In this week’s Remembrance Day debate I spoke about the enormous and often unsung contribution of the Merchant Navy in both world wars, and highlighted the great work Newport Merchant Navy Association do in bringing together local veterans and commemorating the sacrifices made by seafarers.
Here’s my full speech from the debate:
It is a privilege to have time in this debate and to follow so many powerful speeches. It is a very important time to pay tribute to the men and women who served our country past and present and to their very enormous sacrifices made in defence of the freedoms we all enjoy today. It is always humbling to attend Remembrance events; I did so this weekend in Newport and across my constituency. I thank all those involved in ensuring that events could go ahead this year safely in the unique and challenging circumstances of the pandemic. While services were different on this occasion, they were no less poignant, especially with this year marking the 80th anniversary of the evacuation of Dunkirk and the battle of Britain and the 75th anniversary of the end of the second world war. So I pay tribute to all those who have served and made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. We remember them today. I also thank the charities, Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes and, in Newport, Newport Veterans, for all that they do locally to support veterans.
I also pay tribute to and record our appreciation for another group that played a hugely important role in both world wars and subsequent conflicts: the merchant navy. The history of the city of Newport as a key south Wales port is intricately linked with seafaring, and the close ties with the merchant navy are part of that. Nationally, the Merchant Navy Association, led with enthusiasm and passion by its chair, John Sail, who is stepping back this year after years of service, and its president, Vivien Foster, has done tremendous work to raise awareness of the dedication of seafarers over the past century, and supports those who are still with us. Its annual commemoration, Merchant Navy Day on 3 September, is proudly observed in Newport every year. We have an active branch of the association in Newport, stemming directly from the dedication of stalwarts such as Alan Speight and the late Bert Bale, who headed the local branch with passion since its inception until his death in 2012. The Newport association’s work is helping to bring local veterans together and commemorate the sacrifices made by merchant seafarers in two world wars. On Saturday, we will meet at the merchant navy memorial to remember them.
The sacrifices were significant. At the outbreak of the first world war, 43% of the world’s merchant ships—some 20 million tonnes gross—was owned and operated by Britain. Those ships brought food and raw materials, and exported industries’ output to the world, including gold and steel from south Wales. Germany regarded the cutting-off of Britain’s trade routes as a vital means to victory, with the submarine becoming its principal weapon. The policy of unrestricted warfare meant that merchant navy ships were at constant risk of attack. The threat was not fully countered until the introduction of the convoy system in May 1917. None the less, German U-boats sank 6,924 allied ships—almost 13 million tonnes gross, with the loss of more than 14,600 merchant seafarers by the end of the war in 1918.
As we know, the role of the merchant navy was no less hazardous in the second world war, with convoys in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and elsewhere. Four thousand seven hundred British flagships were sunk, and more than 29,000 merchant seamen died, with a higher proportion of fatalities than all other services. Of those who perished, 442 were from Gwent and among them was 14-year-old Raymond Steed from Newport, who was killed onboard the SS Empire Morn when the ship was hit by a U-boat mine off the coast of Morocco. He was the youngest services recruit from Wales to die in the second world war, and the second youngest in Britain. There is no doubt that the efforts of the merchant navy in the second world war helped to keep the country going and enabled other services to operate. We should remember their bravery and importance. The hazards and risks that today’s merchant seamen and women face have changed, but they still exist.
It is important to emphasise that during times of past conflict, merchant sailors lived particularly harsh lives. They faced the terror of submarines every day, many lost close friends to torpedo attacks, and many were killed or wounded. The psychological trauma faced by merchant navy veterans cannot be understated. We have never had a full picture of the undiagnosed incidence of PTSD among merchant navy seafarers, and I hope that we can do more to look at this. I want to finish by saying how proud I am to represent a city with a rich seafaring tradition, and highlight the gratitude that we owe to them, alongside all those in our armed forces. It is a service that will remain a central part of our act of remembrance and debate.