War imports

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archive photo of men unloading cargo from a ship

Image courtesy of the Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

I have many memories of Liverpool’s docklands when they were labour-intensive before the widespread use of containers.

Once I was flung off my motorcycle when the wheels got caught in the dock railway lines. The windscreen and front mudguard were shattered.

As I wheeled my machine past the police officer he joked: “You crunched!” (This was a catch phrase from a crisps advert of the time, 1968.)

Some 25 years earlier the Port of Liverpool fought a daily battle of survival bringing in vital supplies.

Imports were essential for Britain’s survival during the Second World War when convoys of merchant ships criss-crossed the Atlantic between Liverpool and America.

Many food products were rationed throughout the war and into the post war period. All kinds of commodities were brought in on the ships. The Germans targeted the convoys with submarine attacks in an attempt to stop as many as possible.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said: “The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.”

The total amount of cargo handled at British ports in the 12 months starting April 1940 was unusually low – about half the wartime average. This was due both to Germany’s successes and the organisational problems of the ports.

For example the ports of Liverpool and Manchester dealt with 4.2 million tons – 31 per cent of UK ports’ total trade. In this period the main west coast ports handled about 60 per cent of Britain’s imports.

A photograph in the Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Battle of the Atlantic gallery shows Liverpool dockers unloading a ship’s cargo into railway wagons alongside a bomb-damaged dockside in April 1943 (pictured).

A modern painting by David Cobb is called 'A Convoy Arrives in Liverpool', showing the cargo vessels escorted by war ships.

No less than 1,285 convoys and an impressive total of 76,000 ships arrived in the Mersey during the war. This was an average of four convoys and 280 ships (not all in convoy) every week. A similar amount of traffic headed out of the river.

Since every convoy (or part convoy) might consist of up to 60 ships, the amount of shipping involved put a severe strain on the port workforce and facilities.

Dockers played a vital role in unloading the cargoes. Delays in unloading were generally caused by the number of ships in port and the damage caused by air raids.

By 1944 far more cargoes were being handled than before the war.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents and bookshops.

Test your skills as a docker in the online game Cargo-a-go-go.