Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Unveiling of the Merchant Navy Memorial, Leith

Today a debt was partly paid. The merchant seamen of Scotland were commemorated in bronze and stone in the port of Leith.

Some might argue that this memorial deserves to be on the Clyde rather than the Forth but I’m just glad to see it erected anywhere in Scotland.

In this age of global travel and communications; of inter-continental cargo planes; of offshore flags of convenience; and a complete lack of any sort of manufacturing in this country to export, we forget we are an island and we need ships to survive.

Twice in the last century our country was nearly brought to its knees by U-boats sinking our ships. The fact we survive as a free country isn’t just down to the ‘Few’ of the Battle of Britain. It’s down to the men of the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy who kept the lifeline firm.

In 1920 King George V decreed that the Mercantile Marine became the Merchant Navy. That wasn’t a simple change of name; it reflected the fact that during the Great War the hundreds of shipping companies of Britain formed themselves into convoys and into a navy to save the country.

In 1917 the Admiralty even admitted that they had lost the U-boat war and suggested negotiating with the Germans for an armistice on German terms. Luckily for us the British Government under Lloyd George was made of as stern stuff as the one under Churchill in 1940 and ultimately prevailed to win the war in 1918.

In the Second World War the perils were just as great, if not greater, because the threat posed by the Nazis were much worse than those of the Kaiser.

From the sinking of the SS Athenia on 3rd September 1939 to the loss of two merchantmen in the Firth of Forth on 7th May 1945 the U-boats of Admiral Donitz kept threatening our lifeline. They were the biggest threat to our survival and they fought from the first day of the war in Europe to the very last.

Not only did the Merchant Navy face the torpedoes of the Kreigsmarine and the bombs of the Luftwaffe, they also had to face the sea, a crueller a battlefield than any onshore. From the air attacks whilst replenishing Malta, to helping the Soviets by sailing through the freezing Arctic, and the constant round of long gruelling trips across the North Atlantic they made sure the allied armies, navies and air forces could continue the fight against the fascists.

Throughout all this when their ship was sunk their pay was stopped. The minute they ended up in an oil soaked lifeboat they were unpaid civilians. Once home they were treated with contempt by ignorant civilians for supposedly shirking their duties and not enlisting.

Even if they died there was still added insult. On many war memorials the men of the Merchant Navy are found at the end of the list of names as if they were any less worthy of inclusion of those who served in the armed forces.

In 2010 the British Merchant Navy is a shadow of its former self. The shipyards of the Clyde are almost all gone and so are most of the docks the ships berthed at. Even the ships we do see in British ports are likely to have been built in Asia and registered in the Caribbean.

Today’s ceremony reminds us of the debt we all owe to the brave men of the British Merchant Navy past, present and future who do a vital job few of us would relish, even in peacetime.

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