The Merchant Navy: Britain’s lifeline

In the Second World War as in the First, the Merchant Navy was to be Britain’s lifeline. In 1939 Britain, an island nation of 48 million people, depended for her survival upon maritime trade. Her 1,900 ocean going merchant ships, manned by crews from throughout the commonwealth, were part of the formal largest merchant fleet in the world. With help from the men and ships of friendly nations, they brought into the country all of her oil, half her food and most of her raw materials. British merchant ships also exported manufactured goods to help her to pay for these imports.

From the autumn of 1939 shipping routes across the North Atlantic became vitally important. Britain would not be able to survive for long against the superior military and industrial strength of Nazi Germany without a wide range of essential imports from the United States and Canada.

By 1939, Britain was importing 55 million tons of food and raw materials each year. On the outbreak of war shipping routes across the North Atlantic became critically important. Britain would not be able to survive for long against the superior military and industrial strength of Nazi Germany without a wide rang of essential imports from the United States and Canada.

Soon after the war began, the destinations and cargoes of all British merchant ships and the cargoes they carried came under the control of the Industry of Shipping (later the Ministry of War Transports, Sea Transport Division). Their routes were to be decided by the Admiralty.

At first, the Government’s policy was to maintain certain exports to help pay for imports. By late 1940, however, the severe demands of the war effort had virtually strangled Britain’s export trade. Almost bankrupt she was only able to continue the war with massive American aid.

Britain's merchant seafarers

"He is usually dressed rather like a tramp. His sweater is worn, his trousers frayed, while what was once a cap is perched askew on his tanned face.

He wears no gold braid or gold buttons: neither does he jump to the salute briskly.

Nobody goes out of his way to call him a 'hero', or pin medals on his breast.

No - he is just a seaman of the British Merchant Service. Yet his serves in our Front Line today." Montague Smith, writing in The Daily Mail, November 1939.

In 1938 The British Merchant Service employed over 190,000 seafarers. Of these, over 130,000 were British residents and 50,000 Indian and Chinese. Virtually all women seafarers were stewardesses or children’s nurses on passenger liners. When the war began most of these women lost their jobs as their ships were converted to trooping and other duties.

The fiercely independent, multi-racial body of civilians who sailed under the Red Ensign had a long history of poor pay and working conditions. Even so, in 1939 as in 1914 its members joined the front-line in Britain’s struggle for survival.

Until 1939 most people involved in British shipping used the terms ‘Merchant Service’ or ‘Mercantile Marine’ in relation to the country’s merchant fleet and its sailors. Only in the Second World War did the title ‘Merchant Navy’ become normal usage. This development was greatly influenced by the Royal approval for the issue of a Merchant Navy buttonhole badge, to be worn voluntarily by seamen, from January 1940.

During the war, up to one third of the ocean going ships in British service was owned by other countries. This was because many ships and seamen from Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Greece, Holland, Poland, Russia, Yugoslavia and Free France placed themselves under British control after their countries had been invaded by the Germans.  Latvian and Estonian ships and seamen also served in the Merchant Navy after their countries were occupied by Russia in 1940. The British government also regularly hired ships and crews from neutral countries such as Sweden. 

The Merchant Navy Reserve Pool

At the start of the war almost all British merchant seamen were employed casually, voyage by voyage, with no paid leave and no guarantee of future work. In May 1941, however, the shortage of manpower led the Government to set up the Merchant Navy Reserve Pool. By this, all seamen, and some 60,000 ex-seafarers, were obliged to register with the Pool. At the end of each voyage, they would receive paid leave. At any time, however, they could be required to report on board a certain ship, sign on, and sail forth.

The Reserve Pool provided Britain’s merchant seafarer with continuity of employment for the first time. Its wartime success led to the introduction of the Merchant Navy Established Scheme in 1947.