Research & Articles by Lt. Col. Peter Winstanley OAM RFD (Retired), JP
Research, Interviews and Articles about the Prisoners Of War of the Japanese who built the Burma to Thailand railway during world war two. Focusing on the doctors and medical staff among the prisoners. Also organised trips to Thailand twice a year.
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by Don Kennedy

The name ‘Merchant Navy’ was bestowed by the British Government on all British and Commonwealth ships carrying cargoes, commodities, passenger’s merchandise and goods, by decree of the late King George V, in recognition and appreciation of loyal and heroic duties performed during World War One. The period of the war between 1914 and 1918, was when Britain faced total defeat by Germany as a result of the dreadful war at sea. In addition to the relentless and bloody land battles fought in France and Belgium, Britain’s merchant fleet was ruthlessly and efficiently attacked by enemy surface ships and ‘U Boats’. There was, initially, little or no adequate defence to the new submarine form of warfare, so as a result, massive losses of ships and enormous deaths of merchant seamen occurred. As an island nation Britain required its massive merchant fleet to supply much of its food and, in wartime, a large component of essential war equipment and material. At the end of World War 1 the British Government commemorated it’s merchant fleet by issuing a special Merchant Navy Medal to all of the seamen who had served on ships during the war. But it was some years later that the term ‘Merchant Navy’ was officially promulgated by King. George V. thus he, as monarch, then became “Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets”

Merchant Navy flag When the second World War broke out in September 1939 once again all ships flying the Merchant Navy flag, the ‘Red Duster’, were immediately placed under the control of the British Government and, from that time on, all crews were automatically members of the Merchant Navy .As Australia was likewise at war, all Australian ships, mostly owned by private shipping companies, were also placed under government control. Britain’s merchant fleet consisted of all types of cargo ships, tankers and passenger ships. Right from day one of the war the German Navy was successful in sinking ships including passenger liners, causing great casualties. On 3rd September 1939, eight hours after Britain had declared itself to be at war with Germany, the 13,500 ton Donaldson Line’s passenger ship ‘SS Athenia’ with 1,103 passengers and crew became the first maritime casualty of the war. The ship was en route from England to Canada when it was torpedoed by the German U Boat U30. Deaths of 19 male and female crew and 93 passengers resulted.

After Norway and other western European countries were invaded and became occupied by German forces the majority of their merchant ships managed to escape seizure and, wherever possible, joined the allied cause. Norway, at that time had the third largest merchant fleet in the world. It eventually lost about one third of that fleet and thousands of it’s merchant seamen during WW 2.

As the war progressed the number and tonnage of ships sunk by enemy action increased dramatically to the extent it once again became a very real threat to Britain’s survival. Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, later said “this dreadful loss of our merchant ships was so serious that it was the only real thing that worried me as I thought it could cripple us in our fight for survival.” It follows that as these ships, mostly unarmed early in the war, sank, the losses of crews was enormous. Survival in the water in the North Atlantic, especially during winter, was a dreadful and deadly experience. Early on most ships travelled without escort and their sinking was occasionally not even reported. As an example, a tanker laden with high-octane gasoline, when torpedoed, could sometimes immediately explode and as a result, there would usually be no survivors. Similarly, this could happen to an ammunition ship.

In an attempt to resolve this drastic situation it was decided to arm merchant ships and, eventually, to arrange large numbers of them into groups, referred to as ‘convoys’ .The Navy was given the task of escorting these ships and, when attacks took place, their role was to try to locate and to destroy the submarines. Occasionally thereafter the navy would provide a small ship at the rear of the convoy which had the role of trying to save some of the seamen who had survived the initial explosion and subsequent sinking and had managed to get into a lifeboat or cling to some piece of floating wreckage.

The number of allied merchant ships sunk in all theatres of war between 1939 and 1945 was almost 5000. At one time, in 1942, more ships were being sunk than could possibly be replaced. Many thousands of seamen were killed, either in the initial attack or went down with their ship or later, wounded, died in the freezing water. The U Boat commanders were under orders to preserve their precious torpedoes for the merchant ships. They normally tried to evade naval escort vessels so they could attack the merchant ships carrying fuel, food, ammunition and other wartime supplies.

Throughout the war a great many convoys were organized, particularly between North America and ports in the British Isles. The immediate area around Britain’s western coast became know as the ‘Western Approaches’. That ocean between Britain and North America and what happened there was soon referred to as the ‘Battle of the Atlantic’. Later in the war the British Government agreed to assist the Russians in their desperate land fight with the Germans. Shipments of food and war material were to be sent in ships via the Arctic Circle to try to get to the Russian ports, Murmansk and Archangel. These were known as ‘Arctic Convoys’ and, due to the presence of large German naval and air forces in northern Norway, they usually became under relentless attack. Almost always this resulted in appalling losses. It was said that any seaman who found himself in the freezing arctic water as his ship sank could only survive for about three minutes. Between 1941 and 1945 some 154 merchant ships were sunk attempting to reach those Russian ports. Convoys were allocated code names which were intended to conceal information from the enemy about their movements. Those involved in the arctic route were usually known by use of initials and numbers. Thus, PQ 17 has been immortalized in an enthralling book ‘The Destruction of Convoy PQ 17,’ by author David Irving. He researched and described in great detail what happened when a convoy of 35 British and American merchant ships, escorted by a massive naval contingent, departed from Iceland on 28th June 1942 bound for Russia’s ports. Irving’s father had been a World War Two Royal Navy officer and was one of the survivors aboard HMS ‘Edinburgh’ when it was torpedoed and sunk the previous year in arctic convoy ’QPH’

The British Admiralty, unfortunately, on July 4th signalled the naval escorts to withdraw when convoy PQ 17 was approaching the northern most point, less that half way to their destination The order given to the merchant ships was ‘scatter’ thus leaving them at the mercy of the U Boats and the very aggressive German Air Force, based nearby. The Admiralty was of the view that the German Battleship ‘Tirpitz’ and other warships were about to leave port and head north. This information was later to be proved incorrect. The result for the convoy was almost complete destruction. Just eleven of the 35 ships finally reached their destination.

Another memorable convoy, ‘Pedestal’, was sent to the Mediterranean Sea in an effort to supply the besieged island of Malta with urgently needed food fuel and fighter aircraft. It consisted of 14 merchant ships escorted by a massive naval fleet which included 2 battleships, 5 aircraft carriers, 7 light cruisers and 27 destroyers. This particular convoy endured the heaviest air and sea attacks of any wartime convoy, between 9th and 15th August 1942. Only 5 merchant ships finally made it to the Grand Harbour at Malta, including a desperately needed load of aircraft fuel contained in a very badly damaged American tanker ‘SS Ohio’. Over 400 lives were lost in those six long days. Convoys were not used so much in the Pacific area. The large Japanese Imperial Navy (JIN) had a huge submarine fleet which it deployed widely. About 50 merchant ships were attacked or sunk by the Japanese on Australia’s eastern coast. Wherever possible their sailors made every effort to kill all merchant seamen who were survivors from sunken ships in the Pacific and Indian oceans. Reliable evidence indicates that some 800 allied seamen who were struggling helplessly in the water, were deliberately murdered by sailors of the Japanese Navy between the years 1941 and 1945. There is little evidence of the German Navy (Kreigsmarine) ever mistreating or murdering distressed seamen. Occasionally they even offered assistance and food to survivors in lifeboats, especially after sinking ships on arctic convoys.

It is over 65 years since the end of World War 2 but, occasionally, the writer has had conversations with former members of the Army, Navy and Air Force some of whom are RSL members. A fact not readily known, or frequently admitted, is that of that vast number of soldiers, sailors and airmen involved in that terrible war many never ‘heard a shot fired’ and never really went into what is known as harms way. Members of the Merchant Navy, during that long miserable war, were at ‘action stations’ 24 hours a day and subject to great stress each and every time they left port. Lifeboats were always swung out of the ship’s side, on their davits, and made ready for swift deployment should the ship be attacked and sunk.

Figures later published reveal that in all three ‘armed’ services the casualty rate was about 1 in 28. The Merchant Navy, overall, suffered deaths of 1 in 8. British seamen, mostly on Atlantic and Arctic trips, suffered a horrific death rate of close to 1 in 4. Initially, their pay was stopped when their ship was sunk.


Don at 16 The writer, a 16-year-old Australian boy with no prior sea experience, joined a Norwegian tanker in Sydney early in 1944 following a two-minute interview with the ship’s first officer. (Prior to this, Don had been a member of the National Emergency Service (NES) – his duties were to deliver messages by bicycle to the various Air Raid Wardens in the Manly area and he was equipped with a steel helmet and gas mask.) Shortly after sailing, for service in the Atlantic Ocean, he was appointed as ‘Kannon- Commander’ of a 20 mm anti aircraft gun. He fired that gun in action just after turning 17 years of age. Something like that would never have happened in the Royal Australian Navy or the Royal Navy. Ex navy members have agreed that training over many months would have preceded such action, if indeed, a young recruit ever got to sea during the war. One hundred percent of merchant seamen went to sea and were in ‘harms way’ during the war. There were no shore jobs. The British Government after WW2, in appreciation of the dedication and sacrifice of its Merchant Navy members, issued them with ‘imperial’ campaign medals identical to those issued to members of the other services. In Australia after the war the Returned and Services League admitted merchant seamen to full membership if they had overseas wartime operational service. After some 35 years the Australian Government finally granted disability pensions and other benefits to wartime merchant seamen with similar eligibility criteria to all other ex service personnel.

Almost 40,000 allied merchant seamen lost their lives as a direct result of enemy action during WW 2.

Donald E Kennedy JP

Donald E. Kennedy JP - President - Merchant Navy RSL Sub Branch NSW is pictured above with Sister Mary Leahy, who is a wonderful supporter of all Merchant seamen.

Article written by Don Kennedy and kindly provided to Lt Col (Retired) Winstanley for inclusion on website January 2011. Whilst few merchant Seamen became POWs, many were killed by the Japanese either directly or indirectly..


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