A worthy commemoration for UK's 'forgotten service'
Merchant Navy Day on Tuesday, September 3, will be marked at the Galgate Memorial Garden, in Barnard Castle. Among those who will be present will be ex-Merchant Navy seaman Dave Moore, from Hutton Magna, who explains why the service is finally gaining the recognition it deserves.
ON June 5 and 6 this year, we were commemorating the 75th anniversary of Operation Overlord, the Normandy landings to liberate Europe.
The TV coverage of the events, both at Portsmouth and in Normandy, was superb and very well organised.
We were reminded of the incredibly detailed planning that went into the invasion and the huge sacrifices made by thousands of servicemen of several allied nations in order to achieve success, both on D Day and during the weeks which followed.
We are forever indebted to them, as are the liberated countries – and so we should be.
However, it was noticeable during the recent commemorations that little mention was made regarding the very substantial input made by the Merchant Navy.
In the past, a figure of 30,000 has been quoted as the number of personnel involved and at the time, a Daily Telegraph correspondent assigned to cover the Merchant Navy quoted as he sailed from Southampton on D Day “50,000 volunteers were taking part”.
Whatever the true figure, the Merchant Navy played a vital part in Operation Neptune, which was the maritime side of Operation Overlord.
Operation Neptune was responsible for the arrival of the assault forces on the beaches, the cover of their landings and subsequently the support and maintenance of the build-up of forces on shore.
The staggering task of keeping the armies supplied with food, ammunition and equipment was a daunting prospect.
Some 864 merchant ships took part in D Day; 35 ships were sunk during the month of June, 120 damaged, 57 tankers ran a shuttle service between Cherbourg and Hamble and large numbers of personnel were involved with the undersea pipeline.
Thirteen 7,000 ton weapon class landing ships, managed by Merchant Navy liner companies with British crews, that could carry 15,000 men at 18 knots and fitted with landing craft, took part.
Many well known Merchant Navy liners acted as troop carriers. On D Day itself, 300-plus merchant men sailed from the Thames ports alone, carrying 50,000 men plus nearly 8,000 tons of stores and 9,000 vehicles.
During remembrance occasions for those who did not return, we should not fail to give thanks for Operation Neptune, without which Operation Overlord would not have been possible.
It took until the year 2000 before the brave men and women who served in the Merchant Navy to keep our island nation afloat were recognised.
During the First World War, there were 15,500 lives lost. In the Second World War, at least 30,000 never returned to their ports – a death rate proportionately higher than that of any of the armed forces.
During the Second World War, all those who served in the Merchant Navy were civilians or volunteers.
Like those in the Royal Navy, they faced not only the dangers of enemy attack, but the hazards of the elements as well.
Although some merchant ships were armed, they were not designed to withstand enemy attack and if his ship was sunk at sea, the merchant seaman’s chances of survival was very poor.
The most significant and crucial conflict in which merchant seamen were involved was the Battle of the Atlantic.
In the largest campaign of the war, the British Merchant Navy fleet, with its naval escorts, struggled to bring food, fuel, equipment and raw materials from the USA and elsewhere across the Atlantic while Germany mobilised U-Boats, battleships, aircraft and mines in an attempt to sever Britain’s supply lines.
While the war was on, Merchant Navy ships still operated all over the world’s oceans bringing cargo to and from the Far East, supporting the Army and RAF in fighting the Japanese.
I hope this article explains why the brave crews who manned the Merchant Navy Ships have deserved more recognition than they have received so far.
The Merchant Navy really is the forgotten service.
Merchant Navy Day will be marked with a flag raising ceremony at Galgate Memorial Garden, Barnard Castle, at 11am, on Tuesday, September 3. The ceremony is organised by Barnard Castle Town Council, which encourages any veterans, Sea Cadets or serving personnel to attend. For more details, call 01833 690970.