The Loftsman
Leith Shipyards

A history of the Ships built at the Henry Robb Shipyard in Leith, Scotland. Also a testimony to the men who built the Ships and to all who sailed in them.
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Outside Work


Henry Robb Shipbuilders and Engineers like most other small firms needed work other than building ships to sustain the company and keep employment numbers up.

They were constantly on the look for what would be termed “Outside Work” jobs that could be taken on and utilise the considerable skills of the workforce, prior to World War II the records are a bit sketchy on this subject, but as part of the companies huge war effort in building and designing ships of war they also took part in the building of the harbours that were to ensure the success of the D-Day landings in Normandy in the summer of 1944, the start of the liberation of Europe from the nazi strangle hold that had the continent in it’s grip for 5 long years.

Scotland’s contribution to D-Day also drew on her manufacturing and industrial base. It was the Clyde built paddle steamer Talisman that was the HQ ship for the Mulberry Harbours and large sections of the Mulberrys, themselves were tested and made in Scotland. Trials for a floating, sectional pier and   harbour system with breakwaters which could respond to the tide and enable to Allies to land on the shallow shelved beaches in France where there was no major port, first took place at Garliston in South West Scotland. Eighteen pier heads were made by Alex Findlay & Company of the Parkneuk Works in Motherwell and many of the  “Hippo” sections were made by Henry Robb at Leith and finished at the pier now made famous by Harry Ramsden’s Fish and Chip Shop. Over one hundred Scottish firms were involved in the sub contracting arrangements of this massive undertaking.

Sections of PLUTO, the cross Channel fuel supply system, ships, landing craft, navigation equipment, precision instruments, uniforms, aero engines, ammunition, armour plating, hessian, catapult and towing hawsers (made at the Brunton Works in Musselburgh) and the X craft built on the Clyde are examples of Scotland’s contribution, which along with timber, coal, distilling, farming and fishing all helped to make the assembly of the massive invasion force possible. 

Mulberry Harbours for D-Day.

The vital build-up in reinforcements and supplies of the successful landings in France in June 1944 was made possible by the unique construction methods employed to produce two complete harbours in the British Isles, and to transport them in sections across the English Channel to the French coast. The harbours were designed to be established at Vierville-sur-Mer and at Arromanches, on the coast of Normandy. That for the former, known as Mulberry A, was intended for American use but had to be abandoned after the very severe storm on D-Day + 13 in favour of the French port of Cherbourg which became available earlier than had been expected. The British harbour, Mulberry B, which was in a more sheltered position, was used right through the autumn and winter and into 1945.  


At Arromanches, the site chosen for Mulberry B, the sea bead was shallow and sandy, and a small reef – the Calvados Reef – offshore partially sheltered the area. At one time French engineers had proposed a permanent harbour here, but the difficulties were considered insurmountable. The actual planning of Mulberry B was based on French charts, though the final siting was dependent on soundings taken on D-Day.     


Very simple in composition, the harbours comprised only three parts, (1) the pierheads and quays, (2) the floating roadways, (3) the breakwaters. The initial decision to construct them was taken at the Quebec Conference in 1942, when instructions for the design of the pierheads and floating roadways were given. At the 1943 conference, also at Quebec, it was decided to proceed with the design and construction of the concrete caissons which formed the breakwaters.         


The design and main research work on the pierheads or landing pontoons was undertaken by Messrs. Lobnitz & Co., Ltd., of Renfrew. This firm's association with the scheme came about through the intervention of Brigadier Sir Bruce White, K.B.E., R.E. (director of the scheme for the Quartermaster-General), who had knowledge of a dipper dredger of Lobnitz construction having safely ridden a severe storm in the West Indies several years previously. The problem confronting the designers was summed up by Mr. Churchill this: “Piers for use on beaches: - They must float up and down with the tide. The anchor problem must be mastered – let me have the best solution worked out. Don't argue the matter. The difficulties will argue for themselves.” The Churchillian manner! That was in the autumn of 1942. The prototype was in the Solway Firth by April 1943. This original pierhead, which required over 1,000 tons of steel, was there thoroughly tested for many months, and was found to be entirely satisfactory – an amazing achievement considering the magnitude of the undertaking and the short time available.     

The Flower Class Corvette HMS PINK was hit by a torpedo and ended up beached during the invasion, she was written off as a total constructive loss.

The pierheads consisted of a steel pontoon with four steel legs or spuds which were power-operated and when driven hard against the sea bed caused the pontoon to rise. Hence the pierheads could be adjusted to maintain a fairly constant height above sea-level; alternatively, they could float with the tide, sliding up or down the legs. 

After completion of the tests, approval was give to about 200 firms throughout the country for the large-scale manufacture of the piers and pierheads. A waste stretch of ground at Leith was very soon transformed into erection berths where the majority of the construction took place. Other sites were at Conway, North Wales, managed by Messrs. Jos. Parkes & Son, of Northwich, and at the Military Port No. 1 at Cairnryan, where the Army entirely undertook the erection.           

The roadways were designed so that they could be towed for about 100 miles and be able to stand up to such weather as is common in the English Channel in the summer months. They comprised 80-foot bridge spans, supported on floats. Each span consisted of two 80-foot girders and a 10-foot wide road, and weighed about 30 tons. They were so flexible that the roadway could twist vertically until one end was at an angle of 40 degrees to the other, and yet still carry the heaviest of equipment at a speed of 25 m.p.h. It was composed of separate panels loosely bolted to the cross members. The support for the spans consisted of pontoons of steel plate or reinforced concrete; these were known by the code name of Beetles. Those Beetles which were always to remain afloat, even at low tide, were constructed of precast concrete panels 1½ ins. thick, and were joined by concrete ribs cast in situ. Other Beetles were built of steel sheeting. Roadway lengths of 500 feet could be towed in one section; that is in six spans made up of five spans and the shore ramp float.
Many Henry Robb built ships took part in the invasion from warships to tugs and cargo ships carrying canned petrol.


MacDonald Road Fire Station, Edinburgh

After the Second World War the Leith Shipyards of Henry Robb Ltd built many what would be termed as off site constructions and a pretty novel one for its time was a fire Drill Ship representation built next to the fire station at MacDonald Road Fire Station.

One of the most feared of disasters at sea is the thought of a fire breaking out on a ship, it can be just as bad if the ship is in dock and this was one of the reasons that the Edinburgh & South-East Scotland Fire Brigade pushed for a training facility to replicate some of the varied problems of fighting a fire on a ship.

Who better to build such a facility than a shipyard?
The training facility was build complete with an engine room and two further decks to represent a superstructure above, along with a Bridge Deck as well all complete with cabins, giving fire fighters and Mercantile Marine crews a good basic training in facing such a problem.

The Fire drill ship was built by Henry Robb Shipbuilders Ltd, circa 1960

The MacDonald Road Fire Station was not all that far from the Shipyard in Leith, as it is situated just of Leith Walk.

After all if you are close to a port it makes sense to have this type of capability for fighting fires on a ship, just as you would practise fire fighting on an aircraft by using an old aeroplane.

The French Fire-fighters had one even better as the used an old Henry Robb Build River Class Frigate to train fire fighters in ship based fire fighting techniques.

Photograph is  © Copyrightkim traynorand licensed for reuse under thisCreative Commons Licence

 Fire drill ship, Macdonald Road
A replicated ship's superstructure to help train firemen to tackle any blaze on a ship in Leith Docks or offshore in the Firth of Forth. Its instigator was Frank Rushbrook who commanded the Edinburgh & South-East of Scotland Fire Brigade from about 1960?


Of course the business of ship repair was also high on the list of work to be sought and to be carried out and the yard worked on countless numbers of ship repairs including many conversions of ships from there original design intentions, some work was gained from the need for such converted vessels to work in the North Sea and further afield.

They managed to secure some conversion work for the Vickers offshore companies and two of the ships converted into dive support vessels included the VICKER VISCOUNT and the VICKERS VOYAGER both ships were converted at Leith by Henry Robbs.

The VICKERS VISCOUNT at Leith early 1980's

(photo credit unknown for now)

VICKERS VOYAGER seen at Leith (with the famous eyesore behind)

Many, many more ships were repaired by the yard and we shall try and feuture some more of them over time.



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