My Six War Years - June 26 1940 - June 26 1946
By John F. Osborne As Told To Mary S. Osborne
The Maritime Regiment of Artillery was an offshoot of the Defense Equipped Merchant Ships. Early in 1940, Churchill ordered all merchant ships to be armed for defense. This was called the D.E.M.S. and required gunners to man the surface guns, which assignment was given to the Royal Navy.
In September, 1940, the Navy needed more machine gunners and turned to the Army, and the army regiments were asked for volunteers. They wanted a total of 500 two-man teams, about forty from each regiment. These men were given training in gunnery and sent to different ports around England to protect merchant ships. This worked very well so it was decided to form a regiment attached to the Royal Artillery.
In 1941 it was named the Maritime Royal Artillery and at that time had no officers or special rules except to safeguard the shipping. It acquired the nicknames of “Churchill’s Own,” “Churchill’s Pirates,” “Churchill’s Sharpshooters,” and, by the Germans, “Churchill’s Spies”! In each port the men reported to a Royal Navy lieutenant who would assign a pair of gunners with a machine gun to each ship. When the Royal Artillery took charge, we had regular officers and noncoms giving orders but they did not go to sea.
Some of the original volunteers were promoted to rank of sergeant and trained their own crews, but most ships had only a team of two men to defend them. They worked four hour watches continuously and were then going overseas in ships all around the world in convoy or alone. They had to defend against both aircraft and submarines but were only paid in ports where there was an army office, sometimes going months without army pay.
If the ship could use them they worked as deck hands and were paid the going rate. By March 1943, there were over 13,000 M.R.A. gunners serving at sea and at the end of the war the total casualties were 1,222 dead.
For gallantry and distinguished service at sea M.R.A. gunners were awarded naval, not military decorations, which included Distinguished Service, Order of the British Empire, the George Medal and the Lloyds Medal. There were also decorations from various countries whose ships were protected by the gunners, such as Poland, Holland, Belgium, France, Estonia, Norway and other Allied countries.
There were 841 Naval awards given to the men, including 263 D.S.M.s and 110 O.B.E.s. The M.R.A. gunners sailed on every type of merchant ship- fishing trawlers, converted luxury liners, cargo ships, troop ships, oilers, ammunition carriers, tankers, coastal vessels and sea-going tugs. Sometimes they traveled in convoys with destroyer escort, but usually after three days the escorts would leave and the ships were unprotected except for their guns.
Some ships like the Queen Mary, with 35 knots max speed, were too fast to travel in convoy. Others, like the Umberleigh, with 5 knots maximum speed, were too slow. I was a gunner on both of them. Much of the time we were out on our own.
By the end of the war, 2,713 D.E.M. gunners had given their lives, including 1,222 M.R.A. men.
CREDITS: We wish to thank John Slader for some statistics, information and photographs we have borrowed from his book, “The Fourth Service”, Merchantmen at War, 1939-45.