I’m told duffle coats are coming back into fashion – as they were when I was at school in the 1960s – but little did I realise that they came to the fore on the convoys of the Second World War. The convoys which brought vital supplies across the Atlantic to Britain were constantly threatened by German submarines bent on sinking as many ships as possible.
Once at sea, merchant seafarers were always involved in the daily routine of watches (two and four-hour working shifts). Off-duty time was mostly spent sleeping, playing cards or on other similar pastimes
Whenever a convoy was under attack it took great discipline and nerve to remain at your post. Engine room staff lived closer to death than those on deck, since the engine room was a prime target for U-boat torpedoes and was often a difficult place from which to escape.
Iron ore cargo ships, once torpedoed, were often known to sink literally like stones. The crews of oil tankers knew that they could be burnt alive if their ship was attacked.
In 1942, 8,400 British and Commonwealth merchant seafarers lost their lives in the Atlantic. Nearly a third of the crews died on British ships that were sunk. Government reports said that morale within the merchant navy remained remarkably high. Most of the people involved, however, felt they were just doing their jobs, like millions of others.
Among exhibits on display at the Merseyside Maritime Museum are tiny models of the warships which escorted the convoys. These miniature waterline models, scale 1:1200, show how small Royal Navy ships were compared to capital ships. There are models of the destroyers Montgomery and Vanoc (both built1918) and Fame (1934), sloop Pelican (1939), corvette Abelia (1943) and frigate Allington Castle (1944). By way of comparison, there is a same scale model of one of the Royal Navy’s largest capital ships of the war, the battleship King George V.
There is the commissioning pennant of the destroyer Hesperus which was based in Liverpool for much of the war. A photo shows Hesperus entering the Gladstone Dock in December 1942, her bow crumpled after ramming and sinking the U-357.
An iconic duffle coat is of the type worn by Royal Naval and merchant seafarers on the Atlantic convoys throughout the war. Another iconic item is a Mae West lifejacket as worn by British and allied personnel during the war. It was named after the buxom Hollywood star who was a pin-up of the time.