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  • Writer's pictureGVHeritage Group

'Ship sinks, pay stops' - why we were inspired...

When we spoke to the Bristol Merchant Navy Association, Hon Treasurer Hank told us several things that shocked us but that also inspired us to research and talk about the bravery of the British Merchant Navy fleet.

1 - the old merchant mariners lore 'ship sinks, pay stops'

2 - that the death rate amongst merchant mariners in the Second World War was proportionately higher than in any of the armed forces

3 - the Merchant Navy were not included in the official Remembrance Day parade until 2000

The most significant and crucial conflict in World War Two in which merchant seamen were involved was the Battle of the Atlantic. In the longest campaign of the war, the British merchant fleet, with its naval escorts, struggled to bring food, fuel, equipment and raw materials from America and elsewhere across the Atlantic, while Germany mobilised U-boats, battleships, aircraft and mines against them in an attempt to sever Britain's supply lines. At the same time, British and later American shipyards attempted to produce enough ships to replace those that were sunk. It was not until May 1943 that the Battle of the Atlantic was won, although U-Boats continued to operate until the end of the war.

30,248 merchant seamen lost their lives during World War Two, a death rate that was higher proportionately than in any of the armed forces.

The Battle of the Atlantic was in Churchill's words the Battle for Britain. Yet the front-line soldiers in this battle, those who were the targets of the German torpedoes, received no paid leave on returning to port and "if a man wished to spend time with his family, he had no alternative but to quit the ship and go off pay."

Few officers would take this option fearing that in their absence they would be replaced.  Even more astonishingly, under British law when a ship was sunk the obligations of the shipowner to pay the crew's wages went with it. Those fortunate to complete their Atlantic passages received their pay in full. Those whose ships went down, including the relatives of those killed, would, unless they were fortunate to work for one of the more philanthropic lines, only receive wages due up to the day of the sinking. The resentment caused by this is well expressed by Sidney Graham a London Eastender who served on several Atlantic and Arctic convoys and once spent 10 days in a lifeboat :

" 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. "

Despite protests by the seamen and their trade unions nothing was done to rectify this state of affairs until May 1941 when the Essential Work Order came into force (largely in response to growing shortages of seamen).  Fourth Engineer Tom Purnell on the Canonesa was paid £15 10/- per month plus a war risk payment of £5 per month. For his last journey which began on 26th July and ended with his death late in the evening of the 21st September he was paid £38 19/- before deductions. His account of wages, signed by the ship's captain, gives the 'date wages began' as 26th Jul. 1940 and 'date wages ceased' as '21 Sep. 1940'. Not a penny more was paid than was strictly necessary. As one writer has put it :

"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."

When the Merchant Navy Association was set up in 1989, verterans gave voice to concerns that many seafarers felt somewhat overlooked and forgotten when the laurels and accolades were being bestowed after WW2. It was their feeling that if those 'under command' during wartime campaigns had waited as long for Merchant Navy ships and seafarers to join them in such places as the North Atlantic, Western Approaches, Korea and the Falklands as it took for the Armed Services to invite them to the Cenotaph and government to acknowledge their contribution then there may well have been no national Service of Remembrance to attend. Some were totally incensed with the perceived ingratitude of HM Government as one in four merchant seafarers lost their lives…their friends and comrades in wartime.

As more Merchant Navy Association branches were set up a national consensus of seafarer’s views was coalesced into agreed policy initiatives such as official recognition to march to the London Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday and a UK Merchant Navy Day.

Clearly presented arguments finally led the Royal British Legion to change their previously held views and to ‘officially’ accept the role merchant seafarers and the command structure of wartime convoys.  For the first time, in the year 2000, Merchant Navy Veterans marched behind the Royal Navy in Column E and the Merchant Navy wreath was proudly laid at the Cenotaph.  The wreath, with its unique MN design, joined the ‘Red Duster’ which had been displayed at the Cenotaph since the memorial was dedicated.  

Also in 2000 HM Government approved the 3rd September as Merchant Navy Day.  There were a number of organisations campaigning for a Merchant Navy Day and not all agreed with the commemorative concept or the date proposed by the MNA.  However, the MNA’s campaign was well received by the then Labour Government and both the commemorative and future prospects of merchant seafarers remain important elements of the Service. 

The 3rd September was the day that the SS Athenia was sunk just nine hours after Prime Minister Chamberlain declared the outbreak of war on the ‘wireless’.  It should also be noted that the last casualties before VE Day was also a Merchant Ship also with the loss of merchant seafarers.


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