Profiles

The Allied Merchant marine

A Merchantman sinking.

“The Merchant Navy, with Allied comrades, night and day, in weather fair or foul, faced not only the ordinary perils on the sea, but the sudden assaults of war from beneath the waters or from the sky. Your first task is to bring to port the cargoes vital for us at home or for our Armies abroad, and we trust your tenacity and resolve to see this stern task through. We are a seafaring race, and we understand the call of the sea. We account you in these hard days worthy successors in a tradition of steadfast courage and high adventure, and we feel confident that proud tradition of our Island will be upheld today, wherever the Ensign of a British Merchantman is flown.”

On August 26, 1939, all Canadian merchant ships passed from the control of their owners to the control of the RCN. No Canadian-registered ship or merchant ship in a Canadian port could sail without the RCN's authority and direction.

When the war began Canada had 38 oceangoing merchant vessels of 1,000 tons or more. 410 merchant ships were built in Canada during the war. More than 25,000 merchant ship voyages were made. The Merchant Navy Book of Remembrance lists the names of approximately 1,600 Canadians who died at sea during the war, including those of eight women. 

The allied Merchant Navy was manned by sailors from Great Britain and the many nations, which at that time made up the British Empire - now the British Commonwealth. In addition, countries such as the Soviet Union, the USA, and China, which became allied with Great Britain, were also members of the Allied Merchant Marine.

As Germany and Japan overran many nations in the first years of the war, so many of the merchant fleets of those nations escaped to become part of the Allied Merchant Armada. Norway's large merchant fleet joined the British fleet after Norway fell to Germany. Even neutral Sweden found it safer to join the allied convoy system than to sail alone.

Over 7,000 Canadian and Newfoundland (not yet part of Canada) merchant seamen participated in this great endeavour.

Many merchant mariners had joined because they were too old, or not old enough, to join the regular to join the armed forces of their respective nations and was their way to contribute to the war effort.

The Merchant Marine had a most, if not the most vital job of the war. It was this diverse body of seamen that was charged with carrying the supplies of food, fuel, arms, and troops to the theatres of conflict. They faced the same dangers as the regular armed forces and did their job as civilians in vessels not designed for combat.

The merchant sailors of WWII were a critical and strategic force that contributed to the eventual success of the Allied cause.