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The Allied Merchant Navy
October 20, 2009 12:07 PM   Subscribe

The 30,000 men of the British Merchant Navy (one-fifth of its pre-war strength) who fell victim to the U-boats between 1939 and 1945, the majority drowned or killed by exposure on the cruel North Atlantic sea*, were quite as certainly front-line warriors as the guardsmen and fighter pilots to whom they ferried the necessities of combat. Neither they nor their American, Dutch, Norwegian, or Greek fellow mariners wore uniform and few have any memorial. They stood nevertheless between the Wehrmacht and the domination of the world. - John Keegan
posted by Joe Beese (23 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
My partner's father was in the American Merchant Marine. It's rather sobering that if you look at the ratio of casualties to the number of people served, it was one of the most dangerous branches of the American Armed Forces in WWII. For all practical purposes, the convoys ran combat missions. American merchant crew belatedly received veteran status.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:27 PM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Kriegsmarine, but aye.

Timely post in light of Ludo Kennedy's death yesterday.
posted by the cuban at 12:32 PM on October 20, 2009


Being on the Atlantic during World War II was very dangerous. My grandfather was a fisherman back then and would sometimes talk about the ever-present fear.
posted by Kattullus at 12:59 PM on October 20, 2009


I also wonder if we'll see a war partly decided on the basis of control of high seas shipping again. I suspect that the development of massive military transport aircraft with a global range has made the military role of the Merchant Marine somewhat obsolete, and by the end of the war, developments in sonar and Naval communications helped to counter the wolf-pack tactics that devastated convoys.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:02 PM on October 20, 2009


My grandpa was on one of those merchant marine ships. Him and a buddy had a still on board.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:14 PM on October 20, 2009


I also wonder if we'll see a war partly decided on the basis of control of high seas shipping again. I suspect that the development of massive military transport aircraft with a global range has made the military role of the Merchant Marine somewhat obsolete, and by the end of the war, developments in sonar and Naval communications helped to counter the wolf-pack tactics that devastated convoys.

More like the development of carrier-based aviation. Anybody with a couple of supercarriers could take out gigantic amounts of merchant shipping in a particular ocean at will. The aircraft still can't carry enough to move a large military formation over global distances.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:17 PM on October 20, 2009


We still will need merchantmen to carry the big loads. (If we need big loads).

Modern subs would be very effective today. The last half of WWII saw a period where anti-sub tools were more effective than subs. That era has been eclipsed.

One of the reasons merchant seamen were not regarded as highly as others who served in combat was the belief that they were highly paid for their efforts. Don't know if it was true but that's the common belief of others who served in the armed services.
posted by shnarg at 1:31 PM on October 20, 2009


tyhe Am. merchant guys now recognized for their contribution, but a simple test of their
"belonging"--did they qualify for the G.I. Bill ? No. Remember, much as they did and how well they did it, they could quit and go to another job if they wanted. Not so for those in uniform.
posted by Postroad at 2:02 PM on October 20, 2009


I also wonder if we'll see a war partly decided on the basis of control of high seas shipping again. I suspect that the development of massive military transport aircraft with a global range has made the military role of the Merchant Marine somewhat obsolete, and by the end of the war, developments in sonar and Naval communications helped to counter the wolf-pack tactics that devastated convoys.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:02 PM on October 20 [+] [!]


Ships turn out to be very efficient for carrying large, heavy objects. (The order is something like: Ships, rail, trucks, aircraft). If you were following the whole Stryker program, this was one of the selling points -- the Abrams tank is not very portable at all. You can put one inside a transport aircraft, but then you're flying around a tank at a time and this is not particularly effective or efficient, so you kind of have to use ships. This was fine when everybody knew we were going to be fighting the Soviets in Europe, so you could just put a whole bunch of tanks in Europe, but this is less OK if you have no idea where you're going to need them next: then you have to put in a bunch of light infantry, wish them luck, and wait a long time for tanks to be transferred around. (This was one of the fears during the first Gulf War -- that Saddam would strike before US forces could complete their build-up.) Hence the much more portable Stryker.
posted by Comrade_robot at 2:03 PM on October 20, 2009


No. Remember, much as they did and how well they did it, they could quit and go to another job if they wanted. Not so for those in uniform.

They may well have been able to quit and get another job. The point is - they didn't.

Its also worth noting that as well as being at risk of death, a merchant seaman could be taken prisoner of war and if so his family would receive no pay (at least this was the case in the UK, would it have been different for the US merchant sailors?).

I appreciate you're talking about US merchant ships. UK merchant ships have had a legally mandated uniform since 1919.
posted by biffa at 2:27 PM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


My mother here in Leeds, England has never stopped praising the fishermen who went out and ran the risks during wartime.
posted by Quillcards at 2:44 PM on October 20, 2009


My father was a steward/cook on Merchant Marine ships in the South Pacific. On Liberty ships, he cooked on a coal-fired stove.

If merchant seamen were on shore for more than 30 days during WWII, they were subject to the draft.
posted by Carol Anne at 2:46 PM on October 20, 2009


I don't know about WWII, but crewmen graduating from any of the U.S. Training academies commit to a 5-year term of service. If you went AWOL from your assignment, you faced a court martial during WWII. Meanwhile, the Merchant Marine service was substantially riskier than the Navy or the Army, for about the same pay, and with no tax exemptions. The G. I. Bill politically excluded a large number of civilians who operated under military command while in combat.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:03 PM on October 20, 2009


Seconding comrade_robot on transportation efficiencies. Since you can't get a boat to Afghanistan, most supplies have to get there by truck, which is pretty hazardous business via Pakistan (the old Khyber Pass, which did in the British eons ago), so we've now got overland routes through Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. That war could not be carried on if everything had to move by plane. Also, the logistics kind of shed light on why that war is costing $160 million per day.
posted by beagle at 3:48 PM on October 20, 2009


Here's a nice history of the Battle of the Atlantic from a Canadian perspective, including details about the Merchant Navy of Canada. What's really cool is the interactive map showing convoy routes, and the locations where merchant ships and u-boats were sunk each year of the war. You can really see how 1943 was a turning point.

Astounding to think German U-boats ventured as far into Canada as the St. Lawrence River.
posted by Kabanos at 3:52 PM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


“I also wonder if we'll see a war partly decided on the basis of control of high seas shipping again.”

It’s pretty much the future. Along with more cooperation against the smaller players. You’ve got the new Navy Irregular Warfare Office. They’ve got a dedicated ‘neutral’ comm. channel (Mercury) to help with the law of the sea against pirates (specifically the Somali ones).
Ships can be capable of launching cruise missiles or helicopters, etc. and still be pretty agile.

Aircraft are pretty much only for speed and stealth (tough to hide or camouflage a warship, abd al Rahim al Nashri was looking to do the Somali pirate thing and use cargo ships, but he got picked up). And tend to be more expensive to operate. Ships still get more mileage out of the cost. And indeed with the new generation of missiles, they’re probably only going to get cheaper to build.

So convoy escort is going to be the future for a lot of navies and decisive in many ways.
Much as the horse was never outclassed, it just became a better idea to send resources elsewhere, so too, surface assault fleet – your money is better spent on smaller faster ships, making sure your supply lines are safe and investing in the new technology where you’ve got unmanned machines doing that kind of fighting and support.

And you’ve got the range in attack now, so why risk the exposure?
Like the horse, it became cheaper to use them to just haul stuff than charge anything anymore. We’ll probably get drone ships at some point with minimal crew to drive the cost of hitting them down even further.
But that stuff aside, not much has really changed (or rather, it’s changed back) Battle of the Atlantic was mostly small escorts and subs.

Sustained military power depends (as always) on your logistics, which means moving lots of stuff, which means you’re vulnerability is there. This situation where we could just show up with all the beef we needed was temporary.

Naval 'defense' has almost always been about defending against capital depletion. Even the warships were used to open trade.
So, yeah, more ‘trucks’ in the future. More efficient ways to attack, cheaper ways to defend that minimalize exposure. You’re always going to have to move large quantities of stuff tho. So the tactics and technology will revolve around whatever's the best way to do that rather than dictate it.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:56 PM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Makes me feel terribly guilty lining them all up in my torpedo sights in Silent Hunter III 9which was a great game).
posted by wilful at 7:07 PM on October 20, 2009


Good post. A couple links on U-Boats off the coast of North Carolina. There's people around who remember the oil slicks and debris washing up on the beach. it's still weird to me to think of the war being that close to the United States. Here's a touching story about four British crewmen buried on Ocracoke Island in NC.

Torpedo Junction by Homer Hickman is a cool book about the U-Boat war off the eastern US coast. Clay Blair's two books have just about everything there is to know about the U-Boat war in the Atlantic.

Oops, sorry. Is this turning into a U-Boat derail in a thread about the merchant marine? Gotta give a shout out to Iron Coffins.
posted by marxchivist at 7:39 PM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Any article covering the US Merchant Marines and their poor treatment after WWII should mention the despicable smears they got from the right-wing media hacks of the time like Westbrook Pegler.
posted by kgander at 10:55 PM on October 20, 2009


my grandfather was the radio operator on a merchant navy ship. they were torpedoed in 1941, and they all made it off the ship into lifeboats. forgetting the ring he'd bought for his wife, he went back down below to get it and was one of the last people off the boat. the Uboat commander (karl freidrich merten) actually surfaced the sub and asked them what they were carrying. apparently the captain told them where to stick it, but in the end told them what they wanted to know on the insistence of worried survivors. he asked them if they knew where they were and had enough water. there's a book written about that guy called "good night, sorry for sinking you".

that story was one of the classic memories of my grandpa. odd to think I owe my life to chance of explosion of the mv bradford city in 1941 and leniency of a german uboat commander...
posted by 6am at 12:30 AM on October 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


My father did his WWII duty in India. They sent them there by ship. He was on a freighter for a few months, going from California to India ... on a freighter alone, no convoy, no escort, for several months. They used to sometimes see other ships burning on the horizon and know a submarine was in the area. If the sub had found them there would not have been much they could have done about it since the ship was loaded to the decks with war cargo. That was war duty for those merchant marine ships and crews just as much as for those in the actual military.

marxchivist, my mother remembered well going to the beaches of N.J. in WWII and getting oil on her feet on the beach. She said you had to be careful not to get it on your towels and bathing suit as well sometimes.
posted by gudrun at 12:38 AM on October 21, 2009


I have visited the memorials in N. Carolina (there are several in addition to Ocracoke Island.) Very poignant and unexpected.
posted by A189Nut at 11:29 AM on October 21, 2009


Oh, and that uboat.net site is awesome.
posted by marxchivist at 2:01 PM on October 21, 2009


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