Remembering our merchant mariners

Merchant seamen in training

On this Merchant Navy Day we reflect on the significant role merchant mariners have played in wartime. Observed annually on 3 September, the day was chosen due to it being the anniversary of the first attack on an Allied merchant ship during the Second World War.

In 1939, just hours after Britain declared war on Germany, the German submarine U-30 attacked the British liner SS Athenia without warning. The torpedo attack led to the sinking of the ship the following day, resulting in the loss of over 110 crew and passengers out of the 1400 people on board.

Merchant navy crews have faced numerous dangers and carried out their duties under extremely challenging conditions. During the First and Second World Wars and Vietnam War, merchant ships and their civilian crews were responsible for transporting service personnel, supplies, and equipment. In some cases, merchant ships were also converted into hospital ships to provide crucial medical services.

While some merchant ships were equipped with limited defensive capabilities during the Second World War, most remained unarmed. This left them vulnerable to attacks from enemy submarines, surface raiders, aircraft, and sea mines, both in foreign waters and closer to Australian shores.

The Battle of the Atlantic, which lasted almost the entire duration of the Second World War, is a poignant example of the dangers faced by merchant mariners. During this battle, fought across one of the war's most dangerous shipping lanes, over 3,500 Allied merchant ships and 175 warships were sunk, resulting in the loss of over 72,000 Allied naval and merchant mariners.

While the exact number of Australians who served or died during wartime service in the merchant navy remains unknown, it is estimated that around 1,000 Australian merchant mariners lost their lives during the two World Wars.  

Today, we honour their memory and that of their fellow mariners for their selfless service. For more information visit the Anzac Portal