URSABLOG: A Sense Of Dread

There is a memorial on Liverpool’s Pier Head that bears the inscription “These officers and men of the Merchant Navy died while serving with the Royal Navy and have no grave but the sea 1939–1945”. I used to see it when I went for a walk during my lunch hours (we had them then) at the start of my career in shipping. It always made me stop and think a bit about war, the sea, the life and hardships suffered, and the last resting place of those who never came home, and whose families never had a funeral to go to, or a graveside to visit. It seemed like a different world. It seemed like it had been left in the past.

I got into shipping by accident: I needed a job to work and fund my way through a part-time Masters’ degree I was taking at the University of Liverpool. My first three years in shipping were as a dangerous goods stowage co-ordinator at a container shipping line, and it was a suitable enough nine-to-five job to be able to balance work and studies, but it didn’t really fire my imagination. But something had hooked me; I indicated to my directors that I wanted a new challenge, and in the end they gave me one: sale and purchase shipbroking. The rest, as they say, is history.

The time between finishing my studies and starting my new job was one of reading all I could get my hands on about shipping, but lacking any guidance or formal shipping education, it was a very wide and random reading list. There were a lot of adventure stories, and tales of bravery and courage, fighting against the odds against the elements, usually written with a conscious stiffening of the author’s upper lip. They did not appeal to me. One I do remember however was The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Montsarrat, a book – later made into a very good film – centred around George Ericson, a Merchant Navy and Royal Navy Reserve officer who is given command of a corvette, newly delivered to escort convoys of cargo vessels across the North Atlantic. The book managed – to me at least – to be a realistic, emotional but not sensational record of the challenges and tragedies of wartime at sea, and the almost anticlimax of victory.

One of the things it underlined however was that to the enemy – in the Battle of the North Atlantic that mostly meant German navy U-boats – anything afloat in a convoy, of whatever flag, crewed by whatever nationality of seamen was a legitimate target for them. Human life, of course, was dispensable. Greeks also suffered: I recommend Μικρά Αγγλία by Ioanna Karystiani (it translates literally as Little England, but I read the English version – published as The Jasmine Isle). The title of the book is named after the ship, manned and commanded by Andros natives, that was lost in the same battle.

The numbers of casualties for merchant seamen during World War Two are horrific: 36,749 seamen were lost to enemy action, 5,720 were taken prisoner and 4,707 were wounded, a minimum casualty rate of over 25 percent, and a considerably greater casualty rate than almost every other branch of the armed services. Essential to the war effort, the ships they served on were unarmed, slow, had limited manoeuvrability and no real means to defend themselves or avoid danger, the ships themselves often not built to last; under the protection of their military naval escorts, they were sitting ducks. But without them, or the cargo that they carried, the Allied war effort would have faltered and failed. For either side, merchant shipping was seen as a legitimate target as it was aiding the war effort of their enemies.

It should come as no surprise why this topic has been on my mind in the last few days. That Russia withdrew from the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI) was widely expected, but it felt ominous, especially as it coincided with attacks on Odesa over two nights, targeting grain and other cargo handling installations. The Russian defence ministry last Wednesday issued a statement that was chilling in its language and intent:

“All vessels heading to Ukrainian ports in Black Sea waters will be regarded as potentially carrying military cargo. The countries whose flags such vessels are carrying will be regarded as ones involved in the Ukrainian conflict on the side of Kyiv.”

If that wasn’t bad enough, Ukraine then announced that any ships headed for Russian or Russian occupied ports would also be considered as legitimate military targets. Both Ukraine and Russia declared their adversary’s ports and the seas around them as being dangerous for shipping, and prohibited access. Russia was also reportedly once again mining the approaches to Ukrainian ports.

This is a sad and unwelcome escalation, but a brutal realisation of the seriousness of the conflict that we have perhaps managed to normalise. It was not that long ago when the negotiations around the BSGI were the forum for heated arguments and flag snatching fist fights, almost comedic, reduced to TikTok video clips. But now we have the destruction of port and storage facilities, and threats to neutral shipping, threats that  extend to the crew on board. Maybe this is sabre-rattling on both sides, but I fear that this is wishful thinking on my part. Everything that has previously been threatened has eventually happened, and the likelihood that commercial shipping will be targeted is now more, rather than less likely to happen.

One big gap in my shipping education is my lack of the knowledge of actually being at sea. I deal with shipowners and other brokers mostly, not those employed on ships and I have never spent any significant time at sea. However, whenever I do have the honour to work with and teach those who have been to sea I hope that I do give them the respect that is due. Many of my colleagues, friends, students past and present do communicate on a daily basis with people that work on ships: those that work in operations, technical, crewing, HQSE, supplies, and so on. Those relationships are as important, more important, in keeping ships going, and the crew safe than any conversations I may have. I know that they consider the people that they communicate with as human beings, people, not legitimate wartime targets.

Freedom of navigation is not just the freedom taken by competing military navies to make a point by making voyages through areas that raise tension. It is the freedom for ships owned by non-combatants to have the right to do business. And it is surely the freedom for people, with families to feed, with ambitions to fulfil, to make a living without being molested, let alone being targeted as collateral in someone else’s conflict, however just – or unjust – the cause.

The statements about shipping by both Russia and Ukraine fill me with dread. They have opened a Pandora’s box of ‘legitimate’ action that can be excused, and explained, but never justified in terms of human lives. But, once said, it cannot be unsaid, and even saying it sets a precedent that will be hard to unwind. The point about Pandora’s box was that once opened, all the curses in the world flew out and could not be put back. But, in mythology at least, the one thing that was left in the container was hope.

My hope is that we do live in different times now. I hope that the world thinks better of itself, values human life more, and the interconnectivity of the world, through travel, through social media, through work will make those who have it their power will think twice, and a few times more, before targeting legitimate, peaceful, essential, innocent commercial shipping.

But we need more than hope, we need courage and determination to protect those going about their legitimate, peaceful, essential and innocent business from deadly harm. But who will provide this protection? Who protected crews during COVID? Who respected them? Not the nation states.

What fills me with the greatest fear however is that I know that hope is not enough, the past is not over and done with, and this escalation of rhetoric is likely lead to future memorials to the dead lost at sea in parts of the world so far unmarked by conflict. This is truly a tragedy, because if commercial shipping has indeed become a legitimate target, then pain, suffering and death are sure to follow in its wake. 

Simon Ward