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Merchant Seamen : Unrewarded Bravery

red ensign poster

Unrecognised, you put us in your debt;
Unthanked, you enter, or escape, the grave;
Whether your land remember or forget
You saved the land, or died to try to save.

For All Seafarers
by John Masefield

At least 35,000 merchant seaman died as a direct or indirect consequence of the war. In total 2,426 British registered ships were lost, with a tonnage of 11,331,933 grt. (27,491 men lost their lives serving on German U-boats. Together with 5,000 taken prisoner this was a casualty rate of 85%.)1

British merchant ships employed seamen from all over the world. Of the seamen engaged on foreign-going ships in 1938, 27% were Chinese or from British India with a further 5% being Arabs, Indians, Chinese, West Africans or West Indians living in UK ports such as South Shields, Liverpool and Cardiff.2

Many tributes have been paid to the crucial role played by the Merchant Navy in winning the war. The historian John Keegan notes that :

"The 30,000 men of the British Merchant Navy who fell victim to the U-boats between 1939 and 1945, the majority drowned or killed by exposure on the cruel North Atlantic sea, were quite as certainly front-line warriors as the guardsmen and fighter pilots to whom they ferried the necessities of combat. Neither they nor their American, Dutch, Norwegian or Greek fellow mariners wore uniform and few have any memorial. The stood nevertheless between the Wehrmacht and the domination of the world".3

One seaman who served on one of the many Corvettes which escorted convoys throughout the war recalled that :

"We had great respect for the Merchant seamen. I think they were underestimated, especially now by the British public today, because they talk about the Battle of Britain. Granted the pilots did a marvellous, marvellous job, but when you stop and think, how did they get the fuel across to fly those planes, it was the Merchant seamen.....And, honestly, I think they're the bravest men out, the Merchant Navy."4

Admiral Lord Mountevans, writing after the war, captured the atmosphere and danger of the convoys:

"Those of us who have escorted convoys in either of the great Wars can never forget the days and especially the nights spent in company with those slow-moving squadron of iron tramps - the wisps of smoke from their funnels, the phosphorescent wakes, the metallic clang of iron doors at the end of the night watches which told us that the Merchant Service firemen were coming up after four hours in the heated engine rooms, or boiler rooms, where they had run the gauntlet of torpedo or mine for perhaps half the years of the war. I remember so often thinking that those in the engine rooms, if they were torpedoed, would probably be drowned before they reached the engine room steps..."5
In August 1941, when the outcome of the U-boat challenge to the convoy system was far from decided, Admiral Sir Percy Noble, Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches wrote that :

"For two hundred years, and more, these brave men, lacking the training and organisation that adapts their brothers in the Royal Navy so readily to the rigours of war, have, nevertheless, fashioned their own magnificent tradition. Day in, day out, night in, night out, they face to-day unflinchingly the dangers of the deep - the prowling U-boats.

They know, these men, that the Battle of the Atlantic means wind and weather, cold and strain and fatigue, all in the face of a host of enemy craft above and below, awaiting the specific moment to send them to death. They have not even the mental relief of hoping for an enemy humane enough to rescue ; nor the certainty of finding safe and sound those people and those things they love when they return to homes, which may have been bombed in their absence.

When the Battle of the Atlantic is won, as won it will be, it will be these men and those who have escorted them whom we shall have to thank."6

And indeed when the victory was won and the enemy vanquished the thanks of the nation were forthcoming. On 30 October 1945 the Houses of Parliament unanimously carried the following resolution expressing gratitude to the Merchant Navy on the victorious end of the war :

"That the thanks of this House be accorded to the officers and men of the Merchant Navy for the steadfastness with which they maintained our stocks of food and materials ; for their services in transporting men and munitions to all battles over all the seas, and for the gallantry with which, through a civilian service, they met and fought the constant attacks of the enemy."7

The Right Honourable Alfred Barnes, Minister of War Transport said :

"The Merchant Seaman never faltered. To him we owe our preservation and our very lives."

And yet for many of those in the merchant fleet who had served their nation before and during the war, and perhaps even more so for those who had lost loved ones, these thanks may have rung a little hollow. Despite their sacrifices in the first war the merchant seamen were far from well-rewarded for their efforts in the inter-war period and during the second world war. There had been little improvement in working and living conditions on ships between the wars, despite the large profits of many shipping companies. Unemployment amongst British merchant mariners fell below 20% in just two of the years between 1920 and 1939. The basic working week, at 64 hours before overtime, was much longer than in other trades. Pay was low (usually the minimum allowed under British law), conditions often unhygienic and always uncomfortable, and food of very poor quality. Indeed "the men who sailed in these ships - the men who created the wealth - were those who benefited least."8

In 1938 the death rate for merchant seamen was, according to the Registrar General, 47% higher than the national average, the main killers being tuberculosis, cerebral haemorrhage, and gastric or duodenal ulcers. In 1932 the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine had shown that the mortality rate below the age of 55 was twice the rate for seamen as for the rest of the male population. In the 1930's there were in Britain more than 150 charities devoted to the care of merchant seamen.

Morris Beckman has vividly described conditions on the Venetia. On joining the ship in the Autumn of 1940 Beckman was appalled by his living quarters :

"The bulkheads and deckhead had once been cream. They badly needed repainting and were patterned by the dried out remains of hundreds of cockroaches and other seafaring insects. A limp cobweb dangled from a corner over my pillow. Brass fittings were pitted and rusting. The small sink was a network of grease-filled cracks held together by veined porcelain. Overall hung the odour of resident filth...........Insect droppings lay everywhere like the residue of a city smog. I ran my fingers along the edge of the bunkboard. They came away black. I opened the door covering the pipes under the washbasin. The place swarmed with cockroaches, bugs and slugs, and it stank."9

Fragments of insects featured regularly in the ship's water and food and bugs and slugs were found in the mattress. At least Beckman, as a radio officer, had his own quarters. The seamen, oilers and greasers, all 33 of them,

"lived in the fo'c'sle in the most arduous conditions and without chance of any moment of privacy within was set at a premium and encroachments could lead to anger between exhausted, cold, soaked men. In the tropics it became an oven plagued with flies and cockroaches....In gales with portholes closed and ventilators canvassed over it reeked of rubberised clothing, wet wool and body odours."10

In an earlier section it was noted that many convoys completed their journeys unscathed, and that some merchant seamen went the whole five years of the war without witnessing enemy action. This was far from being the experience of most, however, and each and every one of the serving merchant seamen had to bear the strain of knowing that a torpedo attack could come at any moment. As one who served in a wartime merchant ship has put it :

"the men in the engine-room suffered the tortures of the damned, never knowing when a torpedo might tear through the thin plates of the hull, sending their ship plunging to the bottom before they had a chance to reach the first rung of the ladder to the deck"11

This tension and worry was not lightened by the general discomfort of merchant vessels in the fierce North Atlantic weather, nor by the knowledge that "little consideration appears .. to have been given to efficient means of life-saving, either for the crews of escort vessels or for the merchant seamen."12 Despite these dangers

"No British merchant ship was ever held in port by its crew, even at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, when to cross that ocean in a slow-moving merchant ship was to walk hand in hand with death for every minute of the day and night."13

The Battle of the Atlantic was in Churchill's words the Battle for Britain. Yet the front-line soldiers in this battle, those who were the targets of the German torpedoes, received no paid leave on returning to port and "if a man wished to spend time with his family, he had no alternative but to quit the ship and go off pay."14 In the recession-hit 1930's few officers would take this option fearing that in their absence they would be replaced.15 Even more astonishingly, under British law when a ship was sunk the obligations of the shipowner to pay the crew's wages went with it. Those fortunate to complete their Atlantic passages received their pay in full. Those whose ships went down, including the relatives of those killed, would, unless they were fortunate to work for one of the more philanthropic lines, only receive wages due up to the day of the sinking.16 The resentment caused by this is well expressed by Sidney Graham a London Eastender who served on several Atlantic and Arctic convoys and once spent 10 days in a lifeboat :

" soon as you got torpedoed on them ships your money was stopped right away. That's the truth. Everybody kicked up a bit 'cos you couldn't walk about with nothing in your pockets, could you, let's be fair - and all the rum shops were open! Only thing they give us was our clothes....we couldn't walk about naked, could we? Well, we felt devastated because you didn't think they'd ever treat you like that. Because they treated you like you were an underrated citizen, although you were doing your bit for your country, know what I mean? It's hard to think what you been through and what you were doing...and they treat you like that. What did we get? Didn't get no life, did we. I even had to fight for me pension, me state pension. "17

Despite protests by the seamen and their trade unions nothing was done to rectify this state of affairs until May 1941 when the Essential Work Order came into force (largely in response to growing shortages of seamen).18 Fourth Engineer Tom Purnell on the Canonesa was paid 15 10/- per month plus a war risk payment of 5 per month. For his last journey which began on 26th July and ended with his death late in the evening of the 21st September he was paid 38 19/- before deductions. His account of wages, signed by the ship's captain, gives the 'date wages began' as 26th Jul. 1940 and 'date wages ceased' as '21 Sep. 1940'. Not a penny more was paid than was strictly necessary. As one writer has put it :

"These were the men... upon whom Great Britain called for a life-line during the years of war, and these were the men whose contract ended when the torpedo struck. For the owners had protected their profits to the very end ; a seaman's wages ended when his ship went down, no matter where, how, or in what horror."19

Good additional descriptions of the perils faced during North Atlantic convoys are provided in the attached accounts of Convoy SC107, written by a chaplain who was aboard the Royal Canadian Navy escort ship, HMCS Restigouche, the sinking of the 'Putney Hill', written by Alan Shard who was aboard that ship both during the attack on Convoy HX72 and when she was subsequently torpedoed herself in a later convoy, and the sinking of HMS 'Patroclus' and HMS 'Laurentic', by Chris Paddock whose grandfather was aboard the 'Patroclus' when she was torpedoed by U-99.

The arming of merchant ships as DEMS (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships) was an important tactic employed by the allies. Attached is an interesting article on DEMS by Cliff McMullen.

In tribute to the role of the Merchantmen I have also reproduced several poems written by merchant seamen about the Second World War.

  1. Terraine (1989) p669 and G.V. Monk (Correspondence 1997).
  2. Lane (1990) p23.
  3. Keegan (1989) p123.
  4. Cyril Stephens, quoted in Bailey (1994) pp73-4.
  5. from Foreword to Campbell (1952) pp9-10.
  6. Foreword to Knox (1941) ppv-vi.
  7. quoted in Slader (1994) p321.
  8. Lane (1990) p22 and Edwards (1989) p13. See Edwards p16 for medical statistics in following paragraph.
  9. Beckman (1996) pp22-3.
  10. Beckman (1996) p31.
  11. Edwards (1989) p17.
  12. Bailey (1989) pix.
  13. Edwards (1989) p16.
  14. Edwards (1989) p15.
  15. Lane (1990) p29.
  16. Beckman (1996) p14.
  17. quoted in Humphries (1997) p121
  18. Lane (1990) p31.
  19. Hay (1982) p16.

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