The Merchant Navy

Page 2 – The longest lifeline

An island nation half a world away from its main trading partner, New Zealand in the mid-20th century was overwhelmingly dependent on sea transport for its prosperity and security. In the era before scheduled air services, everything and everyone leaving or entering New Zealand did so in merchant ships – freighters, passenger liners, oil tankers and other vessels. These ships, and the seafarers who manned them, were variously known as the merchant (or mercantile) marine, merchant service or, especially in wartime, the Merchant Navy.

Although ships' cargoes, destinations and routes came under government or naval control, the wartime Merchant Navy was neither a military force nor a single coherent body. It remained, as before, a diverse collection of private companies and ships crewed by a multinational workforce of civilian volunteers who ranged in age from 14 to at least 75. Aside from officers, cooks and stewards, merchant seafarers did not wear uniforms; ashore, they were identified only by a silver lapel badge bearing the letters MN.

The longest lifeline

New Zealand's shipping links with the United Kingdom were largely in British hands. This situation reflected the Dominion's economic dependence: in 1939 Britain was the destination of 84% of New Zealand's exports and the source of 48% of the imports. The Home trade, as it was called in New Zealand, was dominated by four British companies known collectively as the Conference Lines: Shaw Savill & Albion (SS&A), the New Zealand Shipping Company (NZSCo) and its affiliated Federal Line, the Port Line, and the Blue Star Line.

New Zealand farm exports

To UK, 1939–1945:

  • 2 million tons of meat
  • 1.3 million tons of butter and cheese
  • 4 million bales of wool

To US Pacific forces, 1942–1945:

  • 190,000 tons of meat
  • 137,000 tons of vegetables

The Conference Lines' refrigerated cargo liners or 'Home boats' – many of which bore Maori names – were familiar sights in New Zealand ports. The liners routinely spent five or six weeks emptying their holds of general cargo and refilling them with meat and dairy products. Although they engaged their crews in Britain, Home boats regularly recruited New Zealand seamen during these visits, usually as replacements for men who had jumped ship (deserted) or fallen ill. Such jobs were keenly sought after, especially by youngsters looking for a career at sea, adventure or a passage to Europe. As well as those serving on locally owned ships, about 1000 New Zealanders sailed on British vessels during the war years.

Despite the vulnerability of the 12,000-mile ocean lifeline between the two countries, war strengthened rather than weakened the economic ties between New Zealand and Britain. In 1939 the New Zealand government offered its entire exportable surpluses of meat, butter, cheese, wool and other agricultural products to Britain. Production was one thing; delivering these cargoes halfway around the world in wartime was another matter. As the minister of marketing, Ben Roberts, acknowledged in 1945, 'This has only been accomplished at great hazard and with the loss of many lives and many ships ... It is no exaggeration to say that the Merchant Navy has been the axis round which the war effort of the United Nations has revolved.'

How to cite this page

'The longest lifeline', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012