During both World Wars, the Merchant Navy was called upon in a time of need. Merchant seamen were the vital crew who ensured the United Kingdom remained supplied with essential raw materials, arms, ammunition, fuel, and sustenance, thus enabling the nation to sustain itself through the trials of war.
Their contribution was pivotal, with their valiant efforts supporting the country’s defence. Previously known as the mercantile marine, King George V had bestowed the title of the “Merchant Navy” (with a capital M and N) on the British merchant shipping fleets following their service in the First World War. The Merchant Navy was made up of a whole gamut of different shipping lines, all proud to be serving under its red ensign as they went into WW2.
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These seafarers, who ranged in age from fourteen to their late seventies, faced immense hardships and endured a significantly higher casualty rate than many other branches of the country’s services. According to records from the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen, approximately 144,000 merchant seamen were serving aboard British registered merchant ships at the onset of World War II. Throughout the conflict, the total number of men who sailed in the Merchant Navy rose to an estimated 185,000. However, the toll of war on these brave souls was heavy; 36,749 seamen were lost to enemy actions, 5,720 were captured as prisoners, and 4,707 sustained injuries, culminating in a minimum casualty figure of 47,176, representing a casualty rate of over 25 per cent. Former Registrar General of Shipping and Seaman, Mr Gabe Thomas, noted that “27 per cent of merchant seamen perished due to enemy actions.”
Merchant seamen were not part of the military, they were classed as civilians who volunteered to work at sea, signing on to sail aboard a ship for a voyage or series of voyages. At the conclusion of their service on a particular ship, termed as being “paid off,“ they could choose to sign on for additional voyages if required or to take unpaid “leave” before embarking on a new voyage or settling onshore to work.
These mariners were, and continue to be, professionals who sailed in various roles. Their dedication and sacrifices, often overlooked, were indispensable in upholding the resilience of the British Merchant Navy fleet during World War II and in ensuring the sustenance and survival of the nation. As we mark Remembrance Sunday we should also call to mind not only those brave members of the armed services but also these courageous civilian mariners. Among their ranks are crew members from all over the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, as we shall see below.
Rolls of Honours discover the young and the old
TheGenealogist has recently added to its ever-growing record sets a collection of Rolls of Honours from BT 339 records held in the National Archives. This release acts as a fitting commemoration of the Merchant Navy’s invaluable service and unwavering commitment to maintaining essential supplies and support in the face of adversity in the Second World War.
In these latest records, we can search and find a large number of men and some women of the Merchant Navy who lost their lives in the war. Their ages at death cover an extensive range with examples from the youngest “Boy” rating through to the qualified Master Mariner (often referred to as the captain of the vessel), all were merchant seamen regardless of role or rank and these lists contain the details of the deceased and missing presumed dead from the Merchant Navy and the Fishing Fleet of Britain.
The youngest were invariably “Boy” ratings, Deck Boys, Galley Boys, Mess Room Boys, Stewards Boys or Cabin Boys and were typically between 14 and 15 years old. Two brothers, Ken and Ray Lewis from Cardiff, were killed sailing together aboard the SS Fiscus aged 14 and 15 years respectively when it was sunk by U-99 on the 3rd November 1941. Listed as Kenneth James Lewis and Raymond Leslie Lewis they can be discovered by searching within TheGenealogist’s Rolls of Honour. The accompanying image of the record shows them on the same Roll of Honour page.
In many cases, brothers would be sent to sea in different ships. This was the case for my father and my uncle, both of whom were serving in the Merchant Navy on Shaw, Savill & Albion Line vessels during WW2. They were split up and posted to separate ships, but this was not always the case as there are frequent cases of close family members sailing together with tragic results for their families when their ships were sunk. One example of this is for three members of the Attard family from Gozo, Malta who perished in September 1941 when the SS Newbury was lost. We can find them in these new records where they are recorded as C Attard, Carmel Attard and Guiseppe Attard. All three were working as Firemen and Trimmers on the SS Newbury when she went down at 08.16 hours on 15 Sep 1941. The ship had become a straggler from convoy ON-14 when the German submarine U-94 hit her with a torpedo causing her to sink and she went down with all hands lost southeast of Cape Farewell in the Atlantic.
The oldest known serving merchant seamen were in their seventies, and an example of someone in this age group was Chief Cook Santan Martins of SS Calabria. From the records on TheGenealogist we see that he was aged 79 when he was killed in action, that he was from Goa and that his ship was sunk on 8 December 1940.
One scrape too many!
A search for Egerton Gabriel Martin finds him listed in the Roll of Honour for losing his life on the 14th January 1945. This was not the first time that Captain E.G.B. Martin, O.B.E. of the Merchant Navy had been on a ship that went down! He had been in the unfortunate position of having ships sunk from beneath him on three occasions before this. Unfortunately, the fourth episode was simply one too many and he was lost at sea.
These seafarers, whose loss of life is commemorated in the Rolls of Honour recently added to TheGenealogist, join a plethora of records available to the family history researcher seeking to find their ancestors who served their country in the many conflicts over the years.