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Friday 23 September, 2016
In the year 2000, after many years of lobbying, the Australian Government set aside 3 September as Merchant Navy Day; the official day of remembrance of seamen and women who have sacrificed their lives for their country. This particular date was chosen because of an incident that took place just eight hours after WWII was declared on that day in 1939. A German submarine sank the merchant ship SS Athenia as she commenced her outward bound journey from England to Canada. Though still in sight of the Irish coastline at the time, of her 1100 passengers and crew 110 lives were lost at sea that day.
I began to learn about the Merchant Navy when, as a young boy, I commenced my seamanship training on the SS Vindicatrix; a course typical of a British merchant seaman’s pathway to a career in the commercial shipping industry. Although my training took place in the late ’50s I was interested to learn that this particular ship had a proud and significant connection with the British Merchant Navy. Prior to World War II more than 70,000 young British teenagers aged 15 to 17 years had been trained in seamanship on the SS Vindicatrix. These young men were subsequently called upon to serve when war broke out in September, 1939 and many lost their lives.
The SS Vindicatrix was so crucial to seamanship training in Britain that she was moved from London to the safer haven of Sharpness to avoid being damaged by the heavy bombing undertaken by the German Luftwaffe. Towed around the English coast via the River Severn she was brought to rest in her new home where she resided for the next 28 years, working as a training ship for young men keen to learn the art of seamanship just like myself. It was here that I first learned what it meant to be a deck hand (above deck) or a steward (below deck) and where my passion for life as a commercial sailor was fostered. Vindicatrix ended her service in 1967. A simple memorial plaque in Sharpness serves as the only reminder of the contribution to military history, she and all who trained on her, had made.
To this day there are many who are totally unaware of the role British and Australian merchant seaman have played in the first and second world wars – and indeed in subsequent conflicts in which merchant ships have been called upon to serve.
The British Merchant Navy was first pronounced a NAVY in 1928 by King George V. He declared that Edward, Prince of Wales would be “Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets”; a title Edward retained after his accession in January 1936, and which was only relinquished at his abduction in December that year to marry Wallis Simpson.
In WWI the Merchant Service had suffered heavy losses from German U-boat attacks, with approximately 14,660 merchant seafarers killed. It was in honour of the sacrifice made by these men that King George V granted the title “Merchant Navy” to the service.
At present Queen Elizabeth is “Master of the Merchant Navy” and given that she holds only honourable titles in the Commonwealth’s Navy, Army, and Air Force, this makes the role particularly significant.
When the United Kingdom entered the Second World War, King George VI issued the following message to the Merchant Navy:
“Yours is a task no less essential to my people’s experience than that allotted to the Navy, Army and Air Force. Upon you the Nation depends for much of its foodstuffs and raw materials and for the transport of its troops overseas. You have a long and glorious history, and I am proud to bear the title ‘Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets’. I know that you will carry out your duties with resolution and with fortitude, and that high chivalrous traditions of your calling are safe in your hands. God keep you and prosper you in your great task.”
In the Second World War, over 3500 Allied ships were sunk between 1939 and 1945, with more than 32,000 merchant seafarers’ lives lost. German U-boats alone sank 2,828 Allied ships (around two-thirds of the total allied service fleet). In 1943 the hospital ship Centaur was sunk by a torpedo fired from a Japanese submarine. Of the ship’s crew, 26 were in the Merchant Navy.
The badge of the Merchant Navy is worn proudly by merchant seamen and women on our caps and blazers. This is despite a history of having been rebuked as conscientious objectors and sometimes abused and spat upon during war time – mainly because we wore ‘civvies’ while performing merchant navy duties and were therefore not perceived to be ‘doing our bit’.
Prime Minister John Curtin understood the importance of the Australian Merchant Navy and made the following tribute in his famous speech of 26 January, 1943 with the words:
“The men of the merchant navy have distinguished themselves in silent devotion to duty.”
Merchant ships have been requisitioned by successive Australian Government’s for armed service and although none were built for military service or speed, some have had armaments attached. Sadly the crews of these merchant ships were not compensated for this service. Nor were their families provided with a pension if they were killed. If their ships were sunk and they were lucky to survive, their wages were simply lost. They and their families went without, as they sought alternate postings on other vessels as quickly as they could to avoid impending bankruptcy.
Some seamen survived a sinking only to be interned and tortured in an enemy camp for the duration of the war, with the details of these stories only now beginning to come to light.
Ships requisitioned by the Australian Government included trawlers, coasters, tankers and cruise ships. These merchant vessels carried oil supplies, troops, armaments and food to all theatres of war. Some escorted naval ships, while others were left to fend for themselves as they undertook assigned duties that included journeying through seas known to present high risk to all. All were manned by merchant seamen and women who displayed great courage and commitment to providing the support they were called upon to deliver.
In 1986, the South Australian merchant ship Falie, now based in Port Adelaide, became the primary vessel for world renowned shark expert Rodney Fox, for his shark and diving tours conducted around the South Australian coast. Prior to this the Falie was taken into military service during World War II ferrying troops and supplies to Papua New Guinea in enemy territory and later acting as a watch dog in Sydney Harbour. It was the Falie and her crew who discovered a Japanese midget submarine trying to infiltrate Sydney Harbour, alerting authorities to this Japanese presence in the heart of Australia. Later she carried explosives around the Australian coast.
Members of both the British and Australian Merchant Navies are spread throughout Australia. We keep in touch and reunite with each other on a regular basis. In South Australia we meet at Cheltenham Cemetery on 10 July each year to commemorate “Sea Sunday” – a day we set aside to honour all seafarers who have given their lives in the service of their country. We meet at Cheltenham because there are more than 80 graves in this cemetery whose memorial headstones are dedicated to merchant seamen and women.
Today many veterans of Australia’s Merchant Navy proudly wear medals presented by grateful foreign countries that have recognised their service during turbulent war years. Sadly, very few have been presented with medals by their own country. Thankfully 2008 marked a turning point and change in attitude by the Australian Government, and recognition is now slowly being addressed. With many merchant seamen who are veterans of World War II now in their nineties this recognition cannot come too soon.
On Saturday 23 April this year, at the launch of the Anzac Centenary Memorial Walk in Adelaide, the Merchant Navy Crest was unveiled alongside Australia’s four defence force crests. In this remarkable local cut marble stone memorial, the Merchant Navy was formally recognised alongside the Australian Defence Force and Australia’s Navy, Army and Air Force, making it a fitting dedication to all who served.
Two days later on 25 April, as part the 2016 Anzac Day Parade, the Merchant Navy Flag (Australian Red Ensign) flew alongside those of the three armed services, carried by the RSL Flag bearers at the head of the march. It was a proud moment for Maritime seamen and women past and present. This year too, marks 160 years since the establishment of the Mission of Seamen; a dedication to seafarers and their families across the world.
The Merchant Navy proudly makes appearances at all service memorials and parades as the “4th service”. We lay wreaths alongside the armed forces in annual Remembrance Day Services held on 11 November, each year.
Next time you reflect on those Australians who have provided service to their country during times of war spare a thought for the Merchant seamen and women who did their bit; both those who survived and those who did not; quietly and confidently ensuring Australia’s armed forces had all they needed at the battlefront while bearing the inevitable loss this merchant service has exacted.
With more than 90% of all of the world’s trade still being carried by merchant vessels, merchant seamen and women are as relevant today as they ever were.
Lest we forget.
Merchant Navy Day at Port Adelaide on 3rd September, 2016.