The Merchant Navy

Page 5 – No grave but the sea

More than 140 New Zealand merchant seafarers are known to have lost their lives during the Second World War, although the true total may be higher. The great majority of these seamen were sailing on British vessels, and around 100 perished in the Atlantic or Mediterranean. Seven New Zealand merchant ships were lost to enemy action, but these fortunately produced only six direct fatalities (another five died while prisoners of war). Ten New Zealanders are known to have died while serving on American (or Panamanian) flagged ships, and a further 10 on Australian vessels; others were lost on Canadian, Dutch, Greek, Indian and Swedish ships.

Surviving a German air attack

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Hear seaman Jim Blundell recall a German air attack on his convoy..
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The age of some of the victims is striking. As a civilian industry, the Merchant Navy naturally contained employees who were younger or older than those in the armed forces. For centuries, seafarers had embarked on their careers when barely into their teens, typically as deck or mess boys, or as apprentices (trainee officers). Fifteen New Zealand teenagers are known to have lost their lives during the war, including Thomas Burke and Edward Walls, two 15-year-old deck boys on the Port Hunter, which was torpedoed off West Africa in 1942. These two teenagers were almost certainly the youngest New Zealanders killed in combat during the 20th century.

NZ Merchant Navy casualties

On New Zealand ships:

  • 11 deaths; c 100 POWs

On British and other ships:

  • c 130 deaths; c 40 POWs

See also: Roll of Honour

In captivity

Around 140 New Zealand merchant seafarers were taken prisoner. The first large group of New Zealanders to be captured during the Second World War were seamen (and passengers) from the Holmwood, Komata, Rangitane and other ships sunk by German raiders in late 1940. Some 70 New Zealand seamen from these ships were subsequently released on Emirau Island, after signing an oath not to 'bear arms' against Germany for the remainder of the war. At least 21 New Zealanders, mostly captured in the Atlantic, were interned in a special Merchant Navy camp, Milag Nord, at Westertimke, near Bremen.

For Allied servicemen and civilians alike, captivity in the Far East was generally more gruelling than it was in Europe. In contrast to the Germans, Japan's treatment of captive merchant seafarers was unpredictable and often brutal. The 55 officers and crew of the Hauraki made up the largest group of New Zealand personnel to fall into Japanese hands during the war. While most were interned with civilians in Singapore's Changi prison, 23 of them (mainly engine-room staff) were sent to Japan, where they were forced to work alongside military prisoners in a shipyard and later at a steelworks. Five died in captivity, one in Singapore and four in Japan.

How to cite this page

'No grave but the sea', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/the-merchant-navy/no-grave-but-the-sea, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 17-May-2017