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Records on Second World War merchant shipping now online

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Records on Second World War merchant shipping now online

23 January 2009

The movements of merchant ships during the Second World War can now be discovered at DocumentsOnline. The merchant shipping movement cards record the journeys of both British registered and Allied vessels engaged in the war effort from 1939.

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The series of cards within BT 389  record the name of the ship, any former name it had, its size (tonnage), to whom it was registered, the ship's destination, date of arrival and occasionally ports of call. They also record any cargo carried on board. Importantly for historians, the cards show if the ship was torpedoed, mined, damaged or sunk during the war.

The merchant shipping movement cards were started by the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen. They are concerned only with the details of the ship and therefore do not contain details of any passengers or crew, as this information was considered a security risk by the Admiralty during the war.

You can search for cards by:

  • Ship name
  • Former ship name
  • Gross tonnage
SS Athenia movement card - click to enlarge

Case study: SS Athenia

The first merchant vessel casualty of the Second World War was the passenger liner, SS Athenia, whose movement card is shown. She set sail on 1 September 1939 from Glasgow with over 1400 passengers and crew aboard. Without warning, the ship was torpedoed and shelled by a German U-boat.

Her sinking caused outrage and Germany denied any involvement, even claiming a 'dirty tricks' campaign by Winston Churchill. In truth, the German U-boat fleet was under strict orders not to sink passenger ships, but the U-boat commander, Lt. Fritz Julius Lemp, had mistaken the liner for an auxiliary merchant cruiser. After realising his error, he kept the details of his actions secret for several weeks.

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