During wartime, Britain heavily depended on civilian cargo ships to import food and raw materials, as well as to transport soldiers overseas, and keep them supplied. The title of ‘Merchant Navy’ was granted by King George V after the First World War to recognise the contribution made by merchant sailors.
Britain’s merchant fleet was the largest in the world during both world wars. In 1939, a third of the world’s merchant ships were British. Many merchant seamen came from parts of the British Empire, such as India, Hong Kong and west African countries. Women also sometimes served at sea in the Merchant Navy.
“Duster” is the word used by Merchant Seamen when speaking affectionately of the Red Ensign – the flag that flies proudly on British Merchant Ships. This flag will henceforth be flown on all public buildings on 3rd September in perpetuity.
It is in commemoration of the 36,000 seamen who gave their lives in keeping our supply lines open during the second world war. Thanks to the courage of these valiant men, our food supply was guaranteed, and our troops were transported to every theatre of war during the whole of anxious time. With all of Britain’s oil arriving by sea, half of her food, and most of her raw materials – more than a million tonnes per week, the smooth functioning of the merchant fleet was integral to the nation’s survival. Over 2500 ships were lost, the first being the liner ‘Athenia’ just a few hours after war was declared on 3rd September 1939. It was sunk with the loss of 118 lives.
Since 2000, veterans, groups and organisations have agreed that this day will be annually known as Merchant Navy Day. Many ports will hold their own services and parades, and it is hoped that public buildings will fly the flag. This day not only remembers all those lives that were lost; we also give thanks to the 200,000 Merchant Seamen who faced, on a daily basis, the dangers of the ocean – and the U-Boats – to ensure the freedom of life that we enjoy today.