The photograph above, previously unpublished, is a rare image of a British Merchant Navy gun crew during the early part of the Second World War, taken on board S.S. Clan Murdoch. The man second from left with the binoculars is my grandfather, Lawrance Wilfred Gibbins, the ship’s Second Officer and Gunnery Officer. To his left behind the gun smoking a pipe is a non-commissioned officer of the Royal Marines or Royal Artillery, and the other men are all ship’s officers (the Indian Lascar ratings aboard Clan ships were not trained as gunners). The gun is a 12 pounder (3 inch) gun of the type that equipped many merchant ships in the early months of the war, on a high-angle mount for use against aircraft.
From mid-1938 many Merchant Navy officers had been sent on Royal Navy gunnery courses in anticipation of war, with the Second Officer on each large ship typically being appointed Gunnery Officer. The experience of the latter stages of the First World War had shown that guns on merchant ships with trained gunners could be used effectively against surfaced U-boats and raiders, and this provision was extended to anti-aircraft defence in the Second World War. Many Merchant Navy officers such as my grandfather had begun their careers as Royal Naval Reserve cadets on board the school ships HMS Conway and HMS Worcester, so had experience of rifle shooting as well as naval discipline that made them suitable for gunnery training.
By the end of 1940, the Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS) organisation at the Admiralty had armed more than 3,400 merchant ships, and by the end of the war some 150,000 merchant seamen of many nationalities had attended Royal Navy gunnery courses and been issued proficiency certificates as ‘Merchant Seamen Gunners.’ In addition, the Admiralty provided DEMS gunners drawn from the armed services, including Royal Navy and Royal Marines reservists and in particular the Royal Artillery, with the Maritime Royal Artillery (created in early 1943) numbered at its peak over 14,000 men. These men served and fought alongside Merchant Navy gunners in all theatres of the war at sea, suffering the same high casualty rate as the other crew members when their ships were torpedoed or mined or attacked by aircraft and surface raiders.
The gun crew in this photograph were in action against German aircraft over the North Sea in February 1941, after Clan Murdoch had undertaken a five-month voyage to ports in Africa and India. She had returned with a cargo of iron from Freetown to the UK in convoy SL 62, which lost three ships in the space of 24 hours on 30-31 January to air attack off Ireland - the Belgian Olympier, the Norwegian Austvard, sunk with only 8 survivors, and the British SS Rowanbank, lost with her entire crew of 68 British officers and Lascar ratings. Two days later Clan Murdoch arrived on the Clyde, and a week after that she steamed in convoy around Scotland towards north-east England.
My grandfather described to me how the ship was bombed and strafed near the Humber Estuary, but that he and his crew were able to reach the gun in time and fire several rounds at the attacking aircraft. The Ship Movement Card for Clan Murdoch, reproduced here, shows that the action took place on 17 February when the ship was between Flamborough Head and Hull, and was ‘damaged by aircraft.’ During that weekend German air activity had been particularly intense off north-east England, with an estimated 90 aircraft laying mines off Flamborough Head and southwards on the 17th-18th, very probably including the aircraft that attacked Clan Murdoch. My grandfather kept two shell casings from this action and had them by his fireplace in later years. It was one of numerous occasions in which ‘non-combatant’ merchant seamen engaged enemy aircraft during the war, often resulting in attacks being averted and aircraft being damaged or destroyed.
Click here for an information sheet on the DEMS produced by the National Museums Liverpool, including reference to primary source materials, and here for a diary of incidents of air attack off north-east England in February 1941. The British officers of SS Rowenbank are commemorated on Panel 89 of the Tower Hill Memorial in London. I’d welcome contact from anyone who thinks they can identify the other men of Clan Murdoch in the photograph.