Find of the month - Vardefjell - A puzzle at sea - December 2015

During our work in the archive store we came across this fascinating story about the Vardefjell. Included among the documents were not only survey reports on the ship, but also photographs and a copy of the Maritime Inquiry relating to her sinking. However, the reports from the Maritime Inquiry and the photographs seemed to lead to different conclusions about what actually happened to her. Read on to find out more in this blog by Research Specialist and Library Co-ordinator Victoria Culkin:

Motor tanker Vardefjell was built in 1940 at Eriksberg Mek. Verkstads AB, Gothenburg. She was classed +100A1 for sea-going service, carrying petroleum in bulk. She was 8,176 tons measuring 469.2 feet in length.

In December 1942 while travelling in convoy, in heavy weather, she split in two. At the Maritime Inquiry, held in Norway and that can be read here, the representative for the crew stated that ‘nothing of importance concerning the vessel happened until Sunday the 13th in the evening at twenty minutes past eleven o’clock when I heard a violent explosion and understood the vessel had been torpedoed’. The crew tried to lower the lifeboats but were hindered by the heavy weather, and sadly, two of the crew Fireman Otheim and Chief Engineer Ugelstad were lost at sea. Those on watch, a total of 10 men, in the fore part of the ship were also lost. The crew remained on the stern of the ship, but they were not able to steer her. After eleven days at sea on Christmas Eve, the weather calmed and the survivors were able to launch a lifeboat and were picked up by a fishing vessel.

Although we have the first and last survey reports for Vardefjell, unfortunately neither her damage nor repair survey from the accident survive. We do have a series of pictures taken at Sir James Laing & Co.’s shipyard on the River Tyne where she was towed to in early 1943 for repairs. The pictures show the detailed damage to Vardefjell, before her repairs were completed.

1   

 2   3

In this case, the repairs involved replacing the bow section of the ship; according to Lloyd’s Register’s (LR) information, just over 250ft of the stern section of the ship was salvaged. After her repairs, she continued trading and was later sold and disclassed in 1952 at the new owner’s request. She remained in service until December 1960, when she was broken up.

So what happened to Vardefjell?

The simple answer is…. we don’t know. Lloyd’s Register’s accounts state that she broke in half in heavy weather; there is no report of torpedo damage. Survivors reported that a torpedo hit her.

4  

We know that she was electrically welded, so could it have been a brittle fracture? The pictures of the damage do not look like torpedo damage, they indicate a clean split across the breath of the hull.

What is brittle fracture and why does this effect welded ships?

After experimentation during the First World War, and the great loss to merchant shipping during the Second World War, shipyards in the US and the UK began shipbuilding programmes initiated by Government to replace lost merchant ships.

Welding was used for the construction of these ships, as it was quicker and cheaper than riveting and took less time to train a welder. Most wartime standard ships averaged less than a month build time; the California Shipbuilding Corporation completed and launched 23 ships in December 1943. At this time there was little control applied to welding which resulted in inconsistent weld quality. The quality dropped significantly when welders took shortcuts and in addition, not all of the yards carried out the practise of x-raying each weld. If a ship was riveted, the fracture in the steel would be isolated, but when the ship is welded, it acts as a constant piece, allowing the fracture to grow. The ships that were built during the Second World War were also larger than those constructed during the 1920s.

In total, it is estimated that over 20 per cent of the wartime standard ships suffered fractures. One of the worst, SS Schenectady cracked across her deck and both sides whilst berthed at a shipyard after having completed her sea trials just a few days before.

Another tanker and very similar story to the Vardefjell was Esso Manhattan, which broke in half in a calm sea shortly after leaving New York in March 1943. It was initially believed she had hit a mine, but further tests revealed her hull had fractured and split in two. Reports from the Captain and crew noted a sudden shock and vibration throughout the ship, as though from an explosion underneath, the same as the reports from the Vardefjell. Esso Manhattan was towed back to New York, her two sections were re-joined and three months later, she was back in service.

What research has Lloyd’s Register done into welded ships?

These events caused great concern on both sides of the Atlantic, the American Board of Investigation and the Admiralty Welding Committee were set up to establish causes of fractures and find a remedy to the problem. Initially it was believed that the problem in the ships lay in the welding rather than the steel.

The Admiralty Welding Committee appointed a number of experts including LR’s Dr James Montgomerie, then Chief Ship Surveyor and Rex Shepheard, Montgomerie’s eventual successor. Both men had experience of welding during their time in America and Rex Shepheard had supervised construction of welded ships in Germany before the Second World War. Frederick Cocks, Special Surveyor for Welding, was also appointed to the Admiralty Welding Sub-Committee; Cocks had been in Germany and America with Rex Shepheard.

Because of these Committees and LR’s own research, a new set of Rules covering welding were published in 1949, assuring that it was not the workmanship that was at fault but the quality of the steel and the strength of the weld. Lloyd’s Register also initiated the use of radiography for controlling the quality of welding.