The term ‘Merchant Navy’ includes all commercial UK-registered ships and their crews. They fly the Red Ensign flag and are regulated by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.
The Merchant Navy is not one of Britain’s armed forces, unlike the Royal Navy. But commercial ships were awarded the title of Merchant Navy by George V, in recognition of their service during the First World War.
During both World Wars, Britain depended on commercial cargo ships to import food and essential raw materials. Merchant vessels also transported soldiers overseas and bought them vital supplies.
Britain’s merchant fleet was the largest in the world during the wars. In 1939, there were some 200,000 sailors, who cam from across the empire, including India, Hong Kong and west African countries.
In the First and Second World Wars, Germany was known to sink merchant vessels on sight. By the end of the First World War, more than 3,000 British vessels had been sunk and nearly 15,000 merchant seamen had died. During the Second World War, 4,700 ships were sunk and more than 29,000 seamen died.
The Abandon Ship! exhibition tells the story of two of those ships, the SS Otaki and the MV Richmond Castle. The exhibition will open on 21 May with a special launch event. Details of the full event programme have now been published and can be viewed on the events page here.