Anglo-American Naval Shipbuilding and Industrial Mobilization, 1937-1945

The proposed paper compares naval shipbuilding firms, construction techniques, and defense procurement policies in Britain and the USA. Historians of industrial mobilization during the period under investigation frequently contrast U.S. mass production with British batch methods. Based primarily on an analysis of Liberty cargo ship “mass production” under the auspices of the U.S. construction entrepreneur Henry Kaiser, this paradigm is inapplicable to naval shipbuilding, where batch construction of battleships, aircraft carriers, and destroyers was the name of the game in Britain as well as the United States. Warships were usually constructed in small series by highly experienced naval builders like Browns and Swan Hunter in Britain, and Newport News Shipbuilding and the Bath Iron Works in the United States. Firms in both countries relied extensively on batch techniques, skilled labor, and subcontracting. The paper argues that differences existed in areas other than the often-cited distinction between American volume production and British bespoke work. While British builders remained committed to traditional riveting techniques, American ones introduced welding and prefabrication even before the war, but the effect on yard productivity was initially limited. Differences became more pronounced during the war, when private U.S. builders benefited from heavy government investments in physical plant while most British shipyards made do with extant capabilities. Moreover, the U.S. Navy encouraged yard specialization (Newport News built mostly heavy aircraft carriers and the Bath Iron Works, destroyers) while Britain’s Admiralty usually assigned a wide variety of vessel types to individual shipyards, rendering the realization of economies of scale more difficult. The paper concludes that similar conditions were evident in the military aircraft industry.