The “Red Ensign” was the flag flown by the British Merchant Navy. The Royal Navy flew the “White Ensign”
(photo courtesy of the National Archives of the United Kingdom)
19% of officers and ratings of the British Merchant Navy died in World War Two as the result of hostile action–a far higher percentage than any branches of the British and Commonwealth Forces.
The actual number who died is 25,864 men. Not of these men weren’t actually British sailors. Many were from neutral countries such as Sweden, who volunteered to sail on Swedish ships chartered to the British Ministry of War Transport. Others were Portuguese, also neutral.
840 ships from foreign nations who were belligerents against Germany including Norway, the Netherlands and Greece placed themselves under charter to the British although the Germans offered them large sums to come back to their own countries. The men refused.
British sailor covered in oil from a tanker torpedoed in 1943
(photo courtesy of IWM)
Ships not specifically built or purchased by the British Ministry of War Transport were insured by the Ministry since obviously no maritime insurance company could take the risk of insuring merchant ships in a war.
Three Lascars of the P&O liner Viceroy of India, standing behind the wheel of one of the ship’s tenders. National Maritime Museum from Greenwich, United Kingdom.
A large number of men who crewed British merchant ships were Lascars, men native to the Indian subcontinent. They were paid far less than white British sailors and signed a more restrictive set of articles as they were known before signing on.
A number of British owned ships were crewed entirely by Lascars except for the officers or mates who were white or “European” as they were known. On these ships officers were required the predominant language of the crew such as Hindi and speak it fluently since all orders were given in the language of the crew.
Despite the carnage, well known to the merchant officers and sailors, not one Allied merchant ship ever failed to find a crew and put to sea. Yes, there were delays as some men balked and said “hell no.” Nonetheless, officers and crewmen were always found who manned the ships.
They were brave men.
Survivors of two merchant ships crowd the decks of a rescue trawler at St. John’s, Newfoundland, April 1943.
(photo courtesy of National Library of Canada)
source: Churchill’s Navy