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Australian merchant mariners to be remembered

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MEDIA R ELEA SET hb H on Con Rciacca m p Minister for Veterans ' A ffairs 8 March, 1995

Media Alert,_Media Alert..... ......Media Alert......Media Alert Attention news editors, chiefs of staff

Australian Merchant Mariners To Be Remembered

THE UNSUNG HEROES of AustraliVi World War U effort -14,000 merchant mariners - will be remembered at a national commemoration in Canberra on Sunday, March 12,1995 at 11am at the Merchant Navy War Memorial as part of thv Australia Remembers: 1945-1995 programme.

The Memorial is on the foreshore of Lake Burley Griffin in Kings Park, adjacent to the Carillon ·

The Reverend Tom Ηίΐζ Senior Chaplain of the Missions to Seamen in NSW, will officiate at the commemoration and the Minister for Veterans’ Affaire, Con Sciacca, will address the gathering.

The Australian merchant navy consisted of about 12,500 Australian Seaman and 1500 sailors from other countries, mainly the United Kingdom. Most of these mariners went to sea in ships not designed for warfare, with little or no armour plating and very few were armed. ·

Merchant ships were a vital component of Australia's war effort and ensured the trade o f food, goods and machinery continued despite the threat from enemy mines, surface raiders and submarines in Australian waters.

In some cases the merchant ships were converted to hospital ships. In May, 1943, the hospital ship, Ceriiaur, was torpedoed without warning by a Japanese submarine. In this flagrant breach o f the Geneva Convention 268 lives were lost and only 64 survived.

Note editors: Background on the Australian merchant navy accompanies this alert

Media Adviser: Amanda Lamps (05) 277 7820 (W) (018) 499 538 (06) 273 3966 (H)

Paul Lower Acs iridic Remembers Task Force (06) 2S96611


In m y early twenties I was a crew member ofperhaps the most successful o f all German surface raiders, the "Atlantis”, We w ere not thrilled with our Instructions but they were clear: to roam the trade routes o f the British Empire and destroy any merchant ship encountered We were, at all costs, to avoid any engagement with cm enemy warship. The reasons were quite simple: I f we

tried to fig h t a warship - and it was later proved that we could when the "Kormoran" sank the Australian cruiser, HM AS "Sydney” o ff the western Australian coast - the warship could, with its powerful radio, much more powerful than a merchant ship's, make our position quickly known and many warships could converge on us. Secondly, warships were o f secondary importance.

Every ounce ofpetroleum, every grain o f wheat, every piece ofwar equipment that we could stop reaching the enemy, would make us that much closer to starving the British Empire Into submission.

On the "Atlantis", we had an aircraft that used to be flown o ff trailing a grappling iron. Her duty was to f l y between the masts o f the victim and tear her wireless aerial o ff Whilst this was met with heavy fire from the doomed ship, our aircraft survived all these sorties. Is a y \doomed merchant ship'because she was never a match fo r us, In the first instance we had a trained naval crew, all experts in gunnery, whereas the merchant ship had highly untrained men. Ii used to sadden us to witness the best they could offer against us. But one thing, they fo u g h t The main

disadvantage o f the merchant ship was that it only had one gun. On the "Atlantis" our armament consisted o f six 5.9 inch guns - against most merchant ships'one 4 inch gun - one 75mm gun, one twin 37mm gun, fo u r 20mm guns, four single 21 inch torpedo tubes plus 92 mines, Com ments fro m a crew member o f the "Atlantisn to an Inquiry undertaken in 1989 by Jocelyn McGlrr, Deputy President of the Repatriation Commission, into the needs o f Australian mariners, Commonwealth and Allied veterans and Allied mariners,

T H E F E D E R A L G O V E R N M E N T m oved from July 1 1994 to bring A u stralian m erch a n t m arin ers and their dependants un der the Veterans* E ntitlem en t A c t T his move gave them the sa m e rights and benefits under th e A c t as veteran s o f th e A u stra lia n D efen ce F orces - thus ending w h at m any saw as discrim ination a g a in st

m e m b er s of the m erchant service.

A s the M inister for Veterans' Affairs, Mr Con Sriacca, said at the time: T h e Government’s decision gives long-overdue recognition o f the role played by Australian mariners during W orld W ar Π and the hazardous conditions they experienced." O (

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The M cG iir Inquiry was one o f two major inquiries into the rights o f merchant mariners and it w»s one o f the m ajor influences on the governments decision to improve the level o f benefits available to m erchant mariners.

D eputy President M cOirr made many salient points, including:

"Unlike the members o f die navy, the merchant mariners' wages were subject to tax. They paid for their own medical and dental treatm ent They were required to pay for their keep on board ship and it was customary for a deduction to be taken by employers o f one sixth of their wages as payment. They were responsible for providing their own IriL They were not paid w hen they were

ashore between ships. Exclusive o f the war risk bonus, the wages for A ustralian merchant m ariners were little different from those o f the regular navy when adjusted fo r allowances and tax.

"It i$ n o t possible to generalise oa the conditions o f service o f Australian m erchant mariners. The material shows that it ranged from the relatively uneventful to the horrific experiences o f those A ustralian merchant mariners who were prisoners o f w ar o f the Japanese, or w ho served on the convoys to Russia and Malta. It is apparent from the submissions mat the range o f w ar time

experiences o f Australian merchant mariners was, in m ost respects, at least comparable w ith the experiences o f veterans o f the Australian defence forces.

"A quote from one submission seems to encapsulate the feelings expressed in m any o f the submissions: I t should be borne in mind that navy sailors could, and often did, spend the entire w ar in a shore establishment far removed from the w ar at sea. A soldier (particularly those in supply and service units), could and often did, spend the entire war at army bases far removed

from tiie firing line. Air force ground stuffy as Opposed to flying crew, very seldom came under enemy attack. However, there was only one place for the merchant seaman; at sea in his ship · exposed to attack by submarine, surface raider or aircraft at any time, with the added risk o f enemy minefields laid in coastal waters.1 ·

"Sea-going members o f the navy generally went to sea in vessels designed fo r warfare. N aval vessels were constructed w ith watertight sections' and had appropriate armour plating and armaments, Their crews were trained to engage and fight hostile enemy forces. The maiming levels and composition o f the crew were also very different from those in m erchant ships.

"Australian m erchant mariners went to sea in ships that were not designed for warfare. They had little or no armour plating and many, in particular the smaller vessels, were unarmed, The m anning levels were low in comparison with the navy. The average merchant ship's crew

comprised around 40 members. A large merchant ship would have a crew o f around 100. A navy ship o f comparable size w ould have in excess of 500 crew, including medical staff and facilities.

"M erchant ships were generally coal-fired and thus were considerably exposed while travelling both at day and at niehti During the night sparks would have been clearly visible for a vast distance and during the day the smoke trail would have been visible for many kilometres. The same risks were not present in an oil-fired ship.


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"By the end o f the war a large proportion o f vessels on which merchant m ariners served were still coal-fired, whereas the majority o f naval ships were oil-fired.

"Submissions to the Inquiry described many instances where merchant ships m ade long voyages overseas unarm ed and w ithout the benefit o f any escort. Merchant ships were the prim ary targets o f the enemy's naval forces and raiders. They sought out the merchantmen to attack. The raiders avoided, as far as possible, ships o f the regular navy because they were far better arm ed than the m erchant ships, and also because their powerful radio transmitters could w arn other ships o f the

raiders' presence.

"There is ample m aterial before the Inquiry to bear witness to the significant contribution made b y A ustralian merchant mariners to this country's w ar effort. In the debate in the H ouse o f Representatives On the second reading o f die Seamen's W ar Pensions and Allowances (S W P A ). B in, M r Beasley, the M em ber for W est Sydney and Leader o f die Australian Labor Party, said!

'A lm ost simultaneously w ith the declaration or war, the British Parliament made provision for m erchant seamen who w ould be affected by the war. It rightly considered that the part which m erchant seamen w ould play in the struggle would be equal to that o f any other section. N o effort

on our pari can adequately compensate men who go down to the sea in ships for the risks they run and the sacrifices that they make in the service o f their country.' {Hansard1940, p.566). This acknowledgement o f the equality o f the contribution o f the merchant seamen w as based on th eir contribution to the w ar effort in w orld W ar I and what had occurred in W orld W ar Π up to

A ugust 1940 w hen the SW PA Bill was introduced. The courage o f tire merchant seamen ana their contribution to the w ar effort during the remainder of the war seemed to fulfil M r Beasley’s words.

"The Inquiry has estimated that there were about 14,000 Australian m erchant m ariners during W orld W a r n , made up o f 12,500 in the Australian merchant navy and 1,500 in the m erchant navies Of Other countries, principally the UK. The percentage o f Australian m erchant mariners w ho lost their lives in W orld W ar II was approximately 4%.

"The percentage o f A ustralian servicemen who died as a result of battle casualties during W orld W ar u was approximately five per cent (27,073) o f the 557,799 Australian servicem en who served outside Australia. The percentage for the Royal Australian N avy was also about five per cent (1,900) o f the 37,061 who served outside Australia.

"In com paring the estimates for merchant mariners with B ose of the armed forces, particular uncertainties about the estimate for the merchant mariners should be borne in mind. It is generally accepted that the losses o f vessels and mariners suffered by the British merchant fleet w ere the * m ost Severe o f ell the allied merchant fleets, with estimates of the percentage o f mariners lost

varying betw een 19 per cent and 22 per c en t "

"The great m ajority o f Australians who served in ships of other nations would have served in the UK m erchant navy, and may have experienced similar losses. However, there is no comprehensive record o f Australians who served on ships o f other nations, and there are considerable difficulties in identifying Australian merchant mariners who died oyerseas. The

estimated casualty rate o f four per cent should therefore be regarded as a low er limit, and the tree figure m ay be five oer cent, as for the Australian defence forces of W orld W ar □. Cf

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"The suggestion that Australian merchant mariners could leave their employment has, in the past, been used as one o f the arguments to justify not extending die provisions o f the Veterans' Entitlement (VEA) Act to them. The response has been that, while the opportunity did exist, the majority o f Australian merchant mariners did not avail themselves o f it. Indeed, they argue that it

is a clear indication o f their dedication and commitment that they continued to serve when they could have stopped. The point should be made here that at the time o f enlistment for a voyage, the nature and destination would not have been known. In any event, both the SWPA Act and the VEA only apply to persons who did in fact have the appropriate wartime service. ■

"Taking into account conditions o f service and the loss o f life, the Inquiry considers that the range o f war time experiences o f Australian merchant mariners was comparable with the experience Of veterans o f the Australian defence forces. The Inquiry is o f the view, therefore, that World War Π Australian merchant mariners ought to be treated, as far as practicable, on an equal footing with veterans o f the Australian defence forces."

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