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World War 2

On 3rd September 1939, Britain [and France] declared war on Germany because Germany invaded Poland, and we had a treaty with Poland which said that we had to treat an attack on Poland as an attack on Britain itself.  Fortunately, the war didn't get going for a few months so we had a bit of time to prepare.

The 8 months immediately after the declaration of war is often referred to as the "Phoney war", because we didn't actually attack anyone. We just waited for the inevitable attack on France, which began on 10th May 1940. It was all over for us by 4th June, the end of operation Dynamo, which saw an armada of small boats, including the Mersey ferries, evacuate the remains of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk.

Battle of the Atlantic

France has ports on the Atlantic coast, so when the German Army occupied France, those ports were quickly put to use by the U-Boat fleet, intent on sinking as many cargo ships as possible.  Britain was under siege, with no allies. After the war, Winsotn Churchill wrote, "The only thing that every really frightened me during the war was the U boat peril".  The Battle of the Atlantic was the only battle that lasted throughout the whole of the war.  It was the battle that claimed most British and Allied... and Merseyside, and the canal, was right at the heart of it. You see, all those cargo boats needed coal, delivered on the canal.

You can find out more about the Battle of the Atlantic by visiting the Maritime Museum in the Albert Dock, or the Western Approaches Museum, (Actually, the control centre for the Battle of the Atlantic) on Rumford Street.  Boaters cruising through the canal link across the Pier Head in Liverpool will miss the many memorials commemorating the heroism of those involved in the battle. Over 72,000 allied merchant seamen lost their lives during the battle, including many of the 30,000 Merseysiders who enrolled in the Merchant Navy for WW2.  Plaques and monuments commemorating their sacrifice can be found on the riverside and walls at the Pier Head, or set into the pavement on Canada Boulevard in front of the Three Graces.

Merseyside as a target

Over 90% of all war materials and supplies imported into this country came via Merseyside.  All the tanks and guns, and all the American and Canadian troops came this way. This made Merseyside a very important target for enemy bombers, and the bulls eye was the convoy escorts stabled at Gladstone Docks in Bootle.

Every day that his ship was in port, the Famous Capt Frederic "Johnny" Walker would leave his home in Pembroke Road, and cross the Leeds and Liverpool canal on his way to his ship, HMS Starling, in Gladstone Dock.

 Although his home was an elegant Victorian mansion, it was in the heart of industrial Bootle. He would have been aware of the sounds and smells of that industry; the smell of treacle being made just over the road on Merton Grove, or biscuits being made next to the corn mills on the other side of the canal, and the sight of smoke from the toffee factory chimney 1/4 mile away.   Perhaps on his way to work, he would watch the canal barges delivering coal to the docks and canal side factories, or watch the cargo being unloaded at Carolina Street; maybe destined for his own ship.

Although Merseyside became a target for the Luftwaffe as early as August 1940 and remained a target for as long as the Luftwaffe was able to put bombers over it (Jan 1942), the first full week of May 1941 is known locally as The May Blitz. There were no guided weapons at that point in history, and bomb aiming was very much a hit and miss (more miss than hit) affair. Consequently, during that first week of May, 74% of the housing in Liverpool and Bootle was either destroyed or structurally damaged.  Damage was so extensive that clearance of bomb damaged buildings is still going on today.