Today, I attended the Merchant Navy Remembrance Day Service at the Birkenhead RSA. It meant I missed out on Len Brown’s great announcement, but I’m glad I went.
The service was to remember the several thousands of New Zealanders who served in the Merchant Navy during the Second World War. They sailed the ships that delivered troops, military equipment and cargos of food, fuel and raw materials across the world’s oceans. This work was so essential to the Allies’ war effort that the Merchant Navy was regarded as the fourth service alongside the army, navy and air force.
The Merchant Navy faced the same dangers of war as the regular armed forces, but they did so as civilians. Their merchant ships were peacetime vessels, not designed to withstand an enemy attack, but they carried vital troops, food, fuel and equipment to wherever they were needed in the war.
Today, I learned about their most crucial struggle, “the Battle of the Atlantic” which lasted 2074 days: from 3 September 1939, the day war was declared, to 7 May 1945, the day Germany capitulated. Allied merchant ships were sunk with loss of life in the Atlantic on each of those days, and on virtually every day in between. Merchant seafarers found themselves in the front lines of the war at sea. Many ships were torpedoed or bombed; survivors sometimes spent days or weeks in lifeboats before being rescued. More than 130 New Zealand merchant seafarers lost their lives, and around 140 were taken prisoner. Internationally, around 80,000 merchant seamen lost their lives in the Battle of the Atlantic.
Today was no Anzac Day revival service. There were no young people at the service day wearing their grandfather’s medals, just old sailors remembering those who were lost.
No other group of New Zealand civilians faced such risks during war time yet are so little recognised for their contribution.
That’s why, on a day when there was an exciting political announcement in Auckland, I chose to go there instead. I’m glad I did.