This week, with ANZAC Day almost upon us, Roy decided it was time to remember and commemorate the merchant navy. We tend to think of soldiers, airmen and ‘real’ navy personnel when we think of people who gave their lives during the war, but there are many others who gave their time and even their lives. Some of these men were the men of the merchant navy and Roy decided it was time to visit their memorial and remember their sacrifices.
If you would like to visit the Merchant Seamen Memorial it is located near Norah Head Lighthouse, at Norah Head on the NSW Central Coast. The lighthouse, and the memorial which is not far from it’s base, are not far from Toukley, and can be found at 40 Bush Street, Norah Head. While you are visiting the memorial make sure to visit the lighthouse too. The grounds of the lighthouse are able to be visited at any time (though you might need to walk up the road), and you can even stay in one of the old lighthouse keepers quarters, but if you want to see the interior and climb the 96 steps to the top of the tower, you will need to take a tour. Roy has visited, and to find out more click here.
There are about 1800 shipwrecks to be found off the coast of NSW and 19 of these belong to merchant ships which were sunk during World War II. On top of the 19 which were actively sunk, there were many more merchant ships which were attacked, and many merchant sailors died or were injured working for the ‘merchant navy’. Despite these losses and sacrifices for many years the story of these seamen was not well known outside the small towns up and down the coast who witnessed the events. Yet the merchant navy were vital to the war effort. Without ships to carry supplies, Australia could not have produced many of the things needed for survival, or indeed to make and supply the munitions and even ships needed to fight the war.
From the very beginning of the war, merchant shipping was controlled by the Shipping Control Board and ships were armed to be able to defend themselves, their crew, passengers and their cargo. Big passenger ships like the Kanimbla and Duntroon were converted to be armed cruisers but their crews were still drawn from the merchant navy. Some of these men volunteered for a special, three day training course to become part of the gunnery crew, and there were always one or two ‘DEMS’ (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship) men drawn from the reserves of the RAN on board large ships. For the most part though, the men of the merchant navy were simply sailors and seamen who were untrained for war and unprepared for what they would experience. Most of the guns which were added to the ships were useful against air or surface attack, and not a single ship was sunk in such an attack. However, all but two of the ships which were sunk were hit by shells or torpedoes from submarines and the other two were sunk by mines. In addition to the 19 ships lying off the coast of NSW, another 11 ships were lost in Australian waters and 654 people died serving in the Merchant Navy. To learn more about the Merchant Navy, click here.