This guide outlines the main sources for researching the activities of merchant ships and their crews during the Second World War, 1939 to 1945.
There is a wide range of material both in printed and manuscript form. This is distributed across a number of libraries and archives and the researcher should be prepared to seek out material that addresses the particulars of the research problem.
The National Maritime Museum holds some key works that give basic information, such as owners of ships, a ships’ official number, port of registry, size, date and place of build, etc. The journals below are likely to assist with most research problems.
- Lloyd's Register of Shipping for the years 1939–1945 and the Mercantile Navy List (British ships) for 1939–1940 only, as it was not published again until 1947. Because both are produced annually, some ships were too short-lived to be included, and some foreign-registered vessels were omitted from the Register because of the difficulty of gathering information in wartime. Some indexing to Lloyd’s Register has been undertaken at the Register of Ships.
- The Registre Veritas of the French shipping registration agency, Bureau Veritas.
- The Record of American Shipping produced by the American Bureau of Shipping.
Merchant Ships used by the Government
Some British merchant ships were bought into the Royal Navy and commissioned as warships. Details of these can be found in:
- Jane's Fighting Ships, an illustrated guide to classes of Royal Navy vessels, annual editions for 1939–1945. 623.82'1939/1945'
- Colledge, J J, Ships of the Royal Navy (London: Greenhill Books, volumes 1 and 2, revised edition 1987–89). 623.82(42)
Other ships employed on Government service are shown in the Admiralty service lists, printed by the Ministry of Transport, 1946–49, which give dates and type of ships' duties:
- Service List: British and foreign merchant ships in the service of HM Government at any time since 3 September 1939
- Small Craft Service List.
Admiralty Movement Books record the movements of vessels in use as armed merchant cruisers or commissioned for other types of service, including vessels such as trawlers, in use as patrol vessels or minesweepers.
Other records of commissioned ships and naval operations involving merchant ships can be found in the Admiralty archives in The National Archives especially in series ADM 199.
Records of commissioned ships and naval operations involving merchant ships are at The National Archives. The National Archives' Research Guide Royal Navy: Operational Records Second World War, 1939–1945 provides fuller details.
Details of merchant ships can also be found in books on specific operations, such as:
- Ruegg, Bob, and Hague, Arnold, Convoys to Russia: Allied Convoys and Naval Surface Operations in Arctic Waters 1941–1945 (Kendal: World Ship Society, 1992). 940.542.1(47)
- Winser, John de S, The D-Day Ships (Kendal: World Ship Society, 1994). 940.542.1'1944'
- The Dunkirk List, compiled by Lt. Col. G P Orde as the official history of the evacuation, named 'Operation Dynamo'. Though never published, copies are available in several places including the National Maritime Museum (there is a separate information sheet on the List, see next steps below).
- The Merchant Ships series of books, compiled, drawn and edited by E C Talbot-Booth (London: Sampson Low, Marston and Co. Ltd). Issues for 1936, 1940, 1942 and 1949 are in the National Maritime Museum and other specialist libraries.
Where a merchant vessel was part of an Admiralty-controlled convoy, then the Convoy Lists (ADM 199/2184 to ADM 199/2194) have been indexed both by convoy number and by ship name in The National Archives Catalogue.
Day-to-day movements of merchant ships, excluding troopships and special operations, were recorded and published, for restricted circulation only, as a separate section of Lloyd's List entitled ‘Confidential Movements’. Copies are in the National Maritime Museum, Guildhall Library and other places with a special interest in maritime history. Please note that the indexes, known as the Voyage Record Cards, are only at Guildhall Library.
Troopship movements were naturally kept secret at the time, and can be difficult to trace. Full records of ships which survived the war are in The National Archives, but equivalent records for vessels lost have not been traced. Partial records can be found in company archives; and in manuscript notebooks, known as Confidential Movements of Vessels on Government Service, which are being collated at Guildhall Library.
During the Second World War, the Admiralty instructed masters of merchant ships not to record in the log book the ports at which their ships called or details of their voyages, in case this information got into enemy hands. Instead, these details were recorded on movement cards held and maintained at the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen. These are now to be found at The National Archives in series BT 389 and are available online at DocumentsOnline.
In addition The National Archives holds in series BT 385, Index to Logbooks and Crew Agreements (1939–1950) that may incidentally give details of ship movements.
Crews and gallantry awards
Records of service of merchant seamen are covered by two sets of registers held by The National Archives; these are described in the Archives' Research Guide Merchant Seamen: Sea Service Records 1913–1972. The first of these registers, the Fourth, or Central Indexed Register, which should cover those who saw no service after 1941 is in the process of digitization and will become available online shortly.
Crew agreements and official logs for all British-registered merchant ships, and some allied ships with British crew, for the period 1939–1950 are held by The National Archives: see the Archives' Research Guide: Merchant Seamen: Log Books, Agreements and Crew Lists after 1861(NB. official logs are not a daily diary of ships' movements; that information was in deck logs, which rarely survive).
Records of Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels should be found amongst those of the merchant navy described above. Sometimes though they may be amongst those for the Royal Navy.
Many seafarers, both officers and ordinary seamen, saw service in the Royal Naval Reserve. Their records are to be found at The National Archives and details are to be found in their Research Guide Royal Naval Reserve.
Some seamen saw service on Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS). No service details seem to have survived for these ships. However, the following resources may assist:
- The Unknown Navy by Robert G. Halford (Vanwell Publishing, St. Catharines, Ontario, 1995)
- The Naval Service of Canada: Volume (Queens Printer, Ottawa 1952)
- Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships et loc cit
- Your Archives: D.E.M.S.: Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships
Merchant seamen were entitled to campaign medals and many received gallantry awards. The National Archives' Research Guide Merchant Seamen: Medals and Honours provides more details on the subject.
Campaign medals were not issued automatically but had to be applied for. Details of claims for, and issuing of these, are to be found in DocumentsOnline; details from files referenced there need to be sought from the Registry of Shipping and Seamen.
Merchant seamen also received a range of gallantry medals. Registers or rolls of honour have been published for most of the major gallantry awards and are available in many reference libraries.
- The London Gazette records awards to merchant seamen or other British citizens. Copies, together with indexes, are also available at the Guildhall Library. Seedie's roll of naval honours and awards 1939–1945 (Tisbury: Ripley Registers, 1989) gives a single alphabetical list by name, including merchant seamen. Wherever possible entries give a man's name, the nature of the award, his rating, ship, an indication of the action for which the award was made, and the date of the London Gazette entry. It is available at the National Maritime Museum.
- Lloyd's List published citations for some medals awarded to merchant seamen.
- Lloyd's Medals 1876–1989: a history of medals awarded by the Corporation of Lloyd's, by Jim Gawler (Toronto: Hart Publishing Co., 1989) includes citations for many of the awards. 355.124.22
- Under Hazardous Circumstances: A Register of Awards of Lloyd's War Medal for Bravery at Sea 1939–1945, compiled by R J Scarlett (Dallington: Naval & Military, 1992) 737.2. Citations for Lloyd's medals not given in these books can be obtained from the Manager's Secretarial Department, Lloyd's, 100 Leadenhall Street, London EC3A 3BP.
- Lloyd's Captains Registers (Guildhall Mss.18567-71) include details of awards to some masters.
Further information can sometimes be found in the series Treasury: Ceremonial Branch: Second World War Civil Defence Awards Files (GCD Series) T 336 at The National Archives.
Ships sunk by war causes
The most direct way into records of ship losses are the files and associated indexes held at The National Archives in Daily Casualty Registers and Index to Ships, War of 1939–1945 (BT 347). This series contains daily casualty registers, kept by the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen, recording daily ship casualties mainly due to enemy action but also including other routine causes. Each incident is recorded naming the class of vessel, the ship's name, nationality of the ship, date and time, cause and approximate position, voyage details and cargo and latest information available. References are made in the index both to the Casualty Lists themselves and to Lloyd’s List.
Printed works that can assist are:
- The Admiralty's List: British Merchant Vessels Lost or Damaged by Enemy Action During the Second World War (London: HMSO, 1947) has been reprinted, though never revised, and has some errors and omissions.
- Lloyd's War Losses: the Second World War (London: Lloyd's of London Press Ltd, volumes 1 and 2, 1989) covers British, Allied and neutral merchant ships, including vessels missing or sunk by mines after the end of the war which are not covered by the Admiralty list. It was compiled principally from War Loss Cards, now in the Guildhall Library, which sometimes provide more detail.
- Axis Submarine Successes 1939–1945, by Jurgen Rohwer (Cambridge: Patrick Stephens Ltd, 1983, English edition) based on German Admiralty records, is a useful supplement to British lists, though neither is totally reliable. 940.545.1(43)
Transcripts of interviews with masters or senior officers of merchant ships attacked or sunk by the enemy are now held by The National Archives in series ADM 199. Interviews depended, of course, on an officer surviving an attack, and even they did not always reach home safely. Mortality among merchant seamen in the Second World War was higher than in any other armed forces.
There is a two volume typescript, compiled by Bob Childs, of Survivors' Reports WWII. The reports were submitted by US Navy officers and cover British/American/Foreign Warships and Merchant ships. Some reports are very detailed.
Information on enemy merchant vessels sunk by war causes is often difficult to trace, particularly Japanese ships whose names can be represented in various ways:
- The original typescript of Lloyd's War Losses: the Second World War, volume 3, is at the Guildhall Library and is particularly useful. It uses the Romaji system of transcription for Japanese names, officially adopted in 1937 and used during the war, though later abandoned.
- Japanese Naval and Merchant Shipping Losses During World War II by All Causes (Washington DC: United States Joint Army-Navy Assessment Committee, 1947) is in the National Maritime Museum. 940.545.656.61.086.2(52)
- Lloyd's Register of Shipping 1938–39 may help with names, as its changes-of-name appendix gives both the Romaji spelling and earlier version (for example Yeijun Maru/Eizyun Maru).
Record series BT 385 and BT 389, described above under Shipping movements are likely also to give details of losses.
Ships sunk by marine causes
The Daily Casualty Registers and Index to Ships, War of 1939–1945 (BT 347), held at The National Archives and described above, is the best way to start looking for such losses.
Vessels sunk 1939–1946 by marine causes, i.e. by ordinary perils of the sea, such as foundering, stranding, collision, fire, etc., are not included in published lists of war losses. They are included in Lloyd's List: Confidential Movements and can be supplemented by files of Marine Loss Cards and Missing Vessels Cards at Guildhall Library.
A large number of vessels lost without trace, and fate unknown, were declared 'missing'. A Joint Arbitration Committee considered the evidence and assessed, for insurance purposes, whether a loss was likely to be due to war or marine causes.
Record series BT 385 and BT 389, described above under Shipping movements are likely also to give details of losses.
Prisoners of War
There are extensive records of merchant seamen held as prisoners of war in the series BT 373 at The National Archives. These give the circumstances of capture and the eventual fate of UK and Allied Asian merchant seamen. Details of ships captured or lost due to enemy action are in to be found there also and are searchable in The National Archives Catalogue by ship's name. These contain miscellaneous papers relating to the circumstances of loss or capture.
It is possible that some records of merchant seamen held as prisoners of war may be found amongst the archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva.
Deaths of seamen
Many seamen died at sea either because of enemy action or the perils of their occupation. Those dying from enemy action should be recorded in the Debt of Honour database of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Records of death, whatever the reason, should be recorded in the ship’s official log: see above. Details would then have been copied into the registers of the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen – series BT 334 at The National Archives. These should cover both deaths that actually occurred at sea as well as on board in port or in a local foreign hospital. Those where the death actually occurred at sea will then have been reported to the General Register Office for England and Wales, and where the seaman was Scottish or Irish, a copy sent to the General Register Offices in Edinburgh or Dublin. Each General Register Office maintains a Register of Marine Deaths with a separate index – most of these indexes are now online through several commercial organisations.
The National Maritime Museum holds:
- Alphabetical Returns of Deaths of Merchant Seamen, July 1916–1989These consist of printed returns published monthly from the Registrar General's information. The information is alphabetical by deceased's name. Also listed are ship name, official number, date, place and cause of death. The return for 1946 also includes supplement of merchant seamen who died while prisoners of war, 1939–1946.
- Deaths of Crewmen, January 1914–1960sThese contain forms giving personal details of the crewman and circumstances of death which sometimes includes a Coroner's report. They can also contain correspondence from UK consulates if a death occurred overseas.
- Death by Enemy Action, 1939–1945A card index arranged alphabetically by name of seaman, containing the person's address, rank, date, place and cause or supposed cause of death, ship's name and official number.
- Death by Natural Causes 1939–1945
A card index arranged alphabetically by name of seaman and gives the person's birthplace, rank and date and place of death and cause if known together with the ship's name and official number.
Within the Returns of Births and Deaths of Passengers 1939–1963 there are for 1939–1945 also records of deaths of soldiers on hospital and troopships, but it is necessary to know the name of the ship.
Some useful printed works include:
- The Roll of Honour of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets 1939–1945, 3 vols (London: Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, c.1958) lists more than 33,000 merchant seamen who have no known grave but the sea and whose names are on the Merchant Navy memorial, Tower Hill, London, and other memorials, e.g. in Hong Kong. The list gives each seaman's ship, date of loss and memorial on which he is named.
- The Memorial Register, British Merchant Navy Officers Killed at Sea, 1939–1945 compiled by P.J. Barber.
- The Book of Remembrance: the Merchant Navy World War Two, researched by Ian Stockbridge/International Maritime Research and published by NUMAST, contains the names of 32,000 merchant seamen, 1,200 Maritime Royal Artillery gunners and as many RN personnel as possible, who lost their lives on British merchant ships. Includes those who died in Prisoner of War camps in Germany and Japan. It is arranged alphabetically by name of ship.
The Shipping Movement Cards, mentioned above, record the movements of both British registered and Allied vessels engaged in the war effort. Each set of cards records the name of the ship, any former name it had, its size (tonnage), to whom it was registered, the ship’s destination, date of arrival and sometimes ports of call. They also record any cargo carried on board. Importantly the cards also show if the ship was torpedoed, mined, damaged or sunk. These are now to be found at The National Archives in series BT 389 and are available online at DocumentsOnline.
Records of the Government War Risks Insurance Scheme, now found at The National Archives in series BT 228, are particularly useful for researching a ship’s cargo.
Lloyd's War Losses has brief information on cargo. Some extra details may be found in Lloyd's List: Confidential Movements if salvage work was carried out or wreckage was washed ashore.
Cargo manifests sometimes survive in Custom House records at the vessel's last port of departure. The location of archives for specific British Custom Houses can be obtained from the Customs & Excise Departmental Records Unit. The central file of Bills of Entry, now held by Merseyside Maritime Museum, may be more comprehensive. The British Library Newspaper Library has a file for London Bills of entry only.
Shipping company archives may in a few cases include valuable information, and the National Register of Archives can help locate surviving archives for particular companies.
A few shipping companies commissioned special wartime histories of their ships, some detailing honours awarded and seamen who died. A company's general or fleet history may also give information, either published separately or in journals such as Sea Breezes.
There are a few books on individual ships, such as the City of Benares and the Queen Mary.
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Merseyside Maritime Museum
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Other guides which may be useful for researching the Merchant Navy are:
- Research guide C1: The Merchant Navy: Tracing people: Crew lists, agreements and official logs
- Research guide C2: The Merchant Navy: Tracing people: Master mariners, mates and engineers
- Research guide C4: The Merchant Navy: Sources for enquiries
- Research guide C5: The Merchant Navy: Sources for ship histories
- Research guide C6: The Merchant Navy: The Mercantile Navy List
- Research guide C8: The Merchant Navy: Wrecks, losses and casualties
- Research guide C9: The Merchant Navy: World War One
- Research guide C12: The Merchant Navy: Ship registration and Custom House records
- Research guide H1: Lloyd's: Lloyd's List: Brief history
- Research guide H3: Lloyd's: Lloyd's Captains' register
- Research guide H4: Lloyd's: Lloyd's List indexes
- Research guide H5: Lloyd's: Registers held at the National Maritime Museum
- Research guide H6: Lloyd's: Lloyd's Register survey reports
For general research help see:
- Research guide A2: Principal records for maritime research at the National Maritime Museum
- Research guide A3: Tracing family history from maritime records
Although care has been taken in preparing the information contained in this document, anyone using it shall be deemed to indemnify the National Maritime Museum from any and all injury or damage arising from such use.