Empire Baltic

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Introduction

Empire Baltic was built as a L.S.T. (Landing Ship Tank) towards the end of WW2 and converted in 1946 to arguably the world's first RO-RO ferry. She served for much of her civilian life on the Tilbury to Hamburg run, and was requisitioned for the Suez Crisis in 1956. After a service life of 17 years she was broken up in 1962.

Empire Baltic
Empire Baltic shortly after her acquisition by the Atlantic Steam Navigation Company in 1946. [1]

Basic Data

Item Value
Type Landing craft
Registered owners, managers and operators Royal Navy
Builders Canadian Vickers
Yard Montreal
Country Canada
Yard number 207
Registry N/K
Official number LST-3519
Signal letters N/K
Call sign N/K
Classification society N/K
Gross tonnage 2,256
Net tonnage N/K
Deadweight 4,820
Length N/K ft
Overall Length 345.8 ft
Breadth 55.1 ft
Depth 12.5 ft
Draught N/K
Engines Triple expansion steam engine
Engine builders N/K
Works N/K
Country N/K
Boilers N/K
Power 2,750 hp (assumed as this was the standard for the LST vessels)
Propulsion Twin Screw
Speed 11 knots
Cargo capacity N/K
Crew N/K
Passengers 62 passengers (after conversion)

Additional Construction Information

This ship was built as a L.S.T. (Landing Ship Tank) with the purpose of delivering tanks to assault beaches during WW2.

The 'Landing Ship Tank'

The following information about this type of vessel is provided by courtesy of the USS LST 173 website - External Ref. #57:

Landing Ship Tank, abbreviation LST, naval ship specially designed to transport and deploy troops, vehicles, and supplies onto foreign shores for the conduct of offensive military operations. LSTs were designed during World War II to disembark military forces without the use of dock facilities or the various cranes and lifts necessary to unload merchant ships. They gave the Allies the ability to conduct amphibious invasions at any location on a foreign shore that had a gradually sloped beach. This ability permitted the Allies to assault poorly defended sectors, thereby achieving operational surprise and in some cases even tactical surprise.

Specially designed landing ships were first employed by the British in "Operation Torch," the invasion of North Africa in 1942. The British recognized the need for such ships after the debacle at Dunkirk in 1940, when they left behind tons of badly needed equipment because no vessels were available with the capability to bridge the gap between the sea and the land. Following the evacuation, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent his minister of supply a memorandum posing the question "What is being done about designing and planning vessels to transport tanks across the sea for a British attack on enemy countries? These must be able to move six or seven hundred vehicles in one voyage and land them on the beach, or, alternatively, take them off the beaches. . . ." As an interim measure, three shallow-draft tankers were converted to LSTs. The bows were redesigned so that a door, hinged at the bottom, and a 68-foot- (21-metre-) long double ramp could be fitted to the vessels. These modifications made it possible for vehicles to disembark directly from the ship to the beach. Both the new design and the vessel were considered unsatisfactory, but the concept was sound. At the request of the British, the Americans undertook the redesign and production of LSTs in November 1941, and John Niedermair of the Bureau of Ships designed a ship with a large ballast system. Deep-draft ships were necessary to cross the ocean, and shallow-draft vessels were required to bridge the water gap. A new proposed ballast system gave one ship both capabilities: when at sea, the LST took on water for stability, and when conducting landing operations, the water was pumped out to produce a shallow-draft vessel. The American-built LST Mk2, or LST(2), was 328 feet in length and 50 feet wide. It could carry 2,100 tons. Built into the bow were two doors that opened outward to a width of 14 feet. Most Allied vehicles could be transported on, and off-loaded from LST(2)s. The lower deck was the tank deck, where 20 Sherman tanks could be loaded. Lighter vehicles were carried on the upper deck. An elevator was used to load and off-load vehicles, artillery, and other equipment from the upper deck; in later models, a ramp replaced the elevator. The vessel was powered by two diesel engines, and it had a maximum speed of 11.5 knots and a cruising speed of 8.75 knots. LSTs were lightly armed with a variety of weapons. A typical American LST was armed with seven 40-millimetre and 12 20-millimetre antiaircraft guns.

The first mass-produced American LST, the LST-1, was commissioned on December 14, 1942. One thousand fifty-one LST(2)s were produced in American shipyards during the war. Construction time declined, so that by 1945 it took approximately two months to construct an LST--half the time it took in 1943. Through lend-lease the British were provided 113 LST(2)s. LSTs were in great demand in both the Pacific and Europe. They were used in the invasions at Sicily, Italy, Normandy, and southern France. At Normandy, the Americans' employment of LSTs enabled them to meet their off-loading requirements following the destruction of their Mulberry artificial harbour in a storm. In the Southwest Pacific theatre, General Douglas MacArthur employed LSTs in his "island hopping campaigns" and in the invasion of the Philippines. In the Central Pacific, Admiral Chester Nimitz used them at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. LST(2)s served as troop ships, ammunition ships, hospital ships, repair ships, and numerous other special purposes. A number of LST(2)s were even fitted with flight decks for small reconnaissance aircraft. During the war 26 LSTs were lost in action, and 13 more were lost in accidents and rough seas.

Career Highlights

Date Event
20 April 1945 Launched as LST-3519
21 September 1945 Completed
1946 Leased to the Atlantic Steam Navigation Company, converted for use as a civilian ferry and name changed to Empire Baltic
1956 Ownership changed to the British Government
10 July 1962 Delivered to be broken up at La Spezia

Service in WW2

Although built as a landing ship for the Royal Navy, LST 3519 was delivered almost at the end of the war and as far as I have been able to ascertain was not actually used by the Royal Navy during WW2.

Service post WW2

The Atlantic Steam Navigation Company

Frank Bustard had founded a company called the Atlantic Steam Navigation Company in 1934. He wanted to start a cheap transatlantic passenger service but failed to get anywhere as he could not raise the finances to do so. After WW2 he spotted an opportunity to use LSTs as short-haul vehicle ferries and hired three of them from The Admiralty for this purpose. The ships were converted to provide passenger accommodation as well as space for vehicles and the first of them (formerly LST 3519 but renamed Empire Baltic) made its first voyage on 11 September 1946 sailing from Tilbury to Rotterdam.

Empire Baltic appears to have been the first RO-RO ferry.

Empire Baltic continued in use as a vehicle transporter - much of the time transporting tanks to and from Europe for the Army - until the Suez crisis in 1956.

Empire Baltic
Empire Baltic with a deck cargo of Army trucks - the date and location are not known. [1]

Stan Mayes spent several years on Empire Baltic in three periods between December 1949 and May 1956. Accounts of all his voyages and many photos can be found on the Benjidog Recollections website HERE.

Empire Baltic
Empire Baltic at Kai 26 Hamburg in 1950. [1]

Mine Damage

On 24 September 1949, Empire Baltic struck a mine at position 53° 30' N 05° 15' E (off Borkum, West Germany). Tugs from Borkum and Cuxhaven went to her assistance. I have not been able to discover any more information about the damage caused.

The Suez Crisis

Empire Baltic was one of many ships used to land tanks during the abortive 'Operation Musketeer' in October 1956. The full list was:

HMS Anzio, HMS Bastion, HMS Buttress, HMS Citadel, HMS Counterguard, HMS Evan Gibb, HMS Empire Cymric, HMS Empire Cedric, HMS Empire Celtic, HMS Empire Doric, HMS Lofoten, HMS Loftus, HMS Empire Baltic, HMS Portcullis, HMS Parapet, HMS Puncher, HMS Rampart, HMS Ravager, HMS Redoubt, HMS Striker, HMS Reggio, HMS Sallyport, HMS Salerno, HMS Sulva.

Empire Baltic carried centurion tanks to Port Said. She was under the control of the Ministry of War but manned by Merchant Navy personnel.

Final Years of Service

Wikipedia reports that Empire Baltic was returned to service with Atlantic Steam Navigation Company after the Suez crisis but was withdrawn in 1959, and taken to be broken up in 1962. She may have been operated for a time in 1961 by the British India Steam Navigation Company but I have been unable to find any further information about this.

Image Credits

  1. All images by courtesy of Stan Mayes