8 Facts About the Merchant Navy that You (Probably) Didn’t Know

The Allied Merchant Navies in World War II provided a vital but often forgotten service to their countries’ war effort. At the outbreak of war, the British Merchant Navy was the largest in the world, and up to 185,000 men and women served during the course of the war, some as young as 14. The US Merchant Marine all told numbered over 200,000. The risks they faced to maintain the essential flow of armaments, equipment and food were considerable. Danger came from submarines, mines, armed raiders and destroyers, aircraft, kamikaze pilots and the weather itself. Yet, there are many facts and figures concerning the Merchant Navy that few know about. In order to shine a light on the fascinating history of these brave men and women, here are 8 facts about the Merchant Navy that you (probably) didn’t know about, taken from the new book, The Merchant Navy Seaman Pocket Manual.

1. Few Think About How Important the Merchant Navy Was

“As an island nation, Britain was disproportionately reliant upon maritime imports. All of its oil, now vital for keeping the wheels of war industry running, was shipped in from abroad, as was 54 per cent of its iron ore, 93 per cent of its lead and 95 per cent of its zinc. On the domestic side, some 70 per cent of food was imported, including 91 per cent of the country’s butter, 70 per cent of its cereals and fats, 50 per cent of its meat and 80 per cent of its fruits.”

2. The Merchant Navy isn’t a Real Entity

“The Merchant Navy, as it was known by the onset of World War II, should not be regarded as a holistic entity, like the Royal Navy. In reality, the term was essentially a convenient conceptual label, bestowed by King George V following World War I, for what was actually a swarming mass of independent and physically diverse commercial shipping.”

3. If a Ship Sunk, it Was not a Good Thing For the Survivors

“This situation produced some evident absurdities. For example, if a sailor’s ship was attacked and sunk, the moment the ship slipped under the waves the sailor (if he survived) was no longer paid.”

4. Same Can be Said for People Going Overboard

“In convoy, if a man fell overboard and the convoy did not have destroyer escorts present, the convoy ships were forbidden to turn around to pick the man up.”

5. The US Merchant Marine Service prohibited ‘Port’ and ‘Starboard’

“For some mysterious reason, the word “helm” still survives even though it has been prohibited by an act of Congress along with the words “port” and “starboard” in connection with steering.”

6. Etiquette was Crucial if You at the Wheel

“Find out if it is customary to bring the mate on watch any coffee when coming to the wheel, and if this is the practice find out from him how he likes his coffee.”

7. Slow Boats Were Left to Take Their Chances

“The usual speed of Atlantic convoys during the Great War was only 8 knots. Vessels of 12 knots or more usually proceeded unescorted, and so did those of a slower speed than 8—they were the lame ducks which had to take what fate might have in store for them; it was no use wasting destroyers on such laggards, however unfortunate it might be for them.”

8. Mental Health was Treated in a Rather Unusual Way

“When men are worried or nervous they are often restless and they are apt to blow their top more than usual. This is natural. It is healthier than keeping feelings inside and then becoming depressed or morose. If you begin to feel that way throw yourself into your job or get a game going and play it hard. If you have a quarrel with a man, put on gloves and slug it out with a referee and rules.”

So there you have it. 8 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About the Merchant Navy. If you’re itching to know more about how a sailor lived out their lives onboard a Merchant Navy vessel, be sure to check out the new book, The Merchant Navy Seaman Pocket Manual.


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