VE Day 2020: searching Second World War Merchant Navy records

Merchant Seamen death records are key resources for anyone hoping to understand the history of the Merchant Navy during the Second World War.

Head of Research and Information Stuart Bligh picks out just one example from the National Maritime Museum archive. The full collection is currently availble to search for free on Ancestry.co.uk.

Find more Merchant Navy Second World War records

One collection which we hold at the Museum that really brings home the contribution and sacrifices made during the Second World War by those in the Merchant Navy are the records of Merchant Seamen Deaths, 1939 -1953. 

This collection details the names of over 50,000 merchant seamen who lost their lives during and just after the war.

The Merchant Navy during this time was made up of approximately 185,000 seamen, including 40,000 men of Indian, Chinese and other nationalities. When war broke out, the merchant fleet, which was the largest in the world, was put under the control of the Ministry of Shipping, later part of the Ministry of War Transport. The fleet was vital to the war effort for the distribution of much-needed supplies across the world, including food, fuel, equipment and raw materials.

An example from the records is Alfred Henry Perry, an engineer on the SS Fort Longueuil who died when his ship was torpedoed on 19 September 1943 by U-boat U-532. The attack took place near the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean while on its way to Australia.

The record below shows that he was just 29 and was 'missing supposed killed, drowned or died of exposure’ – his next of kin is listed as his wife Kathleen.

An example of Merchant Seamen death records held by the National Maritime Museum
An example of Merchant Seamen death records held by the National Maritime Museum

The SS Fort Longueuil had 49 crew members on board from Britain, India and Canada and ten British gunners (the ship was armed with one 4in and five 20mm guns).

Only two of the crew, both Indian - Thakar Miah and Mohamed Aftab - managed to survive on a raft. According to the record on uboat.net, they were captured by the Japanese on 1 Feb 1944, when their raft drifted ashore on Sumatra after 134 days at sea.

The Merchant Seamans Deaths 1939-1953 collection is available via the Ancestry website for free as part of the VE Day 2020 commemorations. Search the record here for free until 10 May.