The 'Red Duster'
A once fine institution - a fleet of vessels that kept the British Empire and the motherland itself fed and watered in both peace and war. The MN once the largest merchant fleet in the World moved over half of its tonnage in trade. Formerly the Merchant Service, the title was changed to that used today by royal proclamation following its sterling service during WW1.
At the outbreak of WW2 the seagoing personnel of the British Merchant Navy combined with Australia and New Zealand totalled approx 120,000 of all ranks. At wars end 43,582 were finally listed as killed/missing at sea. This represented the highest death rate of any armed service. There were no non-combatant duties in the MN - all crews were on virtual front line service when at sea – and in port in war zones. In all actions Merchant Ships were the enemy’s principal targets whether Transports, Tankers, or Troopships.
Vast convoys crossing the Atlantic took severe maulings regularly, at one point losing over 1600 ships in 1942 alone. That's nearly 8 million tons of supplies and kit!
Merchant Seamen were once notorious for their ability to imbibe vast quantities of grog, sire limitless amounts of children and still manage to get up for their watch on time. These days however you are more likely to find an Officer on the bridge sipping some sort of hippy tea which is, of course, merely a cover for their heavy drinking adulterous antics.
It's worth noting that unlike their Royal Navy counterparts, time spent bobbing around in the briny in a freezing lifeboat and covered in fuel oil was (and still is) not accountable, pay stopping once the ship had been lost. Now there's gratitude. Merchant Navy Officers/Seamen are often confused with Royal Navy Officers/Seamen by the general public. This is due to the fact that 95% of the general public don't know that the Merchant Navy exists. God knows where they think all those shiny things in Tesco come from.
Since 2000 the 3rd of September has been allocated as 'Merchant Navy Day'. Until recently successive British Governments failed to give the Merchant Navy official recognition for services given and refused to let them turn out at the Cenotaph service on Remembrance Sunday.
Today's Merchant Navy is a shadow of its former self, reduced to a mere three oil tankers and a pedalo used for training potential sea dogs in a boating lake in Plymouth.