Wartime views of the May Blitz

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An image showing the impact the May Blitz had on Liverpool. This was the view from near the Victoria Monument, with Lord Street on the left.

When studying history it is often easy to fall into the trap of reading reports and sources with hindsight. For example I know that by the 8th May 1941 the “May Blitz” was effectively over, as indeed was the worst of the raids on the region (there were others after May, but nothing like as severe as that week). The Luftwaffe (German Air Force) would soon undergo a massive redeployment in preparation for the campaigns in the Balkans and Russia, and in general raids against the British isles tended to taper off in comparison to the height of the Blitz on London or other cities.

For those living on Merseyside at the time however they knew nothing of the sort, all they knew was that their city or town was being battered night after night, with no sign by the 8th that there was any respite on the horizon. It is worth remembering that although the raids on Merseyside were often sproadic, it had been ten months since the air raids began, thousands of people had lost their lives, thousands more had been injured and many more were homeless. It would be hard to find anyone who had come through the period without the air raids impacting on their life in some major way.

With this in mind the following exchange makes for interesting reading. It comes from the Home Security Information files, which were a series of incident reports, collated regionally to monitor the impact of the air raids (or other incidents such as ships sinking) on each area. They were usually compiled daily, although if a raid was going on, several reports would be sent during the night providing updates.

The first letter is from Sir Harry Haig, who I believe was Regional Commissioner and normally based in Manchester. During the May Blitz he came to Liverpool to see for himself the impact of the raids and try to co-ordinate the region’s efforts. I have been unable to identify who Sir George Carter was, perhaps he was Sir Harry Haig’s superior.

8th May 1941

From Sir Harry Haig

To Sir George Carter

1) Bootle

Attack on Bootle last night was extremely heavy and devastation was tremendous. Fire situation reasonably in hand. Water fairly good, no gas. Problem of homeless is very grave, it is estimated there are 20,000 homeless. Only one rest centre out of twelve is left, and people refuse to use rest centres in the town. No billeting possible.

Facilities are being offered to genuine homeless to be taken out to rest centres in towns at some distance. The nearer belt of rest centres is already filled by nightly evacuees whose number last night rose to about 13,000 from Liverpool and Bootle. We are considering possibility of establishing camps for workers and their families in comparatively near localities, but this will take some days. Bootle authorities functioning well, but people seriously shaken. Food situation being met by mobile canteens, labour adequate.

2) Liverpool

Liverpool suffered comparatively little last night. I found traffic situation very bad this morning and sent at once for General Hatcherley to try to concert with Chief Constable adequate measures.

Although it is obviously incomplete, concentrating mostly on Bootle rather than the region as a whole, here we have in black and white what a responsible member of the authorities thought of the raids and their impact. It is quite clear that he views the situation as very serious, and is concerned that existing methods of helping people (rest centres, temporary evacuation to other towns etc) was not sufficient. The fact that they were considering “camps for workers” suggests that Sir Harry felt it was entirely possible that the raids would continue and that appropriate counter measures should be considered.

Sir George’s reply is just as interesting:

8th May 1941

To Sir George Gater

 From Sir Harry Haig

1) My message 17:45: Arrangements have been made to take out genuine homeless to rest centres at St Helens, Wigan and other places, but so far numbers registering in Bootle are many fewer than expected, and may be only about twelve hundred.

2) Consideration is being given to problem of billeting homeless at reasonable distances. Military are prepared to surrender certain billets. If we could get Huyton Camp from which enemy aliens have almost all been removed, it would be very useful.

3) I do not like nightly evacuation which seems to be growing, from Scotland Road area in particular.

4) Your message through Scholes about Liverpool traffic: I have discussed with Atcherley, chief constable and transport commissioner. Problem arises owing to fact that normal line of communication between North and South Docks is completely blocked. It is hoped to have one street on this route opened tomorrow, which should relieve situation considerably. Chief Constable is also tightening up greatly restriction on private cars entering this congested area, which is unfortunately the business centre. To go further and prohibit private cars entering this area would require an order from the ministry of transport and this is not considered necessary in present conditions

5) Liverpool figures of dead for seven nights as at present reported are 1140, of which 850 on big night.

6) I omitted to mention in my message of 17:45 that Army are lending field kitchens for Bootle

Sir George doesn’t seem as concerned, playing down the numbers of people who have been made homeless, but still recognising that it may be necessary to look into areas further afield to house the homeless. This again suggests that the authorities were at least preparing for the idea that the raids were not finished, and if more came, the existing, already over taxed local provisions would be unable to cope.

His remark about nightly evacuations is interesting, since although the authorities frowned upon them, many people, especially those living in areas with poor shelter provision would have felt safer in the countryside or a town such as Prescot or Huyton (which were bombed, but nowhere near as badly as Bootle or Liverpool). It should be appreciated however that such evacuations either put a strain on the transport system (if the daytime workers sought to return the next day) or reduced the workforce and hindered the region’s recovery.

The Huyton Camp reference is about a part of the Huyton area (around Bluebell Lane) that was fenced off and for a time used to house interned German, Austrian and Italian nationals who were living in the UK at the outbreak of the war. Most of them had left the camp by this time, and it would close in 1942. It consisted of a largely finished housing estate and was one of the largest internment camps in the country.

The files provide an interesting insight into how the authorities viewed the May Blitz and its impact. If you want to see some examples of what they look like, they are available at the link below:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/manchesterarchiveplus/sets/72157633678542236/

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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.

Introduction

Hi everyone, my name is Neil Holmes and I am the author of two local history books about the Blitz on Merseyside. I was born on the Wirral in 1979 and still live there today, but work in Liverpool as a civil servant. I have studied military history for fifteen years and the history of the Merseyside region for six. My interest in local history and photography led me to research Liverpool’s wartime experiences, culminating in the publication of Liverpool Blitzed: 70 Years On in 2011, followed by Merseyside Blitzed the following year.

Most of the work so far comes in the form of “Then and now” shots of the blitz, showing a wartime photograph alongside its modern equivalent, or the closest possible comparison. This example below is from the Wallasey Blitz and shows damage done to the Town Hall on the night of the 31st August/1st September 1940. Fortunately the building survived the damage and remains standing to this day.

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In addition I also work on something called “Ghost photographs” where the wartime and modern photograph are merged together to create one image. This example comes from Birkenhead and shows the premises of Bolton’s garage and Taxi firm in Devonshire Road, hit on the night of the 12th/13th March 1941.

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I intend to use this particular blog to promote knowledge and understanding of the blitz on Merseyside, in particular its impact on the area around us and those who lived through those dark times.

You can also follow me at these places:

Twitter account: @liverpoolblitz

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Liverpoolblitz

Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/34388583@N08/