Remembering our merchant mariners

Friday, September 3 2021

The Hon Andrew Gee MP
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs
Minister for Defence Personnel

Today we commemorate Merchant Navy Day and acknowledge the crucial role Australia’s merchant mariners have played during wartime. 

Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel Andrew Gee said merchant mariners helped to keep supply lines open and carried valuable cargo while often working under extreme temperatures and sea conditions.   

“Throughout the two World Wars and the Vietnam War, merchant ships and their civilian crews were responsible for transporting service personnel, supplies and equipment. Some ships were used as military hospitals for wartime service,” Minister Gee said.

“Merchant navy crews often served in the face of danger under challenging circumstances. Merchant ships were usually unarmed, and their convoys were slow and often laden with troops and equipment, leaving them a vulnerable target for enemy attack.

“Following many submarine attacks on merchant ships along the east coast of Australia, a system of coastal convoys was put in place as ships that sailed independently were more likely to be torpedoed. 

“The Centaur was one such ship, originally a passenger liner converted for use as a hospital ship. On 14 May 1943 she was sailing unescorted from Sydney to Cairns when she was attacked and sunk by a Japanese submarine off the coast of Queensland in the early hours of the morning.”

Of the 332 people on board, including her civilian crewmen, only 64 survived. These survivors spent more than a day on rafts before being rescued.  

Australian merchant mariners also played an important role in the Battle of the Atlantic which was vital to the outcome of the Second World War. 

“The Battle was a long struggle between Allied and Axis forces for control of the sea lanes in the Atlantic Ocean and the route was a critical lifeline for equipment, supplies and troops to be transported between North America and Europe,” Minister Gee said. 

“Tragically, over 3,000 Allied merchant ships were sunk and 30,000 Allied sailors and merchant mariners died at sea in the Battle of the Atlantic. 

“Many Australians who served in the Merchant Navy have tremendous stories of courage, endurance and survival. One Australian veteran recounts surviving a collision with a tanker near the Panama Canal, and was then torpedoed and sunk by a U-boat off the coast of North Carolina during the Battle of the Atlantic on 11 April 1942. 

“Fortunately, all on board survived the incident and were rescued. 

“This is just one among hundreds of stories of Australian mariners in the Merchant Navy, who performed their duties with distinction and valour.

“Commemorated each year on 3 September, Merchant Navy Day also marks the anniversary of the sinking of the first merchant vessel, a British ship called the Athenia, sunk only ten hours after Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in 1939. 

“On Merchant Navy Day, we take a moment to reflect on the vital role played by our merchant mariners and the often heavy price they paid for their service,” Minister Gee said.

“The Australian War Memorial estimates that over 800 Australian merchant mariners lost their lives during the two World Wars. 

“Today we honour the memory of all those who served in the Merchant Navy, bravely carrying out their duties during times of conflict. 

“I encourage all Australians to reflect on the important role merchant mariners have played for more than a century.  Our nation will continue to remember the legacy of service and sacrifice they have left behind."

To learn more about Merchant Navy Day and the veterans who served, visit the Department of Veterans’ Affairs Anzac Portal.

Media contacts

Minister Gee’s office: 0456 921 330
DVA Media: 02 6289 6466
Office of the Hon. Andrew Gee, Canberra ACT.

Open Arms — Veterans and Families Counselling provides support for current and ex-serving ADF personnel and their families. Free and confidential help is available 24/7. Phone 1800 011 046 (international: +61 8 8241 4546) or visit www.OpenArms.gov.au