Liverpool's docks and the May Blitz 1941

painting of a fiery sky with bombs dropping on Liverpool's waterfront buildings

'Liverpool Docks during the Blitz' by John Hamilton. This dramatic artwork depicts a bombing attack made on Liverpool's docks on the night of 2 May 1941. The painting looks north from the entrance to Albert Dock towards Canning half-tide Dock, with the Port of Liverpool building in the background. Copyright of JA Hamilton, from National Museums Liverpool Collections, MMM.2008.44

Liverpool was Britain's main transatlantic convoy port during the Second World War. By early 1941 the city had also became a major naval base and the headquarters of the Admiralty’s entire Atlantic campaign. Consequently, the German Luftwaffe launched 68 bombing raids on Merseyside between July 1940 and January 1942. 

The docks were the main targets but enormous damage was caused to city and residential areas on both sides of the River Mersey. In all, some 4,000 people were killed and 4,000 seriously injured. Ten thousand homes were completely destroyed and 184,000 damaged. The raids culminated in the infamous ‘May Blitz’ of 1941, in which very heavy raids occurred on each of the first seven nights of the month.

The 'Malakand' explosion

dock littered with piles of debris following a bomb explosion

Damage at Huskisson Branch Dock No.2 after SS Malakand exploded in May 1941. Parts of the wreck of the Malakand can be seen, with the Liverpool Overhead Railway in the background. Copyright unknown believed to be expired. From the Stewart Bale collection, 41235-3

The largest explosion on Merseyside during the war occurred on the night of Saturday 3 to Sunday 4 May 1941. It was caused when the ammunition ship 'SS Malakand' blew up in Huskisson Branch Dock Number 2, Liverpool.

The Brocklebank Line's 'Malakand' was fully loaded with 1,000 tons of bombs and shells for the Middle East when an air raid began. The incendiary bombs fell all around the ship, a large barrage balloon came loose from its moorings and burst into flames on the 'Malakand's deck.

Despite several hours of desperate struggle by firemen and crew, under repeated attacks by German aircraft, the ship finally blew up shortly at 3am. Such was the violence of the explosion that a wide area around the vessel was totally devastated. Incredibly, only four people were killed. 

The dock was never used again and was eventually filled in.

photo of bomb damaged Albert Dock warehouse - the building that now houses Merseyside Maritime Museum

Damage sustained by the Albert Dock warehouses by bombing raids during the Second World War. The damage was left for decades; this picture was taken in 1982. From 1982 South Docks Survey, Maritime Archives, National Museums Liverpool.

Albert Dock and the May Blitz

The Albert Dock provided berths and maintenance workshops for Flower Class Corvettes, tasked with protecting the convoys responsible for maintaining the vital supply link of food and materials with the USA.

One of the Corvettes housed at the Albert Dock was 'HMS Campanula'. On board was Nicholas Monsarrat, author of the famous 1951 war novel 'The Cruel Sea'.

During the raids on the night of Friday 2 to Saturday 3 May 1941, three mines were dropped in Salthouse Dock, Canning half tide Dock, and Albert Dock. Nicholas Monsarrat witnessed the dropping of the third mine into Albert Dock:  

"Campanula herself came nearest to dissolution from a huge land-mine which, floating down by parachute and silhouetted impressively against this bomber’s moon, fell into the dock-basin with a gentle splash about twenty yards astern of us.  

Not knowing what sort of activity could touch this sneaky weapon off – it might be noise, electrical interference, temperature change, a certain pattern of vibration, or the simple lapse of time – we closed down everything we had, from bilge pumps to the radio set, and, moving on tiptoe and talking in whispers, pulled ourselves out of the neighbourhood with our own strong arms."
From 'Life is a Four-Letter Word. Volume 2: Breaking Out', by Nicholas Monsarrat, 1970

The mine did not detonate until the following day, on Saturday 3 May. The mines were magnetic and went off if they detected movement around them but it is thought that this mine went off spontaneously. HMS Campanula was back in the Albert Dock but was not damaged by the explosion. The lightship Sirius was sunk, as was No. 2 Surveyor, a seven ton launch. The vessel Camel No. 4 was also left badly damaged. 

'HMS Campanula' recorded in the Albert Dock register leaving Albert Dock during the Second World War. Maritime Archives collections, National Museums Liverpool, MDHB-OP-1 Nicholas Monsarrat on the bridge of 'HMS Campanula'. Copyright unknown believed to be expired, from the Atheneum Library. Luftwaffe map showing part of Liverpool's docks, Albert Dock and Salthouse Dock are just in shot on the right. Maritime Archives collections, National Museums Liverpool, DX950

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