Wivenhoe Shipyard Ltd (1)

The Beginning, wooden submarines

John Collins (Nottage Maritime Institute)

A World War Two wooden "submarine" built at Wivenhoe
Nottage Maritime Institute P00796

In 1936 the Otto Andersen & Company’s yard was bought from the mortgagees by National Shipbuilders’ Securities Ltd, and closed down.  Part of the constitution of the new buyers was that the yards should be ‘sterilized’ and no steel ships allowed to be built in them for forty years.

In November 1939, the yard was re-opened by government decree to build small warships for the Admiralty and leased to Wivenhoe Shipyards Ltd.  This was a subsidiary company formed by the Rowhedge Ironworks Ltd, at Rowhedge, which was just across the river, and provided the management and some skilled labour.  Initially equipment was very scarce and although some was ‘borrowed’ from the Rowhedge yard, stemposts and frames for the first minesweepers were cut by hand in a sawpit much as in Nelson’s time.  Some of the skilled former workers ‘directed’ back into the yard were not pleased as they had in the time since it closed found better paid or less arduous work elsewhere.  By the terms of the lease and later sale only wooden ships could be built, although some MMSs and MFVs had steel frames fabricated at Rowhedge.

The dry dock was also cleared of silt and reopened, about 200 wartime repairs being carried out.

The first vessels to be built by the new company were four wooden submarines!   These dummy submarines were stationed at Harwich.  Early in the war two submarine flotillas, one British and the other French, with depot ships H.M.S. Cyclops and F.S. Jules Verne were based there.  The dummies were intended to confuse enemy intelligence, and to decoy bombers.  At that early stage of the War, Harwich was still being used by neutral Dutch, Danish and Swedish passenger ships.  They were given a crew of tailor’s dummies. and sailors from the base were given the task of moving them around so that they would not alwas be seen in the same positions.  A photograph shows them to have been about 100 to 150 feet long and similar to ‘S’ or ‘U’ class boats in appearance although below the waterline they were merely rectangular rafts.  Apparently the foreman shipwright simply copied the shape from a newspaper photograph!

In 1940 Wivenhoe Shipyard began to build a series of wooden minesweepers, but that is another story.

See also:

This page was added on 25/03/2015.

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