Unsung Heroes: Honouring the Merchant Navies of the Second World War

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Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes

Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes

The Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes is the Minister of Maple Grove United Church, and is a member of the Interfaith Councill of Halton. A chatty extrovert with a conversational preaching style, a multi-tasker who is a “multi-worrier” when it comes to caring about people’s problems, and a leader who treasures teaming with the lay people in her church, Morar says that at Maple Grove she has experienced “a deeper level of ministry than I thought possible.” Anyone who has personally received Morar’s deeply compassionate caring and wise counsel will testify to what an inspirational, healing and encouraging ministry it is.

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Delmanor Glen Abbey Residence for Seniors held a Remembrance Service recently at which they honoured the men and women who served and lost their lives in the British and Canadian Merchant Navies in the Battle of the Atlantic.

The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest continuous military campaign of World War II and the most essential to win. Britain required more than four million tons of imports a month to survive and to fight.

Winston Churchill knew the value of the Merchant Navies:

The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea or in the air depended ultimately on its outcome.

One Man’s Story

JBM Murray, a resident of Delmanor, was Second Radio Officer with the British Merchant Navy from Glasgow, Scotland.  By 1941, he had made three voyages, one successful in reaching Canada and returning with goods, including trucks, ambulances, ammunition from Montreal and three tons of dynamite from Sorel Quebec. His second ship was attacked barely escaping destruction.  His third trip — on the Harlesden — ended with a vicious storm at sea, significantly damaging the ship.  After repairs, the Harlesden set sail again in early February, 1942.  An excerpt from his memoirs follows, describing the sinking of the Harlesden.

“Saturday 22nd February, 1942 dawned bright and clear. The sea was calm and there were no other ships to be seen. We expected to arrive in North America in a few days time.

About 9.30 a.m. radio silence was suddenly shattered by an S.O.S. from one of the other ships which had been in our convoy. “RRRRR…..” told us the attack was by a surface raider rather than S for submarine or A for aircraft. Half an hour later we received a similar message from another ship. The distress messages from the two ships were picked by Mackay Radio on the east coast of Canada and relayed as a warning to other shipping. We shut down our own radio in case emissions would disclose our position to the enemy raider.”

They headed south, hoping to evade attack.  At 2.30 in the afternoon they were strafed by a plane killing the Second Mate and injuring another.

Murray’s memoir continues:

“At 8.30 that evening it was just getting dark. I was on watch in the radio room along with the Third Radio Officer, Bob Thomson a barber from Paisley on his first trip to sea. We could not use the radio but we were on duty in case we had to send out a distress message. We were both lying on the floor half asleep.

Without any warning a shell shattered the radio room carrying its equipment on into the wheelhouse killing the man at the wheel. The radio room was reduced to rubble and open to the air. What saved me was the miraculous fact that two pieces of rubble jammed on the floor in an inverted V shape over my head. If I had been sitting up or standing I would have had no chance of survival. I was wounded in the back, how seriously I did not know until much later.

There was no sign of Bob Thomson. My next thought was for my lifejacket which had been on top of a cupboard. I looked around and stared into a searchlight high up in the sky. There was no lifejacket. There was no cupboard. The guns went again, shelling the bridge and putting a row of shells from stem to stern on the starboard side of the Harlesden just under the waterline. Within minutes the ship started to list to starboard. Fires had started on deck.

I dropped down to the main deck in time to see the lifeboat on the port side being lowered, and I clambered in unrecognised, covered in cement dust from the concrete blocks erected around the radio room for protection.

Now we could see our attacker, a huge battleship – the Gneisenau – heaved to nearby, and up ahead of the Harlesden was her sister ship the Scharnhorst.

We were ordered alongside the Gneisenau and were hauled aboard. As we stood on deck we witnessed the last of the poor old Harlesden go down by the stern, the fires on deck being extinguished as she sank beneath the waves. The Germans pulled someone from the water but he was dead and they threw him back. I believe this might have been Bob Thomson.

We lost seven in the action out of our complement of 41, including John Harper, Greaser from Montreal.

The two destroyers sank 5 ships on that day, all from our convoy, including the A.D.Huff, Canadian.”

Murray’s memoirs go on to describe over four years of imprisonment at Marlag und Milag Nord, where the 5000 captured Merchant seamen were held.  The Canadian Red Cross, along with the British Red Cross, kept the prisoners alive with regular packages.

By the end of the war, over 72 000 sailors and merchant seamen had been killed.  3 500 merchant vessels were sunk along with 175 warships.  30 000 Germans lost their lives.

1,600 Canadian merchant sailors were killed, including eight women.

The Battle of the Atlantic was the only battle of the Second World War to reach Canadian shores. U-boats disrupted coastal shipping from the Caribbean to Halifax, and even entered into battle in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Rear Admiral Leonard Murray, Commander-in-Chief Canadian North Atlantic, wrote:

“…the Battle of the Atlantic was not won by any Navy or Air Force, it was won by the courage, fortitude and determination of the British and Allied Merchant Navy.”

While veterans of the British Merchant Navy received full benefits,  Canadian Merchant mariners were not recognized as veterans until the 1990s. Murray, though a British veteran, travelled to Ottawa to speak on behalf of his Canadian colleagues.

The war work of the Canadian Red Cross was a factor in Murray’s decision to emigrate after the war.


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