Written by Terry Sweeney
This exhibition is for anyone with an interest in Liverpool social history, or history during the Second World War. It uses photographs taken across the city by Liverpool City Police between 1940 and 1941 and starkly captures the devastation of Nazi bombing over that period, and particularly that of the May 1941 Blitz.
Liverpool was the most important port on the west coast of England for North American and Commonwealth supplies and was a key port in the Battle of the Atlantic. As such, Liverpool (and Birkenhead/Wallasey) was a key target for German Luftwaffe bombers during the Second World War (1939 to 1945).
During German air raids over that period more than 4,000 civilians were killed across Merseyside, 90,000 homes were destroyed and many thousands of people were made homeless.
Liverpool was hit multiple times during 1940 and well into 1941. The first major raid took place on 28 August 1940 when 160 bombers attacked the city. That raid carried on over the next three nights. There were 50 raids on the city over the next three month period. Some raids lasted over ten hours.
The air assault came to a peak in the Christmas Blitz of 20-22nd December. The Blitz continued into 1941 and the renewed bombing blitz peaked on 7 horrendous nights from 1st to 7th May 1941. The worst night of the bombing was Saturday 3 May 1941-Sunday 4 May. Fire brigade records show that on that night 298 enemy aircraft dropped around 363 tonnes of high explosives and 50,000 incendiary bombs.
The last German air raid on Liverpool took place on 10 January 1942, destroying several houses on Upper Stanhope Street.( Ironically, one of the houses destroyed was number 102, which had been the home of Alois Hitler Jr.-half brother to Adolf Hitler).
Liverpool suffered the second highest number of civilian deaths in air raids in the UK (after London). Due to press censorship, these deaths were often unreported or downplayed in the newspapers for propaganda purposes.
Many of the pictures in the exhibition are from the main roads in the City centre. But in addition to pictures from the docks and from the city centre, there are pictures from as far afield as Edge Lane, Lark Lane and Norris Green. German bombers often jettisoned their bombs as they left the target to save fuel and lighten the load to help them return home. Many fell on civilian’s houses rather than their intended target.
Many much loved buildings were destroyed, either during the Blitz, or were so badly damaged that they had to be pulled down afterwards. These include the Rotunda Theatre, shown here as it collapsed on fire; the Liverpool Overhead Railway (the ‘docker’s umbrella) which had to be completely demolished in the 1950’s.
The Customs Building was badly damaged and its beautiful dome destroyed, and it was eventually demolished. It is now the site of the Hilton Hotel and Chavasse Park. Many of you will be familiar with the fact that the rubble from the building was used as landfill to protect the beach as Crosby, and you can still find parts of the building today if you visit the front between Crosby and Hightown.
St Luke’s Church, was destroyed by an incendiary bomb on 5 May 1941 and is now a monument to what Liverpool had to endure, and a garden of remembrance. It is of course, affectionately known as the ‘Bombed Out Church’.
There were major fires at St Sylvester’s School, and Great Georges Square, Lewis’s Department Store, the Bluecoat Chambers, India Buildings, Walton Prison, the former Mill Road Hospital ( where 85 people died including many mums and newborn babies), and buildings in Paradise Street, Hanover St, Lord St, South John St, South Castle St and Victoria Crescent were destroyed. Many are shown here by the Police photographers.
St Nicholas’s Church, opposite the Liver Building was gutted by a bomb and the picture of the aftermath of that raid lays bare the damage to the church. It’s worth visiting the repaired church after you have seen the exhibition to see how it has been lovingly restored.
The photographs are powerful enough but the personal testimonies putting the words of those people caught up in the events over still pictures of the action really bring home the effect on the local populace. Many of those who contributed to the testimonies were children at the time.
Some of the stories they tell are devastating, others bring out some of the gallows humour of the situation. For example, one man tells of how he, as a child, scavenged cans of food found in the streets after explosions in the goods yards. With the labels blown off all you could hope was that they contained meat, but after taking them home often found that what they had in was spaghetti or peaches.
The direct hit on the large underground shelter on Durning Road, Edge Lane, was the worst single incident in the Liverpool Blitz regarding loss of life. It happened on 29 November 1940. About 300 people were packed into the basement of the Training Centre on Edge Lane.
A parachute mine hit the building which then collapsed into the shelter below, crushing many of the occupants. The deaths from the bomb were made worse by boiling water pouring in and gas igniting. In all 186 men, women and children were killed in that basement and many more badly injured.
As well as the photographs and taped testimonies, visitors to the exhibition have been able to leave responses to the exhibits. For example, detailing how parents or grandparents had lucky escapes. My own mother was buried alive when St Bridget’s Church Bevington Bush, was bombed in May.
Those people caught there were dug out by neighbours and firemen, some having to use their bare hands. She was 17 at the time; she was saved but many of her school friends were not. We haven’t been able to find out how many people died in St Bridget’s.
You can see how blast tape was applied to house windows to help stop flying glass injuring bystanders. Some of the windows were completely blown out. Other houses are almost demolished but you can see one interior wall left with wallpaper attached. There are pictures of young boys clambering over the rubble of some houses, or residents behind cordons looking on to what remains of their homes.
Visitors have left messages telling how they squeezed into Anderson shelters with their whole families. Photographs show Air Raid Precautions (ARP) personnel searching through the bombed ruins of houses for survivors. They were specially trained to understand how the houses may have collapsed and where survivors may still be buried.
One photograph (from Lark Lane) shows some of the exhausted men resting their steel helmets on the remains of a fireplace, and ‘part of a piano, most probably someone’s treasured possession, lies on top of the rubble.’
Obviously some children at the time didn’t appreciate how terrible an ordeal it was and look on it as an opportunity to get out of school and explore with their mates. One picture shows the aftermath of a raid from September 1940 which badly damaged Gwladys Street School. As one young boy (at the time) said,
‘schools closed at the time of the Blitz, so we had a great time. We were up in the morning, looking at the bomb damage in various places. It was quite an adventurous time…’
A World War 2 bomb was found in the City Centre as late as 2016, but over the years, Liverpool has been steadily repaired and there is little evidence now of the bomb sites and ‘hollers’ that we used to play on when I was a boy. This exhibition is a timely reminder of the spirit of the people of Liverpool and the horrors of war.
Blitzed:Liverpool Lives exhibition, Museum of Liverpool, until summer 2021.