Highest Casualty Rate in British Empire


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

author’s research

Classic Cars at the Bottom of the Sea

Very cool piece from the London Daily Mail



Loaded on the ship were a wide range of military vehicles which were being transported by the ship from Glasgow to Alexandria, Egypt.

(photo courtesy of London Daily Mail)


Treasure trove of classic cars at the bottom of the sea: The British Merchant Navy ship carrying military vehicles that was sunk in the Red Sea during the Second World War

from London Daily Mail  of 23 May 2014

by Leon Watson



  • British Merchant Navy ship the SS Thistlegorm sank after it was bombed in 1941
  • The 128-metre-long vessel has lain 30m beneath the Red Sea for 73 years 
  • Still contained within the rusting cargo hold are a wide range of military vehicles
  • They were being transported by the ship from Glasgow to Alexandria, Egypt 


Motorbikes inside the hold of the SS Thistlegorm, a British Merchant Navy ship that sank after it was bombed by two German planes in 1941.

(photo courtesy of London Daily Mail)

There are more photographs of the sunken ship and cargo and a cool video at the Daily Mail link here:





 British Merchant Navy SS Thistlegorm 100 feet down on the bottom of the Red Sea.

By this time in the war, almost all British merchant ships were armed to defend against air attack, German raiders or surfaced U-Boats. These were known as DEMS (defensively equipped merchant ship). The guns were manned by several Royal Navy sailors and merchant sailors who had been trained to operate the gun.

(photo by Albert Kok2 courtesy of Wikipedia)


Trucks in the hold of SS Thistlegorm

(photo by Albert Kok2 courtesy of Wikipedia)

the wikipedia link is here:


Below is a cool site by a British diver who researched the wreck in detail and took many photographs and videos of the wreck of the SS Thistlegorm.



Flugzeug Heinkel He 111

3 September 1939 HE 111 dropping bombs during the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany

(photo from German National Archive)

As referenced, the ship was sunk in the Red Sea by two bombs from a German Heinkel He 111. This twin engine medium bomber was effective but was vulnerable to high performance fighters such as the RAF Spitfire because the Heinkel was slow (273 mph/440 km/h). It was originally developed as a “passenger plane” by the Luftwaffe in the early 1930s and the its speed in those years was considered fast but airciraft performance and speed increased dramatically as newer designs came into service in the later 1930s.

If you have an interest in diving on the wreck there is a link about that here: