Allied Merchant Navy - WWII

Discussion in 'World War 2' started by Hugh, Oct 1, 2007.

  1. Hugh

    Hugh New Member

    Given that the U-boat threat was the one thing that Churchill really feared, why do you think that the Allied Merchant Navy never got the credit it deserved for its role during the Second World War?

    Our sailors, solidiers and airmen all rightly received credit for delivering our nations from the Axis powers. But why did this brave band of men and women get treated so badly.

    I would be interested in your thoughts.

  2. Kitty

    Kitty New Member

    PR. They didn't look as flash as the Brylcreem boys, nor did they have they have that grit associated with servicemen in the public eye. Total rubbish of course but the MN wasn't seen as a service and therefore was just part of the civilian effort so why should they get more recognition than, say, the girls in the RO factories?
    Its rubbish of course but the MN never had the sparkle of the RN in the public mind.
  3. Antipodean Andy

    Antipodean Andy New Member

    They may have been seen as the "targets" and not the ones who "won" the Battle of the Atlantic etc by sinking U-boats.

    Brave men one and all.
  4. Adrian Roberts

    Adrian Roberts Active Member

    I gather that eventually they were issued with a particular lapel badge to try and spare them some of the criticism from those who assumed that Civilian clothes meant someone avoiding fighting.

    And in the early days of the war, and throughout WW1, if their ship was sunk, their pay stopped there and then. Churchill put a stop to this practice by making them employees of the Ministry of War Transport rather than the shipping lines.
  5. Kyt

    Kyt Άρης

    I think one needs to differentiate between the way that the Merchant mariners were seen during the war and the public perception after the war. I don't think that they were seen as lesser than uniformed men - the propaganda machine in Britain was very active in portraying them in a positive light. The Mercant Marine was one of the few non-military units for whom propaganda booklets were published and distributed. Actually, apart from the, I can't think of any other "civilian" profession who had such a booklet published - all the others that I have seen have been on military units or military campaigns.

    However, after the war, their contributions were indeed quickly forgotten. I think this was partly due to the lack of films and programmes about them - whereas there have been a plethora of films about all the other services and campaigns, I can't think of a single post-war film covering the Atlantic convoy system. As the public are pretty fickle about these things, they soon forget.
  6. spidge

    spidge Active Member

    I am unable to think of any post war movies at the moment however I am sure there were a few.

    You might also consider that a great percentage would not/did not know there was a difference between the Navy and the Merchant Navy or Merchant Marine. I have had people ask me: "what is the difference"?

    I have always been an ambassador to the behind the lines people (not including MN, MM in this of course) Logistics, Cooks, Mechanics etc. People forget sometimes that the support chain enabled the front line to proceed.
  7. Hugh

    Hugh New Member

    Thanks everybody for your replies.

    They never did get the recognition they deserved and there are many reasons for that - some of which have been mentioned.

    MN Day was officially recognised in 2000 in the UK and is now held annually on September 3rd, the anniversary of the sinking of the ss ATHENIA on the first day of the war. But why did it take 55 years after WWII to get this recognition?

    The MN was not invited to march at the Cenotaph for Remembrance Sunday until 1997.

    The Merchant Navy's name was in the law courts of our land in 2005 when an attempt was made to get Merchant Navy ships which were sunk with loss of life classified as War Graves. Shouldn't they be recognised as War Graves just like warships are? Why did the Government fight this?

    The loss of a seaman's pay when his/her ship was lost was a disgrace.

    There is so much more that we could write a book about it.

    Thanks again

  8. Antipodean Andy

    Antipodean Andy New Member

    Right, Sept 3 is in my diary and marked!
  9. Kyt

    Kyt Άρης

    Go for it Hugh. I think these issues need to be aired or they will be lost. And if you want to share your thoughts with the forum we'd be happy to read and comment.
  10. Hugh

    Hugh New Member

    Thanks gents,
    I may add to the thread as we go along and please feel free to comment.


    The UK, Canada and NZ have now recognised Merchant Navy Day on Sept 3rd but your Aussie government is proving to be a tough nut to crack but I know many good folk over there who are working damm hard to get this sorted.

  11. Hugh

    Hugh New Member

    Taken from my website:

    "The merchant seaman never faltered.
    To him we owe our preservation and our very lives".

    The Right Honourable Alfred Barnes,
    Minister of War Transport - July 1945.

  12. Adrian Roberts

    Adrian Roberts Active Member

    I've just looked at your website on loss of City of Cairo, and became engrossed in it. Some very moving accounts of the ordeal of ordinary people in a desperate situation and of the triumph of the human spirit in rising above it (and, as the missionary Donald Miller in lifeboat five felt able to write, the goodness of God in the face of evil)

    However, one question occurs - which Kapitan Mertens who torpedoed the vessel pointed out. Why was this ship allowed to sail alone and unescorted into hostile waters? Some of the rescue ships appear to have been on their own as well. Was it a simply a question of some routes being not of high enough density to make up a convoy? Or not enough escorts for all routes? Or just incompetence as Mertens alleged? Any ideas on this?

  13. Hugh

    Hugh New Member

    Hello Adrian,

    Thanks for your comments regarding the website. You raise a very interesting question and I think the answer is a combination of all..

    In the case of “CITY OF CAIRO” there were many sinkings around the area of South Africa as “Gruppe Eisbar”, the Polar Bear group of U-boats, was operating in the area.

    There were no fast escort vessels available and Naval Control Cape Town routed the ship for a lone crossing of the South Atlantic to Recife, Brazil avoiding the U-boat –infested Freetown route to the north. Eventually they would reach Halifax NS where they would enjoy the luxury of a convoy escort across the Atlantic to the UK. As we know the ship never got near the luxury of a convoy escort, being sunk 6 days into her voyage.

    The responsibility for routing the ship with its complement of 297 men, women and children, as well as a valuable cargo which also included silver coins was a big decision and presumably had been considered by Naval Control Cape Town and the risk judged acceptable.

    Looking at it from Merten’s perspective it was a crazy decision, bearing in mind that his “Eisbar” group had torpedoed the liner LACONIA a couple of months previously with massive loss of life - it too sailing independently.

    I presume you have seen Merten’s letter also on my site:

    Many ships were also sunk because they were straggelers from convoys as they couldn't keep up and had to be left behind. It would be interesting to look at the number of merchant ships that were sunk while sailing independently during WWII.

  14. Hugh

    Hugh New Member

  15. spidge

    spidge Active Member

  16. spidge

    spidge Active Member

    DEMS - (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships).

    DEMS - Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships).

    The Maritime RA had its beginnings in the early part of the war when the Admiralty requested
    the Regiment to provide 500, 2 man LMG teams for embarking on merchant coasters. Taking with them either Lewis
    or Bren guns, they were to provide AA defence for the vessels.
    With the increase in severity of attacks on shipping, the Maritime Anti-Aircraft Regiment RA was formed in 1941.

    Read more here:
  17. Antipodean Andy

    Antipodean Andy New Member

    I was going to mention the Laconia is Spidge's post about the Azores but I couldn't remember the name of the ship. First read about her in Bob Whinney's The U-boat Peril and, to me, the outcome was more a negative impression of how gung-ho the US could be.

    As Whinney explained it, the Laconia was sunk and found to be carrying among its passengers, 1,800 Italian POWs (similar number to British passengers). The successful U-boat captain surfaced and started taking on survivors while calling for assistance (he took on 193 and even made a trial dive with them on board). He broadcast over the international shipping wave saying he wqould not attack rescuing ships. Several other U-boats and an Italian submarine were also ordered to attend by German High Command. Vichy French warships sailed from West African posts and were given free passage through Whinney's area of responsibility. Whinney was based in Freetown. Not differentiating between British and Italian survivors, the U-boats and the ships ended up saving about 1,000. However, despite one U-boat displaying the Red Cross flag, they were attacked by a US aircraft from Ascension (not the Azores after all that!) forcing them to cut the lifeboats they were towing and submerge. The lifeboats were also, apparently, attacked. This led to Doenitz issuing the Laconia Order which ordered that no survivors were to be picked up after a sinking.

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