By LCDR Desmond Woods, RANR
Membersof the Merchant Navy War Memorial Fund, Veterans, War Widows, Merchant Mariners, members of associated organisations, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
The maritime history of Australia in peace and war has been until recently a largely neglected subject. Many Australians are just not ‘sea-minded’. Though our National Anthem mentions that we are ‘girt by sea’ most Australians think of the country as being ‘girt by beach!’ This national sea blindness has meant that after both world wars ended there was little collective memory of the scale of effort necessary to win the war at sea.
Remembrance of the sacrifices made by sailors in war faded quickly. This was true for the story of sailors of the RAN at war and was even more pronounced for the less visible Australian Merchant Navy. The Merchant Navy of the whole British Empire, which included the Australian Merchant Fleet, suffered proportionately the highest casualties of any of the allied services in the Second World War.
Thirty thousand two hundred and forty-eight British Empire merchant seamen who served at sea under the Red Ensign lost their lives doing so. The Australian Department of Veterans Affairs nominal roll records 3,500 Australian merchant seamen serving in World War II in Australian registered ships. The Australian War Memorial has placed the names of 845 of them who are known to have died on war service during World War II on the commemorative roll.
The true number of Australian born merchant seamen lost on all the world’s oceans will never be known as these 845 do not include the hundreds of unrecorded Australian seamen killed while serving in British merchant ships and in the ships of the International Seamen’s Pool.
After the war was won shipmates remembered their lost shipmates on ANZAC Day and bereaved families remembered their missing fathers, brothers and sons every day, but very little was done to teach succeeding generations of Australians about them. School books and history lessons do not mention that the merchant navy’s ships were the means by which Australian diggers and allied infantry were landed, sustained, armed, fed, reinforced and enabled to fight and win their land battles. Nor do they mention that the people of the United Kingdom depended for their daily needs on ships carrying frozen meat and food of all kinds from Australia and New Zealand and international suppliers.
This omission from the national recollection is most profoundly true of the period of the campaign in New Guinea in 1942. Those brutal battles on the Kokoda Track were finally won because the Japanese army was cut off from resupply and wasstarved into retreating. First Australian and later also American troops in the jungle and on the northern beaches at Gona and Buna were supplied with bread and bombs, bacon and bullets and fuel in vast quantities from the sea and were therefore able to take the fight back to the Japanese. New Guinea was won back from the enemy by the combination of the matchless courage and endurance of young soldiers and airmen ashore, and by the merchant seamen afloat who supplied them, and the RAN who escorted those ships.
Mariners achieved this logistical miracle despite their ships being strafed, bombed, mined and torpedoed under them. That indisputable fact of our modern maritime history has been somewhat overlooked by a forgetful nation. General Douglas MacArthur wrote of the Merchant Navy in the Pacific War:
They brought us our lifeblood and they paid for it with their own. I saw their ships bombed in New Guinea and the Philippines ports. When their ships were not blown out from under them by bombs or torpedoes, they delivered their cargoes to us who needed them so badly. In war it is performance that counts.
What has also been largely forgotten is that though our island continent was not invaded in 1942 its coastal waters most certainly were. Between December 1941 and August 1943 58 Japanese submarines sank 180 ships and damaged 15 more. During this period up to 40 long-range attack submarines sank 38 merchant ships in Australian waters.
During this same period in the Indian Ocean and South West Pacific Japanese aircraft sank 50 more merchant ships and damaged another 53. By the war’s end 76 merchant ships were lost in Australian waters to mines, torpedoes, shelling and bombing. Twenty-nine of these were Australian registered and 349 Australian seamen were killed on these ships or perished later. That is not counting the 288 men and women including medical staff and nurses who were killed when the Australian Hospital Ship Centaurwas torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, though large red crosses were painted on her sides.
Taking merchant ships into harm’s way under these circumstances required a quiet heroism and an uncomplaining dedication to duty which was unsurpassed by any of the armed services. Merchant seaman at war had the unreserved admiration of the sailors of the world’s navies, who recognised cold courage when they saw it.
Given the mortal danger at sea it would have been unsurprising if there had been desertions or refusal of duty by Australian seamen. This never happened. The master mariners and men of the merchant fleets of not only the British Empire, but also of the United States, Norway and the Netherlands, with stoic courage and hardihood, accepted that the odds were stacked against their survival, shouldered their kit bags, slung their hammocks, loaded cargo and steamed back into danger anyway.
Why did they do this? The seamen of the British Empire, America and occupied Europe signed on because they knew that without their ships at sea the war could never be won and the world restored to peace and sanity. They wanted to, in the phrase of the times, ‘do their bit.’ Churchill expressed the same idea in 1943. He wrote:
Sea transport is the stem from which victory blooms, since without supplies no army is good for anything.
As many Australian merchant seamen served in British as in Australian vessels. They sailed in freighters and troopships, hospital ships, landing ships, tramp steamers and most dangerously in fuel tankers and ammunition ships. Many stayed in their Australian and British civilian ships when they were taken up from trade into the Navy and converted into auxiliary warships, armed merchant cruisers, like Kanimbla, ManooraandWestralia. Australian merchant seamen were at the evacuations from Norway, Dunkirk, Greece, Crete and Singapore. With RN and RAN ships they ran supplies under fire to the Rats of Tobruk. They were off the beaches when the allies invaded, Sicily, Italy and France.
Australian seamen were on the British ships that ran the deadly gauntlet from Gibraltar into Valetta in Malta. The guts and determination of the men who ran those fuel tankers, ammunition ships and freighters through endless air attacks kept the RAF flying, and the submarines sailing, from that island fortress. In 1941 these ships were all that stood between Malta and starvation and surrender. The British-crewed tanker SS Ohiowas brought into Grand Harbour Valletta semi-submerged having been repeatedly bombed. All that kept her afloat was that she was strapped between two Royal Navy destroyers. Spitfires broke and shattered the final waves of attacking aircraft. The population of Malta cheered her in to her dock from the bastions of the harbour. This barely floating bomb was pumped dry of her precious fuel. She only just made it to Valetta. Her task was done. Her Master, Captain Dudley Mason, was awarded a very well deserved George Cross. His citation read:
Captain Mason’s ship suffered most violent onslaught. She was a focus of attack throughout and was torpedoed early one night. The ship’s gunners helped to bring down one of the attacking aircraft. The vessel was hit again before morning, but though she did not sink, her engine room was wrecked. She was then towed. The unwieldy condition of the vessel and persistent enemy attacks made progress slow, and it was uncertain whether she would remain afloat. All next day progress somehow continued and the ship reached Malta after a further night at sea.
The violence of the enemy could not deter the Master from his purpose. Throughout he showed skill and courage of the highest order and it was due to his determination that, in spite of the most persistent enemy opposition, the vessel, with her valuable cargo, eventually reached Malta and was safely berthed.
Australian merchant seamen were present in the lethal six-year long Battle of the Atlantic and the Arctic convoys to Russia. The Arctic Sea was the most hellish place on earth to fight convoys through attack by Nazi bombers and U-Boats. Survival in the water was measured in minutes not hours. The rare Arctic Star was finally awarded to the last Australian recipients in February 2017.
It was the Merchant Navy, including Australian ships, which fuelled and supplied the British Pacific Fleet. The Royal Navy’s biggest ever fleet depended on its Merchant Navy tankers and freighters to be their fuel and ammunition supply train in the vast Pacific as the Allies advanced on the home islands of Japan in 1945.
Finally, in late 1945 it was the RAN and the Merchant Navy which brought home the thousands of sick, emaciated allied prisoners of war who had survived four years of brutal captivity. Thirty-seven Australian merchant seamen died while prisoners of war.
It is true to say that wherever there was a hard, unglamorous, dangerous but vital task to be done the Red Ensign was there. The Merchant Navy provided the muscle power and heavy lift necessary to get the war won.
Thirty thousand seamen of the Empire’s merchant navies forged these sea links in this logistics chain with their lives. The ocean floors of the world are strewn with the wrecks of their broken, burnt ships and the remains of the men who went down with them. Not for them the exhilaration of being able to fight back, from a cruiser or destroyer, or to steam at speed into action guns blazing. When World War Two broke out some merchant ships carried worn out World War One guns without range finding. Later the RAN supplied naval gunners to Defensively-Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS) and thirty-eight of these RAN gunners lost their lives alongside their merchant navy comrades.
These lumbering merchant ships were not ‘greyhounds of the deep’, they were more like lumbering ox trains bringing sustenance where it was needed through storm and tempest. Mostly they sailed at the speed of the slowest ship in the convoy, often less than ten knots – a slow moving target for German and Japanese submarine commanders.
Even in peacetime it was a hard, physical life at sea in the Merchant Navy and consequently merchant seamen were mostly young men. Many were just teenage boys, with all their lives ahead of them.
Here is the posthumous George Cross citation for one eighteen year old merchant navy apprentice who managed to get his shipmates clear of their burning ship though mortally injured himself. Let his story stand for countless other examples of youthful heroism.
When the painter was cast off the boat drifted back towards the burning ship and it was clear to all on board that it would require a tremendous effort to pull it out of danger. Most of the occupants, however, were so badly burned that they were unable to help, but Apprentice Clarke took an oar and pulled heartily for two hours without a word of complaint. It was not until after the boat was clear that it was realized how badly he had been injured. His hands had to be cut away from the oar as the burnt flesh had stuck to it. He had pulled as well as anyone, although he was rowing with the bones of his hands.Later when lying at the bottom of the boat his thoughts were still with his shipmates and he sang to keep up their spirits. Next day he died, having shown the greatest fortitude. By his supreme effort, undertaken without thought of self and in spite of terrible agony, Apprentice Clarke ensured the safety of his comrades in the boat. His great heroism and selfless devotion were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Merchant Navy.
Those who were lost, and those who finally came home, scarred physically and mentally by battle, but alive, have left an enduring legacy of service above self for us to learn from. Many gallant actions and matchless feats of endurance in boats after sinking are recorded, but the deeds of those who perished after they lost their ships and who were never found cannot be known.Boththe heroism and the tragedy should now take a more prominent place in the annals of Australians at war. That capacity for endurance of the common man facing uncommon danger is a lesson that every generation needs to learn afresh.
In October of 1945 the British House of Commons passed a resolution that read:
That the thanks of this House be accorded to the Officers and Men of the Merchant Navy for the steadfastness with which they maintained our stocks of food and materials; for their services in transporting men, munitions and fuel to all the battles, over all the seas; and for their gallantry with which, though a civilian service, they met and fought the constant attacks of the enemy. This House doth acknowledge the Merchant Navy with humble gratitude and the sacrifice of all those who have given their lives that others may live as free men, and offers its heartfelt sympathy to their relatives in their proud sorrow. We shall never forget them.
What is the purpose of today’s ceremony? What do we owe to these men who served in the war at sea last century? Quite simply we owe them more than seventy years of peace and liberty and our material prosperity. We owe them more than we can ever repay. But all that their now elderly shipmates, still among us, ask from us is our recognition of their friends and comrades who never made port and who now have no grave but the sea.
These tough men who served under the Red Ensign held Australia’s and the world’s future freedom in their gnarled hands for nearly six years and they never let go their grip. All that their families and descendants ask is national recognition of their place in our national story and that it be taught to the young. We, who are gathered here, keep alive recollection of these men who did their duty, never grew old, and never will.
Our presence today indicates we are also mindful of all those who have served, and are still serving, in the Australian Merchant Navy in the more than seven decades since 1945, in peace and war. We particularly remember those who have lost their lives not to the violence of the enemy but to the ever variable and dangerous sea itself.
May all our fellow countrymen commemorated here today, those who were killed in action and those who survived the wars of last century but who have since died, wheresoever they may lie, rest in peace. We remember their steadfastness, their bravery and their sacrifice with humility and gratitude. They are not forgotten in Australia, the land they loved, and they never will be. The Last Post sounds for them all.
Here is an epitaph written for them by a former merchant seaman, one of their own.
They need no dirge, for time and tide fills all things, with tribute unto them.
The warmth of a summer sun, the calm of a quiet sea, the comforting arm of night, the generous soul of nature and the power of a seabird’s flight.
Blow golden trumpets blow, mournfully for all the golden youth and shattered dreams that lie where God has lain his quiet dead for all the world to see, upon an alien ocean bed.