A Crucial Port - Liverpool in World War Two

By Caroline Lewis | 06 June 2004
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RAF Aerial photo of Merseyside showing the scarred waterfront from Pier Head to Albert Dock, and the decimated commercial centre. Taken June 1941. © IWM

Liverpool served as a vital port during World War Two, never closing despite being the target of repeated bombing raids.

Click here to enlarge the aerial photo.

The city was a lifeline for Britain’s maritime trade, being the main point of entry for imported fuel, food and raw materials. It also served as the strategic hub of the longest campaign of the war, the Battle of the Atlantic.

The British Royal Navy – the largest in the world – was a formidable force, so German forces concentrated their efforts instead on decimating merchant shipping. On land, the city of Liverpool bore the brunt of this, while more than 2,000 British and Allied merchant ships were sunk in the North Atlantic during World War Two.

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US soldiers were another import that came via Liverpool. Here they cheer and give the V sign as their ship Athlone Castle berths in Liverpool. © IWM

In September 1939, nearly 100,000 children and mothers were evacuated from Merseyside, but when bombs failed to materialise in the next few months, many returned home. They soon fled again as bombs started dropping in late 1940, damaging the Liverpool Overhead Railway and Liverpool Anglican Cathedral.

Much of Wapping Dock was destroyed early on, too. Docks, warehouses, railways and factories were the main targets, but the whole of Merseyside suffered with the loss of 10,000 homes and 4,000 lives over the course of the war.

Many prisoners died when Walton Gaol took a hit, and 165 people were killed when the bomb shelter at a college on Durning Road, Edge Hill, failed to protect them. The worst rain of blows was to come from December 20 – 22, the Christmas Raids, which took 365 lives. About 40 of these deaths occurred when railway arches in Bentick Street (being used as an unofficial shelter) were hit. St Nicholas’s Church – the 'Sailor’s Church' – was badly damaged, but later rebuilt and a memorial unveiled in 2000.

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Memorial to civilians killed in the Blitz on Liverpool, with St Nicholas's in the background. Courtesy Tony Siebenthaler, Downtown Liverpool.

Liverpool was defended by RAF fighters, who were based at Speke as well as sites in Cheshire, Shropshire, Wales and Blackpool. They lit decoy fires on the Dee estuary that attracted many bombs meant for Merseyside.

Barrage balloons became a familiar sight over Liverpool, preventing bombers from attacking below 5,000 feet. However, despite the blackout being enforced, German planes were easily able to find Liverpool from the Welsh coast, checking their position by radio beams and the lights of neutral Dublin.

German U-boats were the scourge of the Merchant Navy. Gladstone Dock became home to an anti-U-boat fleet, and was a base for transatlantic escorts and minesweepers. An electronically controlled minefield was laid between the dock and New Brighton on the Wirral.

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Statue of Captain 'Johnny' Walker. Courtesy Tony Siebenthaler, Downtown Liverpool.

At Pier Head is a statue of Captain ‘FJ’ Johnny Walker, who commanded the most successful anti-submarine fleet based at Gladstone Dock. He worked tirelessly, for which he was recognised, but also led to his early death in 1944. There is also a memorial to 1,390 Merchant Navy seamen.

The Cammel Laird shipyard in Birkenhead built many warships and merchant ships for the navies. One vessel had a tragic first outing – T-class submarine HMS Thetis sunk on her first dive in June 1939, taking most of the crew with her. Birkenhead Priory clock tower contains a series of memorial plaques for each man who died. The tower overlooks the shipyard (which was bought out in the 1990s). HMS Thetis was salvaged and served in the war as HMS Thunderbolt.

East Float, Birkenhead, is home to a collection of preserved , including the one of the last German U-boats sunk by the Allies.

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HM Submarine SPUR leaving Cammel Lairds shipyard on her acceptance trials. © IWM

In 1940, the government came down hard on foreign nationals living in Britain, particularly in coastal areas, lest they be spies. German and Austrian immigrants were rounded up and put in internment camps with military guards. Ironically, many of these people were Jewish, intellectual or artistic refugees from the Nazi regime. Some had even served on the British side in the First World War, or had relatives in Allied troops at that time.

A new council estate at Huyton was fenced off by eight-foot high barbed wire and turned into one of the largest internment camps. Some of the interned occupied themselves by lecturing and performing, hence the camp became known as Huyton University.

Factories in Liverpool turned their sights to the war effort, with the Rootes works in Speke turning out 60 Halifax bombers per week. Royal Ordnance Factories in Fazakerley and Kirkby produced machineguns and rifles; detonators and shells, respectively.

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Women producing shell caps in an underground munitions factory, Liverpool, c.1945. © IWM

The shell factory was a dangerous place to work, with a high risk of explosions. Workers lost their fingers, hands and eyesight. Kirkby workers received 37 awards for acts of bravery during World War Two.

Most of the workers at Fazakerley were local women, but more skilled staff were needed, so in 1941 the government brought in workers from the West Indies to northwest factories.

Littlewoods’ Walton Hall Avenue factory was given over to making Wellington bombers and the company’s 'Pools' premises were turned over to the MC5 postal censorship service.

The University of Liverpool has the dubious honour of being the home of early research into the atomic bomb, carried out by James Chadwick and Joseph Rotblat.

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The Littlewoods Pools building on Edge Lane. © Dave Woods, Liverpool Pictorial

In 1941, the Western Approaches Command Headquarters moved to Liverpool from Plymouth. Its job was to oversee the safe delivery of supplies and equipment into Britain – Plymouth was not in a good position because German forces could attack it relatively easily across the Channel from northern France.

The HQ was based in Derby House, a 1930s office block behind the town hall. Its secure basement became the Area Combined Headquarters for the RAF and Royal Navy, where they worked on Atlantic operations, referring to huge wall maps of North Atlantic and British waters. This nerve-centre was considered so important that duplicate facilities were put underground at Lord Derby’s estate in Knowsley, in case a bomb should make its way into Derby House.

The dungeon, or citadel, as the HQ was known, is now the Western Approaches Museum, where visitors can see what it was like for the hard-working Waafs and Wrens who held the fate of Britain’s ships in their hands. Click here to read a WAAF's story on the BBC People's War website.

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Devastation in the city centre. ©IWM

The top floor of the nearby Exchange Building came to house the Western Approaches Tactical Unit (WATU) in January 1942. The unit trained navy officers in anti-U-boat tactics, which led to greater success in the Battle of the Atlantic.

The Battle of the Atlantic exhibition at Merseyside Maritime Museum, Albert Dock, tells the story of the brave sailors involved. Soldiers of the Liverpudlian King’s Regiment have their own collection in the Museum of Liverpool Life, which includes material on their role in World War Two.

The May Blitz, in 1941, took more than 1,500 lives in Merseyside. Hundreds of German bombers came on consecutive nights from May 1 to 7, with the third night being the worst. On May 3, SS Malakand, loaded with a thousand tons of munitions, caught fire, blew up and destroyed Huskisson Dock. Pieces of the ship were blasted miles away, and caused more damage to the Overhead Railway. The People's War website has a personal story from the May Blitz here.

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Clearing up after an air raid on Liverpool. © IWM

Massive damage was caused to the entire area – half of the docks were put out of action and it took thousands of people and troops to clear up the city streets.As a memorial to lives lost in the May Blitz, only the outer walls and tower of St Luke’s, Hardman Street, still stand.

World Museum Liverpool, opened in April 2005, has been formed from Liverpool Museum, gutted when it was hit by an incendiary bomb in the May Blitz. The collections had already been removed as a precaution, but it was 15 years before the museum was rebuilt. Other important buildings never were rebuilt, like Customs House, that stood where Chavasse Park is now.

The Head Post Office (Victoria Street), Central Library (William Brown Street), Corn Exchange (Castle Street), Rotunda Theatre (Stanley Road, Bootle) and Lewis’s Department Store (Renshaw Street) were other victims of the Blitz.

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St Luke's - the bombed out church. © Dave Woods Liverpool Pictorial

The final bombing of Liverpool came in January 1942 and demolished Upper Stanhope Street.

Media censorship – intended to boost morale and keep the enemy in the dark – meant that any reports described Liverpool simply as ‘a Northern Town’ and bombings as ‘incidents’. Citizens suffering the horrors bestowed upon the port felt that Liverpool was undervalued. Liverpool ship-owners lost 3 million tons of shipping and it took years before the city was rebuilt.

Ten years after the May Blitz, a memorial was unveiled at the communal grave of 550 ‘Unknown Warriors’ at Anfield Cemetery. Also in 1951, the Bluecoat School Building (now Bluecoat Arts Centre) on School Lane was restored – a plaque above the entrance reads: “Struck down from the sky by the firebrands of the enemy and partly destroyed on the 4th May, 1941.” Part of Liverpool was destroyed, but the strength of Liverpudlians and those stationed there helped enormously in winning the war.

Thanks to the Imperial War Museum North for images from the North at War exhibition, which tells the story of many northern cities, including Liverpool, during World War Two and runs until January 8, 2006

Visit the main 24 Hour Museum VE Day index page to find out about Their Past Your Future Events and to explore World War Two-related resources - including trails, features, news and reviews.

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This commemorative trail section was funded by the Big Lottery Fund through MLA.

Read personal stories contributed by people from Liverpool on the BBC People’s War website.

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