“Not there as conscripts but volunteers free, the men and the boys of the Merchant Navy,
Faced bombs and torpedoes and treacherous mines as well as the hazards of more peaceful times,
A third of them perished – that’s one man in three. At least thirty thousand are buried at sea.”
Harry Bennett, from Swanage, joined the Merchant Navy in 1942 at the age of 15, and was awarded five medals for his service during the war. He wrote these words in his poem, How It Got There, as a reminder of the lifeline he and his fellow merchant seafarers provided to both troops and civilians in the Second World War.
Harry died on Armistice Day, 2014. He and his wife Peggy supported Sailors’ Society for more than 30 years, and we displayed How it Got There at the Merchant Navy Day commemoration service in London on Sunday.
The British merchant navy – which when the Second World War broke out was the largest in the world – made sure crucial supplies were delivered to the front line.
With the UK heavily dependent on food imports, merchant seafarers also played a vital role in keeping the country running, despite the extreme dangers they faced as a target for German torpedoes trying to cut off Britain’s supply lines.
The Battle of the Atlantic was the most significant Merchant Navy campaign of the war. The British merchant fleet, escorted by warships, brought military equipment and supplies across the Atlantic to Great Britain and the Soviet Union and came under heavy attack by German U-boats and warships.
Almost 30,250 British merchant seamen were killed during the war, a death rate that was higher proportionately than in any of the armed forces, with the last merchant ship – the SS Avondale Park – sunk in the final hour of the Second World War in Europe.
Harry served in the Atlantic, the Bay of Bengal and the Mediterranean, receiving the War Medal, the 1939-45 Star, the Atlantic Star, the Burma Star and the Italy Star for his service.
Sailors’ Society displayed How it Got There alongside the Sea of Remembrance – hundreds of messages of remembrance and gratitude for the unsung heroes of the Merchant Navy, written on the backs of Red Ensign flags and planted in the sunken gardens at Trinity House in London.
Sailors’ Society’s Director of Development, Adam Stacey, said: “Harry was no more than a schoolboy when he joined the Merchant Navy, despite the huge risk.
“We want to mark his bravery and that of other merchant seafarers, both during the war and today, as they face continued challenges including violent storms, extreme loneliness, the threat of piracy and even hijacking by terrorists.”
Sailors’ Society staff are holding a Signal Your Support dress down day and Bake Off later this month, raising money to mark World Maritime Day.
You can join us and give something back to seafarers and their families worldwide, by holding your own Signal Your Support day, dressing in your ensign flag colours and donating to Sailors’ Society.
Be creative – dress down, hold a bake sale, run a raffle, have a collection – and let us know what you’re doing by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.