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.
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.
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 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.
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.