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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Merchant Navy

A country's merchant navy is made up of its commercial and trading ships, and their crews. In 1939, Britain's merchant fleet was the largest in the world, with 33 per cent of the total tonnage. The country was dependent on merchant shipping for the import of food, equipment and raw materials in times of peace, but the shipping was also needed in wartime, to carry servicemen overseas to fight, and to carry the supplies to equip and sustain those fighting men.

When war broke out, the merchant fleet was put under the control of the Ministry of Shipping, later part of the Ministry of War Transport. The Ministry decided which ships would go where and what they would carry, making merchant shipping effectively another arm of the state. General control, including the crewing and provisioning of ships, continued to be exercised by the shipping industry itself. A convoy system was quickly introduced to try and prevent merchant ships being sunk by German submarines (or U-Boats). This provided groups of merchant ships with an escort of one or more warships for their journey, and built on the system that had proved successful in World War One.

All those who served in the Merchant Navy were civilians and volunteers. Like those who served in the Royal Navy, they faced not only the dangers of enemy attack but the hazards of the elements as well. Although some merchant ships were armed, they were not designed to withstand enemy attack and if his ship was sunk at sea, the merchant seaman's chances of survival were poor.

Approximately 185,000 seamen, including 40,000 men of Indian, Chinese and other nationalities, served in the Merchant Navy during the war. Their vessels ranged in size from large cargo and passenger ships to small tramp ships and coastal vessels. The sailors served on all the seas and oceans of the world, and in the hazardous Arctic convoys that took war supplies to the Soviet Union.

However, the most significant and crucial conflict in which merchant seamen were involved was the Battle of the Atlantic. In the longest campaign of the war, the British merchant fleet, with its naval escorts, struggled to bring food, fuel, equipment and raw materials from America and elsewhere across the Atlantic, while Germany mobilized U-boats, battleships, aircraft and mines against them in an attempt to sever Britain's supply lines. At the same time, British and later American shipyards attempted to produce enough ships to replace those that were sunk. It was not until May 1943 that the Battle of the Atlantic was won, although U-Boats continued to operate until the end of the war.

30,248 merchant seamen lost their lives during World War Two, a death rate that was higher proportionately than in any of the armed forces.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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