THE MERCHANT NAVY
By James Carton
Blackpool Branch Merchant Navy Association
Since the middle ages Britain has always relied upon its merchant ships for trade with other countries. However during the days of sail ships were small and had little defence against enemy ships who constantly attacked and boarded. Cargoes were seized and the crew killed or taken prisoner. The main enemy ships were of French, Spanish and Portuguese origin.. These were the days before Britain had a purpose built navy. However it was realised that this could not be allowed to continue, so soldiers or infantry of the line were put aboard to defend the merchant vessels. These formations were given the name of "The Duke of York and Albany's Maritime Regiment of Foot" in fact the forerunners of the present day Royal Marines. Later purpose built war ships with many guns were built and became the Royal Navy. This gave the merchant ships much more protection and freedom but over many years the Royal Navy had to fight many battles against large enemy fleets. In these days wooden ships were not safe on the high seas, however as time went on merchant ships became bigger with more sail and sleeker design, resulting in faster ships carrying larger cargoes. Then came the day of the iron, and later, steel ships powered by coal fired steam engines.
The first world war started in 1914 and heralded a new age of warfare both on land and sea. Britain had a large navy and merchant fleet but so also did Germany and the war became bitter and fierce This was a new age of large battleships, submarines, mines and aircraft. It also saw the introduction of a new system of defending merchant ships by adopting the "convoy" method; many merchant ships sailed together as a group protected by a screen of Royal Navy vessels. The fleet changed course frequently in a zig zag nature so as to confuse enemy ships, particularly submarines. This was however not foolproof and many ships and their crews were lost, but the convoy system was the safest. Britain and her enemies laid mines at sea and such minefields were not always marked and many merchant and Navy ships were sunk. For the first time merchant ships were disguised to change their profile with false flags so as to make them look completely different at a distance. Hidden under the disguise were powerful guns and torpedo tubes. The idea was to approach an unsuspecting merchant ship and attack at close range; many ships were sunk of both sides. Both sides adopted these methods, German "Raiders" and the British "Q Ships".
The first world war ended in 1918; however as far as the sea was concerned there was still danger around coastal waters because of uncleared minefields. Mines broke loose and often ended up miles from the recorded positions, many of these claimed victim s. Coupled with this many drifters and trawlers had mines caught up in their nets, and when this happened Royal Naval mine disposal teams were called in to deal with them.
The depression of the 1920's left many people out of work and hundreds of ships were laid up and seamen paid off, with consequently many people living in poverty. The 1930s saw the resurgence of Germany and in September 1939 the second world war started. Those eligible and fit were called up for service and others put into essential war work. Ships were suddenly badly needed again and seamen recalled, plus thousands more who required training. Passenger liners were converted into merchant ships, troop transports and hospital ships. The Royal Navy started an expansion programme for more escort ships. The same environment prevailed as in the first war i.e. convoys, submarines and minefields. The Germans had a larger fleet of submarines battleships and cruisers with a massive capability against convoys. After Dunkirk came the Battle of Britain followed by the Battle of the Atlantic. The Germans had by that time achieved control over a vast coastline together with ports and harbours stretching from the south of France up to north Norway. This enabled the building of submarine pens and airfields within easy reach of the shipping lanes and the British Isles. The war expanded from Norway, through the Mediterranean and out to the Far East. The forces needed merchant ships to transport supplies of all natures and the home country needed food and raw materials.. The Italian Navy were operating successfully in the Mediterranean from secure bases and were a constant threat to our naval forces; many fine ships were lost, both Royal Navy and merchant ships in carrying out the task of maintaining supplies to Malta. Nonetheless steadfast operations succeeded and Malta, almost at the point of starvation was saved and that brave Island was deservedly awarded the George Cross by the King. After the success of the North African battles came the campaigns in Sicily and Italy, again requiring the efforts of the merchant ships. Many were operating independently in The South Atlantic, The Pacific and the Indian Ocean and were sunk and their crews often taken prisoner. The enemy operated as they did in the first war by using disguised merchant ships as raiders operating over many thousands of square miles sinking many ships and destroying valuable cargoes. This was a major problem for the Royal Navy but gradually they hunted down the enemy ships and sank them.
The main danger however was in the Battle of the Atlantic and for the vulnerable north Russian convoys which operated well up into the Arctic; they were constrained to the speed of the slowest ship and sailed in a zig zag pattern - a real problem in storm or foggy conditions. The German U Boat "Wolf packs" attacked the convoys and sank many craft; the enemy were also strong in the air (with their "Condors") and with battleships and cruisers. The Russian Convoys also had to endure icebergs and the icy conditions of the Arctic; there was little chance of survival if one finished up in the cold sea with a survival time of probably less than three minutes. The only chance was a lifeboat and even then the possibility of being spotted was slim; there are many recorded instances of only two men surviving in a lifeboat of originally 30 or 40 men. Many merchant sailors were lost in these conditions and the ones who died quickly were lucky - such is war.
Several methodologies were developed as the war continued to protect the merchant convoys better. In the early days some merchant ships were fitted with an aircraft catapult over the bow which assisted a rocket propelled Hurricane into the air to attack enemy aircraft. After any contact the pilot then had to ditch or parachute into the sea to be (hopefully) picked up by the Royal Navy escort vessels. This was an interim measure followed up in mid 1943 when escort aircraft carriers were built converting large merchant ships by removing masts, funnels and superstructure, and adding a flight deck so as to operate several aircraft. These were a great success and greatly added to convoy protection.
New weapon and anti submarine devices were developed as were radar and radio detection sets. New methods of attacking U Boats were introduced by using escort vessels in groups hunting out the enemy instead of shadowing the convoys closely and waiting for the enemy. Thus the latter became the "hunted"! These new operations were the turning point of the war at sea.
RAF Coastal Command also played a significant part using their long range Sunderland, Catalans and Liberator bombers which sank many U Boats with bombs and depth charges, whilst at the same time keeping them away from the convoys. In addition these aircraft also were instrumental in picking up survivors who otherwise would have perished.
There were also convoy rescue ships, small vessels which sailed at the stern of the convoys to be in a suitable position to go to the aid of sinking ships and to rescue crews. These ships were crewed by merchant navy men with RN Medical officers, medical staff , radio operators and about 9 gunners. They had very powerful Radio Direction Finding equipment able to detect U Boats and then to inform the Naval Escort vessels. They were fitted out with sick bays and operating tables, together with scrambling nets for picking up survivors. One or two rescue ships sailed with each convoy, and some of them of course became victims of enemy action themselves.
We also had very large specially built Deep Sea Rescue Tugs some of which sailed with convoys, others were based at strategic points in harbours ready to go to the assistance of a disabled ship possibly to tow it back to a safe haven; such ships saved some three and a half million tons of valuable cargo, plus the crews.
Because merchant seaman were not trained gunners, emergency measures were necessary at the start of the war. Royal Naval gunners together with gunners from the Royal Artillery were drafted onto merchant ships to man the guns and served throughout the war. They were known as Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS). Merchant seaman were gradually trained in gunnery. The Royal Artillery men became known as the Maritime Regiment of the Royal Artillery. Some 10,000 Army and Naval gunners lost their lives on the DEMS; Royal Air Force Coastal Command lost 6000 air crew protecting convoys
In all some 49,000 merchant seamen and 8000 merchant ships were lost in both World Wars, The picture shows The Tower Hill Memorial in London
which commemorates the men of the Merchant Navy and the Fishing Fleets who gave their lives to preserve the life of the Nation and have no known grave but the sea. The Information Sheet produced by The Commonwealth War Grave Commission gives more detail about this memorial. In addition the Imperial War Museum ( who now have a striking "Northern" Museum in Salford Quays) stock a booklet on "Tracing your Family History - Merchant Navy".
We must never forget the price paid for our freedom and to be always grateful for the selfless sacrifice of those who died on our behalf. Always remember:
" . . . . . . those in peril on the sea . . . . . . "