Merchant Seafarers of WWII

During WWII, Seafarer’s from the age of 14 through to their late seventies put themselves forward to help in the War effort. The role they played was essential to keep the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries supplied with all the necessities to defend themselves such as food, raw materials and ammunition.

The British Merchant Navy was the biggest in the world, and so required more Seafarer’s than the United Kingdom had. Because of this, there were large numbers of Seafarer’s from India, China, West Africa and other Commonwealth countries allocated to crew the ships.

The merchant vessels were under attack a lot of the time during WWII, and so Seafarer’s were given Gunnery training. The ships were also fitted with defensive armament. Because of the risk of working at sea during the war, British Parliament had to pass an Emergency Work Order under which a Merchant Navy Reserve Pool was created. This was to guarantee that there were available Seafarer’s ready to be allocated to ships requiring crew. Before this order was passed, the Seafarer’s would not get paid for any time spent in lifeboats (if their vessel sunk), or in captivity as it was regarded as ‘non-working time’.

Merchant Seafarer’s continued to serve in every corner of the world during WWII, some returning to service even after they had survived attacks and ships sinking beneath them. Without their courage and bravery, Britain and the Commonwealth would not have had the amenities it desperately needed to sustain its war effort.

The Office of the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen calculated that up to 185,000 men and women served in the Merchant Navy during the war. The government did not grant the Merchant Seafarer’s automatic Right of Commemoration by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission unlike the Armed Services, and so the Seafarer’s of the Merchant Navy could only be commemorated if their death could be proven to be the result of enemy action - 36,749 men and women were lost to enemy action, 5,720 were taken prisoner, and 4,707 were wounded; totalling 47,176 casualties that were recorded as a result of World War II.

In the lead up to Remembrance Day, it is important that we think about the history of the Merchant Navy, and the efforts of our ancestors serving at sea during war times.

Look out to sea and say a prayer

For those who rest beneath,

They gave their lives that you may share

A Europe that is free. - Donald Hunter 2003