Some 35000 merchant seamen lost their lives during the war. The British lost 2,426 ships covering a total tonnage of 11,331,933. It is worth noting that the U Boat losses covered some 30,000 - three quarters of their strength. A casualty rate on board British ships of 85%. 5000 merchant sailors were taken prisoner. British ships employed merchant crews from all over the Empire. Some 27% were Chinese and Indian whilst 5% were Arabs, West Africans (Lascars) or West Indians living in the UK in ports such as Liverpool, South Shields and Cardiff. However deadly the U Boat threat, they only succeeded on sinking 1% of the ships that crossed and re-crossed the Atlantic.
Historian John Keegan wrote:
"The 30,000 men of the British Merchant Navy who fell victim to the U-boats between 1939 and 1945, the majority drowned or killed by exposure on the cruel North Atlantic sea, were quite as certainly front-line warriors as the guardsmen and fighter pilots to whom they ferried the necessities of combat. Neither they nor their American, Dutch, Norwegian or Greek fellow mariners wore uniform and few have any memorial. They stood nevertheless between the Wehrmacht and the domination of the world".
A sailor on board an escort ship wrote:
"We had great respect for the Merchant seamen. I think they were underestimated, especially now by the British public today, because they talk about the Battle of Britain. Granted the pilots did a marvellous, marvellous job, but when you stop and think, how did they get the fuel across to fly those planes, it was the Merchant seamen.....And, honestly, I think they're the bravest men out, the Merchant Navy."
Admiral Lord Mountevans wrote after the war:
"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 squadron 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..."
Admiral Sir Percy Noble, who was the first C in C Western Approaches wrote in 1941:
"For two hundred years, and more, these brave men, lacking the training and organisation that adapts their brothers in the Royal Navy so readily to the rigours of war, have, nevertheless, fashioned their own magnificent tradition. Day in, day out, night in, night out, they face to-day unflinchingly the dangers of the deep - the prowling U-boats. They know, these men, that the Battle of the Atlantic means wind and weather, cold and strain and fatigue, all in the face of a host of enemy craft above and below, awaiting the specific moment to send them to death. They have not even the mental relief of hoping for an enemy humane enough to rescue; nor the certainty of finding safe and sound those people and those things they love when they return to homes, which may have been bombed in their absence. When the Battle of the Atlantic is won, as won it will be, it will be these men and those who have escorted them whom we shall have to thank."
On the 30th October 1945 The House of Commons unanimously carried the following resolution:
"That the thanks of this House be accorded to the officers and men of the Merchant Navy for the steadfastness with which they maintained our stocks of food and materials; for their services in transporting men and munitions to all battles over all the seas, and for the gallantry with which, through a civilian service, they met and fought the constant attacks of the enemy." (But still the sailors had their pay stopped when sunk - edit: apparently this changed for the better back in 42 or 43?)
The Right Honourable Alfred Barnes, Minister of War Transport said :
"The Merchant Seaman never faltered. To him we owe our preservation and our very lives."
But for those sailors who served their nation before and during the war, and those who lost loved ones, these thanks rang somewhat hollow. Despite such sacrifice the merchant sailor and families were to receive scant reward. Despite large profits, working conditions were far from comfortable. The basic working week was 64 hours, much longer than in other trades. Pay was usually the minimum allowed under British law, conditions often unhygienic, always uncomfortable. Food was of poor quality. The sailors who created the pre war wealth were those who benefited the least. In 1938, only a year before the outbreak of the war which was to kill so many, the death rate amongst merchant sailors was 47% higher than the national average. 8 years before this death rate was 50% more than of those below the age of 55 on land. So much so that in the 30s there were 150 Charities devoted to the well being of merchant sailors.
A vivid description of life aboard the Venetia in 1940:
"The bulkheads and deck head had once been cream. They badly needed repainting and were patterned by the dried out remains of hundreds of cockroaches and other seafaring insects. A limp cobweb dangled from a corner over my pillow. Brass fittings were pitted and rusting. The small sink was a network of grease-filled cracks held together by veined porcelain. Overall hung the odour of resident filth...........Insect droppings lay everywhere like the residue of a city smog. I ran my fingers along the edge of the bunk board. They came away black. I opened the door covering the pipes under the washbasin. The place swarmed with cockroaches, bugs and slugs, and it stank."
This from a sailor who had his own "space". Here is a description of the 33 sailors who shared:
"...lived in the fo'c'sle in the most arduous conditions and without chance of any moment of privacy within it......space was set at a premium and encroachments could lead to anger between exhausted, cold, soaked men. In the tropics it became an oven plagued with flies and cockroaches....In gales with portholes closed and ventilators canvassed over it reeked of rubberised clothing, wet wool and body odours."
It should be noted that many convoys completed their journey's unscathed and indeed, some merchant sailors went the whole war without witnessing enemy action be it from U boat or surface craft. But the tension and strain were there for all:
"the men in the engine-room suffered the tortures of the damned, never knowing when a torpedo might tear through the thin plates of the hull, sending their ship plunging to the bottom before they had a chance to reach the first rung of the ladder to the deck"
Add to this the notorious Atlantic weather and the fact of life that there were little life saving equipment on board these ships. Despite this:
"No British merchant ship was ever held in port by its crew, even at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, when to cross that ocean in a slow-moving merchant ship was to walk hand in hand with death for every minute of the day and night."
Not all merchant sailors were heroes I must add. Many ships failed to sail due to crew shortages. Martin Middlebrook writes in his book Convoy that, "the new phase opened in August (1942) with a convoy battle so fierce that the crews of 3 merchantmen took to their boats even though their ships had not been torpedoed. Two crews did go back but the third refused, a most unusual attitude by the normally steadfast British merchant seamen. Their ship had to be left and a U Boat finished it off later. An unnecessary loss.
The Battle of the Atlantic, according to Churchill, was the Battle for Britain. The Merchant sailors, the very target for German torpedoes, received no paid leave on returning to port. If a man wished to spend some time with his family, he had to sign off ship and go without pay. Incredibly, under British law, when and if a ship went down, the obligations of the ship owner to the crew went down with it!! The lucky sailors who got home received their pay in full. Should a sailor go down with his ship, the relatives would, unless the sailor was a crewman of a more generous shipping line, receive no pay from the day he died. A sailor who spent 10 days in a lifeboat wrote:
"...as soon as you got torpedoed on them ships your money was stopped right away. That's the truth. Everybody kicked up a bit 'cos you couldn't walk about with nothing in your pockets, could you, let's be fair - and all the rum shops were open! Only thing they give us was our clothes....we couldn't walk about naked, could we? Well, we felt devastated because you didn't think they'd ever treat you like that. Because they treated you like you were an underrated citizen, although you were doing your bit for your country, know what I mean? It's hard to think what you been through and what you were doing...and they treat you like that. What did we get? Didn't get no life, did we. I even had to fight for me pension, me state pension. "
Protests by Seamen and Trade Unions alike were paid no heed until May 1941 when the Essential Work Order came into force. The 4th Engineer on board the Canonesa, Tom Purnell, earned £15 10s per month plus a war risk payment of £5 per month. His last journey began on 26th July and ended with his death on 21st September he was paid £38 19s before deductions. His Account of Wages, signed by the ships Captain, gives the following gruesome details:
Date Wages Began: 26th July 1940 and Date Wages Ceased as 21st September 1940. Not a penny more than was necessary was paid. As one writer noted:
"These were the men... upon whom Great Britain called for a life-line during the years of war, and these were the men whose contract ended when the torpedo struck. For the owners had protected their profits to the very end ; a seaman's wages ended when his ship went down, no matter where, how, or in what horror."
Churchill Broadcast in 1941:
"In order to win this war Hitler must either conquer this island by invasion or he must cut the ocean lifeline which joins us to the United States....
Wonderful exertions have been made by our Navy and our Air Force......by the men who build and repair our immense fleet of merchant ships, by the men who load and unload them, and, need I say, by the officers and men of the Merchant Navy, who go out in all weathers and in the teeth of all dangers to fight for love of their native land and for a cause they comprehend and serve.
Still, when you think how easy it is to sink ships at sea and how hard it is to build and protect them, when you remember we never have less than 2,000 ships afloat and 300 to 400 in the danger areas, when you think of the great armies we maintain...and the world-wide traffic we have to carry, can you wonder that it is the Battle of the Atlantic which holds the first place in the thoughts of those upon whom rests the responsibility for procuring the victory?"