Skip to main content

Speech for Merchant Navy Day service (03 Sep 2010)

Speech made by Minister Christopher Finlayson.

In the Second World War, New Zealand's Minister of Agriculture and Marketing described the Merchant Navy as "the axis around which the war effort has revolved."

If the Merchant Navy had not prevailed in the Battle of the Atlantic against the menace of U-boats, warships, aircraft and mines, Britain would have been starved into submission, the RAF would not have had the fuel to take to the air, and the War would have taken a very different turn. 

In both world wars, the war effort would not have continued without the Merchant Navy.  Merchant ships were a vital lifeline, with New Zealand supplying much of the United Kingdom's butter and cheese, and exporting tons of meat, bales of wool, and munitions. Merchant ships also carried this country's soldiers to war and brought them home.

During times of war, merchant navies have long been regarded by governments as a military reserve. In the two world wars, our ships and seafarers were no different.

They were on the front line of the war. They faced the constant possibility of attack, and death in the freezing waters of the Atlantic or in the shark-infested waters of the Pacific. 

If they were captured, they faced internment in German or Japanese prison camps.  This was the fate of some of our seafarers. At least five of them died in Japanese captivity.

Our men sailed under various Allied flags in the Second World War, carrying food and supplies to the United Kingdom, to Russia's Arctic ports, to Malta, and to American troops in the Pacific. They evacuated refugees and prisoners-of-war. They crewed on hospital ships.

They ferried troops to landings on D-Day, and in Italy, Southern France and North Africa.

It is not surprising the Merchant Navy was recognised as 'the fourth service'.  After the war, veterans were entitled to many of the same war benefits as personnel in the Armed Forces, including pensions and post-war rehabilitation assistance.

Nonetheless, 'the fourth service' in many ways became 'the forgotten service'.

There has been some government work to remedy this amnesia.  When the Ministry for Culture and Heritage started to roll out its oral history programme for the Second World War, it became clear the Merchant Navy experience was a forgotten chapter in New Zealand's history.

The resulting book, Hell or High Water, helped address that gap. Historian Neill Atkinson interviewed merchant navy men who served in various theatres of war, and the book reveals just how close to home the war on merchant shipping was.

Many New Zealanders are probably unaware about the ships sunk by the German raiders Wolf, Orion and Komet in or near our waters in both world wars. 

This important book has now been reprinted and the tapes of our seafarers' experiences are held in the Turnbull Library for posterity.

The Merchant Navy Association campaigned to have 3 September included in the government's programme of commemorations - especially since our wartime allies, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia have all recognised Merchant Navy Day in the last decade. 

Today it is New Zealand's turn.  This is an historic occasion for the Merchant Navy in New Zealand. For the first time, the government is commemorating the service of New Zealand merchant seafarers during times of war.

On becoming a Minister, I decided it was important to get government agencies to work together on anniversaries of significant events, military commemorations, and recognition of outstanding New Zealanders and their achievements.

The resulting commemorations programme will ensure Merchant Navy Day is now marked every year alongside other important military anniversaries. 

I hope this commemorative day will raise awareness amongst New Zealanders about the role of the Merchant Navy in both World Wars.

I hope it will also bring attention to the critical role merchant shipping continues to play in New Zealand's economy, with the vast bulk of our exports dependent on its services.

To all our ex-Merchant Navy men here today, to their families and friends, I extend the thanks of the government for the courage, fortitude, and commitment shown by our seafarers during times of war and peace.

New Zealand is indebted to them, and will remember those who have no grave but the sea

Updated on 10th January 2017