War oral history programme

Page 12 – Notes and questions, merchant seafarers

The 'fourth service'

She slowly filled up from the stern and the last I saw of her, from the bridge up she was vertical and she just slowly went down. In those days at least, the ship was your home, and I'll never forget the feeling when I saw my home disappear under the waves.

Lionel Hodgson, engineer, SS Remuera

Before you interview any veterans of this campaign, we recommend you read our Guide to recording oral history.

Background notes

During the Second World War several thousand New Zealanders served in the Merchant Navy – also known as the mercantile marine. They sailed the ships that delivered troops, military equipment and vital cargoes of food, fuel and raw materials across the world's oceans. Although the Merchant Navy was regarded as a fourth service during wartime, the crews of these ships were not members of the armed forces but civilian volunteers. They ranged in age from 14 to at least 75, and most did not wear uniforms.

At the start of the war there were nearly 3000 seafarers working on New Zealand merchant ships. They included about 30 women stewardesses on passenger ships, most of whom lost their jobs after the war started. Locally owned vessels mostly sailed around the coast, across the Tasman and to the South Pacific, although during the war some carried troops or military supplies further afield. Seven New Zealand merchant ships were sunk by enemy action.

At the same time, probably around a thousand New Zealanders served on British-owned ships, especially the big refrigerated cargo liners, or 'Home boats', that carried New Zealand's frozen meat, butter, cheese and wool exports to Britain. More than 60 ships in the United Kingdom–New Zealand trade were lost during the war. A smaller number of New Zealand seafarers sailed under the flags of the United States, Australia, Norway, the Netherlands and other nations.

Many of these men braved the deadly German U-boat threat during the Battle of the Atlantic and sailed in perilous convoys to Arctic Russia and Malta. Others manned transport and hospital ships for the great Allied landings in North Africa, Italy and France or ferried troops and supplies across the vast Pacific and Indian oceans.

New Zealand Merchant Navy casualties

  • On New Zealand ships: 11 killed, about 100 taken prisoner
  • On British and other ships: at least 120 killed, about 40 taken prisoner

Learn more about the Merchant Navy on NZHistory.net.nz.


These questions are suggestions only. You can choose those that are relevant to your interviewee – and add your own, too.

Background questions

  • What is your name, date of birth and place of birth (don't forget to spell out names)?
  • Tell me a little about your life before the war (parents, school, childhood and early working life).
  • Had anyone in your family been at sea before? If so, how and where?
  • Did anyone in your family serve in the First World War? If so, how and where? Did they talk about it? What did they tell you?
  • Where were you when you heard about the outbreak of war?
  • What were your feelings?

Going to sea

  • If you were at sea when war began, when, how, and why did you go to sea originally?
  • If not, when, and how did you join the Merchant Navy? Why did you choose that service?
  • Did you consider enlisting in the armed forces? Did family, friends or shipmates enlist?
  • Did you try to enlist but were rejected, e.g., on medical grounds? Were you too young for the military?
  • Did you undertake any training before going to sea (generally only applicable to marine engineers)? If so, describe what this involved: apprenticeship, exams, etc.
  • Did you join a New Zealand ship, a British ship or another overseas vessel? If it was an overseas ship, why did you choose it?
  • Did you join a trade union, e.g., Seamen's Union, Cooks and Stewards Union, Merchant Service Guild (generally compulsory in New Zealand)?
  • How was your employment organised (Shipping Office in New Zealand; from 1941 Reserve Pool system in Britain – a form of industrial conscription to direct seamen to ships)?
  • How did you know about the Reserve Pool? How and where did you join it? Did you have much/any choice of which ship you got on?

Life on board ship

  • What were your first impressions of your first ship?
  • Did you suffer from seasickness?
  • What was the food and drink like? Was there alcohol on the ship?
  • What was your accommodation like? Did you live in the fo'c'sle (forecastle), amidships or aft? How many were there in the room/cabins? How were bunks laid out? Were deck and engine crew separated? Did you have a separate mess room?
  • Describe heating, lighting, ventilation, washing/toilet facilities. Was there hot water?
  • What clothes did you wear? (Officers had uniforms, although they often didn't wear them at sea, so did cooks and stewards; other crew did not.)
  • If you worked in the engine room, what did you wear on watch? How hot was it?
  • If working on deck, what sort of wet-weather gear did you have?
  • Describe your day-to-day routine (depending on job/department of ship). Did you work watches or day work? What hours did you work?
  • Where were your shipmates from? How cosmopolitan was the crew?
  • What did you do in your time off: read, write letters, play cards, gamble, games?
  • How were orders given and by whom? What was the discipline like?
  • How was your pay organised? Were there allotments to family and some to keep? How much did you get? Did you get a War-Risk Bonus? (NB: initially, on British ships pay stopped as soon as a ship was sunk – this was changed in 1941.)
  • Did you have a 'crossing the line' ceremony? Were there superstitions, unlucky days of the week, etc.? Did seamen sing songs/shanties/play music? If so, what did they sing? Do you remember any in particular? Please sing a little.
  • Did you have mascots on ships, e.g., cats or dogs?

Preparing for war

  • Did the ship have DEMS (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship) guns and other equipment, e.g., paravanes, degaussing coils, torpedo nets?
  • Did you do gunnery training? Where and how did you do this? Did you practice gunnery at sea?
  • Did you have extra life-saving equipment, e.g., life-rafts? What were your life jackets like? How often did you practice lifeboat drill? Could you swim? Could your shipmates?
  • Did you sleep in your clothes, in life jackets? Did you have a 'panic' or 'getaway' bag ready in case of emergency? What was in it: chocolates, cigarettes, alcohol?
  • Describe how ships were blacked out at night and how there was radio silence, communication by flags, etc.
  • How much were you told in advance, e.g., where you were going (usually secret), what your cargo was? Did you carry troops?
  • If you served on a hospital ship, how many wounded did you carry? Where from/to?

Under attack

  • What were your feelings when you were in the war zone or attacked the first time? What were your feelings afterwards?
  • Where in the world did you feel in most danger – Atlantic, elsewhere?
  • Describe your feelings when under fire. How did you feel coping with sustained attack? How did you feel coping with close calls? What weapons were feared the most: mines, air attack, surface ships, submarines? Why?
  • Describe the sounds of different things: anti-aircraft guns, bombs, noise during battle.
  • If the ship was sunk, describe the sinking. Where on the ship were you at time? Did you hear the alarm? What did you do? Describe abandoning ship: how the lifeboats were lowered and life-rafts jettisoned. Can you remember what you thought and felt?
  • How long did it take before you were rescued? What supplies did you have with you? Were you confident you would be rescued? How/by whom were you rescued? How did you feel?
  • Did you get survivors' leave (usually a month)? Were you given new clothes, some money, train tickets? Did you want to go back to sea (not much choice)?
  • What sort of supplies were there for wounded? What did you do with any dead? What were the burial arrangements? What were your feelings?
  • Did you pick up survivors from other ships? What condition were they in? What was done for them?
  • Did you have any contact with the enemy (U-boats often approached survivors in lifeboats, took captains POW, sometimes gave water and food)? How did you feel about Germans and Japanese (their U-boat crews, enemy navy or air crews)? Had you heard stories about atrocities? If so, what?

In port

  • Which ports did you spend most time in? What were your favourite places of those you visited? Why?
  • What did you do when you first arrived in port?
  • Did you have much contact with local people? Did you have contact with other seamen, soldiers or naval sailors? Were there fights?
  • Did the seamen go to red-light areas? Do you remember any talks or advice on sexual health?
  • Were there many cases of desertion or absence without leave from your ships? What happened to these men?
  • Did you get mail when you arrived in port? How often? What sorts of things did you write home about? How much truth about risks did you think you could include? How much censorship were you aware of (e.g., not allowed to mention places visited)? Were you allowed cameras or diaries?
  • What about customs procedures? How much smuggling were you aware of? What was smuggled (e.g., cigarettes)?
  • What was the reputation of merchant seamen in ports? Was there a heavy police presence, military police?
  • Did you ever get any reaction from people while ashore in civilian clothes? If so, what did people say? How did you feel about that?

The end of the war and after

  • Where were you when you heard that the war had ended? What was your reaction?
  • Do you remember VE Day or VJ Day? Where were you? What happened?
  • Did you want to leave the Merchant Navy? Were you allowed to? How long did it take before you could be discharged? If overseas, were you eligible for repatriation to New Zealand? (Commonwealth seamen who had served 3½ years on British ships were eligible for a free passage back home.)
  • What did you do between the time the war finished and your return to New Zealand? If you stayed at sea, how had conditions changed (e.g.,lights on ships)?
  • Returning to New Zealand – how did you get back? When? did you get back? Did you come as a passenger on a ship?
  • Arrival in New Zealand – reception? How were you treated?
  • Did you decide to stay at sea after war? If so, why? How had the war changed merchant marine?
  • Did you get access to rehabilitation services? Did you get access to benefits and pensions?
  • Did your service affect your post-war employment opportunities? In what way?
  • Have you ever had any nightmares, flashbacks or other symptoms related to your war years?
  • Are you on any sort of disablement pension? If so, what?
  • Did you join the RSA or other organisation on your return? (Reasons?) Did you feel the Merchant Navy got recognition within RSA or society in general? if not, why not? What are your feelings about that?
  • What did you do on Anzac Day? Has that changed over the years?
  • Have you joined other veterans groups, e.g., Merchant Navy Associations (established in 1990s)?
  • What did the war mean to you at the time you were in service? What does it mean to you today? What do you feel was the impact of your war experiences on your life?

See also other questions, if applicable, e.g., POWs.

How to cite this page

'Notes and questions, merchant seafarers', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/hands/from-memory/notes-and-questions-merchant-seafarers, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 1-May-2020