Speaking in 1941, it was Winston Churchill who first brought a besieged UK public’s attention to the vital role the British merchant navy was undertaking
"The Merchant Navy, with its Allied comrades, night and day, in weather fair or foul, faces not only the ordinary perils on the sea, but the sudden assaults of war from beneath the waters or from the sky. Your first task is to bring to port the cargoes vital for us at home or for our Armies abroad, and we trust your tenacity and resolve to see this stern task through ... We feel confident that the proud tradition of our island will be upheld today, wherever the Ensign of a British Merchantman is flown," Mr Churchill said.
And so it was this ‘Fourth Service’ of civilians, old and young, lacking any training in how to wage war, manning the biggest merchant fleet in the world at the time, who were suddenly tasked with maintaining the lifelines and lifeblood of our island nation. Britain’s enemies were acutely aware of these fragile lifelines. In fact, the German submarine force in the latter part of World War I had come dangerously close to cutting Britain’s supply lines and forcing a capitulation, and from the outset of the second world war, it was the strategy of Adolf Hitler and his chief of the navy, Grand Admiral Dönitz to attack and destroy Britain’s supply lines with the intent to find victory without the need of a costly invasion.
Within hours of the formal declaration of war, seamen of the merchant navy became the first victims of the conflict with the loss of the liner Athenia, torpedoed without warning in the North Atlantic whilst en route to Montreal, the incident a grim foreshadowing of what was to come.
The merchant service was thrust further into the conflict when numerous vessels were requisitioned for war service and used as naval auxiliaries. Ocean liners were converted to armed merchant cruisers and troop carriers whilst even the lowly trawlers of the fishing fleets were utilised to sweep the sea lanes of mines.
And it was in these early dark days of the war that merchant seamen rose, magnificently, to the occasion.
From the fleet of ‘little ships’ rescuing a defeated army off the beaches in the Miracle of Dunkirk, to the heroic sacrifice of totally unsuitable armed merchant cruisers engaged in convoy escort being sunk while engaging vastly superior enemy warships in valiant but hopeless efforts to save their consorts.
The horrors that faced the merchantmen engaged in Russian convoys taking vital military supplies to Stalin’s battered armies, the massacre of convoy PQ17 still undertaking their duties in the full knowledge that the loss of their vessel in those northern waters meant almost certain death. That the besieged island of Malta, then under massed air bombardment and close to starvation, was saved eventually by supplies delivered by merchant vessels bravely supported by the senior service must never be forgotten. The oil tanker Ohio, convoy ‘Pedestal’ and others showed feats of bravery the likes of which we are unlikely to see again.
With the entry of the United States to the global conflict, there came about the time which could be described as ’the end of the beginning’. Harnessing their massive industrial might, the losses suffered by the merchant fleets were built and replaced by shipyards in the United States quicker than they were being lost on the North Atlantic supply route. It was the liberty ships and victory ships that made good the enormous losses suffered since the onset of war. The increased tonnage coming off the slipways provided the means to transport huge volumes of war materials to an Old World in conflict.
It was the merchant navy that could then be seen to be on the offensive by providing the logistical means to undertake the North African ‘Torch’ landings, the invasion of Sicily through the ’soft underbelly’ and eventually being formed into the greatest armada the world has ever known for the Allied assault on the Normandy beaches.
It was thus appropriate that the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Dwight D Eisenhower said upon the cessation of hostilities in 1945, “The officers and men of the merchant marine by their dedication to duty in the face of enemy action as well as the natural dangers of the sea have brought to us the tools to finish the job. This contribution to Final Victory will long be remembered”.
Some 63,000 Allied merchant seamen lost their lives in the war. They are now remembered in war memorials all around the world whilst their sunken ships are recognised by Act of Parliament as official war graves.
At the author’s request Riviera Maritime Media has made a donation to the Royal British Legion to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day.