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I wasn't sure where to put this topic. Although it revolves around a TV documentary I thought Thinkers' would be the best place for it.
This was partly inspired by a recent documentary I watched (youtube link at the end) and partly because I couldn't sleep and the documentary made me think a fair bit about the role of the Merchant Navy. I've always had the utmost respect for our military forces and for many years wanted to join the RAF, mostly because I wanted to 'do my bit' for Queen and country. That will hasn't changed, but sadly my medical status has, but that is not the point of this post.
The merchant navy are basically the 'eddie stobarts' of the sea. Yes, that diminishes their role massively, but they were responsible for the convoys that shipped goods and wargear across the world during the second world war, keeping the country fed and the armies supplied. My paternal grandfather was a merchant seaman. A stoker I think, although he rarely spoke about his time in the service, aside from his momento 'uniform', which was a pin badge saying MN, the only thing that showed contribution to the war. The one story he told was when he was sailing along the eastern seaboard of the USA. They refused to have blackouts like we had in the UK which meant the convoy was lit up like a Christmas tree. UBoats were taking out ships along the convoy at such an alarming rate that my grandad calculated at this rate they would not make it back to the UK in one piece. I am not sure what happened, a reprieve from the German military, Royal Navy intervention or blind luck, but he survived the war and sadly passed away in July 2006 after leading a full and active life.
So what's my point? Well my point is that we so rarely give thanks to all those that gave their lives who were not part of the 3 main services. Merchant vessels were not crewed by military trained men. Nor did they have the capability of defending themselves. They were quite literally sitting ducks, if not for the Royal navy who escorted the convoys, but even this was not perfect.
Spoilers from this point on, if you wanted to watch the documentary. The program focuses on one convoy, PQ17. It was a colossal military fuck up. I do not use this term lightly and the swearing is entirely justified when you consider that the admiralty ordered the Royal Navy vessels to leave the convoy. They left the entire convoy virtually defenseless. This amounted to the death sentence for over 150 men.
Unfortunately, the possibly mis-attributed quote from Joseph Stalin is all too true: The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic. The only way I can really ground this in my own head is by thinking how damn lucky I am to be here. Ignoring the fact my grandad was lucky to get through the war as it was, if he had been assigned to the arctic convoys I almost certainly would not be here. Nihilism aside, my grandad was a hero and so was anyone that decided to sail under the conditions that he did. I now regret not knowing this while he was alive so I could have shown my appreciation more.
Next time you spare a thought for those that were lost in the war, think about the others that lost their lives, but because they were not wearing the Kings uniform they are often overlooked. Of course the merchant navy were not the only unsung heroes of the war, the Bevin boys also spring to mind who kept the coal coming from the collieries.
The documentary is given by Jeremy Clarkson, but well worth an hour of your time. Originally aired on the BBC, but uploaded to youtube.
The Programmers Mantra: Declare Variables, not War.
Been on the research trip all night now, my apologies the above picture is of my Great Great Grandfather who was infact a Captain, my Great Great Uncle was also a Captain in the Merchant Navy, luckily his ship the Kaipaki was never involved in the Arctic convoys but I have just found out he was involved in Dunkirk!
I used to work alongside a guy who had served for quite a few years in the merchant navy (by an odd coincidence we shared the same surname) as the two sole residents of an IT site support companies workshops. One of the nicest and calmest people I've ever met was Dave who couldn't be startled by anything even the occasional bang from CRT monitors.
People sometimes forget the logistical side of warfare and how important it is so a documentary like this is a nice touch and where WW2 is concerned Clarkson is actually prone to being pretty respectful. Not surprising when you find out about his father-in-law though.
"I prefer the company of animals more than the company of humans. Certainly, a wild animal is cruel. But to be merciless is the privilege of civilised humans."