Since earliest times of maritime commerce, the Merchant Navy has been integral during times of war. Until the latter part of the 14th century the monarch, by impressment or contract raised ships during conflict. Previously, no Royal Navy as we know it existed (1)
The title “Merchant Navy” was bestowed by decree of the late King George V in recognition and appreciation of loyal and heroic duties performed during WW1.
During WW1 and WW2 Merchant Navy (MN) personnel served in all theatres of war. MN manned vessels included; troop and hospital ships, munitions and supply ships, tankers, salvage and rescue ships. The demands of a total war effort requiring the transportation of war materials and food stuffs was always important and at times crucial to the ultimate success of the Allied cause.
So effective and horrific were U boat packs and air attacks on Russian, Atlantic and Malta convoys, MN personnel losses in these war zones were 1 in 5. "But for the Merchant Navy who bring us the food and munitions of war; Britain would be in a parlous state and indeed without them , the Army, Navy and Air Force could not operate."(2)
The roll the MN played in Australia's survival was no less important. Ships attacked and sunk by enemy action on the Eastern coast of Australia alone were 37, including the clearly identifiable hospital ship “Centaur” in May, 1943 off the SE Queensland coast that cost 268 lives. (3)(4) The hazards of the sea, the losses and causalities from submarines, mines, armed raiders in Pacific and Indian oceans and air raids such as on Darwin, only then does the extent that MN personnel were in harm's way become recognized.
WW2 MN losses overall is recorded to be 1 in 10, not including wounded and prisoners of war.
(1) A History of the Merchant Navy...H. Moyse-Bartlett..BA Oxon
(2)Winston Churchill statement…...27 January, 1942.
(3)Red Ensign ….............May, 2003
(4)Commemorative Plaque, Australian Maritime Museum, Sydney