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.