Many years ago, while on a train, I met a man who had sailed in the convoys of the Second World War. He asked if I had finished with the newspaper that was folded by my side, and that started a conversation. It turned out he had been an able seaman in the Merchant Navy and was waiting to meet some of his old shipmates before going to Tower Hill to pay his respects to fallen comrades. He drew from his pocket a small row of medals which he said he was embarrassed to wear in public as it wasn’t any special commemoration day, but was going to put them on when he arrived at the Merchant Navy memorial.
The fight to keep these routes open was called The Battle of the Atlantic.
Following the precedence established in the First World War, the convoy system was adopted for the majority of the merchant ships. For a convoy system to function properly, adequately equipped escorts are required but, in the early years, escorts for these convoys were in short supply and their equipment was poor for dealing with the submarines that were the main weapon in the German Navy’s arsenal. Only 20 U-boats were sunk in the first year of the war. It was, as the German submariners referred to it, ‘the happy time’.
It may have been for the U-boats, but for the Merchant Navy it was a time of desperation and the men of the Merchant Navy bore the brunt of the battle. After the fall of France, in just a few months 282 merchant ships were sunk.
The Merchant Navy was in action from the first day to the last. There was no respite. 2,603 merchant ships were sunk and 30,000 merchant seamen lost. Far more were injured, both physically and mentally, and thousands died shortly after leaving their ships. These deaths are not officially recorded. Hundreds more were made prisoners of war and, in a number of cases, those captured by the Japanese were executed by gunfire or decapitation. When their ships were sunk, the seamen’s pay stopped and dependants at home were often driven into poverty. Even when they became prisoners of war, the government refused to help and, while members of the other armed forces received their pay throughout captivity, the men of the Merchant Navy received nothing.
Thirty days’ unpaid survival leave was given, but this started from the day the ship sank. Time spent in lifeboats or returning home was considered leave. For those who actually managed to get home, they were often reviled, not just by civilians but by those of the other forces as they had no uniform to show who they were.
While mariners fought and died in every sea and ocean, the Atlantic became the real killing ground. Here, the enemy concentrated their forces for one of the most ferocious and prolonged battles in the history of sea warfare.
Ships could be replaced but the men could not. They became fewer and younger, but still they signed up. Cadets aged 16 were normal, ratings of 15 and even 14 were not unknown. Five hundred Merchant Navy personnel of 16 or under died, the youngest being 14, who died with his 15-year-old brother.
What is not known is that for the first years of the war they often fought alone, with only those equally brave and unrecognised men of the Maritime Artillery Regiment and the naval reservists who joined them to man the obsolete guns provided to the Merchant Navy for their defence. There was little Air Force or Royal Navy available to protect or assist them.
On their ships, there were no doctors, scant medical equipment, no clothing issues and poor lifesaving equipment, yet they prevailed.
When it was over, there were no bands or parades to welcome home the merchant seamen. Few medals were given and their war and bravery was overshadowed by the well-publicised deeds of the other forces, yet their appalling casualty rate spoke of their sacrifice.
Of course they weren’t all heroes. Many deserted and refused to sail. Ships were abandoned without a shot being fired at them. Men panicked and took the boats, leaving their comrades behind, but their behaviour was no more than in the other services.
It would also be wrong to suggest that they continued sailing their ships through the horror of war because of their devotion to their country. Some undoubtedly did, but the majority needed the money and this was their only trade. Like all those in uniform, they found themselves caught up in a calamity and all they could do was continue, often in quiet desperation, doing the job they knew and praying for it to end.
It did, and because of their resilience and endurance in working through their fears, the battle of the Atlantic was won, and, though assisted admirably by the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, that victory, if the death of so many seamen can be called that, belongs to the Merchant Navy.