At 11.15 on the morning of Sunday, 3rd September 1939, the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, began a BBC radio broadcast as follows:-
Merchant Navy officer depicted on the Merchant Navy Memorial
‘This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us.
I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.’
So began the Second World War for Britain as did its first battle, 8hrs 25mins later. The liner SS Athenia was torpedoed without warning by the German submarine U-30 around 200 miles northwest of Ireland at 7.40 that evening. The first British, American and Canadian lives were lost: passengers and crew, civilians all. Bound for Montreal, the ship had called at Belfast and Liverpool after leaving Glasgow on 1st September. 1,418 were on board, 1,103 being passengers of whom three-quarters were women and children, some being Jewish refugees; all were trying to escape imminent war. The Athenia sank slowly, allowing other ships to rescue survivors but 112 died.
The Battle of the Atlantic thus began too, the longest continuous campaign of the War. To keep Britain fed, fuelled and fighting meant keeping open the sea lanes. Introduced four days later, the convoy system of merchant ships escorted by Royal Navy warships, joined by their Allied counterparts, proved decisive as it had in the First World War. Then, but for the advent of convoys in May 1917, Britain would have been forced to capitulate later that year.
23,885 merchant seafarers are commemorated on the Memorial’s Second World War section. Men and women aged between 15 and 74, all have no grave but the sea. Others have graves: its total of almost 40,000 meant the Merchant Navy lost a greater proportion of its personnel than any of the Armed Services.
Panel 12 of the Memorial records, amongst others, 18 names from the SS Athenia while Panel 13 names two crew of the SS Avondale Park, a cargo vessel, torpedoed at 10.40 on the night of 7th May 1945, 1hr 20mins before VE-Day, the end of the War in Europe. Between them, the first and last British ships sunk, the Memorial tells the story of the five years and eight months of which Winston Churchill, then Prime Minister, wrote:
‘The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the War. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea or in the air depended ultimately on its outcome and amid all other cares we viewed its changing fortunes day by day with hope or apprehension.’
All are welcome at this service organised by the Honourable Company of Master Mariners. Music is provided by the Wake Band.
All of the Gardens and much of the Merchant Navy Memorial are accessible by wheelchair.
Go to our arts and events website to find out more about the Merchant Navy Memorial
Underground: Tower Hill station (Circle & District Lines) is adjacent to Trinity Square Gardens and has step-free access. As well as a lift to and from ground level, manual boarding ramps are available for access from platform to train and such assistance can be booked on 0343 222 1234.
15 Trafalgar Square/Charing Cross station - Blackwall station
42 Primrose Street/Liverpool Street station- East Dulwich Sainsbury’s
78 Shoreditch High Street station - St Mary’s Road, Nunhead
100 King Edward Street/St Paul’s station - Shadwell station
343 New Cross/Jerningham Road - Aldgate station
DLR: Tower Gateway station is 5 minutes’ walk from Trinity Square Gardens. All DLR stations have step-free access.
National Rail: Fenchurch Street station is 2 minutes’ walk from Trinity Square Gardens; Liverpool Street station is 15 minutes’ walk away.
London River Services: Tower Pier is fully accessible and 4 minutes’ walk from Trinity Square Gardens.
Cycle: CS3 Cycleway from Lancaster Gate to Tower Hill passes Trinity Square Gardens. A cycle dock at Tower Hill Gardens is 2 minutes’ walk from Trinity Square Gardens.