I wore the cap badge of the Merchant Navy in the years of my youth, along with the purple-stripe bordered by gold braid denoting Engineer Officer on my uniform. Before I met and married my wife, I had many ports and many trips under my cap, and it is only now, in the evening of my life, have I come to understand how important the sea was and is to us; a Maritime Nation.
Imagine, if you will, your departure from the port of Halifax in Nova Scotia in the early years between 1939 & 1945. Your ship is tasked to a convoy, protected by a tiny number of inadequately-equipped escort vessels; tiny because of the short-sighted policies of successive British Governments who had decided that the best form of defence for a maritime nation was to do very, very little indeed. You sailed on that ship in the full knowledge that there were men intent upon only one thing; your death, along with your shipmates, and the destruction of your ship by means of torpedoes, or heavy-calibre gunfire. The gunfire was preferred by the German U-Boat commanders in the early days of the War; partly because the shells were easier to carry in a cramped submarine, and partly because many Merchant vessels sailed completely unarmed, and the escort vessels could not be everywhere at once.
If you were an Engineer Officer, eight hours out of every 24 were spent on watch in the Engine Room, sited by necessity in the bowels of the ship. Your job might also be an engine-room greaser, or a fireman, keeping steam up in the boilers to help propel your ship across the Atlantic, but you shared the same hours as the Officers, and the same dangers as well. The only protection from the ever-restless sea were sheets of steel, riveted together to form the hull of your ship, and clear access to ladders leading up top. Ladders which were never bolted to the supporting girders, but instead were firmly held by rope; so as to minimise the effects of shock after an explosion. An explosion which, if aimed at the midships of the vessel, would almost certainly result in a huge influx of water, acting as its own battering ram, flooding the very bowels of your ship, and drowning anyone in its path who was unlucky enough to be caught down below.
Some time back, re-read a novel entitled Westbound, Warbound by Alexander Fullerton, and once again realized how good a writer this man is. His writing career commenced with an autobiographical novel of his service with HM Submarines in the Far East towards the end of the Second World War, and the instant success of his first offering pushed him to write on a full-time basis. His novel ‘Westbound, Warbound’ is a one-off, telling as it does the story of a tramp steamer caught up firstly in the seas which embraced the final days of the pocket-battleship ‘Graf Spee’, and then to their travails whilst inching through a North Atlantic hurricane at the same time as being in constant danger of sinking! This book is about the men who brought Britain through the War by offering themselves as open targets for the U-boat menace, armed with a single six-pounder and a rationed number of shells! The men whose work, sacrifice, lives and deaths are forever remembered in the Merchant Seamen’s Memorials opposite the Tower of London and in Liverpool have had very few books written of their deeds, partly, one supposes, that there isn’t much glamour in stories of drowning, or burning alive, or freezing to death within three minutes of your ship’s slowly sinking beneath the waves after enemy action!
His hero is a deck officer, doing the everyday things which are his calling, from taking a ‘star sight’ to advising an illiterate seaman about the benefit of learning how to read. Fullerton has met men such as this young officer, and more than likely has killed very similar young men who sailed in the Japanese ships which his submarine sank in the shallow waters of Sumatra and Malaya! The novels which have been bought by the thousand telling of the fighting ships of the Allied forces sometimes forget that the slow, plodding freighters, tankers and liners have stories too, and they should also be remembered by an audience which unfortunately these days, doesn’t even know, never mind remember, of the sacrifices which were made so that they can slouch down and watch ‘Top Gear’ or ‘Broadchurch’ in warmth and comfort!
The photo of the Merchant Navy Memorial in Liverpool is of course self-explanatory, but the next photo depicts a ship heading into a storm, showing what perils there were even without the torpedoes and the gunfire, and the final one shows what might have been seen on a convoy to Murmansk.
‘Oh hear us when we cry to thee, For those in peril on the sea.’