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In March 1941 Winston Churchill coined the phrase ‘Battle of the Atlantic’ to describe a campaign that had opened on 3 September 1939. That battle would not conclude until the last day of the war. It was the longest, and perhaps strangest, clash of the Second World War – one that would see British merchant seamen using kites and wire-carrying rockets in defence of their ships.

In a struggle for control of the sea lanes from Britain to the Americas, the Royal Navy and United States Navy would be pitted against the German Kriegsmarine. Against the sea lanes, upon which depended Britain’s ability to feed and maintain itself in the war, Germany would deploy U-boat submarines, surface raiders, mines and aircraft.

The convoys of merchant ships would be defended by a variety of armed escort vessels from makeshift ships like armed merchant cruisers and trawlers through to purpose-built corvettes, frigates and destroyers. It was a war of technological innovation – of Enigma code-breaking, radar, sonar and high frequency direction-finding. From 1940 until 1943 the combat in the Atlantic hung in the balance. Yet, due in part to the fact that they were able to make better use of these technical innovations than the enemy, from the middle of 1943 the Allies slowly gained the upper hand.

Success and failure in the battle would be measured in tonnage: tonnage of ships sunk and tonnage of cargo delivered safe to port. Civilians would play a significant part in the battle. Campaigns like ‘Dig for Victory’ and ‘Make do and Mend’ were ancillary elements in the Battle of the Atlantic – programmes aimed at minimising civilian demand on the cargoes from North America. But the outcome of the Battle of the Atlantic depended most heavily on one group of civilians in particular: the men and, in some cases, the women who made up the British Merchant Navy.

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At the start of hostilities in 1939 the British Merchant Navy made up almost a third of the world’s total merchant shipping. Its strength was testament to generations of British shipping company owners who over the past 100 years had embraced the technological shift from sail to steam to oil power, and had been ready to respond to newly emerging routes carrying everything from guano to corned beef.

The shipping fleet in 1939 was as diverse as it was large, embracing passenger liners (easily converted into troop ships or armed merchant cruisers), fast vessels such as refrigerated cargo ships, oil and petrol tankers, cargo liners, tramp steamers, coasters and colliers.

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A typical ship: MV Olivebank

MV Olivebank was one of 18 identical 5,000-gross-registered-ton cargo ships built for Andrew Weir and Company in the mid-1920s. In her five holds Olivebank could carry everything from agricultural produce to weapons of war. While she survived the war, eight of her sister ships were sadly not so fortunate.

Olivebank was the British empire in microcosm. She had a crew of 57 (30 per cent Europeans and 70 per cent lascars - sailors from the Indian subcontinent). The senior personnel of the ship were European (master, officers and engineers, including apprentice deck officers who could be as young as 16). In addition, the ship carried 8 to 10 gunners drawn from the Royal Artillery and Royal Navy. Accommodation for Europeans was in two sets of cabins amidships, while lascars lived in a cramped fo'c'sle below deck in the bows.

Asian members of the crew, recruited in Bengal, were almost all Muslims. They were organised in three departments: deck, engine room and catering. The deck department was led by the ‘serang’ (or bosun), the ‘tindal’ (his deputy), and the ‘cassab’ (storekeeper). Four other men were rated as ‘seacunnies’. They steered the ship, ran messages, and acted as gangway watchmen in port. Below them in the hierarchy came the ‘calassies’ (able and ordinary seamen). They had to clean decks, rig cargo-handling gear and act as lookouts.

In the engine room a similar hierarchy existed. Beneath the engine room serang and tindal there was a ‘donkeyman’ to look after auxiliary machinery and ‘greasers’ to service the main engines.

The catering department, run by the chief steward, was primarily concerned with caring for the European officers. Under the chief were three stewards, two of whom served meals in the saloon and one in the engineers’ messroom. They also cleaned the officers’ cabins. The galley was manned by three cooks, one of whom was always a Christian to cook pork products for the Europeans.

At the bottom of the deck, engine room and catering departments were three ‘topass’, Hindus of low caste employed to do jobs or handle materials which were taboo for Muslims.

The men of the British Merchant Navy were similarly diverse. By the end of the war in 1945 over 30,000 British merchant seamen had lost their lives. Not all of them, however, were British nationals. In fact, Merchant Navy vessels were staffed by seamen from across the British empire and the occupied nations of Europe such as Norway, Greece and Denmark. Some 25 per cent hailed from India and China, while a further five per cent came from the Caribbean, Middle East and Africa. On the continued willingness of this multinational group to put to sea would depend the survival of Britain in the dark days of 1941 and beyond.

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The job of protecting the Merchant Navy fell to Allied naval and air forces. During the course of the war both would become increasingly effective due to the introduction of more deadly depth charges, longer range radar-equipped aircraft and escort carriers to cover those sections of the ocean outside the range of shore-based aircraft.

Yet perhaps nothing saved more Allied vessels than the decision, taken in 1939, to start grouping individual ships into convoys, escorted across the Atlantic by destroyers, frigates, corvettes and larger naval vessels. Each convoy was controlled by one of the larger merchant ships, while the British Admiralty organised routing and changes of course in the light of new intelligence.

Defensively, the convoys made great sense, as unescorted ships proved relatively easy pickings for the enemy. However, convoying reduced the efficiency of individual ships. Forming 40 or more vessels into a convoy took time, and co-ordinating such a large and diverse force was difficult – especially in the midst of enemy action, mechanical breakdown, constant zig-zagging and changes of course designed to throw off potential attacks. Some ships found it almost impossible to conform to the speed of the rest of the convoy, becoming a ‘straggler’ or a ‘romper’ steaming ahead of the main body.

Yet merchant ships didn’t just rely on the Royal Navy for protection: as the strength of the German threat became fully apparent in 1940, increasing numbers of merchant vessels were equipped to act in their own defence. During the first six months of the Second World War, 1,900 ships were fitted with defensive armament ranging from light machine guns to 4-inch deck guns. By the end of 1940 this had grown to 3,400. Men were drawn from the Royal Navy and Royal Artillery to man the heavier weapons.

Merchant ships were also equipped with less conventional weapons: the Parachute and Cable Rocket (PAC) could be fired from the bridge of a merchant ship. The device was designed to be fired as an enemy aircraft made a bombing run against the ship. The rocket would carry a cable into the air which would then be supported by means of a parachute. The cable would either force the attacking aircraft to break away or it would catch the wing of the bomber causing it to crash. Cable-carrying box kites were designed to achieve a similar result.

No backing down

With equipment which was often more ‘Heath Robinson’ than deadly effective, facing up to the dangers posed by enemy bombs, torpedoes and surface ships required a certain bloody mindedness on the part of Merchant Navy crews. Fortunately, life at sea and penny pinching owners in the hungry days of the Depression bred exactly this kind of mindset. The Merchant Navy became renowned for its unwillingness to back down from the enemy – or anyone else for that matter.

In home ports, merchant seamen, without a recognised uniform, were sometimes subjected to abuse from other civilians who mistook them for ‘shirkers’ refusing to do their duty to enlist in the armed forces. The introduction of an ‘MN’ (Merchant Navy) lapel badge went a small way to addressing the problem. But what mattered more in 1940 and beyond was a growing national recognition of the work and heroism of the Merchant Navy. This duly arrived in the aftermath of the Battle of Britain, as the press began to give the struggle in the Atlantic increasing coverage.

Timeline: Germany and the Allies in the Atlantic

August 1939

In preparation for hostilities, the German submarine fleet deploys into the North Sea, sinking its first ship a few hours after the outbreak of war with Britain

June 1940

Capture of the French Atlantic ports gives Germany easy access to the North and South Atlantic

Late 1940–1941

First ‘happy time’ of the U-boat arm as convoys sail with weak escorting forces

January–June 1942

German submarines enjoy great success off the east coast of the United States

March 1943

In a series of convoy battles German submarines threaten to overwhelm the escorting warships

April–May 1943

Allies regain the initiative in the Atlantic, sinking more U-boats and losing fewer merchant ships

Late 1943–1945

Long decline of the German submarine campaign

The heroism of the Royal Navy and the stoicism of the Merchant Navy when confronted by the enemy, or following the destruction of their vessels, were routine themes in newspaper and radio reports. Citations for medals awarded to merchant seamen could encapsulate the grim drama of the Battle of the Atlantic in a personal story lasting just a handful of sentences:

"The ship [en route Milford Haven to London on 24 June 1940] was torpedoed during the night, and listed to port, settling down by the head. The master mustered his crew, and ordered the port lifeboat lowered. It was known that one man had been killed by the explosion, but another man was not accounted for. Although the ship's decks were awash, the second engineer, taking a torch from the lifeboat, volunteered to search for him. Forcing his way to the forepart of the bridge-deck, he found the man badly cut about the head and unconscious in his bunk. He got him out safely, the two men going straight from the rail to the lifeboat. The ship sank as they pulled away. The rescued man owed his life to the gallant act of the second engineer."

– Award of Lloyd's War Medal and British Empire Medal to Second Engineer W Pybus of MV Kingfisher

Public attention on the role of the Merchant Navy, and the need to maintain a steady flow of recruits into the service, resulted in a number of government initiatives between 1939 and 1945. The senior surviving member of each crew shipwrecked as a result of hostile action was interviewed by a Royal Navy officer to ensure that lessons were learned about enemy attacks and mariners’ prospects for survival when their vessels were sunk. The Board of Trade, shipowners and the Medical Research Council did their best to enhance the survival chances of merchant mariners by developing new rations for lifeboats and survival gadgets, from portable wireless transmitters through to life jacket lights and flameproof lifeboats of particular use on oil tankers.

Following the Battle of Britain the struggle in the Atlantic took on increasing prominence

Meanwhile the Ministry of Information (MOI) celebrated the role of merchant seamen in posters and publications, and used the press, public exhibitions and films to highlight the efforts being made to improve the survival chances of merchant crew.

San Demetrio, London (1943) recounted the heroic efforts of a Merchant Navy crew who manage to nurse their badly damaged oil tanker into port following an attack on a convoy by a German surface raider. The film was a reasonably accurate portrayal of real events in the Atlantic in 1940 following the attack on convoy HX-84 by the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer. The on-fire San Demetrio, carrying 12,000 tonnes of aviation fuel, was abandoned by her crew during the attack. Part of the crew later reboarded the vessel and extinguished the fire and brought her home despite damage to the steering gear and lack of a working compass.

While fictional, Western Approaches (1944) was a groundbreaking film in a number of respects. It was the first shot in colour by the Crown Film Unit and it utilised real merchant seamen rather than professional actors. The commendable efforts at authenticity were not, however, allowed to stand in the way of a narrative in which a U-boat is triumphantly sent to the bottom by merchant seamen manning their ship's deck gun.

After six years of combat in the Atlantic the morale of both the Merchant Navy and their German adversaries remained unbroken

Western Approaches went on general release just as the Second World War, and the Battle of the Atlantic, were drawing to a close. The U-boat campaign had gone badly for the Germans since a critical series of convoy battles in March 1943. By May of that year it was obvious that the German navy was going to struggle to win the tonnage war, thanks to the Allies' increasingly effective use of air power, the greater availability of Allied escort vessels, and the productivity of American shipyards able to turn out massive numbers of merchant ships to standard designs.

Obsolete U-boats

The increasing obsolescence of the standard Type VII and IX German submarines became manifest in 1943 and 1944. This, despite the fact that the Germans were placing considerable hopes on the introduction of innovations like a snorkel which meant that boats could stay submerged instead of having to regularly surface to recharge their batteries using their diesel engines.

However, the Battle of the Atlantic almost had one last sting in the tail. In the last few weeks of the war the German navy made ready to renew the conflict in the Atlantic with a new generation of submarines: the type XXI and type XXIII. Able to remain beneath the waves out of sight of Allied aircraft, and able to travel faster underwater than the top speed of most escort vessels, this new generation of U-boat threatened to give the Kriegsmarine the technological edge over its Allied foes.

Unfortunately for the Kriegsmarine – and happily for the Merchant Navy crews who would have been their principal target – the new generation of submarines only reached the stage of operational deployment as the war in Europe drew to a close.

The remarkable thing was that after six years of combat in the Atlantic the morale of both the Merchant Navy and their German adversaries remained unbroken despite the differences in makeup between the two forces, and the fact that both sides had lost around 30,000 men.

GH Bennett is associate professor of history at the University of Plymouth. He is co-author of Survivors: British Merchant Seamen in the Battle of the Atlantic, (Continuum, 2007)


This article was first published in the March 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine