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A Tribute to the Merchant Seamen
of World War Two

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Hello. 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.

Rescued Seamen
Aboard HMCS Arvida

This photo showing rescued merchant seamen aboard the Canadian corvette HMCS Arvida, is from Reader's Digest Canadians at War, 1939-1945, 2nd ed., c1986.   (For a list of some ship prefixes Please Click Here)

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.

The merchant seamen faced the same dangers of war as the regular armed forces, but they did so as non-military citizens, or civilians. 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 Allied 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. 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". The battle began on September 3rd, 1939, when the British passenger liner Athenia was torpedoed by a German U-boat, and it continued until Germany surrendered on May 7th, 1945.

SS Athenia

The 13,465-ton Donaldson Atlantic passenger liner was en route from the United Kingdom to Canada when she was torpedoed by the submarine U-30 on the evening of September 3rd, 1939, just a few hours after Britain had declared war on Germany. Between 112 and 118 people (accounts vary), many of them women and children, lost their lives as a result of the attack. One of the dead was Canada's first Merchant Marine casualty of the war, Stewardess H annah Baird of Verdun, Quebec.

U-30 was under the command of Oberleutnant (Senior Lieutenant) Fritz Julius Lemp when Athenia was sunk. Lemp lost his life in May 1941 when his second command U-110 was captured along with her priceless cypher equipment by British naval ships HMS Aubretia, HMS Broadway and HMS Bulldog.

Photo Source: Malachy Francis (Max) Caulfield. A Night of Terror: The Story of the Athenia Affair. London: Muller, 1958. Alternative Title: Tomorrow Never Came: the Sinking of the SS Athenia.

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 convoy consisted of a group of merchant ships or merchantmen 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 escort vessels. 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, New York 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. The convoy system operated under the theory that if there were enough merchant ships, although some would be sunk, others would get through with their desperately needed troops and supplies. Click Here for Map

Convoy in Bedford Basin

This well-known photo shows a convoy of merchant ships getting ready to sail to Britain from Bedford Basin, the splendid harbour of Halifax,Nova Scotia. The photo is from A Nation Forged in Fire by J.L. Granatstein and Desmond Morton.

Convoys were divided into slow convoys for ships that could not maintain a steady speed of 10 knots, and fast convoys for ships capable of speeds between 10 and 15 knots. Convoys travelled at the speed of their slowest ship. The Admiralty allowed ships capable of speeds over 15 knots to travel on their own as independents.

The many convoy routes were identified by a variety of initials. A detailed explanation of the different routes can be found at

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" for U-boat torpedoes. 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 attacked on the surface at night, the escorts needed two new technologies -- asdic and 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. Radar, 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.

In early 1941, a new type of anti-submarine ship, the corvette, began swelling the ranks of the RCN and RN. Although the corvettes were never designed with deep-ocean service in mind, they were desperately needed and found themselves pressed into service as oceangoing escorts. The first corvettes were outfitted with asdic and a special armament for attacking submerged subs-- the depth charge -- but, they were not equipped with radar right away. Although radar was eventually added to the corvettes, the first sets were inaccurate, and even though improvements were soon developed, it took time for the new technology to be added to the RCN escorts. As a result, during that period of time the ability of the Canadian ships to detect and fight the U-boats was severely hampered.

Canadian Corvette HMCS Trail

The hard-working RCN and RN corvette would have been a familiar sight to merchant seamen.

Corvettes were small and maneuverable, but were not fast enough to outrun a U-boat on the surface. They were seaworthy, but rolled incessantly and were notoriously crowded and uncomfortable for their crews. In the RCN, most of the corvette captains were ex-merchant seamen, and most of the officers and crews were young volunteers who learned the art of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) on the job.

This photo of one of the first Canadian-built corvettes, HMCS Trail, is from On the Triangle Run by James Lamb.

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, when available, 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 German torpedoes. The brave naval escorts 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. These harrowing conditions meant that during some periods of the war less than half of all merchant seamen survived the sinking of their ships.

Ice on HMCS Wetaskiwin

Often on the North Atlantic, the weather coupled with mind-numbing fatigue, could be as deadly a foe as the enemy. A ship could founder in heavy seas or ram another in fog. In winter, ice build-up from waves washing over the deck, could even cause a ship to become top heavy and turn over. This is believed to have been the fate of the Rescue Ship St. Sunniva which was lost with all hands off Sable Island, Nova Scotia in January 1943.

This photo from Granatstein & Morton's A Nation Forged in Fire, shows the iced-up corvette, HMCS Wetaskiwin, entering the welcome haven of St. John's, Newfoundland, during the ferocious winter of 1942-3.

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 -- aircraft-equipped Catapult-Armed Merchantmen (CAMs) and Merchant Aircraft Carriers (MACs), Escort Carriers, and finally land-based American Very-Long-Range Liberator bombers made it possible for Allied aircraft to provide continuous protection for the convoys all the way across the ocean. The deadly Black Pit gap was finally closed. Secondly, more escorts ships and better-trained men, including those of the highly-trained support groups which were free to concentrate on finding and destroying U-boats, became available. By mid-1943 the RCN, tiny and ill-equipped at the beginning of the war, had grown into a first-rate naval force which, along with the RN, now excelled at the skilled teamwork necessary to both protect the convoys and hunt the U-boats. Thirdly, the Allied ships and planes were equipped with better weapons and equipment such as the High Frequency Direction Finder (HF/DF) or Huff-Duff, improved asdic/ sonar, and a new type of depth charge called Hedgehog. Most importantly, a more precise radar, from which the U-boats could no longer hide, was fitted on both the Allied planes and escort ships. Fourthly, the incredibly difficult Enigma U-boat codes began to be steadily broken by the dedicated Bletchley Park cryptanalysts. 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 of war began to turn in favour of the Allies. Although the U-boats would remain a deadly threat to Allied shipping right up to the last day of the war, by May 1943, the Allies were finally starting to win the Battle of the Atlantic.

A Park Ship

To replace their heavy losses, the Allies undertook massive shipbuilding programs during the war. This photo shows an unidentified 10,000-DWT "Park" ship, one of 353 "Fort" and "Park" "10,000-tonners" built in Canada's remarkable shipyards. The American-built Liberty Ship and the Canadian-built "Forts" and "Parks" were all based on the same British design.

The Allies' newly-built replacement ships were defensively armed. In addition to their merchant seamen gunners, many British and Canadian merchantmen carried volunteer naval gunners called Defensively-Equipped-Merchant-Ship or DEMS gunners. The American ships carried Naval Armed Guard gunners.

The above photo isfrom John D. Harbron's The Longest Battle. (Vanwell Pub., c1993) For more online information on the Canadian-built "Parks" and "Forts", please visit Fort Ships of WWII.

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.

A Tribute to the Merchant Seamen of WWII is continued in Part Two.



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This page has been written by Maureen Venzi and it is part of the Allied Merchant Navy of WWII website.