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Merchant seamen honoured at Portland

Shipmates from Portland branch of the RNA honoured civilian seafarers when they attended the Merchant Navy Day Civic Service at St George’s Churchyard, Portland.

The Merchant Navy Area and National standards were joined by standards from Portland, Weymouth and Dorchester branches.

Many Merchant Navy Veterans and members of the public attended as well as Portland Branch members.

The service was conducted by the Rev Tim Gomm, and Cllr Charlie Flack, Town Mayor (and Portland Branch member) gave the Bible Reading.

The memorial stone pictured has been placed on the grave of six souls who died following the disaster in which sailing vessels Avalanche and Forest collided and sank in foul weather off Portland in September 1877 – it is thought up to 100 crew and passengers died in the accident.

Merchant Navy Day has been held on 3rd September every year since 2000 to commemorate those who worked, lived and died in commercial ships in both world wars as well as peacetime, and to highlight the fact that the UK depends on modern merchant seafarers - some 95 per cent of the nation’s imports arrive by sea, including half of our food.

The date was chosen as it was on 3rd September 1939 that the first major British maritime casualty of the war – the SS Athenia – was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 128 men and women.

It is estimated that almost 150,000 merchant seamen (of many Commonwealth nations) were serving aboard British-registered merchant ships at the outbreak of World War 2 and that up to 185,000 men and women served in the Merchant Navy during the conflict.

They served on ships of all shapes and sizes, from the great ocean liners, such as the 81,000-ton Cunarder RMS Queen Mary which transported troops across the oceans, to coastal colliers of a few hundred tons.

They also ranged in age, from teenagers (Mess Room Boy Ken Lewis died at the age of 14 when the 5,000-ton freighter SS Fiscus was sunk by U-boat in October 1940 – his 15-year-old brother Ray also died in the sinking) to 79-year-old Santan Martins, Chief Cook in the 5,400-ton SS Calabria, which was sunk in December 1940.

Almost 37,000 seamen and women died because of enemy action, over 5,500 were taken prisoner and more than 4,500 were wounded - more than 47,000 casualties, which meant an overall casualty rate of some 25 per cent.