Merchant Navy Day 3 September
Australia has always been dependent on shipping for trade, freight movements, transport and tourism. As such, Australians have served on board merchant ships for hundreds of years. In times of peace, as well as in the difficult and dangerous times of war. On Merchant Navy Day, we thank merchant mariners for their service.
Significance of 3 September
We commemorate Merchant Navy Day each year on 3 September. This is the anniversary of the first attack on an Allied merchant ship in World War II, only hours after Britain declared war on Germany in 1939.
Without warning, the German submarine U-30 torpedoed British liner SS Athenia, and the ship sank the next day. Of more than 1400 people on board Athenia, over 110 crew and passengers died in the torpedo attack or during later rescue efforts.
Merchant mariners in wartime
On this day, we reflect on the crucial roles merchant mariners have played during wartime.
Merchant navy crews often faced many dangers and carried out their duties under very difficult conditions.
During the World Wars and the Vietnam War, merchant ships and their civilian crew transported service personnel, supplies and equipment. Some merchant ships were also converted into hospital ships for vital wartime medical service.
In World War II, some merchant ships were refitted with limited defensive capabilities. For the most part, though, vessels in the merchant navy were often unarmed during wartime. This exposed them to enemy attacks in foreign waters and closer to Australian shores.
Merchant mariners worked with the constant threat of attack from enemy submarines, surface raiders, aircraft and sea mines. Their work was especially dangerous when their ship was part of a slow convoy or travelling alone and unprotected.
The Battle of the Atlantic is a well-known battle involving merchant mariners. It lasted almost the entire duration of World War II. The battle was fought across one of the war's most dangerous shipping lanes. Some 3,500 Allied merchant ships and 175 warships were sunk, and over 72,000 Allied naval and merchant mariners were lost.
Commemorating wartime service
We will never know the exact number of Australians who served or died during wartime service in the merchant navy. Estimated figures change as more research is done. However, around 1,000 Australian merchant mariners are known to have died serving the Allied cause during the two World Wars.
The Merchant Navy Memorial on the edge of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra commemorates the contribution made by the Australian merchant navy during the World Wars.