The first sinking of a British ship during World War II occurred just a few hours after Britain and France declared war on Germany.
The liner SS Athenia was torpedoed on 3 September 1939, resulting in the loss of nearly 120 people. A further 981 were rescued, with many taken to Galway and tended to by, among others, the Society’s chaplain there.
“I know that you will carry out your duties with resolution and with fortitude, and that the high chivalrous traditions of your calling are in safe hands. God keep you and prosper you in your great task.” - King George VI, Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets sent a message in Chart & Compass to all men serving under the Red Ensign.
Some 41 ships hit by enemy action were cared for at the Society’s stations in 1939 and at the height of the war, the Society funded a sea ambulance to help injured seafarers.
A famous victim of the submarine warfare was HMS Ark Royal, the first ship in history designed and built as a seaplane carrier. It was sunk off Gibraltar in 1941, with survivors cared for at one of the Society’s rests.
War, and the vast number of seafarers needing support, put a huge strain on the Society’s coffers.
The public responded generously to the need and donations began to increase. The recently completed Jellicoe Memorial Sailors’ Hostel in Southampton was overflowing and a nearby house was taken over to help cope, with more centres set up around the UK where sailors could convalesce.
As a result of the aerial bombardment, a great deal of damage was caused to the charity’s buildings, but it continued to add to its portfolio of rests. On 3 October 1944, Princess Elizabeth performed her first solo opening ceremony at the Society’s new Sailors’ Home in Aberdeen, signaling the beginning of Her Majesty’s longstanding connection with the charity.
“Don’t forget the men who serve the sea, serve us.” John Mills
On 5 November 1955, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II unveiled a memorial at Tower Hill to the 24,000 men of the Merchant Navy and fishing fleets who lost their lives during World War II.
We also had support from acting royalty – In 1956, with an estimated 156,000 Merchant Navy men sailing under the British flag, John Mills made a televised appeal to help the charity raise £150,000.
In 1960, the Society provided some young lads down on their luck with welfare. The Beatles were far from home in Hamburg when they came across the Society at the seafarers’ centre and recognised it as the same charity that helped seafarers in their native Liverpool. According to legend, the band even composed some songs on the centre’s piano.
The early 1960s were a period of expansion for Sailors’ Society, with the opening of the first new seafarers’ club in New Zealand for a quarter of a century, followed by a club at Aden and one in Tema, Ghana.
Towards the end of the decade, the charity celebrated its 150th anniversary with a special service at Westminster Abbey attended by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.