WWII Merchant Seamen Honoured At Bristol's Empire Museum

By David Prudames | 11 November 2004
Shows a black and white photograph of a vast explosion out at sea.

Ammunition Ship, the Mary Luckenback is hit and explodes on her way to Russia. © Imperial War Museum.

When it comes to honouring the sacrifice and sheer courage of those who took part in the Second World War, the Merchant Navy is often overlooked.

But a new exhibition at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol seeks to raise their profile and reveal the little known experiences of these unsung heroes.

Launched on Remembrance Day, Thursday November 11, Cruel Sea will be on display in the museum’s café gallery until February 11 2005.

Created in partnership with Age Exchange, a charity that promotes the use of reminiscence in the arts, the show uses photos, sound and film to tell the extraordinary stories of survivors from Bristol who served in the dark days of the Second World War.

Shows a black and white photograph of a merchant seaman covered in oil and leaning on rail, sitting on the deck of a ship.

A Merchant Navy seaman rescued following the sinking of his ship. © Imperial War Museum.

More than 30,000 Merchant seamen from across the British Empire have lost their lives on merchant ships, with approximately one in four of them killed between 1939 and 1945.

Over 3,000 merchant ships were sunk, yet despite these losses the Merchant Navy continued to bring home food and raw materials from around the world.

Their courage in facing terrible conditions at sea and at war enabled Britain to endure and to feed itself at a time when defeat, not victory, seemed inevitable.

Age Exchange and the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum have been working closely with members of the Bristol Merchant Navy Association whose stories provide the backdrop to the exhibition.

Students from Bristol’s City Academy, aged betwen 13 and 14, conducted interviews with veterans, many of whom weren't much older than that when they went to sea.

Shows a photograph of two veteran Merchant Navy seamen, wearing berets and rows of medals on their chests.

Leonard Dib Western (left) pictured in front of the war memorial in Bristol.

One of the those featured is Leonard Dib Western who joined the Merchant Navy at the age of 15. He describes how he sailed from Bristol on a Norwegian ship:

"Mother was going to come down with my brothers to see me off. Only we went at 10 o’ clock, so I missed them. I was very sea sick, from here to Barry. It was on a Sunday evening. I sat under a lifeboat, a hole in my sock and I was so homesick I broke my heart"

Other Bristol merchant veterans interviewed include Bob Bromley, Gerald Warden, Bill Wann, Ray Buck, Tom Scotland and Ray Pearce.

According to museum staff, Cruel Sea is the first project of its kind with veterans, museums, artists, filmmakers, voluntary associations and education professionals working together to record first hand experience of the war at sea.

After showing at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, it will embark on a national tour visiting including Liverpool, Plymouth, Newcastle, Southampton and Falmouth.

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