Australia Remembers Merchant Navy Sacrifices

SS Iron Crown
SS Iron Crown

Published Sep 2, 2019 9:38 PM by The Maritime Executive

Since 2008, Australians have paid tribute to the sacrifices made by its merchant navy on September 3 - a day where the Australian red ensign is allowed to be flown on land.

Britain declared war on Germany on September 3,1939, and a few hours later, the British steam passenger ship Athenia was torpedoed in the Atlantic. She was the first British ship to be sunk during the Second World War, and Australia's Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Darren Chester, has encouraged Australians to pause and reflect on the contribution of the nation's merchant mariners on this day.

One in eight Australian merchant seafarers sacrificed their lives during World War II — a casualty rate that was higher than those suffered by any of the armed forces — in an effort to maintain supplies of goods and materials vital for the war effort.

Maritime Union of Australia national secretary and International Transport Workers' Federation president Paddy Crumlin said: “More than 800 Australian merchant mariners sacrificed their lives for the Allied cause during the First and Second World Wars. Merchant Navy Day, which this year falls on the 80th anniversary of Australia entering World War II, is an opportunity to honor their lives and remember their fellow seafarers who bravely carried out their duties despite knowing the extreme dangers they faced.

“Just this year, the wreck of the SS Iron Crown was finally located, 77 years after it was sunk by a Japanese submarine off the coast of Victoria, claiming the lives of 38 of the 43 crew.”

Crumlin said it was important to also remember the sacrifices made outside of war. “While the risks during war were greatly amplified, particularly due to the use of submarines, seafarers continued to make significant sacrifices during peace-time for the sake of ensuring supplies of goods and raw materials to and from our island nation,” he said. “Just last month, on the 50th anniversary of the sinking of the MV Noongah off Smoky Cape on the NSW mid north coast of NSW, we stood with the family members of the 21 crew who died.”

Without seafarers, Australia’s economy would grind to a halt, said Crumlin, looking to the future. “During past conflicts, Australian-owned vessels crewed by Australian seafarers were available to ensure our supply lines remained in place, but decades of neglect has seen the industry hollowed out. Australia is now almost entirely dependent on foreign flag of convenience vessels, often registered in tax havens and crewed by exploited visa workers on as little as $2 per hour, to supply our fuel, carry our resources, and move cargo around the coast.

“One of the key lessons of World War II was the importance of having skilled, experienced seafarers to maintain supply lines during times of conflict. It is essential that as a nation we don’t forget it.”