Liverpool in the Blitz
Simon Jones describes ‘Spirit of the Blitz: Liverpool in the Second World War’, a new exhibition created by National Museums Liverpool which opens at the Merseyside Maritime Museum on July 10th.
That Liverpool even had a Blitz will come as a surprise to many. Yet what Churchill described as ‘the worst single incident of the war’ occurred during an air raid on the city in November 1940. An explosion from a parachute mine caused the collapse of a technical school in Durning Road, bursting the boilers, and killing 166 of the people packed into the basement shelter.
Liverpool was targeted by the Germans – and badly hit – because it was a port town. The city had become a lifeline to Britain during the Battle of the Atlantic and the convoys were controlled from an underground command centre beneath a 1930s office building. The food, fuel, weapons and troops that came in to Liverpool saved Britain and made possible the liberation of Europe.
Between May 1st and 8th, 1941, over seven consecutive nights, German planes dropped 870 tonnes of high explosive bombs and over 112,000 incendiary bombs, starting fires throughout Merseyside. Lord Haw Haw addressed the people of Bootle with the words: ‘the kisses on your windows won’t help you’, referring to the tape supposed to prevent flying glass. The curtains flapping from the broken windows led to (untrue) rumours of white flags and peace marches. Thousands left their homes and spent the nights in fields.
What happened in May was the culmination of a bombing campaign which left a total of 4,000 dead, probably the heaviest loss per head of population of any British city. Yet the Liverpool Blitz remains the forgotten Blitz. It is still thought that, raids on Liverpool were not publicised in the hope of concealing their accuracy and effectiveness from the Germans.
Liverpool is a city with a powerful sense of pride in its history. The feeling that this has been an untold story lies at the root of the Spirit of the Blitz exhibition. A number of people approached National Museums Liverpool wishing to record their experiences as survivors. One woman who lived through the Durning Road tragedy asked the Museum to record her testimony because, over sixty years after the event, she still could not talk about what she had experienced without breaking down. In response to this request and others, reminiscences have been gathered from over sixty people, which form the basis of the exhibition.
For thousands in Merseyside, especially women, the experience of the war was of regular and often well paid employment. Local firms, such as Meccano and Littlewoods, turned to the production of war materials. In addition, the government built factories from scratch and employed 10,000 at a munitions factory at Kirkby. Of this number, 8,000 were women and they recalled how, as women of 18, they carried out highly dangerous work with explosives and detonators. Kirkby had a good safety record, nevertheless many suffered injury and death from explosions. Other women described making Halifax bombers and highly secret radar equipment. One elderly lady explained how she corrected the accuracy of Lee Enfield rifles after her female colleagues had test-fired them on ranges.
While the design of the exhibition was under way a remarkable discovery was made. Over 300 photographs were found in a house in Formby that had been taken by the Liverpool Police recording the immediate aftermath of bombing raids. Visitors will recognise relatives or even themselves in these photographs, which have never been on public display before. It is hoped that during the course of the exhibition more people will come forward with memories and artefacts. A special area of the exhibition, the Response Zone, has been designed where people can come with their recollections to be recorded and preserved for posterity.
The haunting image of the Blitz dominates the exhibition. German newsreel of a bombing mission on Liverpool is seen alongside film of the damage inflicted on Liverpool city centre, where swathes of devastation surround a strangely intact statue of Queen Victoria. Fire appliances used in the Blitz, including a hand pump dating from 1888, show the desperate measures of the times. One of the most poignant artefacts is a crushed steel helmet from the collection of Merseyside Police. The helmet was discovered several years ago at a car boot fair by a serving officer. The name and number inside matched that of Constable Frederick Doran, aged forty-four when he was killed after twenty-one years service, by a collapsing building during the May Blitz. There is a strong likelihood that someone who remembers him will visit the Spirit of the Blitz exhibition.
- Simon Jones is Deputy Head of the Museum of Liverpool Life.
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