History of the Merchant Navy and the Fly the Red Ensign Campaign

The Merchant Navy played a significant role and suffered heavy losses during the First and Second World Wars. Today, it continues to play an important part in our daily lives. Seafarers, onboard Merchant Navy ships, transport over 95% of our trade.

Read on to learn more about the Merchant Navy's contributions in peacetime and war throughout the past 100 years, and The Seafarers' Charity's annual Fly the Red Ensign for Merchant Navy Day campaign on 3 September in aid of the Merchant Navy Fund.

In February 1928, King George V bestowed the title of the 'Merchant Navy' on the British merchant shipping fleets to honour their contribution to the nation in peacetime and war, and appointed a member of the Royal Family as its head, thus treating the merchant service with as much respect as the Armed Forces.

HRH The Prince of Wales became the first Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets and the appointment was held by the late Queen Elizabeth II following her accession in 1952.

In December 1928, HM Queen Mary unveiled The Merchant Navy Memorial on London’s Tower Hill, which is now known as The Memorial’s First World War section. It commemorates the 12,000 civilian men and women of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets, ranging from a fishing boat’s cook, aged 13, to an Able Seaman from a cargo vessel, aged 75.

Two Captains named were posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the only civilians to have received Britain’s highest military decoration since 1879.

During the Second World War, German U-boats sank nearly 14.7 million tons of Allied shipping, which amounted to 2,828 ships.

32,000 merchant seafarers were killed onboard convoy vessels in the war, but along with the Royal Navy, the convoys successfully imported enough supplies to allow an Allied victory.

The significance of 3 September

On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and ignored Britain’s ultimatum to withdraw by 11am on 3 September. At 11.15am that day, Britain declared war on Germany and the Second World War began.

SS Athenia, a steam turbine transatlantic passenger liner built in Glasgow in 1923, was the first UK ship to be sunk by Germany.

On 1 September, SS Athenia left Glasgow for Montreal via Liverpool and Belfast with 1,418 British, American and Canadian civilians onboard. At 7.40pm, 200 miles northwest of Ireland, it was torpedoed by a German submarine U-30, killing 112 people and marking the start of the War’s first battle. Lasting until VE-Day, 8 May 1945, the Battle of the Atlantic is the longest continuous campaign of the War.

In honour of the sacrifices made in both World Wars, representatives of the Merchant Navy lay wreaths of remembrance alongside the Armed Forces on the annual Remembrance Day service on 11 November. Following many years of lobbying to bring about the official recognition of the sacrifices made by merchant seafarers in the two World Wars and since, Merchant Navy Day became an official Day of Remembrance on 3 September 2000.

'The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the War. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere – on land, at sea or in the air – depended ultimately on its outcome and amid all other cares we viewed its changing fortunes day by day with hope or apprehension.' - Winston Churchill

Merchant Navy involvements in post-1945 conflicts

The Merchant Navy also participated in the Korean War, Gulf War and Iraq War, as well as the Falklands Campaign in 1982 in which an estimated 3,000 civilian crew onboard the 22 Royal Fleet Auxiliary and 51 vessels, chartered or requisitioned from the UK Merchant Navy by the Ministry of Defence, played a crucial role in the conflict, including minesweeping, troop transport, supply of equipment, fuel and food, hospital facilities, carrying prisoners and accommodating survivors.

'This House pays tribute to the memory of the 17 Merchant Navy officers and ratings who lost their lives when the Argentine Air Force attacked the container ship and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships during the Falklands conflict.’ - Hansard, UK Parliament

With over 90% of goods transported in the UK by sea, today, we continue to rely on seafarers onboard Merchant Navy ships to keep us fed, fuelled and supplied.

Since 2015, The Seafarers' Charity has been running its annual ‘Fly the Red Ensign for Merchant Navy Day’ campaign on 3 September to honour and remember the sacrifices of the, often forgotten and invisible, but very hard-working, Merchant Navy seafarers.

As part of the campaign, we have been inviting local authorities to Fly the Red Ensign, the recognised flag of the British Merchant Navy since 1854, to raise awareness of our dependence on Merchant Navy seafarers and to raise funds to support many seafaring veterans, working-age seafarers, and their dependents who need our help.

Learn more about Fly the Red Ensign for Merchant Navy Day

Although many merchant ships and thousands of seafarers would meet the same fate in the years to come, 3 September is now known as 'Merchant Navy Day'. It honours the brave men and women who kept our nation afloat during both World Wars, as well as in peacetime when they faced – and continue to face – the dangers of the high seas.

In 1620, the English fleet was organised into Red, Blue and White Squadrons which were reordered to Red, White and Blue in 1653. On the squadron system's abolition in 1864, the Royal Navy's senior ensign, the Red, was assigned to the merchant service, the Mercantile Marine, as a mark of respect, with the White Ensign retained for the Royal Navy and the Blue for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.