“Voiceless, lightless, crowded passage to strange secret points” – a meditation on the Merchant Navy, for Remembrance Day

This is late – the moment has almost certainly passed – but for whatever reason, I feel compelled not to leave it till next Remembrance Day. So, readers…please meet my grandfather William (Bill) Thompson (left) and my grandpa Dean MacKay (right) – shown here with my beautiful grandmothers Eileen and Jean, respectively. In a fun coincidence, both Bill and Dean served as radio officers (“Sparks”) in the Canadian Merchant Navy during the Second World War. I have complicated, ambiguous feelings about Remembrance Day, but I loved my grandfathers, and I’m proud of them, and I think it’s unfair that their service was not recognized in any official way while they were alive.
So I wrote about it.


Wait, what? Canada has a Merchant Navy?

Yep. Yep, we do – or we did. About 12,000 Canadians served in this “fourth arm of the Canadian fighting forces”, making more than 25,000 voyages across both the Atlantic and the Pacific between 1940 and 1945. Over 1,600 of the 12,000 died in the war – which gives the Merchant Navy the dubious distinction of having a higher mortality rate (proportionally speaking) in WWII than any other branch of the Canadian armed services – army, navy, or air force.

(Note: Bill and Dean did NOT die in the War, thank goodness. They were lucky.)

But – here’s the messed up part: the names of merchant seamen who perished did not appear on official casualty lists. The Canadian government did not formally recognize surviving merchant mariners as Veterans until 1992, and it wasn’t until 2000 that they were declared eligible for benefits, rehabilitation programs and financial aid for their dependents.

Unfortunately, Bill passed away from colon cancer in 1986 and Dean died of a heart attack in the summer of 2000, so neither of them lived to see their service finally acknowledged.

In 2001, when I was a baby historian-in-training at McGill, I took a course on the Second World War, and I did my final essay on the Merchant Navy. I have fully cannibalized that paper for this post. I’m honestly not sure what possessed me to dig it up and share it like this, almost 20 years later, but it feels important, so.


Here’s a story about the Canadian Merchant Navy in the Second World War.


The Merchant Navy was important because…?

Well, if we’re talking about the war in Europe for starters, it’s important because Britain is an island. An island that, throughout WWII, was essentially under siege, with its supply lines to Europe cut off and those to North America constantly under threat from German U-Boats, mines, aircraft, E-Boats and surface raiders. The six-year struggle to get vital materials and personnel moving across the ocean was known as the Battle of the Atlantic. Sir Winston Churchill called it “the dominating factor all through the war (…); everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea, or in the air, depended ultimately on its outcome.”

That’s saying a lot.

Yes, but here’s an illustrative example: early in 1943, somewhere in the North Atlantic, 44 German U-Boats attacked three East-bound convoys of 125 merchant ships. In the ensuing battle 22 of the ships were sunk, against the loss of only one U-Boat. Here’s what just one 10,000-ton freighter could carry:

  • two bomber aircraft on its decks (with their wings in packing cases)
  • building materials for 640 fighter aircraft
  • 1000 tons of bombs
  • vehicles to transport an entire infantry battalion
  • 2150 tons of vital metals
  • lumber to build 90 huts
  • 2850 tons of food (enough to feed 225,000 people in Britain for a week)

Multiply that by 22, all of it consigned to the bottom of the sea in a relatively common sort of skirmish.

The Allies’ main strategy for mitigating these losses was the use of the convoy system. Merchant ships travelled in groups with a naval escort; this meant that the enemy had only one possible point of attack, and the defender only one point to defend (as opposed to multiple points if ships sailed independently).  It became therefore more difficult for submarines to locate and intercept their targets. Even if they succeeded in this, they still had to either overpower or elude the convoy’s escort. An additional deterrent was the fact that the merchant ships themselves were also armed – in a very basic way – and prepared to put up a fight. They were not often able to actually destroy submarines or aircraft, but the hope was that they would prevent some losses either by driving off attacks or by  simply posing an unacceptable risk  to U-Boat commanders.

Why didn’t the British build their own merchant navy?

They had already committed their shipyards to producing new naval vessels; also, they just couldn’t keep up with building new merchant ships to replace those that were being destroyed every day.  In 1940 Britain therefore turned to Canadian and American shipyards for help.  After an initial British order for 26 10,000-ton dry cargo vessels, the Canadian government also ordered 28 10,000-ton and five 4,700-ton vessels of its own.  In 1942 the Park Steamship Company was set up as a Crown corporation to administer this new fleet.

What were the ships like?

They were mostly 10,000-ton freighters and tankers…with added “stiffening” (adjusting of the ship’s hull to make it more resistant to the impact of explosives) and defensive weaponry. By mid-1942 the armaments were incorporated into the design of the vessels, which were henceforth known as Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS).

Their main armaments consisted of large naval guns suitable only for surface engagements (not used against U-Boats or aircraft), which required a crew complement of seven to man them. Then there were anti-aircraft weapons,  mostly automatic; they had a shorter range than the larger guns but could fire more rounds per minute. There were also other specialized weapons designed to counter low-level bombing and strafing attacks, but they were all rocket propelled and tended to be more frightening to the person firing them than they were to their targets.  Finally, there was other equipment such as ammunition magazines, depth charges, and Admiralty Nets (designed to stop torpedoes).

All of these were generally staffed by Navy gunners who were assigned to merchant ships in varying numbers depending on the level of threat in the area being sailed; on a 10,000-ton Park ship they usually numbered 8-10 and were assisted by designated members of the merchant crew.

If that sounds like a really frighteningly small and ineffective number of people and guns to protect a 10,000-ton freighter from U-Boats and enemy aircraft and who knows what else…that’s because it was. Yikes.

The merchant crew, then: who were they?

They were people of all ages, from all over Canada and from all walks of life.  They joined the Merchant Navy because they were too young or too old for the army, or because the army had refused them on grounds of some minor physical fault. The enlistment requirements of the Merchant Navy were not so stringent; if  you were of reasonably sound mind and body and if your eyesight was good, that was enough.

My grandpa Dean, for instance, had previously enlisted in the army, but he got really sick shortly after completing basic training – probably as a result of salmonella transmitted through army food.  He developed Reiter Syndrome (a type of arthritis triggered by a bacterial infection in the body), and was told he might never walk again. He was stubborn and determined though, and only a year later he had recovered enough to enlist in the Merchant Navy for what would be the final 9 months of the war.

Many who had been sailors on “civvy street” simply continued in the Merchant Navy because it was the job they were best at. Others joined because they wanted to “do their bit” for the war effort but did not see themselves as soldiers. I have a vague idea that my grandfather Bill may have been in this category, but it’s based on unreliable memories of things my grandmother said when I was a child (after he had already passed away). But it would have been a moot point, back in 1939-40; if he had tried to enlist in the army, it’s likely he would have been turned away for health reasons, because his heart had been damaged in childhood by a bad bout of rheumatic fever.

How were they trained?

Ordinary Seamen-to-be went to St. Margaret’s Sea Training School at St. Margaret’s Bay, Hubbards, Nova Scotia.  There they followed a 13-week program which consisted of  classroom instruction in elementary navigation, mathematics, English and meteorology, supplemented by practical training in the necessary skills of ship-handling such as rope handling, knots, signals, the use of  a compass, helmsman skills and the identification of  the different ship’s bells. Upon graduation the new Able or Ordinary Seamen also had to attend a two-day course on weapons firing at the DEMS school in Halifax.

Seamen destined for the engine room went to the Marine Engineering Instructional School near Kingston, Ontario for a 6-week program similarly split between classroom instruction on engine-room machinery, terminology, engine and boiler theory and practical training in the engine-room of an old ferry called the Joseph Dubrule.

Radio Officers, or Wireless Telegraph operators (or, more familiarly, “Sparks”) trained at privately owned commercial radio schools, such as those run by Marconi, the big electronics company.  The government promised to refund their tuition fees if they undertook to serve at sea for at least two years after they finished their training.

As mentioned above, both of my grandfathers were radio officers, and both served in the Pacific. They didn’t know each other at the time, though; they trained in different places, and never ended up on the same ship.

What was it like out on the ships?

I never got a chance to ask my grandfathers about their war experience. They didn’t talk about it casually, and they both passed away before I was old enough to ask the right questions.  However, according to surviving first person accounts, the ordinary merchant sailor’s daily routine consisted mostly of keeping watch (rotating in shifts of four hours “on” and eight “off”) and taking care of the ship: cleaning the decks and crew quarters, chipping and scraping the ever-present rust, repainting acres of steel and sometimes participating in the gun drills run by the DEMS ratings on board. Gerald Morgan, a former Master Mariner, described the life as follows in his introduction to Frederick Watt’s In All Respects Ready: The Merchant Navy & the Battle of the Atlantic, 1940-45:

The sailor(…) must endure his ship’s crawling on imposed course in a drab huddle of strangers.  All the while there is the suspense of waiting to see which vessel will be the next to burst into flame or a soaring cloud of debris, leaving a gap in the ranks of floating steel.  In convoy the active sea-rover must bind himself on voiceless, lightless, crowded passage to strange secret points.  He must bear a strained passivity, week after week, entirely dependent on the competence of a thin escort.

It sounds like a very particular kind of claustrophobic torture.

The tension was exacerbated by the fact that merchant crews operated under an almost complete information blackout.  Rumour and hearsay abounded but only the officers and the captain knew where the ship was headed, whether U-Boats had been sighted in that part of the ocean and so on.  During the crossings the ships observed blackout conditions at night and it was often necessary to maintain strict radio silence, communicating instead by foghorn or Aldis lamp signals which were difficult to decipher and never very informative.  Convoys were also often scattered by thick fog which caused 10,000-ton ships to lose sight of one another.

If the convoy came under attack, all it took was one or two torpedo hits, and – if they survived – the crew would find themselves going over the side in lifeboats to escape their burning or sinking ship for the dubious safety of the notoriously rough North Atlantic seas. The rest of the convoy could not stop to pick them up because this meant slowing down and thus providing an easy target for attackers – all they could do was radio to the nearest friendly port and ask that a rescue vessel be sent out to gather up the survivors. However, in battles with U-Boats that took place at night (which was often the case), merchant seamen could not always even be sure which ships in their convoy had been hit until the sun rose the next morning.


Did the convoy system work? Did the Merchant Navy make a difference in the progress of the war?

In the course of the Second World War, approximately 43,445 Allied merchant ships crossed the Atlantic in 1102 convoys.  To a large extent, the convoy stem did work; of the 2,775 Allied ships which were sunk during the war, only 574 were lost in convoy (the rest had been sailing independently). The supply lines to Britain were preserved; the importance of which for the Allied war effort cannot be overestimated.  If the merchant navies and their escorts had not kept those ships moving across the Atlantic, the buildup of troops and material in Britain for Operation Overlord (the invasion of Europe that started with D-Day in 1944) would have been delayed or even perhaps prevented altogether. And if there had been no invasion of Europe, the outcome of the war would almost certainly have been different for the Allies.


So why didn’t the Canadian government consider Merchant Navy seamen to be “real” veterans?


This is part of the story that I didn’t know when I wrote my paper in 2001. If it was in the books and articles I read, I didn’t understand or internalize it at the time…but I would not be surprised if it wasn’t there at all. It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t fit well with the mainstream patriotic narrative about Canada’s war effort and the (relative) prosperity that followed.


According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the federal government refused to offer surviving Merchant Navy seamen the pension, benefits, tuition credits, training for new jobs etc. that veterans of other branches of the armed forces were receiving, because it was feared that too many skilled sailors would leave the industry if offered other options, and Canada would no longer be able to maintain a merchant marine.

By in the early 1950s, however, the Liberal government headed by Louis St. Laurent had lost whatever interest it had in the merchant marine, and the fleet was sold off at rock-bottom prices.  The Canadian Seamen’s Union objected to this and initiated a world-wide strike, supported by thousands of longshoremen and dock workers around the globe, who collectively tied up 60% of world shipping by refusing to load or unload cargo vessels. This was apparently the largest international strike of the 20th century – who knew?!

The government retaliated by labelling CSU members as Communists – which, of course, some of them absolutely were, but from the government’s perspective, the goal was to stir up an early Cold War “Red Scare” panic to discredit the union as a whole.

THEN, apparently, things escalated.

With the government’s support, shipping companies and anti-Communist labour leaders asked American mobster Hal Banks and his Seafarer’s International Union (SIU) to come to Canada to break up the CSU. This action resulted in one of the most vicious episodes of labour unrest in Canadian history.”

mobster. Imported from the States. Seriously? Where is the CBC movie about this?! Or at the very least the Heritage Minute?!

“Through a combination of intimidation, blackmail and secret agreements with shipping companies, Banks and his henchmen quickly destroyed the CSU. But by 1959 his bullying tactics had gone too far and turned his former allies against him. Consequently, the SIU was suspended from the Canadian Labour Congress, while a 1962-63 government inquiry discovered a history of gangsterism in the SIU and placed in it trusteeship. But by then it was too late. A combination of union confrontations, rising costs and offshore competition led to the merchant marine’s demise. Despite the fact that Canada is bordered on three sides by oceans and has the longest coastline in the world, today not a single ocean-going merchant vessel flies the Canadian flag.”

I sense that the author of this Canadian Encylopedia article has, as the kids say, a lot of feelings about the fate of the Merchant Marine. That’s okay though, because I do too, especially when I think about the fact that when Dean MacKay and Bill Thompson (and so many others) came home in 1945, there was no pension waiting. No job program, no educational tuition credits, no real recognition at all.

For the record, Bill and Dean managed just fine. They came home more or less healthy, reconnected with their loving wives, found jobs, raised children. I don’t know how they felt about their lack of veteran status, but I don’t think either of them dwelt on it. They just went ahead and lived their lives.


They were both gone by the time I came round to writing that history paper at McGill. My grandpa Dean had just passed away the previous summer, and I remember my aunt telling us about a dream she had, very shortly after his death. In the dream, she was back in their family home on Eagle Ridge Drive, walking through the rooms one by one, finding everything just as she remembered if from childhood…and in every room, she felt certain that Dean (her father) had just stepped out – that if she walked just a bit faster, turned a corner at the right moment, she would see him again.


Working on the Merchant Navy essay felt like that. I searched for Bill and Dean in all the books and articles I could find, even though I knew it was extremely unlikely that they would be mentioned by name. I hoped against hope that I might come across their faces in archival photos. I imagined them in the situations that other sailors described in first-person accounts. At every turn, I regretted not having gotten them talking about their experiences before it was too late. (Although I have to cut myself some slack for being only 10 when my grandfather Bill passed away. It’s really my grandpa Dean – who loved history too; it was a big thing we had in common, and I was one year into my BA in History when he died – that I wish I had found a way to share this with.)


Coming back to it now, almost 20 years later, the connection feels even more tenuous, stretched thin by the passage of time. And that’s okay; that’s just what happens. But I saw so many friends posting about their grandparents and other relatives on Remembrance Day, and I thought nobody ever posts about the Merchant Navy. And, although I have complicated feelings about invented traditions and how patriotic “memory theatre” can distract us from engaging with important questions (like are we doing enough to support active service members and veterans, in really concrete, day-to-day ways? and are the wars we send them to truly just and necessary?) …there is no question in my mind that courage and sacrifice should be remembered.