Wartime Merchant Navy Queries & Frequently Asked Questions

The Wartime Merchant Navy FAQ Directory is brought to you with the financial support by Option Robot.      We appreciate your comments, but we do not have the facilities to answer your questions. Please consult our Links and Sources page for links to relative sources of information. The reference librarian at your local public library is a good place to start. Although they may not have the books at hand, they should be able to suggest sources and how to find them. We no longer post queries to this page. Questions have been answered a year or more later, but the person making the request has not kept their email address current.
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FAQ re Wartime Merchant Navy
Home Front, 1949-1945 – Glossary: Defnitions of common abbreviations (ARP, CORB, etc.) and commonly used word (Anderson Shelter, Barrage balloon, etc.) from World War II.
Maritime Definitions:
Comprehensive list of maritime terms and their meanings located on the United States Merchant Marine site.
Age of Merchant Seamen in WW2:
During the war, a merchant seaman was probably under age, over age or unfit for service in the regular uniformed Armed Forces. A captain’s comment (courtesy of Carol): “Walter Skitch, aged 70 years; joined the SS Bondicar in March 1942 and has served continuously since as First Engineer.” See oldest and youngest Merchant Navy casualties.
Behar Massacre:
On March 9, 1944, the P&O ship mv Behar was sunk and the crew taken aboard the Japanese vessel Tone. Seventy-two members of the crew were executed.
SS British Chivalry
When the tanker SS British Chivalry, was sunk 22/02/1944, in the Indian Ocean, the Japanese submarine circled the survivors in two lifeboats, raking them with machine gun fire. A cine camera was used to record this act of murder (not war). After 37 days in an open boat, 38 survivors were rescued by mv Delane (including Lamport and Holt).
Convoy Boards
For security reasons during wartime, the ship’s name was not painted on the side, nor on the stern. Instead, two name boards, commonly called Convoy Boards, were mounted on either side of the ship above the bridge. The boards were hinged horizontally in the middle, so they could be folded in half. The name of the ship was painted in large letters and could be displayed in port, but, when the board was folded in half, the name was concealed.
Merchant ships that carried weapons were called Defense Equipped Merchant Ships. Some 150,000 Merchant seamen received gunnery training (e.g., Gordon received gunnery training and manned a machine gun). Merchant ships could also have Navy or Army gunners aboard. According to Billy McGee (British Merchant Navy at War website), there were 24,000 RN gunners (nearly 5,000 killed) and 14,000 army gunners (1,222 killed) aboard Merchant ships during WW 2.
See Royal Navy personnel below. On the Links & Sources page, see Maritime Royal Artillery.
Dog Watch
Dog Watch is a short watch. First Dog Watch (4 – 6 pm) and Last Dog Watch (6 – 8 pm) are terms used in the Royal Navy. The term Second Dog Watch is not used.
SS Empire Celt & Capt. Edward McCreade
The Empire Celt (a tanker) was torpedoed and probably sunk 24-02-1942 by U-158, Kapt. Erwin Rostin. The 8,032 grt ship (MOWT, Oregan SS Co. Ltd) had sailed in ballast from Greenock and joined up with convoy ON-76. The 37-ship convoy left Liverpool on February 14, 1942, bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia. On February 21, the convoy was intercepted by a patrol line of 6 U-boats who attacked the following day, sinking 3 Merchant ships. The U-boats launched further attacks on February 24, sinking 5 Merchant ships and damaging a further 2. The Empire Celt was on of the ships hit about 420 miles South-East of St John’s by U-158 and sank in Position 43′ 50N 43′ 38W. The Captain, Edward McCready and 22 men were picked up by the Canadian ship Citadelle. A further 24 were picked up by the naval trawler HMT St Zeno and all were landed in St John’s, Newfoundland. Four crew were killed and are commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial in London on Panel 38. Two DEMS gunners (names unknown) were also lost. (From B. McGee)
SS Empire Sky
The Empire Ships (Mitchell & Sawyer) says the ship was sailing independently (not in convoy) when torpedoed by U-625 south of Spitzbergen, Barents Sea, 76.20N 17.30 on November 14, 1942.
Film about ONS154
Kathleen Grantham asked if anyone know whether National Geographic made a film about ONS154, possibly in 1998?
Loss of Pay: sunk seamen
Did seamen receive their pay after their ship was sunk, or was pay stopped at the date the ship sank? The rules were changed in May 1941, and sailors were to be paid until they got back to their signing-on port, but no one told the sailors. In many cases, the pay to a seaman who lost his life was often stopped as soon as the ship was sunk. It could be three months or more before the widow received her widow’s pension, and that was only one-third of the allowance she had received whilst her husband was alive and at sea.
Marnex? (Troop Ship)
A troop ship (Marnex?) was attacked in the Mediterranean in October 1943 en route to Bombay, India. The men abandoned ship and were picked up the next day. Hague (in his book The Allied Convoy System) says that a Dutch ship named Marnix van St. Aldegond with 2,924 troops aboard in convoy KMF 25A left Liverpool October 19, 1943. The ship came under air attack on November 6, 1943 in the Mediterranean, but no one was killed.
Merchant Navy Badges
On the left, is the Merchant Navy lapel badge issued to all British seamen during World War II (front & back view). Except for officers, seamen did not wear a uniform, and this badge identified them as Merchant Navy seamen. On the right, is a brooche with an enamel background (front & back view) known as a “sweetheart brooche” presumably because a sailor gave it to his girlfriend (Thanks to Billy McGee for information).
Another interesting brooche with a Merchant Navy connection, front and back views (click to enlarge). The maker’s stamp shows that it was made between 1962 and 1967. Any information would be appreciated.
Royal Crown of Newcastle
The first Royal Crown of Newcastle was bombed and gunned by aircraft 15m South of Smith’s Knoll Light vessel on January 30th. 1940. The ship was sunk in a later action  by the Gneisenau on March 15th, 1941, in LAT 42 N LON 43W (approximately).
Royal Navy personnel (DEMS gunners) on merchant ship
The three names: HMS Glendower, HMS President III, and HMS Wellesley, do not refer to actual ships. They were Royal Navy bases that trained gunners to man Merchant ships, known as DEMS (Defense Equipped Merchant Ships).
The name of a DEMS gunner assigned to a Merchant ship appears on the ships articles, but he was was not a Merchant seaman. If killed, his name appears under the name of his Royal Navy training base, not the merchant ship.
Royal Navy DEMS records are still held at HMS Centurion naval base. Information will only be given to the next of kin and may take some time. Please contact the following addressCenturion. Naval Pay & Pensions (Accounts), Centurion Building, Grange Road, Gosport, Hampshire PO13 9XA England.
Ask specifically for the names of the Merchant ships served on, or all you will get is the DEMS depot that they were from. If you already know the names of the ships they served on you can access the crew list and agreements from the Public Records Office. The crew list and agreements are held under the ship’s official number.
Russian Convoys
There were 184 Merchant ships in the Russian convoys. For the names of ships and convoys, see Arctic Convoys.
SS San Emiliano
For information on this British tanker, see Stephan’s Study Room. Also see High Awards for Bravery.
Shipping Pools
The Merchant Navy was an essential service during WW2. Canada had what the crew called the “sail or jail” clause. A seaman signed on at the shipping pool and had one choice of three ships. If he didn’t like any of them, then he went were he was sent. Britain had “Reserve Pools” while Canada called them “Manning Pools,” and a ship’s captain used them to make up shortages in his crew.
Ship’s Articles (December 1942)
Empire Shackleton, Empire Union; King Edward, or Norse King
If you have a copy of the Ship’s Articles (crew list) for December 1942, for any of these ships, we would appreciate the names of the crew members to identify the DEMs gunners. They signed on as crew, but their records (on the Commonwealth war graves, etc.) may not include the name of the ship they were on when they were killed in action. Contact us by e-mail
SS Virginia (Glasgow) – Information wanted:
The CWGC has made a mistake on a the spelling of this ship on the commemoration of some of the men lost. The ship’s name was actually the tanker SS Virgilia, 5,723grt (Gow Harrison & Co.) which was attacked and torpedoed by the German E-boat S109 while sailing to London in the coastal Convoy FS-54.
Weight of Ship:
The terms Gross Tonnage and Dead Weight, used to describe a ship, do not refer to weight, but to volume. Gross tonnageis the total internal volume of a ship. It is a cubic or space measurement of all areas of a vessel with some allowances or deductions for exempt spaces such as living quarters, while Deadweight tonnage is the difference between light and loaded displacements. It comprises the cargo, stores, ballast, fresh water, fuel oil, passengers, crew and their effects. Displacement Tonnage (usually quoted in long tons of 2240 lbs.) is the total weight of the ship and everything in it, and refers to the actual weight of the water “displaced” by the ship. For more information on definitions, please refer to Terminology on our Links and Sources page.