An aerial view of Liverpool waterfront in 1924. Source: Historic England Archive. EPW011191
An aerial view of Liverpool waterfront in 1924. Source: Historic England Archive. EPW011191

Liverpool: Feeding the Nation

In 1939 around a third of all imports into the UK passed through Liverpool’s docks. As a major port, the city was vulnerable to attack.

Vital wartime food supplies from the USA and Canada were shipped to Liverpool. Without the work of Liverpool’s docks, Britain would have quickly begun to starve.

Bombing raids on the city began in September 1940 and continued until January 1942.

An aerial view of the Three Graces and Princes Dock, alongside the River Mersey, Liverpool, in 1937. Source: Historic England Archive. EPW054363

Keeping the city safe

The local authorities knew that their city would be a key target. Careful provision was made to keep the city safe. There were 10 Air Raid Precautions (ARP) units in Liverpool, with another separate unit for the docks. Along with other civilian volunteers in the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) they worked tirelessly to try to keep the city safe.

Tragedy in Durning Road

Liverpool suffered severe damage and loss of life. In one raid on 29 November 1940 a parachute mine landed above an air raid shelter on Durning Road. Over half of the 300 people in the shelter were killed. Winston Churchill described it as the "worst single incident of the war" (Jones, 2003, 5).

Rescue workers search for survivors among the ruins of old Edge Hill College, Durning Road. Source: Merseyside Police. 353 PSP/2/144

Walton Gaol bombed

At about 10.20 pm on Wednesday 18 September 1940, Liverpool’s Victorian prison, Walton Gaol, received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb. Police and prison warders used chisels, crow bars and sledge hammers to break through the thick cell walls to release prisoners trapped under fallen masonry. Twenty-two inmates were killed.

The prison was attacked again in the May Blitz. After this it was decided to remove prisoners to other gaols until the end of the war.

Prison exterior with three story hole in it making one cell door on each of three stories visible.
The bomb damage to Walton Prison. Source: Merseyside Police. MLL.2006.34.131B

Bomb at the gasworks

On 29 November 1940 the south of Liverpool was targeted. The following day a large unexploded mine was discovered lying close to the Garston Gasworks. It had landed next to a gasholder where 3.5 million cubic feet of gas was stored. If detonated, the mine would cause a massive explosion.

George Kermode was on standby duty at the works when the mine fell. An ARP messenger knocked him up at 3 am. Arriving at the scene he didn't dare strike a light because of the escaping gas. He groped around with his bare hands "and found a tangle of fabric which certainly shouldn’t have been there … It was apparently a piece of green artificial silk" (Liverpool Echo, 1989).

Kermode realised this was a parachute mine and decided to wait until daylight when the problem could be seen. He worked with the Fire Brigade and other gas workers to remove the bomb. He later said:

There must have been 20 men on different jobs around the holder … not one of them refused or even hesitated to do a job although for all we knew the mine might go up any minute and the holder with it.

George Kermode (Liverpool Echo, 1989)

Thousands of people were evacuated from houses in the surrounding streets. Finally, after two days work, the mine was diffused. Members of the rescue team received a George Cross, two George Medals, two British Empire Medals, an MBE and six official commendations for their efforts.

Gas holder with a grave yard in the foreground.
A gas holder at the former Garston Gasworks in Liverpool © Historic England Archive. AA017857

Lewis’s department store

The worst air raids on Liverpool were in May 1941. The city was attacked for eight consecutive nights between 1–8 May. Several iconic buildings were destroyed in the May Blitz. One of these was Lewis’s department store.

Air raid damage in Liverpool, showing Lewis’s department store © IWM (HU 87916)

Store worker John Mellis was on fire watch duty at the time. He was in one of three teams patrolling the 10 floors of the store, joined by six fire watchers on the roof. When the raid started they spent the night tackling fires.

Mellis and another fire fighter, Mr Lilley, tried to extinguish an incendiary bomb in the women’s shoe department, throwing burning slippers out of the window. At the end of the raid, the store’s interior and most of its stock had been destroyed.

Liverpool Resurgent

On 31 May, barely four weeks after the raid, Lewis’s reopened in a show of defiance. Lewis’s was rebuilt after the war. Its new façade incorporated ‘Liverpool Resurgent’, an 18-feet-tall statue by Jacob Epstein symbolising the city’s post-war rebirth.

A view of Jacob Epstein’s sculpture ‘Liverpool Resurgent’ above the entrance to Lewis’s department store in 1958. Source: Historic England Archive. OP11305
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