During the Second World War 30,248 British merchant seamen and women were killed, 4654 were considered missing, 4707 were wounded and 5720 became prisoners of war. 2524 ships were sunk and 912 damaged as a result of enemy action. 1359 were sunk by U-boats, 118 by surface raiders, 477 by enemy aircraft and 76 by E-boats. 291 were sunk by mines, 29 floundered from other causes and 89 were lost through other enemy action.
Unlike the other services the merchant service was at risk from the time the war was declared until the end of hostilities. In the late afternoon of 3rd September,1939, the day war was declared, the RMS Athenia was torpedoed off Ireland by U-30 (Kapitan Julius Lemp) and in the evening of 7th May, 1945 the SS Avondale Park was torpedoed by U-2336 ( Kapitan Emile Klusmeier) 90 minutes before the end of hostilities.
During the intervening 6 years personnel of the British Merchant Navy suffered untold horrors, many of which are far too horrible to imagine. Many were adrift in open boats and on life rafts, injured, freezing, starving with many miserably dying from thirst, hunger and injuries, their companions unable to offer any form of comfort or ease. In one instance a steward was miraculously rescued near to the coast of Brazil after being adrift on a raft for 133 days. During the convoys into Russia a great many ships were attacked by U-boats and enemy aircraft. If the crews of the sunk merchant ships were in the sea for more than 3 minutes they were doomed to perish in the freezing water.
In times of war the Merchant Navy is the forgotten service – taken for granted and largely ignored.
The men and women who served on our merchant ships gave everything and received nothing.
This page is a memorial to those who died and a tribute to those who still live with the horrors of war.
By Dave Molyneux.
Secretary of the The Blue Funnel Association
A Personal Tribute to the Men and Young Boys Of The Merchant Navy in World War II.
Dedicated to four surviving members of ss “AUTOMEDON” who went through so much.
They are the lucky ones, they survived to tell their tale which we will never have to go through.
There are those of us today who have been so lucky in life that we have never had to face violent conflict in war. Since World War ll, we have seen many conflicts over the years on British Pathe News at the cinema, and in later years conflicts shown on T.V. which has brought war into our homes with first hand accounts within a few hours. Never has the public been so informed as we are today. But in World War II, wives, fathers, daughters and girl friends never got to know for weeks – even months what happened to their loved ones. In the air – pilots and air crew, on the land – soldiers who were missing, lost; relatives eventually found out through the Red Cross that they were captured – made P.O.W., – or at worst killed in action.
This applied also to the Royal Navy – the three service’s. But in wartime surely there should have been the fourth service – The Merchant Navy. But no – these men and boys were civilians !
I cannot say what drove these men and boys to return to their ships to face U Boats, Surface Raiders, Pocket Battleships, and dive bombers, then again it was their living and livelyhood to keep their wives and families. How did these merchant seamen sign articles time after time, and go back to sea when they had seen their brothers on other ships in convoy torpedoed, Dive bombed and blown to pieces. Tankers carrying a time bomb in their holds, blown up in a ball of flame with very little chance of survival – if they did – only to be choked with burning oil in their lungs or on fire in the water.
The men working in the bowels of the ship, engineers , donkeymen, firemen, greasers who were the first to know of a torpedo exploding in the engine room, for a split second and in that split second – oblivion. They knew no more. Those trapped in cabins- twisted metal and bulkheads – seeing the sea pouring in – unable to escape. Sheer terror – screaming, ripping flesh off their hands trying to get out – then finally and hopefully, peace as the waters closed over them.
Those above who survived the explosion, after shock, lowering lifeboats, lucky in some respects if in daylight – but imagine the blackness of night. No lights – steam escaping, the ship listing, groaning as she protested against the violence of buckled steel and the cold seas pouring into the gaping jagged hole in her side. Their only chance now was a wooden lifeboat, open to all nature’s violence that she could throw at them – those lucky enough to get in a lifeboat. There were those who clung on to pieces of wreckage for as long as they could – only to slip away into the depths with no trace. At first thankful for surviving – then wonder if the lifeboat would spot them.
In the lifeboat the cold would take over. They would begin to think about their wife, son, daughter, mother and father or girl friend thousands of miles away who were facing the German bombers, night after night. (JUST THINK ABOUT THAT FOR A MOMENT) I would sooner face the German bombers – why – most people were together – civilians, like them facing death from the air. BUT these lads were alone in a vast ocean. (I shudder at the thought)
The lucky ones – in a lifeboat, gradually settling down – organizing themselves in the hope a ship would appear to rescue them. Then as the days and perhaps weeks pass, they too now struggled to survive. Vast seas, soaked to the skin – burnt by the sun, salt water boils, their flesh crusted in salt. Now short of water, and yet surrounded by millions of tons of water which they could not drink —- That’s TRULY SODS LAW of all time. They would search the horizon for that first tell tale sign of smoke. Then an aircraft of Coastal Command flying above – -shouts and waving, a flare and the sparks, sending out a signal on a dying battery. The aircraft cannot hear their shouts or see them waving from the thousands of feet below them. The Sunderland or Cataliner disappears in the distance and the drone of the engines fades away. (God, how they must have felt)
Those injured laying in the lifeboat, finally giving into their wounds to pass away in front of their shipmates. Those who could not take anymore – driven mad by thirst – their minds snapped – only to throw themselves over the side. Then there were those who achieved fantastic voyages in their lifeboat, to see landfall. Those who survived all this and arrived home – only to go back again. How did they do it?
These were the men and young boys who wore civilian clothing – they had no uniform like the Army. Navy, and Air Force—— all brave men and boys – but they were given a solid “silver badge” to wear in their lapel – with the letters——MN—— Merchant Navy. So those ashore who saw a man and young boy of age to join the three services knew they were in the Merchant Navy.
I was told a true story that a young man, home from the sea while travelling home on a tram car in Liverpool during the war, There were a few passengers in uniform. The conductress did not take their fare. On approaching this young man she asked for his fare which he duly paid – she did not see his small “Silver Badge” in his lapel ! (I wish I could have paid his fare – and truly hope he survived)
Over the years since The Blue Funnel Association was born I have learnt now that I had sailed with Captains, Chief Engineers, Bosuns and Chief Stewards, who reached that rank in later years, had gone through all that hardship. I know this now, but I wish I had know that then when I was at sea.
I Salute Them
Many years ago I was given a solid “Silver Badge” by a friend which I keep with pride. I often wonder who that badge belonged to. I hope he survived. I will never know. Most of us only experienced being in a lifeboat at sea during the Board Of Trade drills, but we knew that our ship was coming back to pick us up again!
If any of you see a “Silver Badge” with MN in an antique shop or a car boot sale – buy it. It would have been worn by a Merchant Navy Veteran who will sadly never be known. Perhaps thrown out by house clearance with not a thought, or, perhaps given away by a distant relative who did not know the significance of the letter MN. (Today most people would not know what those letters mean ! )
But did you know that the most dangerous job in the world in peace time is a miner – but did you know that the second most dangerous job in the world was a job at sea – and that’s in peace time!
We live on an island – perhaps the greatest island on earth for those of us who were born here over the last 1000 years. We do not have to go far in this island of ours to see the sea.
Let us therefore remember those lost souls at sea in the millennium who have no know grave but the vast ocean and seas of the world. Their grave is in the depths, the horizon, the sunsets, the sunrises. A ship that so often crosses their unknown grave, unknown to those of us who cross their grave to do business in great waters.
When we look at the restless sea— Remember Them,
For they are not restless anymore— They are at last
At peace in the never ending restless sea.
They gave so much.
To those who served – our thanks