Merchant Navy Veterans Day of Remembrance: September 7
Ottawa, ON - September 5, 2014
This Sunday, I will be attending the Merchant Navy Veterans Day of Remembrance ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. It will be a time to honour the merchant mariners who supplied Allied forces in Europe during the Second World War. In all, Canada and Newfoundland had 12,000 men and women serve in the Merchant Navy. Of that number, 1,629 lost their lives due to enemy action - a higher rate than in any of the other armed services.
During the war, Canada’s Merchant Navy evolved into the world’s fourth largest wartime fleet, making more than 25,000 merchant ship voyages. The 38 ocean-going merchant vessels that Canada had at the start of the war grew exponentially. By 1944, ships were being launched at a rate of almost two per week and by the time the last wartime ship was launched, three hundred and fifty-four 10,000-ton and forty-three 4,700-ton vessels had been produced.
Canada’s merchant ships carried 164,783,921 tons of cargo across the Atlantic from North America to Britain. They carried clothing, fuel, steel, aluminum, lumber, aircraft, tanks, jeeps, trucks, guns, munitions, and whatever else was required for the war effort. Above all, they carried food, with one merchant ship being able to transport enough food to feed 225,000 people for a week.
Because of the vital role that they played in keeping the supply lines open to Europe, merchant ships became prized targets for enemy surface raiders and U-boats. The list of ships lost, especially in 1942, is all one needs to appreciate the human and material cost of their service. During the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, the Allies on average lost one 10,000-ton ship every 10 hours for 31 straight days.
One of the major challenges that faced the Merchant Navy in the early years of the war was finding enough sailors to crew the ships due to the manpower demands of the armed forces. Yet despite the danger, the hardships, the difficult living conditions while at sea, and the very high risk of injury or death, Canadians and Newfoundlanders volunteered in droves to join the Merchant Navy. Many were under the age of 17 and over the age of 60.
It was not until 1992 that Merchant Navy members were formally recognized as Veterans. The following year, Canada earmarked September 3rd to acknowledge the contribution of these Veterans to ensuring the freedom and democracy enjoyed by Canadians.
There are few Merchant Navy Veterans still alive today. Many who served this country so bravely are now in their nineties. On September 3rd when members of the Merchant Navy Veterans' Association gathered in Halifax to mark the 75th Anniversary of the declaration of the Second World War, they decided that it would be their last time to come together because of declining membership.
On Sunday, we will do our part to ensure that the service of Canada’s Merchant Navy is not forgotten. It will be a time to share the stories of those merchant mariners who kept the supply flowing throughout the longest and hardest battle ever fought at sea. If you know a Merchant Navy Veteran, I encourage you to take the time to thank him or her for their service. Here is a link to personal accounts of individual sailors.
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