Liverpool

During the Second World War the city of Liverpool and its surrounding region endured a relentless and devastating bombing campaign known as the Liverpool Blitz, carried out by the German Luftwaffe. Liverpool, alongside Birkenhead, possessed the largest port on the west coast of England, making it a vital component of the British war effort.

Consequently, it became the most heavily bombed area in the country, apart from London.

Details about the extent of the damage inflicted were intentionally kept vague to prevent the Germans from gaining valuable information. Moreover, the newspapers downplayed the destruction for propaganda purposes.

This approach left many Liverpudlians feeling that their suffering was overshadowed compared to other places. Tragically, approximately 4,000 individuals lost their lives in the Merseyside area during the Blitz, making it the second-highest death toll in the UK after London, which suffered over 40,000 casualties by the war's end.


A rich history

Liverpool, located in northwest England, boasts a rich history that predates the Roman era. It began as a small fishing village known as "Ligpul," evolving into a bustling port by the 13th century. In 1207, King John granted Liverpool its first charter, enabling the growth of trade and commerce.

Throughout the medieval period, Liverpool remained a relatively modest port. However, by the 17th century, it had gained prominence as a critical trade hub, particularly in the transatlantic slave trade. The port's involvement in the triangular trade made it a central player in the British Empire's economic expansion.

The 18th century marked a significant turning point for Liverpool. Its docks were expanded, and the city became a primary point of departure for emigrants heading to the Americas. The Slave Trade Act of 1807, followed by the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833, transformed Liverpool's economy, shifting its focus towards manufacturing, shipbuilding, and trade with the British colonies.

The 19th century brought further prosperity, as Liverpool became a hub for cotton trading and manufacturing. Its iconic skyline, including structures like St. George's Hall and the Albert Dock, began to take shape during this period. The opening of the Liverpool to Manchester Railway in 1830 marked a milestone in transportation history.

As the 20th century approached, Liverpool continued to thrive as a major port city, handling goods from around the world. By 1939, it was a bustling metropolis, poised on the brink of World War II, with a vibrant economy, diverse population, and a rich cultural heritage that had solidified its position as a significant British city.


A viable target

Copied aerial photographs supplied to German bombers during WW2 locating targets in Liverpool and Runcorn. German bomber crews had copies of this aerial photo when they blitzed Liverpool and other parts of Merseyside in 1940.

The picture shows ICI Castner Kellner Works, Salt Works, and Mersey Power fronted by the Manchester Ship Canal.

Liverpool during the Second World War - Liverpool Echo

Liverpool, Bootle, and the Wallasey Pool complex held immense strategic significance during the Second World War. The Port of Liverpool had long been the primary link between the United Kingdom and North America, playing a pivotal role in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Beyond serving as an anchorage for naval vessels from various nations, the port's quays and dockworkers handled more than 90 percent of the war materials imported into Britain from overseas, totaling a staggering 75 million tons transported through its extensive 11-mile quayside. Liverpool served as the eastern terminus of a Transatlantic supply chain from North America, while other vital industries also thrived in Liverpool and Birkenhead, across the Mersey River.

Liverpool, shown here in 1930, was a prime target for Nazi Germany because of its docks. 

Hulton Archive/Getty Images 

Liverpool's Crosby Beach Is a Mile of World War II Blitz Rubble - Atlas Obscura


Preparations

After the declaration of war on the 1st September 1939, Liverpool swiftly and resolutely embarked on a series of preparations to meet the challenges and threats posed by the impending conflict. The city's strategic significance as a major port and industrial center made these preparations not only essential but urgent.

One of the first measures undertaken was the implementation of blackout procedures. Liverpool, like other cities in Britain, had to ensure that its lights didn't offer guidance to enemy bombers during night raids. Streetlights were dimmed or turned off, and residents were required to fit blackout curtains or blinds in their homes. Businesses and households alike adapted to the new reality of moving in darkness, guided only by the faint glow of dimmed streetlamps.

ARP Rescue party training at Dove Street, Liverpool, January 1939. 

Liverpool during the Second World War - Liverpool Echo

Liverpool swiftly constructed air raid shelters throughout the city. These shelters provided safety during air raids and bombings. The Anderson shelter, an iconic semi-underground structure made from corrugated iron, was distributed to homes, while public shelters were built in parks, squares, and other open spaces. Preparations included educating the public on how to react during air raids and the importance of having gas masks readily available.

Liverpool fortified itself against aerial threats. Anti-aircraft guns were strategically placed in and around the city, ready to engage enemy aircraft. Barrage balloons were tethered to the ground to deter low-flying enemy planes. These large balloons, anchored with steel cables, not only obstructed the flight path of bombers but also deterred them from flying at low altitudes. The skies above Liverpool and the Mersey Estuary were vigilantly guarded, as any enemy aircraft approaching the city would encounter formidable resistance.

This is the scene in Water Street, Liverpool, in 1939, 17 days after war was declared. The lines of sandbags and wire caging form part of an air raid defence system. Further down Water Street from the town hall is Derby House - the building which was later to be become famous as the combined headquarters for the Battle of the Atlantic.

Liverpool during the Second World War - Liverpool Echo

The city's industrial capabilities were redirected toward the war effort. Liverpool's shipyards, renowned for their expertise, shifted their focus from luxury liners to warships and merchant vessels. The famous Cammell Laird shipyard, for example, churned out critical warships, including battleships, aircraft carriers, and submarines.

Liverpool's factories played an equally pivotal role. They produced munitions, tanks, artillery pieces, and aircraft components. The Ford factory in Liverpool became a hub for assembling military vehicles, while local manufacturers adapted to the production of war-related goods. Liverpool's industrial might was harnessed to supply the armed forces and sustain the war effort.

Civil defense organizations sprang into action, with wardens patrolling the streets to enforce blackout regulations and assist in emergencies. Volunteer organizations like the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS) provided crucial support, from running canteens to helping evacuate children from the city. Liverpool's citizens united in their determination to protect their city and support the war effort.

October 1940 children aged from 18 months at the Broomgrove Children's hotel and nursing home in Wavertree, Liverpool,  well accustomed to playing in their gas masks.

Liverpool during the Second World War - Liverpool Echo


Pied Piper

In September 1939, as World War II commenced, a proactive initiative known as "Operation Pied Piper" was launched to safeguard urban and military populations from potential German aerial bombings.

During the period of September 1st to 6th, Liverpool Corporation orchestrated the evacuation of approximately 8,500 children, along with parents and teachers, from the city. These evacuees were resettled in rural areas and small towns across Lancashire, Wales, Cheshire, Shrewsbury, and Shropshire.

Liverpool children board a bus to take them to safety. 1st September 1939. Around 8,500 children were evacuated from Liverpool over six days (1st - 6th September 1939).

The Second World War local evacuees - Liverpool Echo

In the subsequent months, as the threat of Luftwaffe air raids appeared to diminish, numerous parents chose to return their children to Liverpool. By January 1940, a remarkable 40% of the initially evacuated children had reunited with their families in the city.

This shift in circumstances reflected the evolving wartime conditions and the evolving perception of safety among the local populace.


Initial attacks

In August 1940, Liverpool faced its first major air raid, as 160 bombers targeted the city during the night of 28th of August.

This initial assault marked the beginning of a relentless barrage that persisted over the following three nights, becoming a grim routine for the rest of the year. In total, there were 50 raids on the city within this three-month period.

These attacks varied in scale, ranging from minor incidents involving a few aircraft that lasted mere minutes to large-scale onslaughts involving up to 300 aircraft that endured for over ten hours.

The first bombs on Liverpool. Clearing the debris at the LMS goods station in Caryl Street.

14 pictures which show how the Blitz hit Liverpool - Liverpool Echo

Air Raid Precautions workers salvaging in the debris of two working class houses bombed in a recent raid, Sidney Place, Edge Hill, Liverpool, pictured Tuesday 12th November 1940.

One tragic event occurred on September 18th when high-explosive bombs struck Walton Gaol, resulting in the loss of 22 lives as they demolished a wing of the prison.

However, the gravest single incident unfolded on November 28th during a heavy raid, when a direct hit on an air-raid shelter in Durning Road resulted in a devastating loss of 166.

Winston Churchill himself described this event as the "single worst incident of the war”.

The crescendo of the air assault in 1940 reached its peak during the Christmas Blitz, which unfolded over three consecutive nights from December 20th to 22nd.

Rescue party searching amongst debris for trapped victims of a bomb dropped on a Liverpool suburban area after an extremely heavy raid on Thursday night, pictured Friday 29th November 1940.


The Christmas Blitz

In December 1940, a succession of intense raids occurred, now known as the Christmas Blitz, resulting in the tragic loss of 365 lives between December 20th and 22nd. During these raids, air raid shelters bore the brunt of the devastation, with several direct hits causing significant casualties.

On December 20th, one such incident claimed the lives of 42 individuals when a shelter was struck, while an additional 40 perished when a bomb hit railway arches on Bentinck Street, where local residents sought refuge. The North Liverpool docks were the target and suffered heavy bombing. The Adelphi hotel narrowly escaped a hit, but the Town Hall, Municipal Buildings, and Cunard Offices were struck, and fires ignited within them. The Landing Stage also sustained damage. A parachute mine landed at Waterloo Dock, claiming the lives of 9 people.

The following day, December 21st, witnessed another heartbreaking event as a shelter was hit, resulting in the loss of 74 lives. The destruction went on as the heaviest raid to date struck Liverpool. Fires burned in many places, causing utter chaos. Canada, Gladstone, Brocklebank, Princes, Wapping, King's, and Carriers Docks were all bombed.

The Royal Infirmary was hit, causing damage to nearby houses. Other bombs struck St. George's Hall (Civil Defence workers and firefighters saved the building from any serious damage), the Electric Station at Highfield Street, Prescot Street Police Station, and the Fish Market at Hatton Garden. Several air raid shelters were hit, resulting in a serious loss of life. Most areas to the North and South of Liverpool city center were hit, as were other parts of the city, on that night of destruction. The following day, Canada, Huskisson, and Alexandra Docks were bombed.

A gutted car storage depot in Liverpool after a raid.

14 pictures which show how the Blitz hit Liverpool - Liverpool Echo

Amidst the relentless onslaught of the Blitz during this period, the 7th Loyals were called upon to assist in the daunting task of combating massive fires that raged relentlessly in Liverpool's Gladstone and Alexandra docks.

Throughout the Christmas Blitz, groups of 100 soldiers tirelessly battled the flames around the clock. In one particularly harrowing operation, these brave men found themselves wading through ankle-deep molten rubber, which flowed from a burning ship, adding to the perilous challenges they faced.

Merseyside Air Raid Bomb Damage 1940 Civilians and rescue workers search through the bomb damaged houses in Liverpool following a bombing raid by the Luftwaffe (The German Airforce) during the blitz.

Liverpool during the Second World War - Liverpool Echo


The May Blitz

In May 1941, the region experienced a resumption of the air assault, a devastating seven-night bombardment that wreaked havoc on the city. The initial bomb struck Seacombe in Wallasey on Wirral, occurring at 22:15 on May 1st. The most intense phase of the bombing unfolded from May 1st to May 7th, involving a staggering 681 Luftwaffe bombers, who dropped 2,315 high-explosive bombs and 119 other explosive devices, including incendiaries. These raids incapacitated 69 out of 144 cargo berths and resulted in 2,895 casualties.

During this onslaught, Liverpool Cathedral fell victim to a high-explosive bomb, which pierced the roof of the south-east transept before being deflected by an inner brick wall and detonating mid-air, causing significant damage to numerous stained-glass windows. Another bomb landed on the cathedral's front steps without exploding, while incendiaries ignited equipment in the contractor's yard at the western end.

Cook Street Arcade which was attacked by German bombs on the 3rd May 1941. Liverpool, Merseyside, May 1941.

Then, Now and Together: Liverpool City Centre during the Blitz of the Second World War - Liverpool Echo

...resulting in a devastating explosion...

On May 3rd, a particularly noteworthy incident involved the SS Malakand, a ship carrying munitions docked at the Huskisson Dock.

While the eventual explosion is often attributed to a burning barrage balloon, this fire was successfully extinguished. However, flames from bombed dock sheds spread to the Malakand, proving uncontrollable.

Despite the heroic efforts of the fire brigade, the fire reached the ship's cargo of 1,000 tons of bombs, resulting in a devastating explosion a few hours after the raid's conclusion.

South Huskisson Branch Dock after the enormous explosion of the ammunition ship the SS Malakand in 1941. 

"The spirit of an unconquered people": How Liverpool survived the Blitz - Liverpool Echo

Bomb damage in Liverpool during the Second World War. Blacklers department store on the corner of Elliot Street and Great Charlotte Street in Liverpool. Severely damaged in The Blitz of May 1941.

Then, Now and Together: Liverpool City Centre during the Blitz of the Second World War - Liverpool Echo

A direct hit saw the organ in Wallasey Town Hall destroyed.

14 pictures which show how the Blitz hit Liverpool - Liverpool Echo

The Huskisson No. 2 dock and surrounding quays were obliterated, claiming four lives. The explosion's force was so immense that some pieces of the ship's hull plating were propelled into a park over 1 mile (1.6 km) away, with the fire burning for seventy-four hours.

Although the docks and city centre were the main targets of the May Blitz, residential areas also suffered enormous damage. Nearly one third of the houses in Liverpool were damaged or destroyed.

Worst hit was Bootle, a small town outside the city boundaries but next to the port's biggest docks. Already heavily bombed in earlier raids, Bootle only had about 15% of its houses left after the May Blitz.

 

Over 1450 people were killed in Liverpool and 250 in Bootle. Many more were seriously injured. Casualties would have been far worse if thousands of people had not left the city and dock areas each evening, to return the next day.

  • 1,453 people killed in Liverpool, 257 in Bootle, 28 in Birkenhead, 3 in Wallasey.
  • 1,065 seriously injured in Liverpool, 26 in Bootle, 44 in Birkenhead, 19 in Wallasey
  • 4,400 houses destroyed in Liverpool, 16,400 seriously damaged, 45,500 slightly damaged
  • 51,000 people made homeless in Liverpool, 25,000 in Bootle

Bomb damage in Liverpool during the Second World War. A section of St Georges Crescent damaged by fire during the May Raids in Liverpool, 1941.

Then, Now and Together: Liverpool City Centre during the Blitz of the Second World War - Liverpool Echo

The seven-night bombardment left over 6,500 homes demolished due to aerial bombing, and an additional 190,000 were damaged, rendering 70,000 people homeless. Approximately 500 roads were closed to traffic, and railways and tram lines were decimated.

Additionally, 700 water mains and 80 sewers sustained damage, along with disruptions to gas, electricity, and telephone services. Aided by 9,000 workers from outside the city and 2,700 troops, the arduous task of debris removal from streets commenced. On the night of May 3rd and 4th alone, the fire brigade responded to 400 fires.

Rescue parties searched day and night through wreckage and rubble for victims.

14 pictures which show how the Blitz hit Liverpool - Liverpool Echo

The neighbouring town of Bootle to the north of the city suffered extensive damage and loss of life. A significant incident occurred when a Co-op air raid shelter at the intersection of Ash Street and Stanley Road took a direct hit.

While the precise casualty count remains unclear, dozens of bodies were recovered and placed in a temporary mortuary, which tragically fell victim to incendiaries, consuming over 180 bodies within.


Bombing Hitler

Following the devastating raids in May 1941, the intensity of the German air assault on Liverpool gradually waned, as Adolf Hitler redirected his focus toward the Eastern Front and the invasion of the Soviet Union. The final German air raid on Liverpool occurred on January 10, 1942, resulting in the destruction of several houses on Upper Stanhope Street.

Bomb damage in Liverpool. South Castle Street, Liverpool, which was bombed in July 1941.

Then, Now and Together: Liverpool City Centre during the Blitz of the Second World War - Liverpool Echo

In a peculiar twist of fate, among the houses reduced to rubble was number 102, which had once been the residence of Alois Hitler, Jr., the half-brother of Adolf Hitler, and the place where Hitler's nephew, William Patrick Hitler, was born.

Curiously, this house was never reconstructed, and the entire site was eventually cleared of housing and transformed into green space.

Alois Hitler Jr, Adolf Hitler's half-brother.

Alois Matzelberger Hitler Jr. (1882-1956) - Find a Grave Memorial


Aftermath

Today, one of the most poignant symbols of the Liverpool Blitz remains the charred exterior of St. Luke's Church, situated in the heart of the city. This sacred edifice fell victim to an incendiary bomb on May 5, 1941, its interior consumed by flames, yet its resolute shell stood tall. In its prominent urban location, the church served as a somber reminder of the enduring strength displayed by Liverpool and its environs during those tumultuous times.

Ultimately, it was transformed into a memorial garden, paying homage to the countless local men, women, and children who perished in the bombings that ravaged their city and region.

Bomb damage in Liverpool during the Second World War. An emergency water supply reservoir which has been established in the basement of a blitzed building at the corner of Cook Street and Castle street, Liverpool. 20th April 1942.

Then, Now and Together: Liverpool City Centre during the Blitz of the Second World War - Liverpool Echo

This Church Street shop facade was left standing when bombs destroyed the building around it.

14 pictures which show how the Blitz hit Liverpool - Liverpool Echo

The Blitz also took its toll on other architectural treasures, including the Custom House, Bluecoat Chambers, and Liverpool Museum. While some structures were lovingly restored in the post-war years, the fate of the Custom House remained contentious, leading to its eventual demolition[citation needed].

During a visit to Liverpool and its surrounding areas in May 1941, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill aptly observed, "I witness the destruction wrought by enemy attacks, yet I also witness ... the indomitable spirit of an unconquered people."

When all was said and done, the toll of German bombs on the region had claimed the lives of 2,716 individuals in Liverpool, 442 in Birkenhead, 409 in Bootle, and 332 in Wallasey.

A bombed-out family removed to a new address.

14 pictures which show how the Blitz hit Liverpool - Liverpool Echo


Further reading