When I was young I wanted to go to sea in the Merchant Navy, however. South Africa did not have much of a merchant navy or otherwise to go to sea with so I never did. I regret that even so many years down the line. However, given my poor eyesight and lousy maths the odds are I would not have been able to join up anyway, albeit it in the deck department. As a result the I have always considered the Merchant Navy to be a very special breed of people: “They that go down to the sea in ships….”
Because of the peculiarity of living in South Africa I really relate more to the British Merchant Navy than the South African one, and as a result this is partly why I am posting this today on Merchant Navy Day, and flying “the Red Duster”
The Merchant Navy suffered appalling losses during both World Wars, often going to sea in coffin ships which could only plod along at the slowest speed conceivable; floating targets for an enemy strike and crewed by men who returned back to their ships time and time again, in a service that was largely forgotten by the civilian population and that was vitally important to the survival of Britain and her allies.
The thousands of casualties are commemorated at Tower Hill Merchant Navy Memorial in London, and the statistics for the casualties are frightening. By the end of World War One, 3,305 merchant ships had been lost with a total of 17,000 lives. In the Second World War, reached a peak in 1942. In all, 4,786 merchant ships were lost during the war with a total of 32,000 lives. More than one quarter of this total were lost in home waters.
Seafaring today is nothing like that of the past, crews are smaller, ships are larger and more efficient (although do not look as good), the coffin ship owners and their accountants still exist though, squeezing every drop of sweat from those manning ships that often fly flags of convenience and with a mixed crew that often has no common language. The one thing about a ship is that once it is out of sight of land it is really a world of it’s own, and like those who sailed on voyages during wartime there is one common enemy that all seafarers face, that can snuff out their small ship with impunity and leave no trace behind. The sea is a fickle medium, it can kill and be kind, but is always to be respected.
A war, a convoy, a letter through the door,
A wife that is a wife no more
Her children are called away from school
To be broken the news so terribly cruel
“Your father has sailed to a distant land
And can not be reached by human hand
No more shall we meet him upon the quay
He can not come back to you or to me”
Some days later, when tears have passed
Her children asleep and quiet at last
She sits down to wish of one more goodbye
And to ponder and puzzle and ask merely why?
The warships guard the convoys tight,
Prepared to stand, prepared to fight.
But they are not who the foe will attack.
They hunt the ones that cannot fight back.
“My husband has sailed to a distant land,
Following orders of higher command,
He sails his ship on a distant sea
Never again to dock on an Australian quay”
Who will remember the warships and crew?
The soldiers in trenches, the men who flew?
All will remember the forces of men,
Who left, never to return again.
But who will remember the brave men of sea
Whose ships were unarmed and could only flee?
Who shouldered the burden of feeding their land,
In ships with conditions fit for the damned
I will remember, with poppy and voice
To tell of the merchant ships and of their choice.
The tankers, the trawlers, the fishing boats too
I remember their sacrifice and say Thank You
Kerry Dainty (aged 17)
We have a large debt to pay to the Merchant Navy of the two world wars, and this day is theirs alone.
© DRW 2016-2018. Created 03/09/2016. The poem “Merchant Navy” was found on the Forces Poetry and Stories Forum. I am currently attempting to contact the poet to obtain her permission to publish this work. It is also worth going to http://www.merchant-navy.net/forum/poetry-and-ballads/4449-merchant-navy.html