Amanda Mason
Wednesday 13 June 2018

In wartime, Britain depended on civilian cargo ships to import food and raw materials, as well as to 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 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.

Photographs

CAPTAIN CHARLES FRYATT

Photographs

CAPTAIN CHARLES FRYATT

Captain Charles Fryatt on board the SS Brussels, after being captured by the Germans, June 1916. 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.

During both world wars, Germany operated a policy of 'unrestricted submarine warfare', or sinking merchant vessels on sight. By the end of the First World 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.

Related Content

The American tanker ILLINOIS sinks after being attacked by a German submarine
First World War
Voices of the First World War: The Submarine War
Episode 26: Submarines played a significant military role for the first time during the First World War. Both the British and German navies made use of their submarines against enemy warships from the outset. Hear how a change in U-boat tactics by the Germans in February 1915 caused great resentment.
Surrender of U-Boats at Harwich
IWM (SP 1052)
First World War
The U-Boat Campaign That Almost Broke Britain
From the start of the First World War in 1914, Germany pursued a highly effective U-boat campaign against merchant shipping. This campaign intensified over the course of the war and almost succeeded in bringing Britain to its knees in 1917.
The Type 42 destroyer HMS SHEFFIELD on fire after being struck by an AM.39 Exocet missile fired from an Argentine aircraft from a distance of 6 miles.
Britain And The Commonwealth Since 1945
A Short History of The Falklands War
On 2 April 1982, Argentinian forces invaded the British overseas territory of the Falkland Islands. Argentina had claimed sovereignty over the islands for many years and their ruling military junta did not believe that Britain would attempt to regain the islands by force.