A Global Celebration of an Historic Trade: Risk and Sacrifice

As the Totally Thames Festival draws to a close for another year we mark an annual and international event on the 29th September 2016 – World Maritime Day. The theme for this year is “Shipping: indispensable to the world” and has the intention of raising awareness of the importance of shipping in a global society and the role of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) within it.

The IMO, an agency of the United Nations, was established in 1948 as an international body charged with promoting maritime safety. The IMO webpage for World Maritime Day tells us that “around 80 per cent of global trade by volume and over 70 per cent of global trade by value are carried by sea and are handled by ports worldwide. …Without shipping the import and export of goods on the scale necessary to sustain the modern world would not be possible.” It also states that “There are more than 50,000 merchant ships trading internationally, transporting every kind of cargo. The world fleet is registered in over 150 nations and manned by more than a million seafarers of virtually every nationality.” (http://www.imo.org/en/About/Events/WorldMaritimeDay/Pages/WMD-2016.aspx)


Crew aboard the ‘Zamalek’ which took part in PQ 17 – Lloyd’s Marine Collection

The work of the merchant fleet has often made the difference between life and death, not least in time of war. During the Second World War around 185,000 civilian and volunteer seamen from Britain, India, China, Australia, Canada and New Zealand served in the Merchant Navy delivering essential supplies of food and equipment from North America and from around the Empire. The food and supplies were transported in convoys offering the merchant vessels a greater level of protection as they were accompanied by Royal Navy escort vessels. It was a dangerous service and by the end of the war over 29,000 merchant seamen had lost their lives.

At Guildhall Library we are proud to hold the Lloyd’s Marine Collection offering information about Merchant Navy ships from 1741 to the present. Among the resources are details of shipping movements and war losses for 1939-45 which evidence the danger faced by these servicemen.

For some years, a group of dedicated enthusiasts have been using resources here and at other archives to build an invaluable database of convoy movements for the First and Second World Wars. This database is only available at Guildhall Library and I have consulted it to find out which convoys have their 75th anniversary on World Maritime Day 2016.

A search by date of convoy departures and arrivals offered the following:


We have had the honour to assist many merchant seamen and their families gather the required evidence to make a claim for the Arctic Star and other medals. Some of those who served on the convoys were very young indeed; one enquirer was only fifteen years old when he joined. The Arctic Star award is for service on the Russian Convoys during World War Two so I was immediately drawn to find out more about Convoy PQ 1.

The PQ 1 link on the database takes the enquirer to a list of the merchant vessels in that convoy together with its escort vessels. Each vessel name has a further link from which one can trace all her convoy movements during the period of World War Two – an invaluable resource for family and maritime historians!


The first ‘test’ convoy to Russia was called ‘Operation Dervish’ and it sailed from Liverpool for Hvalfjord on the 12th August 1941 arriving at Archangel (via Iceland) on the 31st August.  Early convoy supplies for Russia came from British sources; the outward convoy vessels were partly in ballast but also carried Russian exports as she was in dire need of finance through trade.  These Russian exports included chrome, cotton and tobacco.  There were three routes but PQ convoys went to the North Russian ports of Archangel and Murmansk and were named after Commander Peter Quellyn Russell, a planning officer in the Admiralty.

Our example (PQ 1) was the first of the coded convoys to North Russia and the database shows that it sailed from Hvalfjord on 29 September 1941.  As you can see the convoy consisted of eleven merchant ships; the Convoy Commodore was Captain D Ridley, Master of the ‘Atlantic’ and the Vice Commodore was with the ‘North King’.  Escort vessels throughout were the cruiser ‘Suffolk’, the destroyer ‘Impulsive’ plus four minesweepers and these were joined for part of the journey by destroyers ‘Antelope’ and ‘Anthony’.  The Lloyd’s War Loss Cards show that vessels were often attacked after they left the comparative safety of the convoy and were undefended.

PQ 1 arrived at Archangel on the 11th October 1941.  Using the named vessel links in PQ 1 finds their later movements and in some cases ultimate fate.   As an early convoy to Russia, PQ1 travelled relatively unscathed but four of the vessels in that convoy had been sunk by July 1943; the ‘Capira’, the ‘Gemstone’, the ‘Harmonic’ and the ‘River Afton’.

From January 1942 the battleship ‘Tirpitz’ arrived in Norway which meant that the number of escort vessels had to be increased to defend the convoys. As the war progressed journeys were undertaken in constant fear of attack from U-boats, enemy battleships and attack from the air.  The most famous PQ convoy was PQ 17 which demonstrated that fears were not unfounded – 24 of the 35 merchant ships that left Iceland were lost and 153 merchant seamen lost their lives.  PQ 18 was the last of the PQs after which they became JW.


@IWM (A 27565)

Even in the period before the arrival of the ‘Tirpitz’ there was still a further adversary to be overcome – the weather. The build-up of ice on vessels in the freezing seas could destabilise a ship, living conditions on board were poor and keeping warm was a constant challenge. However, accounts of some serving merchant seamen seem to suggest that 60 foot waves were, if not welcomed, at least tolerated because they made submarine attacks less likely. The journey was always a dangerous one.

The Lloyd’s ‘Loss and Casualty Books’ (held at Guildhall Library) show the dangers merchant vessels were exposed to during the Second World War, often disappearing without trace or no news of the fate of vessel or crew confirmed for many months.

The Convoys Database at Guildhall Library is a practical, easy to use and informative web resource for researchers but the work of its compilers and webmaster also pays tribute to the bravery and sacrifice of the Merchant Navy during the two World Wars.

Jeanie Smith
Assistant Librarian

Find out more about the collection at https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/guildhall-library/collections/Pages/Maritime-history.aspx and books on the subject in our library catalogue https://col.ent.sirsidynix.net.uk/client/en_GB/ghl/?







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