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Cruel Sea

18 February to 1 May 2005

Please note that this exhibition has now closed

The crucial role of the Merchant Navy

The Merchant Navy played a crucial part in the nation’s survival during the Second World War, crossing dangerous seas to bring food and raw materials into Britain. Cruel Sea is an exhibition bringing together the extraordinary, moving recollections of the brave men and women who undertook this perilous work.

Where did they get all their food from during the war? Where did they get their ammunition and their planes and the tanks? Who brought them? People tend to forget, in the first place Merchant Seamen were volunteers.
Doug Cross / Bill Wold

During the Second World War, 3194 merchant ships were sunk with the loss of 30,000 merchant seafarers from across the Commonwealth and Empire. In the past, veterans have understated their achievements and individual acts of heroism.

Personal stories in exhibition

This exhibition concentrated entirely on the personal memories of veterans and their experiences of the war at sea. It aimed to bring recognition to the Merchant Navy during the Year of the Sea in 2005, for the important contribution it made to the war effort.

“Many gallant actions and incredible feats of endurance are recorded, but the deeds of those who perished will never be known. Our merchant seamen displayed their highest qualities, and the brotherhood of the sea was never more strikingly shown than in their determination to defeat the U-boat."
Wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill
Leonard Dibb-Western and Ray Pearce - old shipmates at the Merchant Navy Memorial in Bristol, July 2003

Leonard Dibb-Western and Ray Pearce - old shipmates at the Merchant Navy Memorial in Bristol, July 2003 © Age Exchange

In the first project of its kind, the charity Age Exchange carried out more than 50 interviews with veterans. They collected 1800 pages of transcribed interviews and nearly 100 hours of filmed interviews.

The exhibition featured personal photographs, sound and film from the veterans' interviews and a series of large-scale Time-Slice photographic portraits by award winning photographic artist Tim Macmillan.

Many of the recollections in the exhibition had never been shared or documented before. The material from the project will form a permanent archive that will be given to major museums to hold for public use and for the education of future generations.

Cruel Sea was a touring exhibition, facilitated by Age Exchange, a reminiscence arts charity committed to raising the profile of older people in society. The project was funded by Arts Council England.

For more information about Cruel Sea, veterans’ stories and the tour programme for the exhibition, visit the Age Exchange website