Britain is trying to sell part of its historic London docks, the home port of ships that once spread the tentacles of its empire around the world, to American investors using tax breaks and the elimination of bureaucratic red tape as a lure.

Even the new British ambassador to Washington, Sir Oliver Wright, lent his prestige to the sales pitch of the London Docklands Development Corp. when he told a group of potential investors invited to the British Embassy here last week, "This is a further golden opportunity to increase your investment in Britain, increase your profits and further strengthen your bottom line."he portion of the 5,000-acre Docklands set aside as an "enterprise zone" sits close to London's world financial center. It is located just 2 1/2 miles east of the Tower Bridge over the Thames River.

The total redevelopment of the Docklands is being patterned loosely after the recent revitalization of the port of Baltimore, which also had fallen on hard times.

It wasn't always that way with the London Docklands, which in the 18th century tied the farflung British Empire with its capital city.

When the wharves became overcrowded, British merchants and shipowners built in the early 1800s a system of new docks connected to the river by a network of channels. Their names call up the images of the great days of the empire: the West India Dock, the Prince Albert Dock and the East India Dock.

Nowadays, the Docklands, which stretches along both sides of the Thames, is considered the largest prime development site left in Western Europe -- exceptional because of its proximity to one of the world's great cities.

It deteriorated into an industrial wasteland in the past two decades as London's shipping hub has moved to new docks closer to the sea, leaving the factories that had sprung up around them without a reason for existing.

The 14-month-old development corporation wants to attract high-tech companies, especially in the field of telecommunications, to the waterfront area.

Reginald Ward, chief executive of the development corporation, believes new rules allowing private firms to compete with government-owned British Telecom in the communications business will help to induce international companies to set up in the Docklands.

As an incentive, the development corporation is offering 10 years' freedom from property and development land taxes, a total write-off of capital costs against corporate or income taxes, and an easing of bureaucratic red tape in setting up plants.

There are 10 similar enterprise zones in England, but none is as close to the center of a major city.

Ward said the development corporation has just begun offering the incentives, with American investors as the first target.

Plans include linking the Docklands with London's transport network via a light rail system and the possibility of converting a series of docks into an airport for STOL (short take-off and landing) planes that could offer direct flights within Britain and to other European capitals.