The Merchant Navy — Australia’s unsung war heroes


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Throughout the Second World War Australia’s Merchant Navy acted as hospital ships and carried munitions, troop supplies, materials for ship building, and everything else that was needed to support the country’s war effort.  In recognition of their vital service today has been marked as Merchant Navy Day since 2008.

The job of the Merchant Navy was perilous, often carrying valuable cargo and ferrying troops to and from warzones around the world. They were under constant threat from enemy fire from German raiders, Japanese submarines, aircraft and mines.

It has been reported that 30 merchant ships were lost in Australian waters from enemy attack with 654 deaths.  The heaviest losses occurred off Australia’s east coast in a swathe of attacks from Fraser Island in Queensland south to Mallacoota in Victoria.

As the Merchant Navy was formed from commercial vessels owned by individual companies, the history of their experience in the Second World War is scattered. There is no official history of Australian merchant seaman’s contribution to the war. However, earlier this year an ABC Radio National’s Earshot broadcast provides a window into the untold story of thousands of merchant seaman — Dad's Navy - The Untold Story of the Merchant Navy in WW2.

Dad’s Navy tells the personal story of Keith Roy Smith, who joined the merchant navy in October 1942 aged 16. He was on the Iron Knight, a BHP ship, which was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine off Montague Island on the south coast of NSW on February 8 1943 at 2.30 am. It sunk within two minutes of impact. Keith Smith was lucky, he was one of 14 survivors picked up by the Free French destroyer, Le Triomphant, at 11 o’clock the following morning.

Le Triomphant a French destroyer on the sea

Le Triomphant, a Free French destroyer, saved 14 merchant navy sailors when the Iron Knight was sunk on 8 February 1943.
Source: Australian War Memorial, collection P05103.004