The evacuation from Dunkirk on the French coast was hailed in Britain as an extraordinary achievement and the ‘little ships of Dunkirk’ swiftly entered the mythology of wartime brave deeds.
British soldiers wade out to a waiting destroyer off Dunkirk during the evacuation.
Troops evacuated from Dunkirk on a destroyer about to berth at Dover, 31 May 1940.
Troops evacuated from Dunkirk enjoying tea and other refreshments at Addison Road station in London, 31 May 1940.
Some of the 'little ships' used during the evacuation of Dunkirk being towed back along the River Thames past Tower Bridge, 9 June 1940.
German forces moved into Dunkirk hours after the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force. Here German officers inspect a memorial on the sea front at Dunkirk.
During the First World War, U-boats initially obeyed 'prize rules', surfacing before attacking merchant ships and allowing those aboard to escape. In return, merchant sailors were forbidden from defending themselves, even by sending radio distress signals. In 1916 Captain Fryatt was captured, tried and executed by the Germans for trying to ram U33.
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In wartime, Britain depended on civilian cargo ships to import food and raw materials, as well as transport soldiers overseas, and keep them supplied. The title 'Merchant Navy' was granted by King George V after the First World War to recognise the contribution made by merchant sailors.
Britain’s merchant fleet was the largest in the world during both world wars. In 1939 a third of the world’s merchant ships were British, and there were some 200,000 sailors. Many 'British' merchant seamen came from parts of the British Empire, such as India, Hong Kong and west African countries. Women also sometimes served at sea in the Merchant Navy.
During both world wars, Germany operated a policy of 'unrestricted submarine warfare', or sinking merchant vessels on sight. In the second half of April, an average of more than 13 ships were sunk each day. By the end of the war, more than 3,000 British flagged merchant and fishing vessels had been sunk and nearly 15,000 merchant seamen had died. During the Second World War, 4,700 British-flagged ships were sunk and more than 29,000 merchant seamen died.
Since the Second World War, the British Merchant Navy has become steadily smaller, but has continued to help in wartime, notably during the Falklands War. More recently, merchant seamen have been vulnerable to pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean.
Newly trained merchant seamen at the Merchant Navy Training Establishment, Gravesend, June 1941. During the Second World War, merchant shipping had been taken over by the government by the summer of 1940, and some Royal Navy volunteers were asked to transfer to the merchant service instead, making it more of a genuine 'fourth service'.
Chinese merchant seamen Afu Lay Liu (left) and Apu Cot Wong man an anti-aircraft gun as part of the DEMS (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships) scheme, April 1942. During the Second World War merchant ships carried guns for self-defence. The merchant seamen were helped by naval gunners known as DEMS ratings and soldiers from the Maritime Royal Artillery. Stop-gap devices like the Holman Projector were also fitted.
Mohamed Maberzok, an Indian merchant sailor, recovers in hospital, after being wounded whilst serving on Arctic convoys to Russia. Around a quarter of Britain’s merchant sailors during the Second World War came from the Empire, mostly from India. They were known as 'Lascars,' from the Urdu word Lashkar, which came to mean sailor, and were often underpaid and badly treated. Over 6,000 of them died.
'Liberty' Ship under construction at Richmond, California. To meet the enormous need for new merchant ships during the Second World War, American shipyards mass-produced simple vessels known as 'Liberty' ships. Enormous sections were assembled in factories and then welded together, allowing the ships to be built in just 60 days. A total of 2,711 'Liberty' ships were built between 1941 and 1945.
Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS) were merchant vessels that were equipped with limited armament to assist in convoy defence during the Second World War. The merchant seamen were helped by naval gunners known as DEMS ratings, and soldiers from the Maritime Royal Artillery.
uniforms and insignia
Signalling from the Bridge of a Merchant Ship, 1947, by Peter Whalley. This drawing shows two sailors in the Norwegian ship SS Norefjord on a North Atlantic convoy. When Norway was defeated, its government bravely ordered all merchant ships to join the Allies. Norway had the biggest fleet of oil tankers in the world. These ships were vital in the Battle of the Atlantic. The artist Peter Whalley was a Canadian merchant sailor who served in Norefjord during 1942 and 1943.
The Cunard container ship Atlantic Conveyor after being hit by an Exocet missile during the Falklands War, 25 May 1982. Forty merchant ships joined the South Atlantic Task Force. Some were used as troopships and others carried stores and equipment. As well as container ships, they included ferries, cruise ships, tankers, tugs and trawlers. Twelve merchant seamen died on board Atlantic Conveyor.
This lifeboat radio receiver was intended for use on British Merchant Navy lifeboats. It was designed to be float and was one of the new pieces of equipment designed during the Second World War to increase the chances of a crew’s survival if their merchant vessel was sunk.