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Merchant Navy Association

Merchant Navy Day

Type:   Event

Location:   UK-wide, National Office 9 Saxon Way Caistor, Market Rasen, Lincolnshire, England, LN7 6SG.

Date:   03 September 2016
03 September 2017
03 September 2018


Merchant Navy Day was established in 2000 by HM Government and is on 3rd September each year, the anniversary of the start of the Second World War. While the Red Ensign, the flag of the British Merchant Navy, flies permanently over the national Merchant Navy Memorial in Trinity Square Gardens on Tower Hill in London EC3, it is flown in tribute that day on public and maritime buildings across the UK. This, by such as local authorities and port operators from the Shetland Islands to Falmouth and from Northern Ireland's Causeway Coast to Ceredigion and Great Yarmouth. In London, it includes the Department for Transport headquarters; HMS Belfast and Tower Bridge. The latter is an honour shared with only the Union Flag and the White Ensign of the Royal Navy; in fact, two are flown from the Bridge.

In the First World War, the task of what was known then as the Mercantile Marine was to keep Britain fed, fuelled and fighting. By 1913, Britain imported 80% of its wheat, 50% of its meat and nearly 50% of its iron ore. In 1914, 43% of the world’s merchant ships, some 20 million tons gross, was owned and operated by Britain and the Dominions. Keeping Britain in business, those ships brought in food and raw materials, exporting its industry’s output to the world. In the War, the Imperial German Navy saw cutting the trade routes as the means to victory. For this, the submarine, the U-boat, became Germany’s principal weapon such that by April 1917, one in four merchant ships leaving Britain was not returning in being lost to enemy action. This forced HM Government to realise that Britain would have to capitulate within six months. In turn, this finally compelled the Admiralty and shipowners to introduce the convoy system in May 1917, grouping merchant ships under the protection of naval escorts for passage across the North and South Atlantic in particular. It changed the outcome of the War. Nonetheless, 6,924 Allied ships, almost 13 million tons gross, had been sunk with the loss of some 17,000 merchant seafarers by the end of the War in 1918.

For their valour in separate actions in 1915 and 1917 respectively, the Mercantile Marine captains, Frederick Parslow and Archibald Smith, were awarded the Victoria Cross. For this, the Admiralty commissioned them posthumously in 1919 as Lieutenants in the Royal Naval Reserve, avoiding the difficulty of elevating the merchant service to the level of the Royal Navy. The only Mercantile Marine members and the only civilians so decorated in the War, Captain Parslow was also the oldest recipient in the War of the VC.

Such was the service and sacrifice of the Mercantile Marine during the First World War that HM King George V decreed in 1928 that it should be known as the ‘Merchant Navy’. What is now the First World War section of the national Merchant Navy Memorial on London's Tower Hill was unveiled by HM Queen Mary and similarly in 1928, the King instituted and conferred upon Edward, Prince of Wales, the title of ‘Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets’. The appointment is held now by HM The Queen.

The Second World War began on 3rd September 1939 when Britain declared war on Germany following its invasion of Poland. Around 8½ hours later, the first British merchant ship, the liner SS Athenia, was torpedoed by a submarine west of Ireland. The last was sunk on 7th May 1945, 1¼ hours before VE-Day, it being the SS Avondale Park, a cargo ship, torpedoed off the Firth of Forth.

That first attack began the Battle of the Atlantic which became the longest continuous campaign of the Second World War. Prime Minister Winston Churchill described it as ‘… the dominating factor all through the War. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea or in the air depended ultimately on its outcome.’

Britain's war effort relied on merchant ships, escorted by those of the Royal and Allied Navies, bringing supplies from across the North and South Atlantic. In the convoys, the Merchant Navy’s civilian seamen were in the front-line alongside their naval counterparts in facing enemy submarines, mines, surface ships and aircraft while always at the mercy of sea and weather. Unescorted, the odds against merchant ships were even greater and thus so were the losses. By the end of the Second World War, with some 4,700 British-flagged ships sunk, more than 35,000 merchant seamen had died, a greater proportion of the Merchant Navy's strength than of any of the Armed Services.

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