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WW2, The Liverpool Blitz, Liverpool Docks and Western Approaches Command
Liverpool Docks, Pier Head, The Three Graces
What was the Liverpool Blitz?
The Liverpool Blitz was the frequent and sustained bombing of the city port of Liverpool and the area known as Merseyside.
After the fall of France in June 1940, the German war effort centered on the planned invasion of Great Britain. To this aim, the German Luftwaffe started a concentrated series of air raids that targeted various airfields and other important locations. London became the principal target, as it was the seat of government and an important maritime center. This gave place to the “Battle of Britain”, during which the Luftwaffe tried and failed to “eliminate the RAF from the skies”.
After this notorious failure, Hitler determined that he would starve Britain out and in this way obtain the total surrender he so passionately craved. The strategy was twofold: (1) attack and destroy the Atlantic convoys that were Britain’s lifeline, and (2) paralyze the strategically important port of Liverpool by damaging and destroying the docks.
The first strategy evolved into the Battle of the Atlantic, the longest campaign in the war (See my previous article)
The second strategy produced The Liverpool Blitz.
Map of the Estuary of the River Mersey
What was so Important about the Liverpool Docks?
These docks are situated on the River Mersey, a River-and-Estuary complex that is favored by certain unique characteristics.
The Mersey starts in an area located between Manchester and Liverpool, and flows west, towards Liverpool. The river becomes tidal before it reaches Runcorn. where it widens to form the Inner Estuary. It then continues through the Narrows and forms the Outer Estuary, a large area that is very affected by the tides. The river finally flows into Liverpool Bay on the Irish Sea.
The Mersey is considered to be one of the best tidal rivers in the world, with a high tidal range of about 10 meters, which is very important to navigation.
The Inner Estuary that is formed after Runcorn is 3 miles (4.8 km) wide at its widest point near Ellesmere. The river finally turns in a more northerly direction, with Liverpool spreading out on the eastern side, and the Wirral Peninsula to the west. The large urban area that extends on both sides of the Mersey is known as Merseyside.
The estuary narrows again further along its course, so that by the location of the Albert Dock it is less than a mile wide (1.1 km).
On the Liverpool side of the Mersey, the docks stretch for more than 7 miles (12 km).
Around the 1750s, the construction of the Liverpool dock system was started. As maritime commerce out of Liverpool continued to grow, many docks were gradually added, creating an interconnected system unique to the area called Merseyside that was unknown in the world at that date.
Liverpool plan, Langton, Brocklebank and Canada Docks, Historic Map
Liverpool Plan, Canning Docks, Historical Map
Liverpool Plan, Brunswick Dock, Historical Map
Liverpool Plan, Herculaneum Docks, Historical Map
Suggested Reading: Liverpool and the Docks
More Details about the Liverpool Docks
In the 19th century, Liverpool became one of the largest ports in the world. The factors that propelled the development of this port forwards were basically two:
- The deep waters of the River Mersey
- The steam engine.
The use of steam for mechanical purposes brought about the construction of larger ships that could carry more merchandise. These large ships could enter the Mersey docks through a complex system of locks that were powered by steam. Various innovative lifting equipments were devised, also powered by steam, which could unload ships at a faster rate. Last but not least, the railways were also developed so that the cargoes unloaded at the port, could be transported inland to the various industrial centers. Manchester was one of the cities that flourished together with the growth of the port of Liverpool.
At its peak, the interconnected docks system on the Mersey had extended to be the largest in existence. On the Liverpool side, it was 12 km long, with another 4 km on the Wirral peninsula, and three more docks at Garston further up the river.
American writer Herman Melville is said to have described the port of Liverpool as “vast piers of stone and a succession of granite rimmed docks, completely enclosed. They are like a chain of immense fortresses.”
The docks were built into the river bed, using granite quarried in Scotland. By the early 1900s, Liverpool controlled much of the world’s shipping and most of the largest ships originated in Liverpool, like the SS Mauritania and the SS Titanic.
A series of photos taken at different dates, provide an idea of the vastness and complexity of the Merseyside docks system. A few of these photos are included in this article.
Liverpool played an important role during WW2, acting as the home port for the convoys that were crossing the Atlantic carrying indispensable provisions for the war effort, thus contributing to the survival of Britain and the Allied effort.
Eastham Locks and Manchester Shipping Canal, a part of the Merseyside Waterworks system
Liverpool Docks, Langton Entrance Lock
Morthpeth Dock Entrance at Birkenhead, Liverpool
The Famous Albert Docks at Liverpool
A view of the Albert Docks Complex at Liverpool
The Western Approaches Command
The name of “Western Approaches” was given to a rectangular area of the Atlantic that relates to the position and length of the western coast of Great Britain. The height of this rectangle is defined by the extreme northern and southern tips of the British Isles. The width extends into the Atlantic and finishes more or less level with Iceland (See map below). The term Western Approaches is a strategic term used principally in connection to warfare. It referred to the direction in which shipping approached the shores of Britain from across the Atlantic, entering the Irish Sea by its northern access, between Ireland and Scotland.
During WW2, Western Approaches Command was responsible for the entire convoy system of merchant ships protected by warships that crossed the Atlantic between Great Britain and Canada. These convoys were the lifeline that allowed Britain and the Allies to survive in the European theater. Initially, the Command was established at Plymouth, but as the Battle of the Atlantic developed and Liverpool became the strategic port for the convoys that were using the northern access between Scotland and Ireland to reach the British coast, the Command was transferred to Liverpool in February, 1941.
The headquarters for the Western Approaches Command were located at Derby House, a large construction established near Derby Road in the Kirkdale area. To this purpose, the basement of Derby House was reinforced with a bunker- like construction. It was designed to be bomb proof and gas proof, with a reinforced roof and very thick walls. An area of about 50,000square feet was divided into some 100 different rooms, where the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Marines worked in combination to ultimately win the Battle of the Atlantic.
Western Approaches, WW 2
Operations Room at Derby House - Western Approaches Command, Liverpool
Highlights of the Liverpool Blitz
While the Battle of Britain was raging over the South of England and London was receiving constant nightly raids, other important centers in Britain were also sustaining bombing raids. One of the most notable was the attack suffered by the industrial city of Coventry, where on the evening of the 14 November 1940 the most severe bombing to date took place as 515 German bombers plastered the city.
The raids over the London area are considered to have taken place between July 10 and October 31, 1940. The first aerial bombing of Liverpool was on August 9th, and by October that same year, Merseyside had suffered a total of about 200 raids, but these appeared to be secondary efforts to the main activity over London.
As the strategic importance of the Western Approaches began to acquire a more prominent role, the bombing of Liverpool also began to increase. By the 12th of December, Merseyside had suffered its 300th raid. The first really sustained effort took place during a 3 day attack, from the 20th to the 22nd of December and is referred to as “the Christmas Blitz”. The number of civilian casualties increased as unfortunately several air raid shelters received direct hits, killing all those who were sheltering within.
After the New Year 1941, the raids decreased due to the bad weather which provided poor flying conditions.
The air assault on the Liverpool area was renewed in May 1941. Starting on the 1st of May, an intense seven night bombardment took place, in which 681 Luftwaffe bombers were involved. The city of Liverpool was devastated and the docks (the prime targets) were severely damaged as a good 50% of the cargo berths were put out of action.
The most tragic incident occurred on 3 May and involved the SS Malakand. This was a munitions ship and was berthed at Huskisson Dock for unloading. The raids not only dropped high power bombs, but also included incendiaries, and the dock warehouses near the Malakand caught fire, spreading flames to the ship. Every effort was made to control the situation, with crews valiantly trying to scuttle the ship, but to no avail. The explosion of the cargo of 1,000 tons of bombs destroyed the dock and the surrounding area, and the explosion was so violent that some pieces of the ship’s plating were carried over a mile away.
After the May Blitz, the attacks stopped. Access to secret documents after the war has enabled historians to establish that the Nazi strategy was aimed at this all-out effort to destroy the main port involved in the reception and dispatch of the Atlantic convoys, before turning the focus on to the invasion of Russia.
Liverpool Blitz, a Comprehensive View
Interesting Facts about the Liverpool Blitz
The docks were never paralyzed, as was Hitler’s objective, the convoys continued to arrive, to be unloaded and to provide all the necessary equipment for a sustained war effort, including food for the inhabitants of the Isles.
The casualties, though relatively high in number, did not stop the flow of dedicated dock workers and other trained and experienced personnel, mostly civilians, that kept the entire system working. This effort included activities such as:
- unloading ships with inflammable and explosive materials in the midst of the air raids
- moving dangerous ships out of the dock areas in an attempt to save the dock installations, at the risk of personal safety
- working on extremely extended shifts to repair the gates and locks so as to keep them serviceable, thus expediting the entrance and the exit of the ships that needed to approach the unloading zones.
- working under extreme pressure and constant fear, due to the high quantities of explosives and dangerous and inflammable chemicals included in the cargoes.
Huskisson Dock after the Explosion of the SS Malakand
The Liverpool Blitz Through the Eyes of Members of My Father's Family
As I have stated in other articles, my father was born and brought up in Liverpool, as part of a large and active family group. The male members were all very connected to the port, the docks and the merchant navy. My Grandfather was a life-long employee of the P.S.N.C (Pacific Steam Navigation Company), who spent years outside of the UK and who concluded his working life back in Liverpool. His five sons gravitated naturally to the port, either as dockers, shipbuilders or merchantmen. Assorted uncles, cousins and other members of the extended family group were just as naturally connected to the life around the great port of Liverpool.
One feature they all seemed to have in common, they were very reticent when referring to the war years. I only remember snatches of conversations and descriptions, and sadly there are no records available.
I have already written about Uncle Sidney’s miraculous survival after being torpedoed on an Atlantic convoy.
Then there was Aunt Nellie’s story, about survival during the Liverpool Blitz. At that time, her husband was “somewhere in Asia”, as part of the British army overseas. Communications were difficult; indeed mail seems to have been practically non-existent. She had two very young children to worry about, and the way she tells it, during the May Blitz, all three of them spent about 10 days in a small air-raid shelter at the bottom of the garden. This appears to have been a hut dug down into the ground and covered with metal sheets over the top. It was poorly ventilated and extremely cold. The three of them huddled there while the bombs pounded down, seemingly right on top of them! My cousin Carmen was about 3 and Billie must have been about 6. When they finally came out of their hole-in-the-ground, Carmen emerged with a strong squint, as one of her eyes went out of line. This was described as a physical result of extreme fear and tension. I know she wore corrective glasses for some years, but then fortunately went back to normal. Additionally, Nellie's husband was eventually part of the defense at Singapore, and was taken prisoner by the Japanese. He was lucky in that he did survive, but after three years of hell, there was not much left of him. I met him in later years, and he was very gaunt-looking still.
Liverpool Docks Blitz Damage, an Overview
A Bombed Out Section of Liverpool During the Blitz
Volunteers on the Docks During the Blitz: the Suicide Squads
Last, but by no means least, we must remember the groups of dedicated volunteers who worked to save the Liverpool docks. They seem to have been a mix of (a) firefighters, (b) dock workers who knew the lock systems in and out, (c) experienced merchant navy personnel who could steer a ship away from the docks with utmost speed, (d) men who knew how to manipulate cargoes and move them around also with all speed, and so on. They must all have been really expert at their assigned tasks, and also very brave, because all this activity took place while the bombs were raining down over the installations.
At moments of informal conversation, members of my family always talked about the Suicide Squads that worked to save the docks. I have searched all over for some reference to these Squads, but have never found any comments. However, my Grandmother was extremely proud of the fact that her eldest son, my Uncle John, had been a member of the Suicide Squad. He lost his life on the docks, and it would appear that he was a casualty of the explosion of the SS Malakand, that I have already referred to in a previous paragraph.
While on duty with his Squad at the dock installations, John Robertson was injured by the ferocious explosion of this munitions ship. Not only was he injured, he was pinned down by one arm under a great sheet of metal that was part of the dock structure. For the Squad members, the docks were primary above all else, and John was not rescued from under the metal sheet until several hours later. By that time it was too late, he was still alive, but he died shortly after he was taken to hospital.
I would add that many of those involved in the war effort that took place at Liverpool during WW2 are intensely proud of their docks and their people, and so they should be:
- The docks were never paralyzed
- The convoys arrived, were unloaded and sent out again
- The enormous display that eventually culminated in the D-Day invasion of France would never have happened without the Liverpool docks and the concentrated effort that kept them operational.
St.Luke's Church, Destroyed During Liverpool Blitz
And What of the Present?
The increased use of container shipping caused the historical Liverpool docks to become obsolete in relation to the development of large scale maritime commerce. However, the docks are being reconverted to tourism in the form of an interconnected interior waterway that runs beside some stretches of the River Mersey, and is fronted by an extensive promenade. From what can be seen on several modern day photos, the display is looking beautiful!
The Bunker that housed the Western Approaches Command has been transformed into a museum, where visitors get to see the outlay, the offices and the equipment, the communications system, and so on, just as they were during the very long and strategic Battle of the Atlantic.
In 2004, Liverpool achieved the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City was registered by UNESCO as “the supreme example of a commercial port at the time of Britain’s greatest global influence” There are six specific historic areas included in Liverpool’s World Heritage Site.