Liverpool and the Battle of the Atlantic

Liverpool’s ships and merchant seamen played a crucial part in ensuring Britain’s survival during the Battle of the Atlantic, as they had perviously done in the First World War. So too did her dock labourers, shipbuilders and ship repairers. Finally, the unfailing spirit and warmth of the people of Merseyside had an important morale-boosting effect on Allied seafarers of all nations.

Liverpool was Britain’s main transatlantic convoy port during the war. No less than 1285 convoys arrived in the Mersey during the war, an average of four every week.   Since each one might consist of up to 60 ships, this put a severe strain on the workforce and facilities of the port.

Merseyside’s vast dock labour force played a vital role in clearing ships’ cargoes at the port of Liverpool throughout the war. Early problems of slow turnaround (loading and unloading) of ships were mainly due to port congestion and air-raid disruptions. By 1944-1945 all cargoes were being handled in far greater quantities than in peacetime.

Imports to Britain's West coast ports April 1940 - April 1941

Imports to each post in millions of tons, with the percentage of total trade handling by all UK ports (12.9 million tons)

  • 4.2 (31%)* Liverpool and Manchester
  • 1.9 (14.8%) Glasgow and Greenock
  • 0.8 (6.4%) Swansea, Cardfiff and Newport
  • 0.8 (6.4%) Bristol
  • 7.7 (58.6%) Total 

From these figures it can be seen that between April 1940 and April 1941 the main west-coast ports handled about 60% of Britain’s imports.  Liverpool and Manchester (31%) together dealt with more than twice the trade of Glasgow and Greenock (14.8%), their nearest ‘rivals’.

The total amount of cargo handled by all UK ports during this period was unusually low (about half the wartime average). This was due to German successes in the war and to organisational problems at the ports. Even so, these figures give some indication of the relative importance of the ports concerned.

(source: CBA Behrens, Merchant Shipping and the Demands of War (1955), p147)

Derby House: Western Approaches Command Centre, Liverpool

In late 1940 Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided that Plymouth was no longer suitable as the headquarters of Western Approaches Command. She had become too vulnerable to German air raids and too distant from the main west-coats convoy ports and routes.

He therefore ordered that a new Command Headquarters be set up in Liverpool, the country’s main and most central convoy port. Fortunately, the basement of Derby House, a new office block behind Liverpool’s Town Hall, was already being specially adapted for this purpose as a massive bomb and gas-proof command centre. In February 1941, therefore, Admiral Sir Percy Noble, the new Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches, set up his new headquarters at Derby House with a large staff. 

Here, the Royal Navy and Royal Airforce’s No.15 Group Coastal Command would work together on Atlantic Operations under the overall control of Noble. The large operations room deep under Derby House soon became the nerve centre of the British Admiralty’s entire Atlantic campaign.  It was from ‘The Citadel’, or ‘The Dungeon’, as it became known to its staff, that the day to day strategy of the battle was directed.

Western Approaches Tactical Unit

In January 1942 Captain Gilbert Roberts established the Western Approaches Tactical Unit (WATU) on the top floor of the Exchange Building, close to Derby House. Roberts and his small team, largely staffed by naval reservists and young Wrens, was a great success. They studied U-boat attacks and developed highly effective countermeasures for escort commanders to adopt.  They also held six-day courses to train all escort captains in Western approaches Command how to apply these new tactics. By these means the Tactical Unit played a vital role in increasing the efficiency of British Escort Groups in the North Atlantic. 

Liverpool: escort base

Until mid-1941 only a small force of naval escort ships was based at Liverpool. A fleet of trawlers from Fleetwood was established at Wallasey Dock, Birkenhead for minesweeping and convoy escort work.   A group of destroyers was based in Gladstone Dock, Bootle. A few auxiliary merchant cruisers, fast and well-armed former liners taken over by the Navy, also sailed out of Liverpool on the North Atlantic patrol duties.

From mid-1941 onwards, however, as more escort ships became available, the naval presence in the port grew rapidly. Liverpool became one of the Royal Navy’s main escort bases for Atlantic convoys although Londonderry and Greenock were also very important. Eventually, nearly sixty naval escort ships (excluding trawlers and other naval auxiliaries) sailed regularly from the port, ranging from destroyers and sloops to frigates and corvettes. While Gladstone Dock supported by Langton and other nearly docks, provided berths for the larger ships, many corvettes were based at Albert Dock.

Home of the Merchant Navy

More than ever before Merseyside became the ‘home of the Merchant Navy’ during the war.  Liverpool-owned and registered ships formed a large part of Britain’s ocean-going merchant fleet. Many were taken over by the government as armed merchant cruisers, troopships, hospital ships, assault ships or for other auxiliary naval service. The rest joined the merchant convoys so crucial to the Allied cause. These ships were often manned largely by Merseysiders, of whom up to 10,000 were merchant seamen, amounting to about 17 per cent of all British-born men in the Merchant Navy.

Home from home

Liverpool became the home port of Allied seamen of many nationalities during the war. They were warmly welcomed, and many settled in the port when the war ended. They included Chinese, West African, West Indian and Norwegian seamen.

Pilotage in wartime

The men of the Liverpool Pilotage Service made a major contribution to the success of the Port of Liverpool throughout the war. The complete black-out of the river front and drastic reduction of lighting on ships made their job in guiding the ships safely into port particularly difficult. Enemy mines and air raids added to the danger, as did the large number of merchant and naval ships using the river.

Salvage and rescue successes

During the war, salvage teams from the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, with help from the Liverpool and Glasgow Salvage Association, saved over 200 ships which had been sunk or stranded in the River Mersey and its approaches. Most of these ships had been bombed or mined. They were to be invaluable to Britain during the critical years of war.

Cammell Laird at War

Some of the most famous British warships of the war, including ‘HMS Ark Royal’, ‘Rodney’ and ‘Prince of Wales’, were built at Cammell Laird shipbuilders, Birkenhead. During the war the yard built more than 100 warships, mainly submarines, and several merchant ships. This was an average of one every twenty days.

Laird’s also did a great deal of ship repair and conversion work. Between 1939 and 1945 more than 100 warships and 2,000 merchant ships were repaired by the company.

Ship repair on the Mersey

In the 1940s over 20,000 men and women were employed in the vital work of ship repair on Merseyside. During the war they worked round the clock to repair thousands of merchant ships and naval ships. As well as repairing damage due to Atlantic weather and enemy action, they also fitted merchant ships with guns and other war equipment. All of this work was done to tight schedules so that ships would spend the least possible time in port.

Wartime cargoes

Between 1939 and 1945 the port of Liverpool handled more than 75 millions tons of cargo. Of these, more than 56 millions were imports and 18.5 million were war supplies sent out to overseas battle fronts. Almost 74,000 aeroplanes and gliders were brought into the port. Over 4.7 million troops passed though, of which 1.2 million were American. Most of the supplies for the North African invasion were sent from Merseyside, and the port also played a major part in the invasion of Europe.