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"For you, the war is over!"

Merchant Navy Prisoners of War in the Second World War

Online exhibition

Merchant Navy Day is celebrated on 3 September, to commemorate the contribution the merchant navy has made, and continues to make, to Britain. With so much to cover, this small online exhibition highlights merchant navy Prisoners of War (POWs) during the Second World War, who were not given the recognition awarded their colleagues in the armed forces.

During the Second World War many Prisoners of War were issued with Wartime Logs from the YMCA, a hardback volume to act as their personal journal to fill as they liked. The Maritime Archives and Library| is fortunate enough to hold a few examples of these volumes which catalogue the humour, boredom, ingenuity, fear and hunger of the men.

Click on the thumbnails below to see extracts from the volume belonging to Peter Rogan (1921-1992) which was kindly donated to the Maritime Archives & Library in 2010.

'No Smoking', from Peter Rogan's log book (DX/2503).Cigarettes were an important commodity within POW camps and could be used as currency or bribes. Map showing where Peter Rogan was sunk and taken prisoner and his route to Germany, Peter Rogan's log book (DX/2503). Merchant Navy POWs were, obviously, mainly captured at sea (although some successfully survived on lifeboats across huge distances, only to be taken prisoner upon reaching land). They would then be transferred to other vessels, landed, and travel by train to Milag Nord, Westertinke, Northern Germany, between Bremen and Hamburg. 'The doomed pay-off', Peter Rogan's log book (DX/2503). The woman in this cartoon may be disappointed for wages paid to merchant seafarer POWs were less than generous. The traditionally harsh treatment of merchant seafarers by their employers, most famously by stopping wages from the time a ship sank, did change over the war. However, both seafarers and their families back home faced difficulties in obtaining money, resulting in much hardship and resentment of their treatment compared with that of the armed services. Poem about and drawings of Red Cross food parcels, Peter Rogan's log book (DX/2503).Red Cross food parcels were of great importance to POWs and, as this poem states, many POWs believed they would have starved without them.  POWs referred to themselves as 'Geffies' from the German Kriegsgefangener, meaning Prisoner of War. Daydreaming while driving the camp sewage tanker, from Peter Rogan's log book (DX/2503). 'Raiding the Convoy', Peter Rogan's log book (DX/2503). Work party duty was hard, especially considering the under nourished state of the POWs, but it did provide the opportunity to acquire some extra rations. Title page of Peter Rogan's wartime log book (DX/2503). According to his discharge book (the record of a seafarers service), Peter Rogan was a fireman on board the Chapman Brother vessel Demeterton when it was sunk by the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst and he was taken prisoner on 16 March 1941. 'Vas is in der bucket Tommy', from Peter Rogan's log book (DX/2503). The rations provided for the POWs were meagre and every opportunity was taken to supplement them by smuggling, especially by those POWs leaving the camp on work parties.

Second World War

Britain's ability to survive and wage war was dependent on food and materials being imported by sea and this was obvious to the opposing forces, who targeted the British and Allied merchant navies. Statistically more merchant seaman were killed than in any branch of the armed forces, nearly one in four over the course of the war.

For the British Merchant Navy in the Second World War, battle commenced as soon as war was declared. Germany had already deployed its U-Boat fleet in readiness and on 3 September 1939, within hours of war being declared, the Donaldson Line vessel Athenia was sunk, one of fourteen merchant navy losses within the first week. The crew of the trawler Caldew were the first merchant seamen to be taken as Prisoners of War when attacked by U-33 on 27 September 1939.

Merchant Navy Prisoners of War

The British Merchant Navy at that time staffed by a large and diverse group of men and by the end of the Second World War more than 5,000 Allied merchant seamen of 29 different nationalities were held as Prisoners of War.

While some seamen were taken prisoner by the Japanese (the Maritime Archives & Library holds documents relating to Henry Scurr, MBE, reference DX/2472 and Robert Jones, reference DX/2406), the vast majority were captured by the German Navy and spent most of their captivity at Milag Nord camp, near Bremen in Northern Germany.