Sacrifices made by sailors to keep Britain’s sea lanes open will be marked with two events this month. The Red Ensign, standard of the Merchant Navy, flies proudly today on the service’s annual memorial day, while the First Sea Lord will take the salute in London at a parade honouring all merchantmen lost in conflict.
Today, Monday September 3, is Merchant Navy Day, a date in the diary set aside since 2000 for remembering merchant sailors who gave their lives in two world wars to ensure Britain survived blockade.
The merchant marine’s famous standard, the Red Ensign – commonly referred to by sailors as the ‘red duster’ – is being flown over the Department for Transport’s headquarters at Great Minster House in Westminster.
Indeed, on September 3 all public buildings are permitted (and encouraged) to raise the Red Ensign.
Today there are around 500 ships displacing more than 1,000 tons which fly the merchant marine’s standard. Although the Merchant Navy has shrunk substantially since WW1 and WW2, the UK relies on sea trade to sustain it with some 1.5 million tons of freight passing through the nation’s ports daily.
September 3 was chosen as the anniversary of the outbreak of war between Britain and Germany in 1939 – and the day when the Battle of the Atlantic began, with the first loss of life that very evening as the liner Athenia was torpedoed with the loss of 112 passengers and crew.
Those crew were the first of more than 20,000 merchant sailors lost between 1939 and 1945, while just under 15,000 men were lost under the Red Ensign in the 20th Century’s first global conflagration. More recently, six crew of the Atlantic Conveyor died when their container ship was struck by an Exocet missile during the Falklands War.
“Merchant Navy Day is an opportunity to not only remember seafarers of the past, but to look to a bright future for UK shipping. More than 20,000 merchant seafarers lost their lives in the Second World War alone, while working to provide this country with the means to survive,” said shipping minister Mike Penning.
“We owe those brave seafarers a debt of gratitude for their sacrifices and the contribution they made to our national wellbeing.”
The Royal Navy – which strove through both conflicts to shield civilian shipping and paid a heavy price for doing so – will be paying its tribute to merchant sailors later in September at the annual service of remembrance in London.
The Royal Naval Volunteer Band Association will lead a parade of Merchant Navy standards and standards of other associations, followed by serving and retired merchant seafarers with other organisations beginning at Mark Lane (Great Tower Street) at 12.30pm on Sunday September 16.
The principal guest at proceedings will be First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, who will take the salute when the marchers arrive in Trinity Square Gardens.
A multi-faith commemorative service and wreath-laying will be held at the Merchant Navy Memorial.
After the service, a ‘sea of Red Ensigns’ will be placed in the lawn at the Sunken Garden, in memory of lost merchantmen.
Further into the future, plans are well under way to honour the Royal and Merchant Navies in WW2 with 70th anniversary commemorations of victory in the Battle of the Atlantic.
Liverpool – home in the war to Western Approaches from where the struggle against the U-boat was directed – will be the focal point of events over the weekend of May 24-27 2013, including a service of thanksgiving.
Press Release, Septembar 3, 2012