On September 3rd of every year since 2000, the brave men and women who serve and have served in the Merchant Navy are remembered and celebrated at events all over the country.
I attended the annual Merchant Navy Day Service in South Shields, which was held in the Mission to Seafarers chapel and it was packed with people. There were local councillors, the mayor and mayoress of South Tyneside, past and present merchant navy and other seamen and a host of associated organisations representing the Sea Cadets, the Missions to Seafarers, The Apostleship of the Sea, National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport and many more.
The service was taken by the Reverend Philip Bullock, who was very ably assisted by Reverend Pat Bealing and Monsignor Ronnie Brown and it was somewhat emotional at times. Definitely a time for personal thought and reflection.
During the service we were reminded that on the 3rd September 1939, a few hours after war had been declared against Germany, the first shipping casualty occurred with the sinking of the unarmed Donaldson line passenger ship Athenia, with the loss of 112 passengers and crew.
For almost 6 years there was barely a day went by without the loss of merchant ships and their crews. From South Shields alone there was a loss of 3,000 merchant seafarers out of a total loss of over 30,000 men and women of the British Merchant Navy between 1939 and 1945; a death rate proportionally higher than in any of the armed forces. South Shields suffered the highest proportion of Merchant Navy lives lost relative to any other port in the country.
After the service we all walked a hundred yards to the Merchant Navy Memorial, near the Customs House on the side of the River Tyne for the wreath laying ceremony, which can be seen in the photograph.
Brave men and women served in the Merchant Navy during both World Wars to keep our country supplied with food, fuel and all types of equipment that were vital to the war effort. It took over half a century to have their actions officially recognised in 2000. Merchant Navy Day not only commemorates and celebrates that but now also recognises the important achievements of modern day merchant seafarers who are responsible for shipping around 95% of the UK’s imports and exports.
As HRH The Earl of Wessex has commented regarding Merchant Navy Day. It is ‘to remember the sacrifices, salute the courage and support the future of the often unsung personnel of our Merchant Navy.’