Extract from The Times
Saturday August 29th 2015
Time to Remember the forgotten dead of the Merchant Navy
By Roger Hoefling
The Merchant Navy is the fourth Service but it is also the forgotten service, it has not been unknown for the MN lapel badge to be worn inverted to signify “Not wanted”.
In an attempt to change this, September 3rd – the anniversary of the outbreak of Second World War when the first merchant ship was sunk less than nine hours into the conflict – was selected as annual Merchant Navy Day.
Across the UK, the Merchant Navy Association and the Honourable Company of Master Mariners’ branches will join with Seafarers UK to mark the occasion hoisting the Red Ensign, as will almost 200 other organisations, local authorities and port operators.
Tower Bridge and Liverpool’s Royal Liver building will be among the landmarks flying the ensign, as well St Dunstan and All Saints church in Stepney as it has done every day since 1620 when it was the Royal Navy’s principal ensign. The day is also marked in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The 70th anniversary of VJ-Day reminded us of the “Forgotten Army” and the Far East prisoners-of-war. Indeed, to a generation born after the last major commemoration in 1995, it was perhaps all new. This year, however, even less was heard of the Royal Navy’s British Pacific Fleet, the “Forgotten Fleet”, and nothing of the Merchant Navy ships and crews out there in support. This was true too of the VE-Day commemorations and the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, yet it was then Merchant Navy that brought in the petrol for the RAF, for example and made possible the build-up for D-Day.
The First World War centenary recalled the Western Front, and this year, Gallipoli. What though, of the merchant ships that transported troops from throughout the Empire and beyond? In both world wars and later, the civilian merchant seafarers were in the front line alongside their naval counterparts facing the enemy while always at the mercy of the sea. In short, they were keeping Britain fed, fuelled and fighting in times of war.
From its unveiling in 1919, the Cenotaph has carried the Red Ensign, when the merchant service was still the Merchantile Marine, and in 1928 King George V announced that, in recognition of its service and sacrifices, it would henceforth be known as the Merchant Navy. At the same time, the King conferred upon Edward, Prince of Wales, the title of “Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets”, an appointment now held by the Queen.
Yet it was not until 2000 that the men and women of the Merchant Navy were allowed to join the official march past at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. Admiral Lord Mountevans wrote: “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 squadrons 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…”
At least 35,000 British merchant sailors were killed in the Second World War, a greater proportion of the Merchant Navy’s strength than was lost by the other three services. Postwar, the UK merchant fleet declined: there are now only 22,000 British merchant seafarers. Nevertheless, the necessity for the merchant service in war has been shown again in recent conflicts, notably in 1982 when 52 Merchant Navy ships with 3,000 crew members were used in support of the Falklands campaign.
Merchant Navy Day was also instituted in 2000 with the aim of improving awareness of the UK’s reliance on the sea. The Merchant Navy is still at sea around the clock, around the world. Some 95 per cent of volume and 75 per cent by value of the UK trade is carried by sea.
The annual Merchant Navy Day service is on Sunday, September 6, at the national memorials on Tower Hill, London, over which the Red Ensign permanently flies. In the care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the memorials there to the First and Second World Wars and the Falklands campaign record the names of 35,772 men and women for whom there is no grave but the sea. Two were 74, the oldest British seamen lost, while 57 were aged 14, with one, a cook aged 13, the youngest.
Who of those seeing the poppies in the Tower of London’s moat realised that 11,896 of them were named on the Merchant Navy Memorial across the road? Even the makers of London’s best-known map, the A-Z, have overlooked the memorial, an omission that will be remedied in future editions. Two more reasons therefore why September 3 is Merchant Navy Day.