Lost at sea

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archive photo of a ship exploding

A merchant ship exploding after being torpedoed by a U-boat. Image courtesy of the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

I have known several former Merchant Navy members who went through the ordeals of the Second World War.

Those I knew returned more or less safely to resume their peacetime lives but all were left scarred to a greater or lesser degree.

The Merchant Navy suffered heavy losses in the Second World War as ships struggled against German aircraft, mines and U-boat submarines to successfully bring vital supplies to besieged Britain.

It is likely that at least one quarter of the men who were in the British Merchant Navy at the outbreak of war in 1939 did not survive until the end in 1945 – some 30,000 dead. Most of their bodies were never recovered.

This was a higher death rate than that suffered by any of the British armed services. More than 6.000 Royal Navy sailors on Western Approaches Command, and perhaps some 4,000 others, died in the Battle of the Atlantic. More than 6,000 men of the RAF Coastal Command also died.

U-boat crews suffered terrible losses but managed to retain their morale and discipline until the end of hostilities. Every crew member knew he would die a horrible death if his submarine was destroyed under water.

In Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Battle of the Atlantic gallery there is a copy of the church service book used on smaller Royal Navy ships about 1943

A postcard and guide feature the German naval memorial at Laboe, near Kiel. A Type VII U-boat standing before the memorial is the U 995 built by Blohm und Voss, Hamburg, in 1943. U 995 sank six ships before surrendering to the British at the end of the war.

An archive newspaper report shows the unveiling of the memorial at Liverpool’s Pier Head to the 1,390 Merchant Navy officers and men who died while serving under Royal Navy orders during the Second World War.

Another report covers the unveiling of the memorial in Trinity Square, Tower Hill, London, to the 24,000 merchant seamen and men of the fishing fleet who lost their lives but have “no graves but the sea”.

A merchant ship is seen exploding after being torpedoed by a U-boat (pictured). During the six years of war, U-boats sank nearly 14.7 million tons of allied shipping.  Britain lost 11.7 million tons, which is 54% of the total Merchant Navy fleet at the outbreak of the war.

Following many years of campaigning, Merchant Navy Day became an official day of remembrance on 3 September 2000.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1 p&p UK).