Merchant Navy Awards 1939-1945

This collection details over 9,000 awards made to those who served in the Merchant Navy from 1939-45. The British Merchant Navy fleet was the largest in the world in 1939 and around 185,000 men served in it during the war. It was a highly dangerous job -30,248 men lost their lives –a higher rate than any of the armed services.


Merchant Navy Awards 1939-1945


Merchant Navy Awards 1939-1945

This collection details over 9,000 awards made to those who served in the Merchant Navy from 1939-45.

The British Merchant Navy fleet was the largest in the world in 1939 and around 185,000 men served in it during the war.

It was a highly dangerous job -30,248 men lost their lives –a higher rate than any of the armed services.

The vessels the men served on ranged enormously from large ocean liners to small fishing boats, some larger ships were commissioned into the Royal Navy and these can be found in the 2 volumes of ‘Jane’s fighting ships’ in our historic documents library:

Merchant Navy Ranks

The Merchant Navy has it’s own ‘ranking’ system which is more trade based than the stricter ranks based structure of the armed service.

The MN had different grades of crew depending on whether they were assigned to tasks primarily on the deck, in the engine room or in the catering grades (larger ships only).

They were approximate equivalents to Royal Navy ranks, they didn’t always match up but are a good indication of a seamans position within the ships hierarchy.


Ships over 10,000 tonnes

Deck: Master

Engineering: Chief Engineer

Lieutenant Commander

Ships from 2,501-10,000 tonnes

Deck: Master/First mate/Surgeon

Engineering: Chief Engineer



Ships under 2,500 tonnes

Master Chief Engineer


Sub Lieutenant

Certificated master

Certificated Chief engineer


Acting Sub Lieutenant

Uncertificated mate

Uncertificated engineer

Warrant Officer

Uncertificated Master

Uncertificated Chief engineer


Deck apprentice or cadet/Radio Cadet

Engineering apprentice/Cadet

Officer Cadet

Deck: Deck apprentice/Cadet/radio cadet

Engineering: Engineering apprentice/cadet

Chief petty officer

Home trade cargo ship up to 500 tons

Deck: Mate/Radio Officer/Wireless telegraphist/deck apprentice/cadet/radio cadet/boatswain/carpenter/plumber/cable jointer/assistant cable foreman

Engineering: Engineer/Boilermaker/Uncertificated Boilermaker (Naval Auxiliary)/Sanitary Engineer/Engineering Apprentice or Cadet/Chief Fireman or Stoker

Catering: Chief Steward/Chief Cook

Petty Officer

Deck: Boatswains mate/Carpenters mate/Chief Quartermaster/Hospital attendant

Engineering: Donkeyman/pumpman/engineroom storekeeper/engineroom winchman/first leading fireman/leading hand diesel/electrical assistant.

Catering: baker/Butcher/Second Steward/Senior steward/Saloon steward/Ship’s cook/Officers cook/first writer/head waiter/catering storekeeper 1st class

Leading Seaman

Deck: Craneman/Lamp trimmer/Launchman/Leading seaman/painter/quartermaster/deck storekeeper/deck winchman/seaman cable jointer/cable engine driver

Engineering: Greaser/Leading Fireman/Stoker/Assistant Engineroom Storekeeper

Catering: Second Cook (and Baker)/Cook/Catering Storekeeper/Pantryman/Leading Steward/Second Writer.

Able Seaman

Deck: Able Seaman/Ordinary Seaman/Seaman Cable Hand

Engineering: Fireman or Stoker/Trimmer/Cleaner and Wiper

Catering: Assistant Catering Storekeeper/Second Baker/Assistant Baker/Assistant Butcher/Assistant Cook/Assistant Pantryman/Steward/Assistant Steward/Boy Steward


DEM ships

Defensively equipped Merchant Ships.

During the period leading up to the declaration of war an effort was made to supply defensive capabilities to Merchant ships since it was quite clear that all would be targeted by the enemy.

Over 24,000 RN men and 14,000 Royal Artillery Maritime Regiment were deployed in this task.

150,000 merchant sailors were trained to assist by passing ammunition, loading, and replacing casualties among the military gun crew.

Initially, Royal Artillery personnel provided anti-aircraft protection by bringing their own machine-guns aboard ships operating close to the British Isles DEMS gunners were often retired military personnel and young "Hostilities Only" ratings commanded by a petty officer or Royal Marine sergeant. Large ships sometimes embarked a junior naval officer to command the DEMS gunners.

Records in this collection are likely to include the following:

  • Name
  • Service Number
  • Rank
  • Ship (where known)
  • Gallantry Awards

Original source: Seedies Merchant Navy Awards 1939-1945.


Other Merchant Navy Research

Pre 1918

The records for majority of Merchant Mariners prior to the end of the First World War were destroyed some years ago. However a certain amount of information can be obtained on an individual and their service.

If a Master’s certificate was held many will have a records detailing ships commanded. Some show service from the 1880’s. If holding a Master’s, 1st Mate’s, 2nd Mate’s, Engineer’s or Skipper’s certificate there are records giving personal details as well as date and place the certificate was gained. These can be noted with details of awards, misconduct, also if the certificate was lost as a result of enemy action. This often gives details of the vessel thus enabling further research. This series covers certificates awarded to 1969.

If awarded medals for the First World War details are available giving personal details, medals awarded and often where the medals were sent. Members of the Merchant Fleet Auxiliary may have a secondary medal roll. For many, if serving from the period 1918-21 there is available a card giving details of ships served on during this period. This card also has a portrait photograph.

For those who were killed during the First World War the Ship’s Crew List is usually available. The list details all crew members, age, when signed onto the vessel and usually next of kin and address.

Additionally in the case where an individual was killed or served on a ship that was lost or attacked there is usually a Board of Trade report of the loss, giving details of the incident. These were completed from interviews or completed by the most senior survivor/s of a vessel. These are usually quite detailed.

1918 – 1972

Post First World War records are extensive and include both officers and rating of the Mercantile Marine. One can often build up a full record of service from several series of documents. As already noted there is the card index, 1918 – 21 with a portrait photograph. There are also index cards covering the inter-war years listing ships served with date of joining. There are a variety of cards that may be available covering the period to the 1960’s, some of which have a photograph.

The main register from 1941 lists all ships served on, dates, grade, character etc. Also notes if the vessel was lost. Their MN identity card may also be available along with a variety of documentation. Those Merchant Seaman who signed up to serve on vessels under the Admiralty (TX124) usually have a record giving details of all ships served as well as other documentation.

The records from 1941 also include those who served in the British MN from India, China as well as other nationalities.

If an individual was on a merchant ship during the Second World War that was lost in action there is usually a survivors report available. These were made up from interviews with the most senior survivors of the ship. Giving details of the voyage and an account of action in which lost. Also shown are details of rescue and accounts of bravery, days afloat in life rafts etc.

Also included will be details of WW2 and later campaign medals that were claimed by themselves or next of kin.

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