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Merchant Navy Ships in World War II

Updated on March 13, 2016

The Fourth Service of WWII

The Merchant Navy

The Allied Merchant Navy was manned by sailors from Britain and the many nations that made up the then British Empire. Countries such as Russia, the United States and China which became British Allies were also members of the Merchant Navy.

Furthermore, countries such as Poland, Greece, and Norway which were under German occupation, or the Philippines which was overrun by Japan, were also participants. Many joined the Merchant Navy because they were not old enough or too old, or physically ineligible to enlist in the regular armed forces of their countries.

The merchant seamen, although they did so as civilians, faced the same dangers of war as the regular armed forces. The merchant ships were peacetime vessels fitted with guns for defense - although this weaponry could not withstand an enemy attack.

The job of the Merchant Navy was to carry vital troops, food, fuel and equipment to wherever they were needed in the fight against the Axis alliance of Germany, Italy and Japan.

Historians generally accept that their most crucial struggle was the Battle of the Atlantic that began on September 3 1939, with the Athenia, the British Passenger Ship, that was torpedoed by a German U-boat. The fight for the seas carried on until Germany surrendered on May 7th 1945.

U.S. Merchant Marine Radio Officer Don Berger

Total Losses for Allied Merchant Marines

In 1942, the average sinking of Allied merchant ships was thirty-three ships each week.

If we look at the total Merchant Marine Navy losses during World War 11 the figures look like this:

  • British Merchant Marine: 25 070 Men Killed 2 426 Ships Sunk

  • US Merchant Marine: 6 838 Men Killed 848 Ships Sunk (+1800 Naval guards Killed)

  • Canadian Seamen 1 146 Men Killed

  • Italian Merchant Navy 2 513 Ships Sunk

  • Japanese Merchant Navy 1 152 Ships sunk

The failure of the Japanese to sail their merchant ships in convoy without adequate protection was one of the most appalling blunders in naval history, which resulted in the loss of 63% of their merchant shipping and contributed to their losing the War.

Of the 5,150 Allied merchant vessels sunk during WWII, 2828 were sunk by Axis submarines.

Merchant Navy Day is celebrated on 3 September - When Men of the Forgotten Fourth Service are Remembered.

"Wilhelm Gustloff"  She carried 9343 Souls to their death when torpedoed by a Russian submarine in the Baltic Sea.
"Wilhelm Gustloff" She carried 9343 Souls to their death when torpedoed by a Russian submarine in the Baltic Sea.

Athenia” the first civilian casualty of World War II, the Cunard passenger liner was sunk without warning off Scotland by the German Submarine U-30. Obit. Lemp was not court-martialed for this, however, after this incident Hitler ordered that no further attacks were to be made on passenger ships.

On May 9, 1941 Obit Lemp and 15 of his crewman were lost when the U-110 which he then commanded was captured. On this u-Boat was the most important prize of the war. She carried the Enigma machine that helped Britain break the top secret German military codes.

"Wilhelm Gustloff" - Greatest Sea Tragedy

The German Cruise liner “Wilhelm Gustloff“ sank on January 30, 1945. (Incidentally its namesake, the assassinated head of the Swiss Nazi Party, Wilhelm Gustloff, would have been 50 years old on January 30 had he survived). 

The sinking of this ship was the greatest sea tragedy of all time. She was built to carry 1465 passengers and a crew of 400. The ship was now converted into a 500 bed hospital ship, and she set sail as part of Operation Hannibal, the largest naval rescue operation in history.

She was overcrowded with around 10,582 people on board, including 918 naval officers, 373 German Women Naval Auxiliaries, 162 wounded soldiers and 173 crew all fleeing from the Red Army who were raping and killing all in its path as it bore down to the Baltic ports of East Prussia. 

She was ploughing through the icy Baltic Sea when she was hit by three torpedoes from the German designed Russian Submarine S-13. She sank in 70 minutes near the Danish island of Bornholm.

Many families committed suicide rather than drown in the icy minus 18 degree water. Many of 964 persons rescued later died, and others were picked up by small boats and remain uncounted. Around 4000 of those killed were children and the latest research place people on board at 10 582; therefore, an estimated 9343 souls perished - six times the 1517 who died on the Titanic. 

The reason I am sure that this is not a well-known tragedy is that it happened in wartime and although the majority were German civilians not much sympathy was forthcoming for Germany at this time.

"Armenia" Second Largest Sea Tragedy during WW ll

On the other hand, during the war the second biggest sea tragedy was a Russian hospital ship - so maybe when reading the following story, we realise neither country upheld the Geneva Convention when it came to each others' hospital ships.

Let's look at the sinking of the Soviet hospital ship, the “Armenia” on November 7, 1941, which was the worst maritime disaster at that time. All except eight of the 7000 passengers perished on a ship designed for not more than a thousand. Again, blind panic as they boarded the ship at Yalta fleeing from the Germans who had invaded the Soviet Union and had overrun the Crimean peninsula and were now bearing down on the town - all other exits were sealed by the Germans.

Both Hitler and Stalin had said they would not respect the Hague Convention as far as their respective hospital ships were concerned. So these sea tragedies go down in history as a wartime casualties and not the tragedies they were.

Both the Wilhelm Gustloff and the Armenia were carrying mostly civilians half of whom were children.

There are so many sad stories in the War of hospital ships, or rescue ships being torpedoed or bombed. These two ships are at the top as they carried so many souls to their deaths.

To all those who sailed with the Merchant Navy, whoever they may be, our grateful thanks and “May their Souls rest in Peace.”

US Merchant Marine History - World at War


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    • CyberShelley profile imageAUTHOR

      Shelley Watson 

      6 years ago

      I would suggest you start by contacting the British Navy, stating the name of the ship and your request. They will guide you.

    • profile image

      Robert Noel 

      7 years ago

      I need to find out what happened to my 2 uncles,Phillip Noel& John Noel, who left South Africa and joined the merchant marine and was declared missing,presumed dead by their ship being torpedoed .

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 

      7 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Thank you for the follow and fan mail! One of my uncles was torpedoed in the Atlantic, was picked up unconscious and taken to Canada, had no identification, suffered loss of memory and was declared "missing, presumed dead" back in Liverpool. He finally turned up a long time later, giving his poor wife a double shock, fortunately the second one was a happy one!

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 

      7 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Very interesting hub, especially for me as several members of my direct family were actually serving in the British Merchant Navy during WW2. Thank you for sharing this, and helping me to remember!


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