging, but we eventually traced the story to the last of the Canadian built Park/Fort wartime merchant ships. Today marks the 76th anniversary of her commissioning into the Royal Navy.

Rame Head laid up outside of Portsmouth, ca. 2008. Credit: Colin Babb / Derelict Ship – Portsmouth Harbour

During the Second World War’s longest battle, the Battle of the Atlantic, Canada built more than 320 large merchant ships, as one contribution to the Allied war effort against the Axis powers. Every cargo that got through the U-boat-infested waters mattered, and replacing lost merchant ships with Canadian-built hulls helped get new equipment, munitions, and other war supplies to Europe. For a small country with few shipyards, the wartime expansion of naval and merchant shipbuilding capacity, on both Atlantic and Pacific coasts, was spectacular.

Many of these ships originated out of the same basic British “North Sands” design (basically a standard Tramp steamer). The British government, desperately in need of merchant ships, had contracted American yards to build sixty “Ocean ships” in 1940. They were simple to build, with a large amount of cargo space.

A line drawing of a US-built Liberty Ship, which was very similar to both Ocean and Park designs. Credit: Kallgan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Canadian government quickly agreed to build similar ships, and set to the task in 1941. Some were built with rivetted hulls (North Sands ships), many were welded (Canadian and Victory ships). At 442’ overall and about 14,400 tons displacement, these vessels were not built for grace or speed.** The ships retained for Canada’s merchant fleet were given names of famous Canadian parks, while the ships destined for the British were named after forts.

HMS Rame Head ca. 1962 © IWM FL 17891.

HMS Rame Head was a member of the 21 ship “Beachey Head” class, which was a naval modification of the basic Fort/Park merchant ships. They were built as depot, maintenance and repair ships for the Royal Navy. The hull was launched in late November 1944 from North Vancouver Shipyards, Vancouver, BC, and Rame Head was commissioned 18 August, 1945, days after the War ended in the Pacific.

HNLMS Vulkaan, ca. 1948. built as HMS Beachy Head, before transfer to the Dutch Navy. She would later be transferred to the Canadian Navy as HMCS Cape Scott [cropped]. Credit: Nationaal Archief (Dutch National Archives) 902-5597 Snikkers / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

During the postwar era, she was updated several times. Starting out as an escort maintenance ship, she then served as an accommodation ship from 1972. She is most remembered for her time attached to the the naval establishment HMS Excellent, at Whale Island, near Portsmouth, berthed in the same location later occupied by HMS Bristol. She then spent many years laid up near Fareham, and was occasionally used by the Special Boat Service for assault training. With the 2001 sinking of the former HMCS Cape Breton (a very similar ex-RN repair ship originally named HMS Flamborough Head) to make a reef, Rame Head became the last Fort/Park class merchant ship in existence. By contrast, there are still three of the more numerous US-built Liberty ships (2 of which are museums), and one slightly larger Victory ship.

In early 2009, following a whole program of scrapping of retired Royal Navy ships, Rame Head was sold off to the Galloo shipbreaking group (Van Heyghen Recycling). The old hull was towed to Ghent, Belgium. A report by the Ministry of Defence outlines the major steps and challenges encountered during the dismantling of this old ship – more asbestos and more concrete ballast had to be carefully removed than was originally estimated. The report notes that only one group had put forward a proposal to save the ship. Dismantling proceeded swiftly. So went the last of the great and vital fleet of wartime Park and Fort ships.

*The title of this post was inspired by S.C. Heal’s book A great fleet of ships: The Canadian forts & parks

**The same British J.L. Thompson & Sons design would later be used for the Liberty ships.

Ekranoplan Updates! The “Caspian Sea Monster” crawls ashore, and it isn’t alone!

We located new views of the Soviet naval ekranoplan MD-160, the only completed Lun-class Ekranoplan, on the beach South of Derbent, Republic of Dagestan, and have added these to our listing of these very unusual craft!

MD-160, detailed view.
MD-160 hauled ashore 12 km south of Derbent on the Caspian coast.

Towed down the coast from its long-term outside storage at Kaspiysk in late July, 2020, this 242-foot long “Caspian Sea Monster” is intended to join the collection of the giant Patriot Park museum/reanactment center.* It grounded accidentally and became stuck on the beach in the surf, and was feared to have been significantly damaged. However, recent efforts in December succeeded in moving it inland, out of harm’s way. MD-160 is a Lun-class “ground-effect” or “wing-in-ground” vehicle. It was a development of the 302-foot long KM, the largest aerial vehicle of its time (new entry for this beastly craft in the listing). Soviet Ekranoplans were designed at the Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau, and mostly the product of visionary designs by hydrofoil expert Rostislav Alexeyev.

KH-8 satellite image of the Soviet naval base at Kaspiysk from 1968 showing the larger KM. National Reconnaissance Office.

MD-160 entered service in 1987 and was retired sometime during the late 1990s. Unlike the KM, and smaller ekranoplans, it was armed with six enormous p-270 Moskit anti-ship cruise missiles, mounted in pairs of tubes staggered along the dorsal surfaces of the fuselage. Guidance systems for these were found in bulges in the nose and just at the leading edge of the massive tail section. It had stubby wings with a wingspan of 144-feet. Eight Kuznetsov NK-87 turbojet engines, mounted in pods of four jets on each side of the cockpit, powered this strange craft.

Artist’s conception of an ekranoplan, which closely resembles the Lun-class, ca. 1988 NARA: 330-CFD-DD-ST-88-09484 (unidentified artist)

While researching MD-160, we heard for the first time about a “sister-plan.” There exists a second, unfinished variant named Spasatel (Russian for “Rescuer”), whose design was modified, removing the anti-ship missile tubes. It was intended to serve as an ambulance transport or Search and Rescue craft…maybe a hospital ekranoplan!

The unfinished variant of the Lun class ekranoplan, Spasatel appears largely intact from this view, with both wings and the tail surfaces dismantled and stacked separately on top of the fuselage.

Left unfinished upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, It was stored in a shed near the shipyards at Nizhny Novgorod, until moved outside around 2014. there is some interest in resuming the project! The view above shows all the major pieces are stacked on the fuselage. For more views of ekranoplans, please check out our Russian Navy – Ekranoplans listing page.

A cutaway model of Spasatel at MAKS airshow, 2015, showing the arrangement as a medical transport ekranoplan. [detail of] Credit: Vitaly V. Kuzmin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

*  The original KM was called the “Caspian Sea Monster” by Western observers, so these Lun class ekranoplans may more accurately be the daughters of the Caspian Sea Monster.