he 1,962grt Oluf Mærsk was built in 1916 by Vuijk at Capelle aan den Ijssel. On 30th November 1941 she was sunk north of Ameland in an air attack by British aircraft. (John B Hill Collection)

The biggest container ship company in the world had very humble beginnings 116 years ago on 16th April 1904, its affairs being run from the Møller home of Villa Anna in the fishing and boat building town of Svendborg on the south coast of the island of Fyn between the Great Belt and Little Belt of Denmark. On that April day, Capt. Peter Mærsk Møller (1836-1927) and his son Arnold Peter Møller (1876-1965) and four other prominent citizens of Svendborg became directors of the D/S Svendborg A/S (Svendborg Steamship Company) with a capital of 150,000 Danish kroner in Dkr 500 shares. Arnold Peter Møller was employed at the time in the busy Copenhagen office of established ship owner C. K. Hansen as a Chartering Manager, but together with his father took 46% of the issued shares. The very small steamer Laura had been under the command of Capt. Peter Mærsk Møller in 1886, and also later by another son, Hans Mærsk-Møller, the hyphenated surname clearly showing both the Mærsk and the Møller sides of the family.

Mærk’s first ship was the 1,457grt Svendborg which was built in 1902 by J. Crown & Sons at Monkwearmouth as the Ada for Whinfield SS Co. (Cardiff) Ltd. She joined Mærsk in 1905. In 1908 she was sold to Dansk D/S Rossia and renamed Generalconsul Elissejeff. On 20th February 1914 she was wrecked 3nm East of Arinagour, Coll while on a voyage from Liverpool to Stettin.

The 1,367grt Anna Mærsk was built in 1908 by Vuijk at Capelle aan den Ijssel. In 1923 she was sold to Nearco Shipping of Glasgow and renamed Ayrco and in 1929 she moved to Soc Brazileira de Cabotagem Ltda. of Rio de Janeiro as Maria Luisa. In 1933 she moved to Cia “Serras” de Nav e Commercio as Serra Negra and in 1935 they renamed her Arassu. She was broken up by Cia Siderurgica Nacional at Rio during July 1961.


The first steamer was purchased six months later on 6th October in the Sunderland built Ada of 1901 from Cardiff owners and was renamed Svendborg after her home port. She was given a black funnel with a central seven pointed white star, which was later worn on a central pale blue band. Svendborg was a busy fishing and boat building town, with also other industries, but only two out of the twenty yards have survived until recently. The new steamer had recorded a reasonable profit during her first year of trading by October 1905. The second steamer was delivered new from a Dutch yard in September 1906 as Peter Mærsk with her sister Anna Mærsk delivered two years later from the same yard as the third ship of the new fleet.

Arnold P. Møller married Chastine Estelle McKinney on 30th April 1910 at her home town of Mayview near Kansas City. They set up home near to Copenhagen and raised four children with the second born in Arnold P. Møller (2) in 1912, who became the future leader of the company for many years, and the foundation of very close links with the United States of America.

Anna Mærsk ran aground leaving Ventspils in January 1911 and was held fast throughout the winter until salvaged by Svitzer of Copenhagen in May and repaired. Arnold P. Møller was working very long hours in the C. K. Hansen ship owner office in Copenhagen while overseeing the affairs of the Svendborg  company and its shareholders. He needed another company directly under his own control, which was founded in Copenhagen on 22nd August 1912 asD/S af 1912 A/S (Steamship Company of 1912).The first pair of ships were purchased from Hansen and renamed Lexa Mærsk and Hulda Mærsk. Arnold P.Møller then left C. K. Hansen employment on 1st January 1913 to concentrate fully on ship management for the two new Møller companies, which began with an office staff of four in Copenhagen.

The 4,194grt Nicoline Mærsk was built in 1925 by the Odense shipyard. In early 1940 she became Saint Felix of the French Vichy Goverment before being taken over by the British Government later that year reverting to her original name. On 24th December 1943 she ran ashore under gunfire 2nm NE of Punta de la Bana Lighthouse, Spain while on a voyage from Saguno to Marseilles with a cargo of Ore.

The outbreak of war in August 1914 saw the Møller fleet of ten Baltic and North Sea traders continuing in their trades of timber and pit props to Britain and the Continent, returning with coal. Attempts were made to trade into the U.S.A. away from the war zone, however two ships were lost to German action during the war. During his business trips to West Hartlepool, Arnold P. Møller had become very impressed with the shipbuilding and ship owning business of Sir Robert Ropner of that town. He was determined to use the great benefits of building ships at cost price in the Møller fleet at some point in the future. Land was acquired at Odense in 1917 and three slipways for ships up to 390 feet in length were operational in 1920.

At the first meeting of the British & International Maritime Council in June 1920 after the war, Arnold P. Møller moved a resolution calling for greater freedom of the seas to be maintained. BIMCO had been set up in February 1905 by Newcastle upon Tyne and Scandinavian ship owners to encourage free trade.


The first diesel engine powered ship was delivered from the Odense yard for the worldwide tramp trades as Leise Mærsk in September 1921. These included the Mediterranean homeward trades of bauxite, phosphates and iron ore with a large contract for phosphate from Morocco to Denmark, the traditional grain trade from the Plate, timber and paper pulp from Newfoundland to the U.K., and the Australian and Far East tramp trades.

A further four diesel engine ships entered the tramp trades for Møller during the mid and late 1920s as Sally Mærsk, Chastine Mærsk, Emma Mærsk and Nicoline Mærsk. The steamer Chassie Mærsk built in 1920 was wrecked on 7th January 1922 in very bad weather and poor visibility on an island near Sabang at the northern tip of Sumatra. She had sailed from Hamburg with salt and cellulose for Calcutta and bunkered on the Tyne before passing into the Suez Canal on 16th October 1921 and arrived at Calcutta on 6th November. She then ballasted down to Durban for coal and sailed on 17th December on her last voyage to Sabang.

Arnold P. Møller established his first regular liner service as Mærsk Line on 12th July 1928 linking the U.S.A. with Japan and Asia. Leise Mærsk made the first sailing when she sailed that day from Baltimorevia Panama for the Far East. The first five tankers in the fleet and on charter to Shell and Esso were added by the end of 1928, which had reached 35 ships by the then

The 953grt Vibeke Mærsk was built in 1925 by Schichau at Elbing. In 1946 she was sold to Rederi A/S Hardsyssel and renamed Vestjden and in 1954 she joined P.K. Hanning as Patricia. In 1955 she became Seemowe of PR ms Seemowe of Lubeck, and in 1957 she joined Hamburg owners as Greetsiel. In 1962 she was sold to Pave Shipping of Piraeus as Psara and her final role was as Kyriaki of Velan Shipping of Cyprus. On 8th August 1977 she sank off Alexandria while on a voyage from Greece to Saudi Arabia. (John B Hill collection)

The 2,294grt Robert Mærsk was built in 1937 at the Odense shipyard. In 1955 she was sold to D/S Jutlandia and renamed Birgitte Toft and in 1958 she joined Cathay Shipping as Ever Glory. In 1965 she moved to Teck Hwa Shipping of Singapore, initially keeping her name until they renamed her Singapore Pearl in 1967. Later that year she moved to States Marine Enterprise SA as Tandjung Layang before being broken up by Leung Yau Ship breaking at Hong Kong where she arrived on 3rd April 1970. (John B Hill collection)

Gertrude Mærsk was delivered from the Odense yard in May 1930 as the first of five new Mærsk Linediesel cargo-liners for the new Pacific service. She was followed over the next four years by Niel Mærsk, Peter Mærsk, Anna Mærsk and Nora Mærsk, the latter also having a fuel efficient Maierform hull. The winter of 1931 was severe with the Baltic iced up and eight Møller Baltic traders laid up at Copenhagen and Svendborg for want of employment. A diversification had been made into whaling, with the part owned whale factory ship Sir James Clark Ross purchased and renamed Fraternitas together with five whale catchers renamed Tas 1 to Tas 5 from Star Whaling A/S. The whaling fleet was sent to the Antarctic during the 1936/37 southern season but failed to make a profit and was sold off.

The cargo-liner Nora Mærsk was burnt out on 26th July 1936 at Zamboanga in the Philippines with a cargo of copra, and had been in service for only two years. The ventilated reefers Robert Mærsk an Gudrun Mærsk entered service suitable for the carriage of apples, however a third fully refrigerated shipF rancine was withdrawn after trading difficulties and was sold to J. Lauritzen of Copenhagen. Two German built and one Odense built cargo-liner with fuel efficient Maierform hulls entered service in 1938/39 asGrete Mærsk, Marchen Mærsk and Laura Mærsk. Two slightly smaller sisters from the Odense yard were completed as Hulda Mærsk and Lexa Mærsk.

On the outbreak of war on 3rd September 1939, the A. P. Møller fleet consisted of 47 ships including nine tankers which were on charter to Shell and Esso, some for U.K. coastal trading. German forces drove into Denmark on 8th April 1940 and occupied Copenhagen. Arnold P. Møller directed the fleet to sail to the nearest neutral port.

The 6,576grt Grete Mærsk with the Maierform bow was built in 1937 by Bremer Vulkan at Vegesack. From 1941 to 1946 she operated for the US Government as Cricamola then as Pennant. In 1953 she was sold to Kyodo Senpaku KK and renamed Zuiyo Maru then on 2nd November 1965 she arrived at Mihara to be broken up. (John B Hill collection)

However, most of the smaller fleet of Baltic traders fell under German control, while the majority of the deep sea fleet escaped to sail under the British, American, Spanish, South African and Irish flags. Mærsk McKinney Møller, his son, escaped to the U.S.A. with his new bride Emma Rasmussen. Their stay was a very long one, not returning until seven and one half years to Copenhagen, which had suffered relatively little damage compared to the total destruction of German ports such as Hamburg, Kiel, Bremerhaven, Wilhelmshaven, Flensburg, Lubeck, Brunsbuttel, Cuxhaven and others. In contrast to the few losses in the Great War, the Møller fleet was to be decimated with two dozen ships lost to enemy action and several more becoming marine losses, leaving only seven war weary survivors afloat at its conclusion. A total of 148 brave Danish seafarers lost their lives on company ships during the war.

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