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The Merchant Navy: Britain's lifeline

poster of ships being loaded at docks with text 'Another convoy is discharged'

In 1939 Britain depended for her survival on maritime trade. She had the largest merchant fleet in the world. There were 1,900 ocean-going ships with crews from throughout the Commonwealth. Along with ships of friendly nations they supplied all of Britain's oil, half her food and most of her raw materials. British merchant ships also exported goods to help pay for these imports.

After the outbreak of war the destinations and cargoes of all British merchant ships came under the control of the Ministry of Shipping (later the Ministry of War Transport, Sea Transport Division). The Admiralty decided their routes. As the war progressed British exports virtually stopped as all resources went into the war effort

The seafarers of Britain's Merchant Navy

In 1938 the British Merchant Marine employed over 190,000 seafarers. Of these, over 130,000 were British residents and 50,000 Indians and Chinese. There were relatively few women seafarers. Women were usually employed as stewardesses or children's nurses on passenger liners. Many lost their jobs when these ships were converted to war duties. Some, however, continued to go to sea throughout the war.

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

Up to one third of the ships in British service during the war were owned by other countries. Many ships and seamen from Norway, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Holland, Poland, Russia, Yugoslavia and Free France joined after the Germans invaded their countries. Ships and crews were also often hired from neutral countries such as Sweden.