Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – the Merchant Navy

Over 30,000 British Merchant Seamen were killed during the Second World War alone. U-Boats alone sank 11.7 million tons of shipping, 54% of the Merchant Navy’s fleet at the start of the war. More than 2,400 British Merchant ships were sunk.

42 Portsmouth men were killed serving with the Merchant Navy during the Second World War. Although men were killed in the Atlantic, the South Seas, the North Sea and the Mediterranean, the biggest losses were suffered in local waters. On 20 September 1941 the Isle of Wight paddle steamer SS Portsdown hit a mine in the Solent with the loss of seven Portsmouth crewmen. And on 8 May 1941 the tug SS Irishman hit a mine in Langstone Harbour. Two Portsmouth sailors were killed.

Years

1 – 1939 (2.38%)
3 – 1940 (7.14%)
16 – 1941 (38.1%)
12 – 1942 (28.57%)
3 – 1943 (7.14%)
4 – 1944 (9.52%)
3 – 1945 (7.14%)

Most seamen were killed during 1941 and 1942 – particularly during the Battle of the Atlantic. However, 9 of the men killed during 1941 were lost on the SS Irishman and the SS Portsdown in local waters. Its noticeable though that there was a marked decline in merchant seamen deaths after 1942. Given that most merchant seamen were killed by U-Boats, this backs up the conclusion that from 1943 onwards the allies had largely defeated the U-Boat menace. The Luftwaffe was also in less of a position to attack allied shipping, either directly or by minelaying.

Areas

15 – Southsea (35.71%)
4 – North End (9.52%)
3 – Buckland (7.14%)
3 – Eastney (7.14%)
2 – Cosham (4.76%)
2 – Fratton (4.76%)
2 – Stamshaw (4.76%)
1 – Landport (2.38%)
1 – Milton (2.38%)

The origins of 3 men are unknown, and 6 men are listed as ‘from Portsmouth’. Its noticeable that most of the Masters and Chief Officers came from Southsea, and most of the junior seamen came from the working class areas such as North End and Buckland.

Ages

The age of Portsmouth’s WW2 Merchant Seamen is starkly different to the other services:

6 – Teenagers (inc one 16 and one 17 year old) (14.29%)
10 – 20’s (23.81%)
11 – 30’s (26.19%)
7 – 40’s (16.66%)
6 – 50’s (14.29%)
2 – 60’s (4.76%)

Its interesting to note both the relatively high number of men who were either teenagers – 14.29% – or 40 or older – over 30%. There are several explanations for this. Traditionally boys would go to sea young to learn their trade. The large number of older seamen may have been former naval servicemen who had left the Royal Navy for the Merchant Navy. Although most merchant seamen were in their 20’s or 30’s, the merchant fleet’s manpower took far less men from this age group compared to the Army, Navy or RAF.

Ships

Portsmouth’s Merchant Navy sailors who were killed during the war were lost on a variety of different vessels:

15 – General Cargo (35.71%)
7 – Isle of Wight Paddle Steamer (16.66%)
4 – Tanker (9.52%)
4 – Troopship (9.52%)
2 – Tug (4.76%)
1 – Auxilliary Anti-Aircraft Cruiser (2.38%)
1 – Cable Ship (2.38%)
1 – Fleet Auxilliary (2.38%)
1 – Hospital Ship (2.38%)
1 – Motor Launch (2.38%)
1 – Whale Factory Ship (2.38%)

The wonderful Uboat.net tells us much about Merchant Navy vessels lost in the war. The majority of men were killed onboard General Cargo ships, and mostly in the Atlantic by U-Boats. All of the men killed on General Cargo ships were killed on separate ships. Seven men were killed on SS Portsdown. Four men were killed on Tankers carrying fuel. The number of other different ships sunk during the war show the extent to which the Merchant Navy was mobilised by the war effort. Ships were sunk mainly by U-Boats, but several were sunk by air attack or by mines dropped by aircraft in coastal waters. One ship was sunk by German Motor Torpedo Boats in the English Channel. The Hospital Ship SS Amsterdam was sunk by a mine off the D-Day beaches in 1944.

The largest ship was the SS Queen Elizabeth, an 80,000 ton cross-Atlantic liner pressed into service as a troopship. She was not sunk during the war, but one of her crew members from Portsmouth died whilst serving in the Royal Navy. The smallest ship was the 99 ton Tug SS Irishman, mined in Langstone Harbour. These statistics again suggest the huge diversity of the Merchant Navy.

Cemeteries and Memorials

One Seaman is buried in Morrocco. Apart from that, all Portsmouth merchant seamen are either buried in the UK, or were lost at sea and are commemorated on the various memorials – mainly the Merchant Navy Memorial at Tower Hill in London, where 31 men are remembered. One man is remembered on the Naval Auxiliary Service Memorial in Liverpool.

Four men were buried in Kingston Cemetery, and three in Milton Cemetery. One man was buried in Highland Road Cemetery. Most men who were buried ashore either died of illness or injuries while their ship was either in port or close to shore. One man was buried in Falmouth, after his ship was attacked in harbour there by aircraft.

Roles

One of the most characteristic things about the Merchant Navy is the wide range of different roles men performed. Unlike in the regular armed forces, there was no formal rank structure, and seamen’s titles seem to have been based more on the function that they performed than seniority of command:

2 – Able Seamen
1 – Apprentice
1 – Baker
1 – Barkeeper
1 – Boilermaker
1 – Cadet
1 – Chief Engine Room Artificer
1 – Chief Engineer Officer
4 – Chief Officer
1 – Coxswain
2 – Deckhand
1 – Donkeyman
1 – Engine Officer
4 – Fireman
1 – First Radio Officer
1 – Fourth Engineer Officer
1 – Greaser
3 – Master
1 – Mate
2 – Ordinary Seamen
1 – Plateman
1 – Purser
1 – Second Engineer
2 – Second Radio Officer
1 – Stoker
2 – Third Engineer Officer
1 – Third Officer

Some of the interesting ranks include Baker, Barkeeper, Donkeyman, Greaser and Plateman.

3 men were serving as Masters. Elias Barnett, 58 and from Southsea, was the Master of RFA Moorfield. Benjamin Bannister, 48 and from Southsea, was the Master of the Tanker MV Arinia sunk by a mine of Southend in December 1940. And John McCreadie, 42 and from Southsea, was the Master of the SS Denmark, a troopship.

Decorations

Officer of the British Empire (OBE)
Chief Engine Room Artificer William Skinner (SS Southern Empress)

William Skinner’s OBE was announced in the London Gazette on 9 July 1941.

Royal Naval Reserve Decoration (RD)
Chief Officer Sidney Allen (SS Beaver Dale)

Sidney Allen was a former member of the Royal Naval Reserve. The Reserve Decoration was awarded to officers who had served over 15 years with the Royal Naval Reserve.

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15 Comments

Filed under merchant navy, portsmouth heroes, Uncategorized, World War Two

15 responses to “Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – the Merchant Navy

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