Introduction

The intent of this narrative is to tell the story of how Australia's Merchant Seamen - masters, officers, engineers, deck, catering, pursering and engineroom crew members -converted from their peacetime tasks to become indispensable members of a crucial component in Australia's war effort from 1939 to the conclusion of post-war tasks in the late 1940s.

The nation's legislation for the conduct of the war made all mariners, though not enlisted into one of the three Armed Services, subject to a range of controls and obligations. They were expected to serve, or continue to serve without question on merchant ships engaged in all manner of war activities, carrying all types of cargoes, frequently highly dangerous, evacuating civilians from threatened areas and transporting Service personnel to, within and from the areas of conflict. Any refusal to do so was punishable.

Australia has used merchant ships to despatch its colonial or national armed forces personnel to war-fighting or peace-keeping operations since 1885, when a New South Wales contingent went to the Soudan. Forces from several colonies were transported to the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902. Post-Federation Australian forces deployed to the Boxer Rebellion 1900-1901 and to the First World War ("The Great War") 1914-1918.

By far, Australia's largest commitment of armed forces was to the Second World War 1939-1945, one in which, besides other menaces, the Japanese threat to Australia itself was very real. Since then, combat operations in Korea, the Malayan Emergency and Vietnam, as well as numerous peacemaking and peacekeeping tasks have engaged the Australian Defence Force.

Merchant shipping has been vital to these commitments, but it was in the "Battle for Australia" period of the Second World War that the nation's merchant mariners collectively served their most extensive and dramatic role. It was a role involving great heroism and sacrifice, to date largely unrecorded, unrecognised and unsung.

While not overlooking the fact that many Australian merchant seamen served, and sacrificed, in ships of our wartime allies - for example in the approximately 800 ships participating in the Normandy invasion, their total 30,000 crew included 4,000 Australians - , the objective of the following pages is to remedy, at least partially, the widespread lack of knowledge of the crucial contribution made by Australia's Merchant Navy in those fateful years.

Why the Second World War Asia Pacific focus? Because this marked the start of what is now seen, very importantly to Australia, as the use of maritime strategy. This strategy, which includes (though not exclusively) naval power, involved the effective use of the seas  around the nation by deploying air, maritime and land forces for our protection. The Merchant Navy's contribution was crucial to success. Although it was involved everywhere, only such parts of its vast activity as touch on the stories of particular ships are mentioned at this site.

The period before the 7 December 2023 saw numerous threats to and losses of merchant ships: by the end of 1939 over two hundred Allied and Neutral vessels had been lost to enemy action, many through magnetic mines. In early 1940, it was learnt that German technicians were sent to Japan to service sea-raiders and submarines. By late 1940, four German commerce raiders - Kulmerland, Komet, Orion and Pinguin - disguised as Japanese merchant ships, were operating in the oceans around Australia. Usually first destroying their victim vessels' transmitting equipment, they took many prisoners and caused great damage and loss of ships and lives.        

At the outbreak of the war in September 1939, a number of Australian shipping companies operated passenger and cargo ships, ranging from elegant passenger and cargo-passenger liners to modest, variously-sized carriers of all types of general and bulk cargoes. A number, inspected for suitability by Defence authorities, were commissioned into naval service, as Armed Merchant Cruisers, Hospital Ships or Victualling Supply Ships.

From the start of the Japanese attacks, the merchant fleets, continuing to pursue their now more serious "lawful occasions" operated at even greater risk. Though diminished by losses and requisitions, and despite periodic difficulties through home based adverse industrial action, they stayed true to their calling. They shared, with countless often unknown instances of courage, the successful defence of Australia.  

Other vessels of the merchant fleet continued under the ownership or control of their respective shipping companies, going about their cargo- and passenger-transporting duties between Australia's ports, and, for some, Pacific Islands and South East Asia locations. Of course, war requirements had priority.

As the Japanese invasion forces moved relentlessly south in late 1941 and early 1942, the main implications for the allies included preparation and the saving of civilian lives (if not property) and then the great logistic task of moving troops, weapons, vehicles, munitions, food, all the impedimenta of war, forward into the theatres of action and support. It was true to say:

"The most important road on the earth's surface is the sea road."
"Who controls the sea road, wins the war."

The merchant ships of the allied forces combined to bring this to reality. They compensated for the country's sparse road and rail networks, the latter providing a good service only between Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide at the time. The early 1942 arrival in Australia of forces of the United States of America saw road transport revolutionised, with increased mechanisation and use of semi-trailers. But the bulk of cargo carriage necessarily remained via the sea, under constant threat from enemy efforts to disrupt and destroy.

Frequently without the protection of naval escort or convoy participation, merchant ships were highly vulnerable. Shipping "shuttle" services evolved at numerous ports around the coast and to offshore points. One such was between North Queensland ports and Darwin. This vital base for both offshore operations and national defence lacked all-weather road access, and after the disastrous 19 February 2024 air-raid, effective wharf facilities. Initially small ships, less than 1000 gross tons, shuttled between Cairns and Townsville and Darwin, for most of the year, often subject to aerial attack as the raids continued. Reconstruction later allowed the use of larger vessels, Australian merchantmen's efforts supported by those from the United States, the Netherlands and Great Britain.

The pages that follow detail the harshness, often the tragedies of the experiences of men and ships in these and many other settings. Perhaps they will form the foundation of a definitive history, one which will undoubtedly be a revelation to generations of Australians.

Merchant Seamen were not provided with uniforms, leave (paid or otherwise), medical or pension benefits. They "signed on" to a ship voyage-by-voyage, their employment lasting until return to home port, this possibly being a year or so later. All remuneration ceased when the seaman's ship was sunk, with survivors being classified "Destitute British Subjects" ("D.B.S.") and placed in the care of a wartime charitable institution. Following numerous sinkings off the Australian coast during 1942, the Regulations were changed to allow for a seaman's pay to continue until return to home port.

A War Risk Bonus was paid for service north of 14 degrees south latitude, provided it was in an operational zone of war activity. Regrettably, during the war, many with either ignorance or other motivation, claimed that merchant mariners were receiving "outrageous" rates of pay. A responsible, "equivalent position" study debunked these claims, finding that, to the contrary, Armed Forces pay rates were the higher.

Such differentiation in benefit entitlements related to War Service did not end with the war.

Enemy Attacks on Merchant Shipping

in Australian Waters.  Some detail.....

A joint Australia/Japan research project undertaken by the Australian War Memorial has revealed a variety of information on Merchant Service losses related to Japan's interdiction strategy. In the Indian and South Pacific Oceans and Australian waters, they deployed between December 1941 and August 1943 fifty-eight submarines and sank one hundred and eighty six ships. They damaged fifteen more, and there were other unsuccessful attacks.

At various times. forty of these submarines patrolled in Australian coastal and immediately adjacent waters, making forty-six operational patrols, sinking thirty-two ships and damaging thirteen.

During the same period, also in the Indian and South West Pacific Oceans and Australian waters, Japanese aircraft sank at least fifty merchant ships and damaged fifty-three. 

Areas of northern Australian waters were mined by Japanese submarines during 1942, this following mining of other areas by the German auxiliary cruisers Pinguin and Storstad: four fields between Sydney and Newcastle, others in Bass Strait and off the South Australian coast.

Shortage of Australian mine-sweeping resources meant that these fields were not always discovered, as to extent, by the Navy, but rather by merchant ships unknowingly sailing into them, with the resultant casualties in both ships and men.

This map details events off the New South Wales, and near-Queensland and Victoria coastlines:-

The map discloses thirty-two ships torpedoed, one shelled and four mined.  In addition to these, twenty-four ships of various nationalities experienced attacks from Japanese submarines, either by torpedo or gunfire, in Australian and South West Pacific waters: seventeen in 1942 and seven in 1943.  Of these fourteen were sunk.

Apart from these, other Australian ports and near-coastlines experienced the loss of twelve ships:-

Queensland:      Mamutu     Australian   07/08/42 Gunfire

                         Matafele    Australian    ?/07/44 NotKnown

North.Territory: BritishMotorist British  19/02/42 Bomb

                         Don Isidro        U.S.A. 19/02/42 Bomb

                         Florence D.      U.S.A. 19/02/42 Bomb

                         Macumba      Australian 06/08/43Bomb

                         Mauna Loa       U.S.A. 19/02/42 Bomb

                         Meigs                U.S.A. 19/02/42 Bomb

                         Neptuna        Australian 19/02/42 Bomb

                         Zealandia      Australian 19/02/42 Bomb

West.AustraliaKoolama        Australian 20/02/42 Bomb

                         Siantar              Dutch    02/03/42 Torpedo/Gun

additional to Royal Australian Navy losses of "Sydney" off Western Australia, "Armidale" between Darwin and Timor, and "Kelat", "Mavie" and "Patricia Cam" in Darwin.

In Memoriam

This website is dedicated to all those Australian Merchant Mariners who served and especially those who made the Supreme Sacrifice upon "All Oceans of the World".

Beneath the treasure of the multitudinous sky
The sombre sea stole sobbing East and West,
And West and East the furtive breezes crept,
God drew his likeness from our brother's breast,
and he that was our leader smiled and slept
For our brother stood erect with dauntless head
Fighting, and cried, How long O Lord, how long?
Weep for a strong man dead, O brothers that are strong.

"Lest We Forget" - F. Morton 1900.