Merchant Navy Day is celebrated annually in the UK On 3 September. The Merchant Navy is the maritime register of the United Kingdom, and describes the seagoing commercial interests of UK-registered ships and their crews. Merchant Navy vessels fly the Red Ensign and are regulated by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). King George V bestowed the title of “Merchant Navy” on the British merchant shipping fleets following their service in the First World War. The Merchant Navy has been in existence for a significant period in British history, owing much of its growth to British imperial expansion. As an entity in itself it can be dated back to the 17th century, where an attempt was made to register all seafarers as a source of labour for the Royal Navy in times of conflict. That registration of merchant seafarers failed, and it was not successfully implemented until 1835. British ships were also deeply involved in acts of piracy and armed robbery on the high seas, off the waters of Europe and Caribbean, as ships with British sailors robbed from ships of foreign navies. The merchant fleet grew over successive years to become the world’s foremost merchant fleet, benefiting considerably from trade with British possessions in India and the Far East. The lucrative trade in sugar, contraband (opium to China), spices and tea (carried by ships such as the Cutty Sark) helped to solidify this dominance in the 19th century.
During the First and Second World Wars, the Merchant Service suffered heavy losses from German U-boat attacks. A policy of unrestricted warfare meant that merchant seafarers were also at risk of attack from enemy ships. The tonnage lost to U-boats in the First World War was around 7,759,090 tons, and around 14,661 merchant seafarers were killed. In honour of the sacrifice made by merchant seafarers in the First World War, George V granted the title “Merchant Navy” to the service. In 1928 George V made Edward, Prince of Wales “Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets”; a title he retained after his accession in January 1936 and relinquished only at his abdication that December. Since Edward VIII the title has automatically been held by the sovereigns George VI and Elizabeth II. During the Second World War, German U-boats sank nearly 14.7 million tons of Allied shipping, which amounted to 2,828 ships (around two thirds of the total allied tonnage lost). The United Kingdom alone suffered the loss of 11.7 million tons, which was 54% of the total Merchant Navy fleet at the outbreak of the Second World War. 32,000 merchant seafarers were killed aboard convoy vessels in the war, but along with the Royal Navy, the convoys successfully imported enough supplies to allow an Allied victory. In honour of the sacrifices made in the two World Wars, the Merchant Navy lays wreaths of remembrance alongside the armed forces in the annual Remembrance Day service on 11 November. Merchant Navy Day became an official day of remembrance on 3 September 2000.
Despite maintaining its dominant position for many decades, the decline of the British Empire in the mid-20th century inevitably led to the decline of the merchant fleet. in 1939 the Merchant Navy was the largest in the world with 33% of total tonnage but By 2012, the Merchant Navy — yet still remaining one of the largest in the world — held only 3% of total tonnage. According to the CIA World Fact Book, in 2010 the Merchant Navy consisted of 504 UK registered ships of 1,000 gross register tons (GRT) or over. In addition, UK merchant marine interests possessed a further 308 ships registered in other countries and 271 foreign-owned ships were registered in the UK.In 2012 British merchant marine interests consisted of 1,504 ships of 100 GRT or over. This included ships either UK directly owned, parent-owned or managed by a British company. This amounted to: 59,413,000 GRT or alternatively 75,265,000 DWT. This is according to the annual maritime shipping statistics provided by the British Government and the Department for Transport.