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Liverpool Blitz: Attacks on the docks

The docks were the reason Liverpool was so heavily bombed. Liverpool was the main port for convoys crossing the Atlantic from America. The river was full of all kinds of ships, both military and merchant. If the port could be closed, Britain might starve. As well as bombs, mines were parachuted into the Mersey to disrupt shipping. These, as well as unexploded bombs, caused great disruption long after the bombers had left Merseyside's skies.

A page from a German bombing targets book
A page from a German bombing targets book showing the entrance to Gladstone Dock
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The bombing seriously damaged the docks. By the end of the 1941 Blitz, 69 out of 144 cargo berths were closed. There were serious losses of ships, food and fuel. Had the bombing continued for just a couple more nights, the docks could have been totally disabled.

On the worst night of the Blitz, 3 May 1941, the S.S. Malakand, a steamer loaded with over 1000 tons of shells and bombs, was destroyed in Huskisson No 2 dock. It is thought a deflated barrage balloon fell onto the deck and burst into flames. As it burnt, German bombs set fire to neighbouring sheds and soon the Malakand itself was on fire. Despite all attempts to put out the fire, eventually she had to be abandoned. The resulting explosion completely destroyed the dock. Parts of the ship were thrown up to two and a half miles away. Miraculously, considering the size of the blast, only four people were killed.

Huskisson Dock after the SS Malakand explosion
Huskisson Branch Dock No. 2 after the SS Malakand explosion (from TP)
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The docks were defended by a variety of means:

  • barrage balloons helped stop the planes flying too low, while fighters attacked the German bombers in the air
  • burning decoy sites were also set up to distract the planes away from the city
  • Royal Artillerymen of the Anti-Aircraft Command manned anti-aircraft guns, ack-acks. There were four types, with the largest firing 55lb shells. The guns had to be set up away from houses because shockwaves from firing them caused structural damage to buildings. At night sound locators were used with searchlights measuring 150cm in diameter to find the enemy. It was very difficult to hit planes so the guns were not as successful as had been hoped. They were more effective as morale boosters or to put off bombers pilots

Despite the attacks Liverpool docks remained open, which was important for supplies but also encouraged local people not to give up - they weren't beaten.

Dock sheds burn
Dock sheds at north Kings dock burn. 27 September 1940
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While all of this was going on 29,000 dockworkers provided a 24-hour service (many had been taken on with permanent contracts for the first time in March 1941). You can imagine that with blackouts and air raids working was very difficult for these men, who had an average age of just over 50.

Activity

Read Port at war: being the story of the port of Liverpool, its ordeals and achievements, during the World War, 1939-1945, compiled by T.J. Buckley and published by Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. Available through Liverpool Libraries.

 

Audio

audio

Norah White talks about being on a Mersey ferry during an air raid.
(windows media | mp3 | read transcript)

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