I have just finished reading the fascinating 1935 autobiography of seafarer Charles Lightoller whose amazing career stretched from sailing ships to ocean liners. His book kept me spellbound with tales of shipwrecks - most famously when, as second officer, he survived the Titanic disaster. Lightoller saw service on merchant ships commandeered for operations in the Great War and also helped in the Dunkirk evacuations in the Second World War.
British merchant vessels and their crews have often been required to support military operations in a variety of ways. In both world wars, for example, many ships were converted for use as auxiliary warships, troop ships or hospital ships. The Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Life At Sea gallery has a section focusing on these roles.
The loss of the troopship Lancastria was one of the worst disasters to hit Britain. On the declaration of war in 1939, this Cunard passenger liner was requisitioned for troop carrying. On 17 June 1940 the Lancastria was anchored off the coast of France taking on board retreating British troops. There were more than 5,000 troops as well as civilians and crew when she was subjected to a heavy enemy air attack. To this day it is not known exactly how many people died but it was many thousands.
On display is a menu for lunch on the day Lancastria went down. A watch was worn by survivor Sidney Dunmall, of the Royal Army Pay Corps, as he leapt into the sea from the stricken ship.
A discharge book belonged to the Lancastria’s assistant butcher, Gerrard Walsh of Liverpool. There are also two miniature Lancastria souvenir trophies owned by Royal Engineers who also survived, Arthur Pownall and Corporal Bray.
A spectacular painting by Burnett Poole (shown here) shows the famous Cunard liner Mauretania in camouflage dazzle paint when she was used as a troopship and hospital ship during the First World War. More on this work on our main site.
A handbook called War Instructions for British Merchant Ships 1917 contained a safety device. It was weighted so that, in the event of attack, it sank when thrown overboard rather than falling into enemy hands.
Handcuffs came from the troopship Antenor. She was used to repatriate troops at the end of the Second World War. The handcuffs were kept on board to restrain anyone under arrest, especially if troops got carried away during victory celebrations.
A plaque records the role of the Ebani as a troopship between 1914 and 1919 when she carried 50,000 sick and wounded troops.
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 (£1.50 p&p UK).