Merchant Navy deaths

This is part of an ongoing series of posts on trying to draw a graph showing British service and civilian losses in the Second World War.

Some of the hardest casualty figures to get hold of are those relating to the Merchant Navy. As I’ve described before, the Royal Navy doesn’t seem to have kept a running total of the dead and wounded in the way the RAF did: probably because it the number and class of ships sunk that was most important in terms of whether it could sustain its war effort. For the Merchant Navy, that was also a consideration, but the situation was further complicated by the range of different ships and different seamen, of different nationalities, who saw action. Three knowledgeable maritime historians whose judgements I trust have told me that they think there’s no way to get hold of detailed month by month figures for the Merchant Navy. So how to get round this if you believe, as I do, that Britain’s ability to access resources from around the globe needs to be written into the ‘grand narrative’ of the Second World War, and you want to include Merchant Navy losses in the graph of wartime deaths?

What I’ve done is to fix an answer that is imperfect, but should give a graphical indication of when the MN’s losses were suffered. The month by month figures for the tonnage of British, Allied and Neutral Shipping sunk by enemy action are available in the appendices of Roskill’s Official History of the War at Sea (3 vols, London, HMSO, 1954-1961) and a graph of these is easy to produce.


This graph shows a story which is familiar – the see saw sway of the Battle of the Atlantic until the end of spring 1943, followed by a much easier time for Allied shipping. I think it’s reasonable to presume that, after the Germans adopted unrestricted warfare against merchant ships, the figures for tonnage lost will bear some relation to casualties. That relationship will be complicated, however, by the proportion of sailors to ships (I don’t have much nautical knowledge, but my understanding is that there wouldn’t be a directly proportional relationship between tonnage and crew).

Whilst month by month figures for the MN aren’t available, it is possible to search the Commonwealth War Graves Commission list of dead by year. The total figure this gives is around 28,000, which is rather below other estimates, but the advantage of these figures is that they at least allow another level of breakdown. So what I have done is to divide the yearly CWGC figure for dead by the annual figure for tonnage lost, and then multiply that by the tonnage lost in any particular month to come up with a visual representation of the probable casualties in that month. I have also indulged in a slight bodge at the beginning of the war, when most German units allowed crews to escape before destroying their vessels. I therefore fixed my calculations to give more casualty weight to tonnage sunk towards the end of 1939 than to that at the beginning.

The graph produced looks like this:


Interestingly, this approach, whilst it keeps the two ‘humps’ of the tonnage graph, puts more emphasis on the first, reflecting the fact that although more and heavier ships were sunk in 1942-3, the cost in lives per ton was higher earlier in the war. It could be argued, therefore, that graphing casualties is not an effective way of representing the Merchant Navy’s war, although I think it’s still valid for my overall project, since it provides a useful comparison to the progress of the military, aerial, naval and civilian wars.

I’d be very interested to here comments on whether readers think this is a valid approach – bear in mind that I will find a way to ‘show the working’, and make it clear that this is an approximation.


10 Responses to Merchant Navy deaths

  1. […] which is very interesting. He has two post, the first is on Navy dead and the second is on Merchant Navy […]

  2. Bernard de Neumann says:

    A major problem with Merchant Navy death/casualty statistics is that quite a number survived the initiating sinking, to then be shipped about the oceans as Distressed British Seamen (DBS). If the vessel they were aboard as DBS was sunk, these seafarers were considered “passengers” for statistical purposes if they were not working their passage. Their deaths did not then show up in the MN death ststistics. Others died at home after being injured at sea, and these deaths were discounted too as “merchant seamen” had to be at sea to count in the statistics.

    I know something of the problems involved as I have tried to gather ststistics on world-wide losses at sea during WW2.

    Prof Bernard de Neumann

  3. trenchfever says:

    Thanks Bernard – I guess there are similar problems for all merchant navies, but I’d be interested to find out how British figures compare.

  4. Bernard de Neumann says:

    The figures for Mercant Navy Casualties that Slader (Red Duster at War” collected are:

    United Kingdom 31,908
    Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (Royal Navy) 2,713
    Maritime Regiment, Royal Artillery 1,222

    United States 5,662
    United States Navy Armed Guard 1,640

    Canada 1,629 (-2)
    South Africa 182
    Australia 109
    New Zealand 72
    Norway 4,795
    Greece 2,000
    Holland 1,914
    Denmark 1,886
    Belgium 893
    Free French
    Soviet Union

    Neutral Countries 6,500
    (Ireland) (149)

    TOTAL 62,033

    1. DEMS gunners includes those from Empire countries.
    2. UK seamen include Lascars, Chinese, Arabs and miscellaneous nationalities, such as those from Empire countries and those from Europe serving on British-flag merchantmen.

    These are a mixture of official and estimates, and are incomplete, so I decided to extend the data as best I could. I have a working paper on the subject, which I will send to trenchfever off-blog.

    The numbers of British Seamen lost that I have calculated, is larger than the official figure, and is: 36,126, and this does not include lost DBS.

    BRITISH LOSSES 1939 – 1945

    2,524 British Merchant vessels were sunk by enemy action
    29 British Merchant vessels foundered by other causes
    912 British Merchant vessels were damaged by enemy action
    1359 British Merchant vessels were sunk by U-boats
    118 British Merchant vessels were sunk by enemy raiders
    291 British Merchant vessels were sunk by mines
    477 British Merchant vessels were sunk by enemy aircraft
    76 British Merchant vessels were sunk by E-boats
    89 British Merchant vessels were sunk by other enemy action
    30,248 British Merchant Seafarers were killed
    4,654 British Merchant Seafarers were considered missing
    4,707 British Merchant Seafarers were wounded
    5,720 British Merchant Seafarers became Prisoners of War

    A total of 45,320 Merchant Personnel — over twenty-eight percent losses — a far greater rate than any of the “Armed” Services.

  5. Bernard de Neumann says:

    Gunners who were carried on merchant ships during WW2 were tachnically in the Merchant Navy as they had to sign Sips’ Agreements which made them liable to the command of the Master. Some companies, I believe, employed their own gunners, but mainly they were drawan from the RN, or RA. These “miliray” gunners received a derisory salary from the ships’ owners, typically one shilling a week, and received most of their pay from either the RN, or RA, depending on their background.

    In neutral ports, these “military” gunners were not permitted to wear their uniforms, and had to pretend to be regular MN personnel.

    In my opinion, therefore, casualties from this group, who shared all the dangers their shipmates were subjected to, should appear amongst MN casualties.

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  7. Rodrigo says:

    I am actually grateful to the owner of this web page who has
    shared this fantastic article at at this place.

    • One has found two MN Seafares on leave in Bristol 1941,and were Killed In Air raids.
      G F Goiuld 03=0101941 Alfred Townsend 16=03=1941.,is there a listing of others.
      They are on the C W W Graves as cilviliand dead but registerd as MERCHANT SEAMEN.

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  9. Hello, its nice post about media print, we all understand media is a great source of data.

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