History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

CS Ocean Layer
by Bill Glover

CS OCEAN LAYER
Official Number 181837

Built in 1945 by Flensburger Schiffs, Germany

Length 378.0 ft. Breadth 50.9 ft. Depth 21.25 ft. Gross tonnage 4534

Taken as war reparations by British Government while still on the stocks. Completed in 1948 for the Ministry of Transport and named Empire Frome. Purchased by Submarine Cables Ltd in 1953 and converted for cable laying by R.S. Hayes (Pembroke Dock) Ltd. The cost of purchase and conversion was stated by the company to be about £1 million [The Times, 12 April 1956].

Fitted with four cable tanks, No 1, 42 ft diameter, capacity 18,360 cubic feet; No 2, 46 ft diameter capacity 22,862 cubic feet; No 3, 43½ ft diameter, capacity 23,328 cubic feet; No 4, 29 ft diameter, 10,112 cubic feet. This allowed the vessel to carry 1100 nm of coaxial cable or 1875 nm of deep sea telegraph cable.The cable machinery fitted was originally designed and manufactured by Johnson & Phillips for PLUTO (Pipe Line Under The Ocean), the system used to get fuel to the Allied forces after D-Day.

CS Ocean Layer painting, date unknown
Image courtesy of Stewart Ash

In June 1959 while laying TAT 2, the ship caught fire and became a total loss (see story below). Sold for scrap December 1959.

CS Ocean Layer after the fire
Image courtesy of John Keane

CABLE WORK

1955 Hanstholm, Denmark - Kristiansand, Norway, co-axial cable
1956 Chartered by Cable & Wireless to renew and repair cables Pernambuco-Bahia- Vitoria, Brazil. In all 1218 nm of cable were laid.
1956 Power cables between British Columbia and Vancouver Island for BICC.
1957 San Francisco - Hawaii cable for AT&T.
1957-8 Renewal of Indian Ocean cables for Cable & Wireless.
1959 Renewal work along Brazilian coast for Cable & Wireless. 900 nm of cable used.
1959 TAT-2. Caught fire during laying.

The Ocean Layer was acquired by Submarine Cables Ltd in 1953 and was converted to cable use. In 1955 the SCL house magazine had a detailed article on the company's history and the ship:

CABLE HISTORY IN THE MAKING

The acquisition of the cable steamship Ocean Layer by Submarine Cables Ltd is another important milestone in the history of submarine cables. Indeed, the early history of the parent companies of Submarine Cables Ltd, namely, Siemens Brothers & Co. Ltd and The Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Co. Ltd, and its predecessors, dating back over a hundred years, is really a history of the the manufacture and laying of submarine cables. It embraces most of the early pioneer work carried out in the laying as well as the manufacture of ocean telegraph cables in the second half of the last century, which gained for Siemens and the T.C. & M. Co. a world-wide reputation in the field of international communications. Between them they have produced nearly half a million nautical miles of submarine telephone and telegraph cables, representing about 90 per cent. of the world's total installations.

VAST EXPANSION

The laying of the first successful trans-Atlantic telegraph cables by the Great Eastern in 1865/6 marked the beginning of a new era in trans-oceanic communications in which the parent companies of Submarine Cables Ltd, were destined to play a conspicuous part not only in the manufacture but also in the laying of many thousands of miles of submarine cables throughout the world, including most of the trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific telegraph cables.

CONSOLIDATION

In 1935, the two firms amalgamated their submarine cable interests to form Submarine Cables Ltd, establishing their combined manufacturing resources at Telcon Works, Greenwich. At the same time they also pooled the vast knowledge and experience of the laying of new submarine cables as well as the recovery and repair of existing cables which they had accumu­lated over many years as owners of a long line of cable vessels operating from Greenwich and Woolwich.

In 1954 Submarine Cables Ltd opened a new factory, appropriately called Ocean Works, at Erith in Kent for the manufacture of the first trans-Atlantic telephone cables — a project which may well mark the beginning of a vast extension of ocean telecommunications systems as did the first Atlantic telegraph cables.

CABLE REPAIR SHIPS

Broadly speaking, cableships fall into two categories. Firstly, those specially designed and built to lay long-distance cables, such as the Colonia, Dominia (the largest cableship of all time) and Faraday, and secondly, the smaller cable-repair ships which can proceed at short notice to any point where a fault has occurred to repair the cable. Submarine cables are exposed to many dangers. Shore ends in comparatively shallow water have to withstand continual chafing by rocks. In certain depths the teredo worm is a determined enemy as it bores through the dielectric and ruins the insulation, but one of the worst foes in coastal waters is the trawler, whose otter boards are a continual source of damage. Another cause of damage, happily rare, are earthquakes similar to those which occurred in the bed of the North Atlantic in 1929, cutting most of the cables between Europe and North America. This disaster cost the cable-operating companies a million pounds by the time the cables had been repaired.

While the larger cableships can, and often do, carry out repair jobs in addition to laying long-distance ocean cables it is obviously uneconomical to use large vessels for this purpose, hence the value of the smaller cableship.

FLEETS BUILT UP

The parent companies of Submarine Cables Ltd have, since the famous charter of the Great Eastern, owned or chartered many vessels for cable work for, in addition to manufacturing submarine cables, they soon saw the advantage of being in a position to undertake the laying of new cables and, when required, the recovery and repair of existing cables to augment the service provided by the fleet of cable-repair ships built up and maintained by cable-operating companies and administrations.

WITHOUT A CABLESHIP

Until 1941 when the Faraday (2) was destroyed by enemy aircraft near Milford Haven, Submarine Cables Ltd had never been without a cable vessel. The tragic loss of the Faraday (2) was a severe blow, for the Company had disposed of its other cableship, the Dominia, only a few years previously.

Without a cableship of its own the Company's operations were severely handicapped. The question of the replacement of the Telconia, which had been sold for breaking up in 1934 after twenty-five years' service, by a slightly larger vessel, had been constantly under review, and with the loss of the Faraday (2) her replacement became even mare urgent, but it was not practicable to undertake this during the war years, nor immediately afterwards.

OCEAN LAYER

The directors foresaw the desirability of again being in a position to lay submarine cables with repeaters inserted and in 1953 acquired the single-screw ss Empire Frome through the Ministry of Transport as being the quickest and most economical way of achieving this. Built in 1948, she was the right size (5,360 tons dead weight) and, since fitted with an active rudder, she is as manoeuvrable for cablework as a twin-screw ship.

The extremely complicated and difficult task of conversion was entrusted to Messrs. R.S. Hayes (Pembroke Dock) Ltd, at Pembroke Dockyard which, it will be recalled, was formerly one of H.M. Dockyards and one which was always selected to build the royal yachts.

The Empire Frome, renamed Ocean Layer, can carry up to 1,100 nautical miles of the latest type deep sea coaxial telephone cable, equivalent to 1,875 nautical miles of average size deep sea type telegraph cable. She is capable of laying moderately long cables with repeaters in one expedition, and of recovering and repairing existing cables at any depth in any part of the world.

CS Ocean Layer on her trials

Her full complement comprises 83 Officers and men, namely:—

20 Deck Officers, Engineers, Electrical Staff, Pursers and Surgeon,
13 Petty Officers,
10 Engine Room Staff,
30 Deck Crew,
10 Cooks and Stewards.

Captain J. Marshall
Master of CS Ocean Layer

HER FIRST CHARTER

Within a month of delivery [in 1955] Ocean Layer completed her first contract by laying the 67 nautical mile Norway-Denmark telephone cable manufactured at Greenwich for the Norwegian and Danish P.T.T. and has since carried out extensive repairs and renewals to cables in the South Atlantic. The diversity of the tasks included in her charter programme demonstrate the versatility of Ocean Layer and her adaptability for handling any kind of cable laying or repair operation entrusted to her.

CABLESHIPS' EQUIPMENT

The Engineering Division at Telcon Works, Greenwich, has specialised in cableships gear and equipment since the days when the Great Eastern was fitted out for the epic Atlantic cable-laying expeditions of 1865 and 1866.

The cable-laying gear of the Great Eastern was actually designed and made at Greenwich. Today, many of the vessels owned by the cable-operating companies and administrations all over the world are equipped with gear designed and produced there, incorporating the wealth of experience gained in using similar equipment in the Company's own ships. As changing conditions demand, fresh designs are prepared and existing ones brought up to date.

Working as they do in close technical harmony with Johnson & Phillips Ltd., also well known for their specialised cable laying equipment, it is natural, therefore, that much of the cable equipment on Ocean Layer should have been designed at Telcon Works, Greenwich. The caterpillar gear, however, was designed by Johnson & Phillips Ltd., in conjunction with Telcon and Post Office engineers, and made at their Charlton Works. So too were Ocean Layer's picking-up and paying-out gear.

CS Ocean Layer from a painting by P Endsleigh Castle.
Submarine Cables Limited Christmas Card, 1955.
Image courtesy of Sheila Jelley.

"The illustration shows our c.s. OCEAN LAYER, commanded by Captain J. Marshall, on her cable-laying trials. Of deadweight 4,600 tons, she can carry up to 3,850 tons of submarine cable.

"Her full complement is 83 officers and men, and she has recently returned from her maiden voyage to the Skagerrak, where she has laid a telephone cable between Norway and Denmark."


Greetings Telegram sent by a crewman on CS Ocean Layer in March 1956. Transmitted from Ocean Layer to Portishead Radio by ship-to-shore radio, then onward by the Post Office telegram service.

Life on board ship for a young crewman

30 January 1955, off Ceuta

February 1956


In June 1959, just six years after her conversion to cable laying, CS Ocean Layer caught fire while at sea. The story was front-page news in the British papers:

Subsequently, the SCL house magazine had this report of the fire:

THE "OCEAN LAYER" ON FIRE IN THE ATLANTIC

It was just after eleven o'clock on the night of June 14, 1959, when the alarm was raised in c.s. Ocean Layer. She was then 700 miles out in the Atlantic, laying cable. So
quickly did the flames spread that the vessel soon became a raging inferno. In spite of the valiant efforts of the crew, Captain Ross signalled "abandoning ship” at 11.45 p.m.

The German motor vessel Flavia, commanded by Captain Gerhard Theune, was the first on the scene and picked up the crew of the blazing Ocean Layer without loss of life. Flavia stood by while salvage operations commenced and the gutted hulk of Ocean Layer, with a dangerous list of 15° to port and still burning, was taken in tow by the German tug Wotan, commanded by Captain Hans Todt.

Captain Ross and his crew were landed at Falmouth on June 19, and on June 21 Ocean Layer, with two of Flavia’s crew on board, dropped anchor in Carrick Roads, two miles off Falmouth. On June 24 she was towed into Falmouth Docks.

A brief inspection of Ocean Layer by officials of her owners, Submarine Cables Ltd., and representatives of the Salvage Association soon showed them that Ocean Layer, the best equipped cable vessel in the world, was completely gutted and virtually a total loss. This was confirmed after a detailed survey by experts acting for the owners and underwriters.

Ocean Layer had almost completed laying a 940 n.m. section of cable which formed part of the new submarine telephone cable link between the United States and France when the disaster occurred.

So fierce was the fire and so quickly did the savage flames spread, that had Captain Ross delayed abandoning his ship a moment longer he wouldhave jeopardised the lives of his crew. To Captain Ross we extend our deepest sympathy. It was his first command. Yet we warmly congratulate him on his prompt action which averted what might have been an even more tragic disaster.

We are indebted to Captain Theune of the Flavia and his crew for their invaluable assistance in accommodating the 98 officers and men of Ocean Layer in a vessel which had a normal complement of only 38. He paid a fine tribute to Captain Ross on the way in which the evacuation was carried out and described it as a model exercise in boat drill.

Captain Ross spoke highly of the outstanding courage, discipline and team work of his officers and men and of our customer engineering group in the face of overwhelming odds. They in turn knew that many of them owed their lives to his timely action.

During her relatively short career of 4 years, Ocean Layer had laid over 6,000 nautical miles of submarine cable in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, including the first power cable to link Vancouver Island with the mainland and a large part of the first California-Hawaii telephone cable.


Captain Anthony Ross, by then retired to Canada, was interviewed in 1991 about his career in the cable service and provided many details on the Ocean Layer fire. The interview is available as a PDF document at at the Arambec Research website.

Thanks to Jim Jones for supplying these articles.

See also the page on Brendan Keane's service on Ocean Layer
and Jim Coulson's page, which includes a first-hand
description of the fire, as does Ken Guy's page.

Last revised: 26 May, 2016

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