The Merseyside Blitz: A spotters guide

More than seventy years after the raids that devastated so much of the region, you might think that spotting signs of the impact of the raids could prove difficult, at least without a handy reference guide. In many cases this is correct, for the region has seen massive changes in those seven decades, with whole areas rebuilt to such an extent that they would be unrecognisable to someone alive at the time of the attacks. There is however still signs of the blitz for anyone to see and this article will take you through some of them.

Signs and portents

Here and there throughout the region you will occasionally see signs for companies which have long since moved on or shut down. These are known as “Ghost Signs” and there is a rather excellent book on the subject by Phil and Caroline Bunford, which includes several wartime examples. One of these is this first sign, from the side of a building on Eberle Street (off Dale Street).

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Although as their book says, this sign looks like it’s in too good a condition to be an original, it certainly wouldn’t be surprising if it was, for the style and nature of the sign is perfectly in keeping for the times. It of course indicates an exit from a shelter, in this case in the basement of a prominent building. The Civil Defence workers would find such signs a great help, for if they had to rescue people from the building if it collapsed, knowing the location of emergency exits would save crucial minutes.

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Our second sign comes from a building in New Ferry currently occupied by Andy’s Aquatics. It indicates the direction of an Emergency Water Supply site. Created after the early raids, these supplies could take many forms, including swimming pools and the basements of demolished buildings that had been filled with water. This particular example may refer to the old New Ferry baths which were in the direction indicated by the arrow.

Visual signs of the past

Often you can tell from looking at a building when it has undergone some reconstruction in the past. Take the example of the building below, which was part of the hydraulic system used in the docks on the Wirral.

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You can quite clearly see the difference in colour between the bricks one the near corner of the building and the rest. The uneven line running down the wall suggests that this reconstruction wasn’t part of a planned rebuild, so it came as no surprise to find that the building was badly damaged during the blitz, with the damage corresponding almost exactly to the newer brickwork.

Another way is to look for remaining older features that look out of place with their surroundings. For example look at the balustrades surrounding the car park in this modern photograph.

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It looks rather unusual and slightly out of place, although not impossible of course given the prominent location (on Victoria Street, the car park is used by the Municipal Annexe, whose tower can be seen in the photo). A study of the wartime photos however reveals that the balustrades in fact once surrounded a rather grand building known as Government Buildings, which was burnt out during the May Blitz.

A newer model

You can also often tell when a building has been damaged by a quick comparison of its age and current style. The photo below for example shows the Bootle Protestant Free Church.

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Knowing that a church by the same name appears in the pre-war street directories provides a clue that it was probably hit during the raids. This building looks fairly modern and its style is quite likely post war. Sure enough, the archives contain a photograph of a building of similar layout, but quite different style, with heavy damage to the front of the building and its roof.

Mind the gap

Another common way to tell a blitz site is almost the reverse of the Government Buildings example, namely to look for modern properties or developments that look out of place with the theme of the area. One of the first photos I ever investigated was just labelled “Leopold Street” in the archives.

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A visit to the street in question (in Kensington, Liverpool) revealed it was a street of almost entirely terraced housing, with the two notable exceptions (above). Nothing their numbers (77 and 79, but there was no 81 or 83), I then matched the names in the street directories for the period to the lists of civilian war dead, and was able to confirm this was the exact location. Four pre-war houses had been demolished and only two rebuilt, each with its own garage. A mother and four daughters had been killed at number 81.

Another common feature of post-war reconstruction is when the bomb site is never really built upon after the raid. Often you will find the site converted into another use, such as this one from Laird Street in Birkenhead.

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The gap in the centre of the photograph is where 62-68 once stood, which doesn’t appear to have been built upon after the war. Instead it became the home to a set of billboard advertisements, perhaps a temporary solution to cover the eyesore that eventually became permanent.

Conclusion

So there we are, a quick guide to the kinds of things to look out for on your travels around the Merseyside region. Do you know any examples yourself? If so please get in touch, I would especially love to hear about any other examples of the signs I mentioned.

 

Creating a ghost photo

The work that goes into a ghost photograph can be quite extensive sometimes, especially if there are few or no features common to both the wartime and modern photograph. The results are usually worth the effort, but I thought I would share with readers some idea of the process involved.

You start off with a wartime photograph of course, in this case a scene from where St George’s Crescent met Lord Street. The premises of Austin Reeds has been severely damaged by bombs and a man with his back to the camera (possibly a soldier) studies the damage.

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The next step is to visit the area and see how it looks today, keeping an eye out for potential problems such as new buildings blocking the view. It often pays to look this up online first, but nothing can beat a visit in person. From this photograph it can be seen that the area in question looks quite different today, however the same basic outline of the buildings and roads concerned remains.

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It also often helps to study pre-war photographs to get a feel for what the area looked like prior to the damage. In this case the corner in our wartime photograph is the same as the one behind the tram on the left in the photograph below. I was able to use this to judge the scale and rough outline of the buildings, judging the modern replacements to be slightly taller but otherwise largely similar.

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Using Photoshop the two photographs are then manipulated until a match can be found. At this stage the full wartime image would still be used.

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One in position the merged photograph is then tidied up, with the emphasis as much as possible on the main subject of the wartime image rather than other undamaged buildings.

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The final outcome is what I call a ghost image, something like a look back through time.

Birchtree Road Aigburth – Blitz Damage

Following a request from Pete O’Connor on Facebook I have recently been doing some research into a little known incident (or perhaps incidents, but more on this later) that took place in the Aigburth district of Liverpool.

Pete wrote:

“Hi Neil

I saw the link Old Photos of Liverpool put up to your piece on the Liverpool Blitz and the books you have wrote on the subject. I was wondering if you could help me?

I live in Birchtree Road in Aigburth, post code is L17 0DS. I was talking to one of my neighbours some time ago and she told that our street was bombed during the war. It would seem that there was some truth in it, as in a portion of my street and 2 other neighbouring streets, Holywood Road and Fernwood Road, the old terraced houses stop and newer houses have been built.

I have become very interested in finding what happened and when but the only information I have been able to find is from a website that sells aerial photographs, that seems to confirm that it was bombed. There is a photo from 1940 that shows the terraced houses all intact, then a photo from 1945 that shows a section of the houses missing.

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Photograph from U K Ariel Photos

Other than that, I have not been able to find out any details. Given your knowledge and research into the blitz, I was wondering if you had any information, dates, photos etc of this event? Or if not, where would be a good place to try and get this information.”

As you’ll see Pete has already done some sterling research himself, and introduced me to a site I’d not seen before, but intend to make extensive use of in the future. Using the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website I was able to piece together more of the story for him.

The following people fell that fateful night:

At 51 Birchtree Road: Jessie Dow (63) William Dow (26) and Jessie Dow (20) – the latter two were the children of the former. The father (another William) must have died before the war as he’s mentioned as “the late”. William junior was a fireman with the AFS.

At 53 Birchtree Road: Barbara Ellen Williams (48) and Price Goodman Williams (48) a husband and wife.

At 55 Birchtree Road: Henrietta Hetty Thomas (52), Sarah Thomas (30), William Edward Thomas (56). Sarah was the daughter of William and Henrietta, William was fatally injured in the raid, but died in the David Lewis Northern Hospital later that day

At 25 Fernwood Road: Edith Seafield (37), Francis Brian Seafield (11), John Alexander Seafield (13), Thomas Albert Seafield (14) Thomas Alexander Seafield (39). Edith and Thomas Alexander were husband and wife, the others were their children.

At 27 Fernwood Road: Elizabeth Lowe (68) and Samuel Lowe (71) husband and wife

At 29 Fernwood Road: Mille Miller (35), Frederick William Miller (35) Robertina Miller (56), Rebecca Miller (83), William Henry Miller (56). Robertina and William were husband and wife, as was Mille and Frederick. Its not known what relation Rebecca was, but presumably she was an extended family member.

At 31 Fernwood Road: Mary Ellen Hesketh (58) she’s listed as having a husband who wasn’t amongst the dead, but no other details are mentioned (he might have been injured, unharmed or away at the time).

At 33 Fernwood Road: Edward Collins (38), Mary Collins (30) its not entirely clear but they may have been brother and sister since their listed as having the same parent’s names. Mary Howard (6) is also listed as a casualty, but its unclear why she was present at this address, her parents (Charles and Margaret Howard) lived in 19 Ashlar Road, Aigburth which isn’t far away, so perhaps they were relations or just looking after the child for someone. Neither parent died in the raids.

Given the fact that 8 people died in Birchtree road, and 18 in Fernwood Road, the proximity of the houses to eachother and the widespread damage in the aerial photgraphs, my thought would be that the damage was done by a parachute mine. One ordinary high explosive of even the largest size the Germans had would never do such widespread damage, it would take several, and the casualties would have been correspondingly more widespread.

Parachute mines on the other hand were quite capable of blasting apart half a street, and virtually every one of the major wartime incidents was caused by one. A photo of one that failed to explode can be seen [here]. It fell on the garden of a house in Score Lane, Childwall. A very famous incident occurred on the same night at the college on the corner of Durning Road and Clint Road. its for this reason that this incident is probably less well known, on any previous night the loss of at least 26 people in one small area would be a major incident, but on this night well over 150 people lost their lives at the college when the basement they were sheltering in was hit by a parachute mine, with the basement shelter collapsing onto them.

Further confirmation of this incident comes from the Police Reports, which state that 30 parachute mines were dropped on that night, of which 8 failed to explode. The Home Security Information files even provide a rough time for the incident, stating:

“Fernwood Road, Elmswood Road, Ashlar Road area. Mossley Hill Road South near Holmefield Road. Several houses demolished, a number trapped under debris. Grounds of house in Woodlands Road (02:45)”

Although these files list this damage under “HE [High Explosive, typically meaning a bomb] on the following points” this is inconclusive since the Durning Road incident is also listed here.

With Pete’s permission I’ve reposted the information here to bring it to the attention of anyone else with an interest in the area or subject.

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An unexploded parachute mine in the garden of a house in Score Lane, Childwall

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Bomb damage at Durning Road, Wavertree

NB: This article was originally contributed to the excellent Liverpool Picturebook website: http://www.liverpoolpicturebook.com/

The owner has given permission for me to also upload it here

Some sort of new articles on their way

The reason why I’ve said they are sort of new is because a good friend of mine, Bob Edwards runs an excellent website called Liverpool Picturebook and I have contributed several articles to that site over time. With Bob’s permission I will be adding those older articles to this blog.

Please do check out his website though, on it you can find historical photos from every corner of Liverpool (and some areas beyond such as Bootle or New Brighton). I must add a health warning before posting the link though: Beware, for if you are interested in local history, you could well lose an hour or two once you start to look around!

http://www.liverpoolpicturebook.com/

Also if you have chance his excellent book: Liverpool in the 1950s.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0752487884?tag=liverpopictur-21&camp=1406&creative=6394&linkCode=as1&creativeASIN=0752487884&adid=07AWN3915NEY0ARP22WH&&ref-refURL=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.liverpoolpicturebook.com%2F

A Blitz Guide: Bombs

There are several terms that I use a lot on this blog that I generally take for granted because I read about them so often in books or wartime reports. I sometimes forget that what is familiar to me may make no sense to some readers, so with that in mind I thought it would be helpful to do a series of posts explaining some of these terms, and thought I would start with bombs.

This is a fairly generic term that is used frequently both during and after the war to describe any kind of device dropped by the Luftwaffe on the city. In general they came under three main categories: Parachute Mine, Incendiary and High Explosive. These were often referred to in short form as PM, IB and HE respectively, sometimes accompanied by the letters UX beforehand to indicate that it had failed to explode.

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Different sizes of German High Explosive bombs

They varied in size from tiny 1kg incendiary bombs all the way up to the 1800kg monster that the Germans nicknamed “Satan”. Generally speaking the larger the device, the more damage it was likely to inflict, however much also depended on the circumstances and location where it went off. For example incendiary bombs were often very easy to deal with, especially if they fell in a well populated area and were not accompanied by any high explosive devices. Local people had received training or pamphlets on how to deal with these, and often did so without trouble (until that is the Germans started to include an explosive charge in the device)

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An example of one of the small incendiaries used by the Germans

Should these same incendiaries land in a commercial or industrial area however, or the locals be in shelters due to the high explosives, fires could easily be started by the incendiaries. The authorities deployed fire watchers to try to counter this, but it was impossible to locate every device in time to prevent it from starting a fire. Should the fire brigade then be unable to control these fires, the damage to the buildings concerned would be out of all proportion to the size of the bomb.

Parachute Mines were another example of a device that inflicted damage out of proportion with its size. Although still large, the standard types used by the Luftwaffe were 500kg and 1000kg, smaller than the largest high explosive bomb. These mines however would be designed to descend on a parachute and explode above ground 25 seconds after impact. The resulting blast and shock wave could easily demolish half a street if they came down in a residential area. Virtually all of the major incidents during the blitz on Merseyside were caused by parachute mines.

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A parachute mine which landed in the garden of a house in Score Lane, Childwall. The device was one of 30 which fell on the night of the 28th/29th November 1940, 8 of which failed to explode

A major problem for the authorities was also unexploded bombs. They standard procedure was to evacuate the immediate area and prevent any traffic passing through. A bomb disposal team would then be called in, sometimes from the Royal Navy if a mine was involved (the parachute mines were technically a naval weapon adapted for use against land targets). Such devices caused great problems as it made a lot of people homeless, even if only temporarily. Often the bomb would still go off, either as there hadn’t been time to get a disposal team to it, or because their efforts had been unsuccessful. The work was very dangerous and many of these brave men lost their lives in the process.

There are almost certainly still some of these devices around today, in May 2006 a 500kg device was discovered in the Mersey, close to Twelve Quays in Birkenhead. Although dealt with by the Royal Navy without incident, it was a stark reminder that the legacy of the blitz is with us still in more ways than one.

A bit of a rum do during the May Blitz

I was asked something today on twitter and I thought the story might interest people here too.

“Do you know what night a munitions train was hit near Anfield? My mum said it “snowed” cotton wool from packaging for hours”

There was indeed such a train, which caught fire during the night of the 3rd/4th May 1941 when incendiaries landed on it. It was in a place called Breck Road sidings, off Townsend Lane at the time. According to the excellent “Port in a Storm” the railway system would often place the wagons from any ammunition train that couldn’t be loaded that day at the docks in a nearby siding waiting to be loaded as soon as possible.

The problem on that night was twofold, a high explosive bomb had cratered the mainline track nearby, and incendiaries were starting to set off the ammunition in the wagons, one by one. As each wagon exploded, it would scatter the ammunition in it over some distance and start multiple fires nearby.

Once the enormity of the problem became clear several men risked their lives to save people and goods in the area. Local residents were quickly roused from their houses and shelters and told to move away from the area. Some railwaymen came down the line, bringing up an engine and try to drive the ammunition wagons away. It is difficult to imagine the fiery scene that must have greeted them when they neared the area.

Unfortunately the engine they brought up couldn’t get past the crater on the mainline. They had been unaware of this crater, only discovering it when one of them fell into it! Finding they were unable to move and save the ammunition wagons, they instead concentrated on the other goods wagons nearby, pulling many of these to safety despite the fact that the ammunition was still going off at regular intervals, scattering fires and hurling metal and wood around the area.

This heroism was later recognised with most of those involved receiving a medal. One of those involved later commented that the whole affair was “A bit of a rum do”