A Sidney mariner hopes Peninsula residents will take Sept. 3 — Merchant Navy Veterans Day — to reflect on the contributions of the mariners during the Second World War.
Don Young, who sailed on two British Petroleum oil tankers and an iron ore carrier between 1959 to 1963 before coming to Canada, said merchant mariners made a decisive contribution to the war.
Their efforts helped win the war, especially during its early phase, when Nazi Germany sought to starve out the United Kingdom by cutting its supply lines from other parts of the western world, including Canada.
Merchants mariners also shipped large stocks of supply from the United States to the Arctic port of Murmansk former USSR. That port was guarded by German planes and submarines based in occupied Norway and sustained Malta, which served as an unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean that harassed and eventually strangled supply lines to German-Italian forces in North Africa.
“If those places had fallen, we wouldn’t be sitting here as we are today,” he said.
Canada’s merchant navy during the Second World consisted of non-military vessels and crews that nonetheless fought as combatants during the Battle of the Atlantic, which lasted the entirety of the war. According to Veterans Affairs Canada, 12,000 men and women served in the merchant navy, making more than 25,000 voyages. About 1,500 Canadians, including eight women, died with 59 Canadian-registered merchant ships lost.
Young said public memory often loses sight of these figures.
“It wasn’t just the loss of ships. It was the loss of lives.”
British and later American merchant mariners also suffered losses in the thousands on voyages during which they faced multiple challenges. Sailing on a mixture of old and new ships with rudimentary quarters and weapons, these sailors not only braved rough conditions of the Atlantic, but also the threat of German U-Boats stalking them like wolves stalking deer. Losses appeared especially high during the first half of the war, before superior Allied technology, air cover and industrial production turned the German hunters into the hunted.
The question of recognizing the contributions of merchant mariners gained prominence during the 1980s and 1990s, but it was not until 2003 that Canada joined other countries in making Sept. 3 a day of remembrance.
Young’s interest in the history and contributions of the merchant navy does not just spring from his own professional background, but also from personal history.
“I had relatives, who had been in the Royal Navy,” said Young, who was born in January 1939 near Newcastle-on-the-Tyne. As a child growing up during wartime, he benefited from the merchant navy. Newcastle’s location as a transportation hub near the Atlantic Ocean and status as industrial production centre in northwestern England had also made the city specifically and the area generally a target of German planes.
Young still remembers how his father hustled Young and the rest of the family including a twin brother to the air-raid shelters as searchlights, anti-aircraft fire and planes pierced the night sky.
“That was my most vivid memory of the war,” he said.
Growing up near the Atlantic also fostered a love for the sea among Young. “We used spent holidays on the seaside.”
Soon, Young knew exactly what he wanted do, telling his school’s headmaster in no uncertain term when he asked Young and his twin brother about their career plans.
“He had one twin sitting on one knee, and me on the other. And he asked, ‘what, are you going to be when you grow up? A fireman or what?’ And I said, ‘no, I’m going to be a sailor.’ From then, I had sought my sights on being at sea.”
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