Liverpool was the most heavily bombed British city outside London. The city was a prime target for attack because, with Birkenhead, its 'twin' across the Mersey, it was the country's biggest west coast port. Every week, ships arrived in the River Mersey bringing supplies of food and other cargoes from the USA and Canada. Without these supplies, Britain would have lost the war.
The German Luftwaffe (Air Force) made about eighty air raids on Merseyside between August 1940 and January 1942. These reached their peak in the seven-night blitz in May 1941. The bombing was aimed mainly at the docks, railways and factories, but large areas were destroyed or damaged on both sides of the Mersey.
'They tried to wipe us off the face of the earth. They nearly did but they didn't quite, did they?'
Mrs Dorothy Laycock, a child during the Liverpool Blitz
The fall of Norway, Holland, Belgium and France to the German Army by mid-1940 allowed the Luftwaffe to use airfields in each of those countries. It was from these airfields, especially in northern France and Belgium, that German bombers would fly to Merseyside.
Having suffered serious losses in daylight raids on Britain, the Germans decided to launch air attacks at night on major British ports and cities. This campaign began on the night of 28th August, when 160 bombers attacked Merseyside. It was the first of many raids on the area over the next nine months.
The bombers followed special radio beams to direct them to their target, although British scientists sometimes managed to jam or bend these beams. Most bombers approached Merseyside from the Welsh coast, and could easily check their position by the lights of neutral Dublin.
Liverpool's air defences, like those of other British cities, mainly involved the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Army. The RAF put up huge, hydrogen-filled barrage balloons above the docks and at sites around the city. These usually deterred the raiders from attacking below 5,000 feet. The Army's anti-aircraft guns and searchlights targeted the enemy flying above the balloons.
From 12,000 feet upward RAF fighter aircraft attacked the bombers. The fighters were based at Speke, near Liverpool, Cranage (Cheshire), Tern Hill and High Ercall (Shropshire), Wrexham, Anglesey and Blackpool.
The RAF also lit decoy fires on the sands of the Dee estuary, close to the Wirral shore, to confuse the enemy bombers. These succeeded in attracting many bombs that would otherwise have landed on Merseyside.
The growing storm
There were over 50 German air raids on Merseyside between August and Christmas 1940. In September and October, they occurred about once every two nights. Each raid could last from a few minutes up to ten hours. Most raids were by a few aircraft, but the largest involved over 300. The heaviest raids were on the nights of 28 November, 20 and 21 December ('the Christmas Blitz').
The combined weight of attacks took a growing toll. By the end of April 1941, the area had endured over 60 raids, at least five being major. Many had damaged the docks, but only a few seriously. Buildings, roads and homes had been destroyed throughout the area. Over 2,000 people had been killed, and many more badly injured.
'For the last week we have not been in bed before 4 am, and sometimes after, through the air raids. We have no shelter, so get under the stairs as the safest place.'
Mrs Milly Williams, Walton, 5 September 1940
The Durning Road tragedy
© Merseyside Police
The direct hit on the large underground shelter in Durning Road, Edge Hill, was the worst single incident in the Liverpool Blitz as regards loss of life. This occurred in the early hours of 29 November 1940, during the heaviest air raid to date. About 300 people were tightly packed into a shelter in the basement of Edge Hill Training College in Durning Road.
When a parachute mine hit the building, it collapsed into the shelter below, crushing many of its occupants. Boiling water from the central heating system and gas from fractured mains poured in. Raging fires overhead also made rescue work extremely dangerous. In all, 166 men, women and children were killed. Many more were badly injured.
'My mother, from the trauma of that night ... never spoke for six months... '
Mr Joe Lucas, who lost two brothers and two sisters in the tragedy
The German air raids of 1940-42 caused death and destruction on both sides of the Mersey. About 4,000 people were killed, including 2,736 in Liverpool, 454 in Birkenhead and 424 in Bootle.
In Liverpool, many docks and their neighbourhoods were reduced to rubble. A number of ships were sunk in the docks and river. Much of the city centre was devastated, including the main shopping and business areas. Some of the city's best-known buildings were destroyed, including the Customs House, the Cotton Exchange, the Rotunda Theatre and Lewis's department store. The City Museum (now World Museum) and Central Library and their fine collections were also badly damaged.
Houses, churches, hospitals, factories and other buildings were bombed throughout the city and its suburbs. Many roads, railways and tramlines were made unusable. While vital services were quickly restored, other damage often took years to repair.