Welcome to my homepage which is a tribute to all
the members of the
Allied Merchant Navy who served around
the world during World War II.
The Allied Merchant Navy was manned by sailors from Great Britain and the many nations which made up the British Empire -- now the British Commonwealth. In addition, countries such as Russia, the United States, and China which became Allies of Britian were also members of the Allied Merchant Navy. Other European countries like Poland, Greece and Norway, which came under German occupation, or Asian nations like the Philippines which was overrun by Japan, were also participants. Even neutral countries such as Sweden found that it was safer for their ships to sail with the Allied Merchant Navy rather than on their own. Over 12,000 merchant seamen came from my country, Canada, and from Newfoundland which at that time was not yet a Canadian province. Many joined the Merchant Navy because they were not old enough, or too old, or not physically eligible to enlist in the regular armed forces of their countries. Others joined because they felt it was the best way for them to contribute to the war effort. And although it was not common, even women served in the Allied Merchant Navy.
merchant seamen faced the same dangers of war as the regular
armed forces, but they did so as non-military citizens, or
Their merchant ships were peacetime vessels
which even if fitted with
guns for defense, were
not designed to withstand an enemy attack. The job of the
Navy was to carry vital troops, food, fuel and equipment to
wherever they were needed in the fight against the
Axis alliance of
Although the Allied Merchant Navy participated in
all the theatres of war, it is now generally accepted by
historians, that their most crucial struggle was
"The Battle of the Atlantic".
began on September 3rd, 1939, when the British passenger
Athenia was torpedoed by
a German U-boat, and it
continued until Germany surrendered on May 7th, 1945.
As one by one her European allies were overrun, Britain, led from mid 1940 by Winston Churchill, stood alone against Germany, ruled by the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. Britain became totally dependent on the merchant ships from North America to supply her with much of what she needed for daily survival. Without the troops, food, fuel and munitions brought to Britain by the Allied Merchant Navy, her armed forces would not have been able to fight. In Germany Rear-Admiral Karl Dönitz had believed for many years that the best weapon to use against British merchant shipping was the stealthy German submarine or U-boat. As a U-boat commander in the First World War, Dönitz had witnessed firsthand the appalling loses inflicted on British merchant shipping in that conflict, and since then he had devised new strategies which he was keen to try out. At first Hitler held off building the number of U-boats which Dönitz recommended -- 300 -- making do with the 57 already in service. But after his 1940 attempt to invade England -- "Operation Sealion" -- failed, Hitler stepped up the U-boat building program. Britain was not prepared for anti-submarine warfare, but she had learned one bitter lesson from the carnage of World War One. Unlike in that war when she had been slow to act, this time from the beginning Britain fought back against the U-boats and their deadly torpedoes by instituting the convoy system.
A North Atlantic
consisted of a group of merchant ships or
which would be loaded up with their precious
goods in North American ports, and then cross together
to Britain under the protection of naval warships known as
Before the United States entered the war,
the main port of assembly for the North Atlantic convoys was
the Canadian city of
Halifax, Nova Scotia.
In August 1940
Sydney, Nova Scotia,
became the assembly port for the
older, slower merchant vessels.
Under normal conditions many of the old ships would
have been retired, but, at that stage of
the war Britain was so
short of merchantmen
that even lakers and coasters never intended for the
open sea and
dilapidated old "tramps" were hastily
fitted with whatever guns could be found, and pressed into service.
After the USA joined the war in December 1941,
became the main assembly port for the fast convoys.
New York also took over the assemblage of the slow
convoys for a time, but after March 1943 they
were delegated back to Sydney.
convoy system operated under the theory that if there were
enough merchant ships, although some would be sunk, others
through with their desperately needed troops and supplies.
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The task of protecting the vulnerable merchantmen on the North Atlantic was mainly shared by the Canadian Navy -- the RCN -- and the British Navy -- the RN. Although, at the beginning of the war, both navies' resources were too spread out to provide proper protection all the way across, ideally, a convoy's escorts would consist of 2 powerful destroyers -- one in front and the other in the the rear -- assisted by a mix of 5 smaller escorts such as corvettes, sloops and frigates which would keep watch along the sides and end of the formation. Air planes were also a crucial component in protecting the convoys. Allied air forces -- the Canadian RCAF, the British RAF, and later, the American USAAF -- searched for U-boats and fought off planes of the German airforce or Luftwaffe, which menaced convoys off the coast of Europe. After the Fall of France in 1940, Dönitz quickly established U-boat bases on the Bay of Biscay on France's west coast. From the new bases, the ever-growing U-boat fleet was able to range farther into the Atlantic into new areas where Allied escort protection was at its weakest. During the summer and fall of 1940 it was so easy for the U-boats to pick off merchant ships at will, that their crews called this period the "Happy Time". Dönitz eventually began to concentrate his U-boats in a 300 mile-wide area in the middle of the Atlantic which was so far from land that the Allied planes then available could not cover it. This huge section of ocean in which many merchant ships and their crews were lost, came to be known as the "Black Pit".
During the early years of the war the U-boats,
unless they were caught by surprise on
the surface by an airplane or speedy destroyer, had
little to fear from the Allies' fire-power. On the other hand
even a well-armed merchant
vessel which might have had some protection against an
enemy aircraft or a surfaced U-boat, was
still nothing more than a "sitting duck"
The early hard-pressed escort ships were not much better off.
In order for them to detect the submarines, which usually
shadowed the convoy just out of sight by day and
on the surface at night,
the escorts needed two new technologies --
radar. Asdic, (later called Sonar), which the British had
been secretly working on since WWI, used sound waves to
spot the U-
boats when they were submerged.
In the decades before the war, the Royal Navy
had thought that Asdic would make any threat from
U-boats obsolete, but
Dönitz and his U-boats
had soon shown that Asdic needed to be improved upon.
a discovery of Scottish scientist
Dr. Robert Watson-Watt,
used radio waves to locate subs on the surface,
but, although from early on Radar showed great
potential, like Asdic,
it too needed refinement.
Another early problem at sea was that
Allied resources were
stretched so thinly, that to start, only a few
destroyers could be fitted with Radar.
Along with the problems involved in detecting the presence of U-boats, the Allies suffered another major disadvantage in the Battle of the Atlantic. Both Germany and Britain had special codes which they used to send secret messages to their navies. The German Navy, or Kriegsmarine, was able to decode the British naval code, and, thereby, know exactly where a convoy was going to travel. On the other hand, the British code-breakers, located at Bletchley Park in England, were not able to consistently crack the notoriously difficult Enigma code which was used by the U-boats. During the times that the Enigma code couldn't be broken, the Allies could not steer their convoys around the waiting enemy. Consequently, the heavily-laden ships were easy prey for the German U-Boats, which zeroed in on their hapless victims in highly organized groups known as wolf packs. Merchant ship losses were astronomical. In comparison, the Allies sank only a small number of U-boats, which Germany could easily replace.
Once torpedoed, the odds
of a merchant seaman surviving and being rescued were poor.
Those who were not killed outright in the explosion, were
often badly injured. Many drowned, suffocated by oil, and
paralyzed from the
cold of the the frigid North
Atlantic waters. Others who
did manage to make it to a lifeboat or raft, were often left
behind as it was too
dangerous for another ship to stop and pick them up.
The survivors faced a slow, horrible death from starvation and
exposure. In 1941 Britain began to provide
specially outfitted vessels called
Rescue Ships which,
travelled behind a convoy to pick up survivors.
The little ships had
an incredibly dangerous job for they had to stop dead
in the water to perform a rescue and that
meant that they provided an ideal target for the
also did their best to help in rescue efforts,
but, their first priority was to try and locate the
U-boats and prevent any further torpedoings.
conditions meant that during some periods of the war
less than half of all merchant seamen survived the
sinking of their ships.
In the early years of the war, so many merchant ships were sunk that the losses became almost unsustainable -- merchant ships were being sunk faster than Allied shipyards could replace them. In 1942, even after the USA, under the leadership of President Franklin Roosevelt was drawn into the war, the situation actually worsened. The American navy -- the USN -- which had been unofficially helping out with the North Atlantic convoys since September 1941, sent most of its warships to the Pacific, and then delayed in setting up a convoy system on the Eastern seaboard. Just at that same time Dönitz dispatched a few of his rapidly growing fleet of U-boats to the waters off North America and they decimated merchant ships all along the coast from Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence down to the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, where they singled out the oil and aviation fuel tankers so essential to Britain's survival. For the German U-boat crews this period was their "Second Happy Time". Eventually, the USA fought back by returning some of their warships to the Atlantic and organizing their rapidly expanding fleet of newly-built, defensively-armed Liberty Ships into properly guarded convoys. Yet, these measures almost seemed to come too late. During the bitter winter of 1942-43, merchant shipping losses escalated and the Allies were faced with the real possibility that Britain would be forced to capitulate to Germany. Then in the Spring of 1943, the situation changed almost overnight.
Several things came together to cause
this change. To begin with, continual
improvements in air cover --
Merchant Aircraft Carriers
and finally land-based
bombers made it possible for Allied aircraft to
provide continuous protection
for the convoys all the way across the ocean. The
gap was finally closed. Secondly,
more escorts ships and better-trained men, including those of the
which were free to concentrate on
finding and destroying U-boats, became available.
By mid-1943 the
tiny and ill-equipped at
the beginning of the
war, had grown into a first-rate naval force which, along
now excelled at the
necessary to both protect the convoys and hunt
Thirdly, the Allied ships and planes
were equipped with
better weapons and
equipment such as the
High Frequency Direction Finder
and a new type of depth charge called
Most importantly, a more precise
from which the U-boats could no longer hide,
was fitted on both the Allied planes and escort ships.
the incredibly difficult
U-boat codes began to be
steadily broken by the dedicated
Lastly, the overwhelming output of speedily-built
Liberty Ships from
American shipyards, meant that merchant ships were no longer being
sunk faster than they could be replaced. Slowly the tide
began to turn in favour of the Allies.
Although the U-boats would remain a deadly threat to
right up to the last day of the war, by
1943, the Allies were finally starting to win the Battle of
The merchant seamen contributed enormously to the final victorious outcome of the Battle of the Atlantic, and without their amazing world-wide contribution to the war effort, final victories over the Axis powers would not have been possible. The price was incredibly high -- over 50,000 Allied and neutral merchant seamen lost their lives keeping the Atlantic life-line to Britain intact. In addition to those who died on the "high seas" of the North Atlantic -- and the South Atlantic which was the favoured haunt of Italian submarines -- many other merchant seamen faced death while serving in dangerous "coastal" waters such as the Gulf of St.Lawrence, the Caribbean Sea and the highly strategic and fiercely contested Mediterranean Sea. Throughout the far reaches of the Indian and Pacific Oceans merchant seamen fell victim to marauding German surface raiders and vicious Japanese submarines. Still others paid the ultimate price while keeping the life-line to Russia intact on the vital Murmansk--Archangel convoy routes of the frigid Arctic Ocean. Even after crossing the oceans safely and reaching Britain's coastal waters, merchant seamen still faced the hazards of deadly mines and savage aircraft attacks -- there were no "safe waters" for merchant seamen. Today, we must remember how much we owe those brave civilians who risked so much in the cause of Freedom, and who for so many years have received so little recognition.
This page has been written by Maureen Venzi and it is part of the Allied Merchant Navy of WWII website.