Friday 13 February 2015

The Mercantile Marine Memorial, Tower Hill, London

WW1 Memorial on Left, WW2 is a sunken semi-circular garden on the right
One of the most overlooked but worthwhile sights of London lies directly across the road from the Tower of London. Though thousands visit the Tower at the height of the tourist season few ever notice the vast, but unobtrusive, memorial at the exit of the Tube Station through which so many arrive. It commemorates the thousands of merchant seamen and fishermen who died in both World Wars.  If you are in London at any time it is well worth a visit and to spend a minutes or two in silent contemplation of the sacrifices made by these men to secure the freedom we enjoy today. Their names have been recorded on bronze plaques, under alphabetical listing by name of the ships they died on.
WW2 Section - over 24,000 names
The numbers are astounding: the plaques in the World War 1 memorial, a severe classical building, list over 12,000 names while in the semi-circular garden behind, the names amount to a staggering 24.000. The overwhelming feeling one has on visiting is one of infinite sadness, the vibrancy of life in the surrounding streets, and the heavy traffic passing, providing a marked contrast to the tens of thousands of tragedies that destroyed promise and left family happiness blighted.

Bronze plaques recording WW2 losses - panel after panel after panel
It was some ten years since I had last visited when I decided to go there again last week (please forgive the quality of the photographs taken on  a cell-‘phone). When I was there before I tended to look for the names of the best known shipping losses – such as the SS Athenia in 1939. Since that last visit however the internet has provided a vast resource into which one can tap in order that so many of the names of the vessels sunk – and their crews – are no longer anonymous. It is now possible to fasten on to individual ship-names and, by Google, search out the circumstances of the loss and to appreciate just how these men met their death.

Sister ship of SS Manaqui - with acknowledgement to site
One is struck by the fact that in the case of some sinkings – and not necessarily of small vessels only – the lives lost were in single figures. In others the list is a very long one. The 2,802 tons SS Manaqui built in 1921 was sunk by torpedo on 15th March, 1942, near Barbuda. She took with her the master, and 34 crew members, all of whose names are recorded on the relevant plaque. There were six further deaths however, gunners, whose names do not appear as they were service personnel.
See losses at bottom left for SS Manaqui

WW1-vintage 4" gun on a WW2 DEMS
The loss of these six gunners highlights the fact that weapons – usually obsolete and of WW1 vintage – was carried on so-called Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS) during WW2. The personnel to operate them came either from the Royal Navy (a total of 24,000) or the Royal Artillery Maritime Regiment (14,000 total). In addition 150,000 merchant sailors were trained to pass ammunition, load, and replace casualties in the service gun crews. The gunners were often retired military personnel and there were many young "Hostilities Only" ratings, each crew commanded by a petty officer. The presence on board many of the ships listed on the Tower Hill Memorial should therefore be borne in mind as they represent a further addition to the long lists of casualties.

RMS Empress of Britain arriving in Scotland with Canadian troops
HMS Hood in the background
RMS Empress of Britain losses
One is struck by how chance alone determined the numbers lost.  By contrast with the high death toll on a vessel as small as the Manaqui, the 42,348-ton, Empress of Britain, the largest liner sunk in WW2, lost 18 men. This gigantic ship – with a peacetime capacity of 1200 passengers and a crew of some 700 – was attacked by a Luftwaffe Focke-Wulf Condor off the north-west coast of Ireland on 26th October 1940. Crippled and burning, 416 crew, 2 gunners, and 205 passengers were taken off by escorting destroyers and tugs arrived to take her in tow with only a skeleton crew left on-board. The German submarine U-32 now moved n for the kill and despatched the stricken liner with three torpedoes.

On the same panel as the Manaqui one finds the SS Manchester Citizen (1925). Of the twelve men who died when she was torpedoed on 9th July 1943 on a run to Lagos, after surviving several supply runs for the Eighth Army, one name had special poignancy for me. This is that of J.W. Jumbo, a common family name around Bonny, in S.E. Nigeria (where I spent part of my own life). It reminded me of one splendid old Nigerian gentleman, now blind, whom I met in Warri in the late 1980s. He was proud of spending the entire war at sea and he summed it up with the words “It was a job that had to be done”. I like to think of J.W. Jumbo of the Manchester Citizen as also such a man. His name on the memorial serves as a reminder of the service of Nigerian personnel in WW2 not only at sea, but on land also, especially in the Burma Campaign against the Japanese.

SS Empire Engineer losses
Each ship-name stands for a unique story that can be easily accessed on the internet. I had photographed, almost at random, the names associated with the SS Empire Engineer but the name meant nothing to me until I entered in Google. Now I know that she was a typical cargo ocean-going steamer of her time and all the more valuable in that she had large refrigerated cargo space, which made her ideal for carrying much-needed food supplies.  Her fate was to be typical of dozens, it not hundreds, of closely similar vessels. Built in Canada in 1920, she passed into Italian ownership in the 1930s and she found herself at Hartlepool, in N.E. England, when Italy entered the war against Britain on 10th June 1940. Seized as a war-prize by the government, she became the SS Empire Engineer. Her career in British service was to be short one for on 4th February 1941, straggling astern of Convoy SC 20, which was en route  from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and with which she was unable to keep up, she was torpedoed by U-123 in Mid-Atlantic. She sank in four minutes and she took the entire crew with her, 39 men whose names are listed on the memorial. 

SS Fort Bellingham (1943) - with acknowledgement to
Other ships also had short lives in British service. A brand-new 7153-ton freighter, the Fort Bellingham, completed in Vancouver BC in August 1943. She lasted until 26th January 1944 – less than six months – and she was to be torpedoed by U-957 in the Barents Sea while on one of the Arctic Convoys, to Murmansk. They chances of survival in winter conditions in those latitudes were minimal but escorts managed to rescue 36 men, including gunners and naval personnel. Two were picked up by the U-Boat herself (one would like to know more about how this happened) but 21 merchant seamen were lost, and their names are on the memorial plaque. In addition 14 gunners and two other naval personnel were lost.

SS Fort Bellingham names on left
The stories above have been plucked at random; inspired by a few of the ship-names I followed up on the Internet. There is many, many more, each one a tale of heroism, sacrifice and tragedy.  It’s good to visit the memorial, better still to delve a little into the stories each name stands for, best of all to remember the sacrifices we are indebted for.

The WW1 Memorial - bronze plaques inside and out

The 1982 Falklands Memorial - the Tower of London in the background
Though the memorial site is primarily dedicated to WW1 and WW2 losses, there is a small, sad postscript, the memorial to the merchant seamen lost in the Falklands campaign in 1982. The numbers may be small, but for each bereaved family the loss was, and remains, immeasurable.

So if you are in London set aside an  hour or two, take the Tube to Tower Hill Station and take a look at the memorial. You won’t regret it.



  1. Thank you for your information. I was/am looking at some of Sir Edwin Lutyens memorial/monuments. I shall make a point of visiting this one.

  2. I'm glad you liked the blog Dorothy. The memorial is indeed worth a visit - one of London's overlooked gems.