Friday, May 1 – 1942
What happened last May seen in detailed retrospect
To-day marks the first anniversary of what hs become known as the “May blitz” on Liverpool and Merseyside generally.
On May 1, 1941, Hitler set out (or so it seemed) to raze the city, especially the centres of business, to the ground. Night after night, heavy bombers chug-chugged over to drop their deadly loads and then escape as best they could from the fierce barrages of anti-aircraft fire. The Ordeal by fire continued for eight successive nights – a record for any city or town in this country.
It is some consolation that the raiders themselves did not get away scot free, and, while it would be foolish to minimise the damage they did, the fact that the work of the port is going in much as ever is eloquent testimony to the spirit of Merseyside people.
Business and other premises, including houses, tenements, hospitals, public-houses and churches suffered badly. As in many previous raids, the civilian population was hard hit. Fantastic stories were circulated about the number of casualties.
Civil defence personnel had a gruelling time, working night and day. The voluntary section made their way to their ordinary work by day often without rest or sleep. Firemen, including those belonging to other brigades who came in to lend a hand, went several days without taking off their uniforms.
Blackened and begrimed, many were seen almost asleep on their feet as they snatched a cup of tea from mobile canteens. Charwomen turned up at early morning work in good time although many had had to walk miles from the suburbs. Many people who had lost their income made a point of being at their office next morning as usual.
The Luftwaffe, however, failed in their effort to knock out the city. Liverpool and the surrounding towns licked their wounds and set about restoring things as far as possible to normal. Scars remain, but never for a moment did battered Merseyside morale fail. In that sense the blitz was a dismal failure.
Like a nightmare.
Looking back, May 1 to May 8, 1941, seems like a dream, or rather, a nightmare. Some nights there was bright moonlight and the weather throughout was fine. It was a remarkable experience, in the early hours of a morning, to be on the roof of the Daily Post and Echo offices while the raids were in progress. Steady shafts of white light pierced the night as searchlights groped for the raiders. Anti-aircraft fire flashed from a hundred-and-one points.
Flames would be seen rising from a large building when suddenly the brickwork would be flung into the air as a high-explosive dropped. Away in the distant suburbs incendiary bombs rattled town with their peculiar hiss, to light up a whole district when they reached earth.
On some of the nights, watchers on high buildings were prepared to swear that one section of the city, say, the north or the south, was literally “in flames.” At daybreak, however, it was surprising to see how little of those areas had suffered at all. Such is the optical illusion produced by fires at night.
On the first night, Thursday, May 1, the damage was heavy though not particularly widespread. Low Hill and Cazneau Street areas suffered again, and the North Market, the roof of which was being replaced after previous raid damage, was hit once more. Close to Sefton Park several cows were killed when a bomb struck a dairy.
Friday night’s raid was much more intensive. Starting shortly before midnight in bright moonlight, the raiders concentrated more on the centre of the city. The Dock Board building was hit though here the damage from fire and high explosives might have been much worse. The Corn Exchange fared badly, and little of this building was left. To this day Corn Exchange members may be seen meeting to do business one with another in a nearby street.
A large fire broke out in the old White Star building. Tramcars were overturned in South Castle Street. Church house which contained the offices of the diocese of Liverpool, was blitzed, and valuable records and books lost. This was not the first time this building had been hit. St. Michael’s, the familiar Anglican Church in Chinatown, was so badly damaged that it has since had to be demolished.
Saturday, May 3, was undoubtedly the most destructive night of all so far as the centre of the city was concerned. Well-known business houses and stores being badly battered between sunset and sunrise. Lewis’s and Blacklers’ stores, separated by Ranelagh Street, were on fire, the former also being hit by high-explosives.
Blazing fragments and flames entering windows that had been broken by blast the previous night gave rise to numerous fires in India Buildings. The contents of this great modern commercial building, which housed shipping firms and the Inland Revenue (Income Tax) Department, were burned out. Outwardly, however, there is little changes to be noted in the appearance of the building.
The General Post Office in Victoria Street was hit for a second time. The Salvage Corps headquarters in Hatton Garden received a direct hit. Large fires broke out in the great public buildings at the lower end of William Brown Street – the Technical College, Museum, Public Library and Art Gallery. Valuable collections of objects d’art, books, manuscripts and records were lost or damaged.
An area embracing Lord Street, Paradise Street, South John Street, South Castle Street and Victoria Crescent was practically wiped out. (Note: This has already been shown by published photographs.) Not all of the buildings in this rectangle received direct hits, but fires spread rapidly and gutted many shops and storehouses long after the all-clear had sounded.
The Cook Street arcade was burned out and with it the Law Society’s library of 35,000 volumes, many of them irreplaceable. The night’s work was a severe blow to commercial houses. What documents were not completely destroyed were carried up in thousands by the wind, which deposited them, charred and torn, though often still readable, in the suburbs. Where addresses of the firms were still recognisable, finders were often able to return them.
Infirmary’s direct hit.
The old Bluecoat Building, a centre of Liverpool’s cultured life, and one of the oldest buildings in the city, was severely damaged by fire. Mill Road Infirmary had a direct hit and many lives were lost, including that of a surgeon. The medical superintendent, Dr D. Findlay, and the matron, Miss Gertrude Riding, both of whom were injured, displayed great gallantry that later brought them the George Medal and the OBE respectively. A great number of churches and other church property were gutted by fire – Walton Parish Church among them.
This was the night when some dislocation occurred in the telephone service. Naturally, this was not without its effect on the Civil Defence Services. Fine work was done subsequently by telephone engineers, both those belonging to the Post Office and to the Services, in fixing up miles of temporary overhead wires.
A wayward barrage balloon became entangled in a ship’s rigging and ignited it. Despite the heroic efforts of the master, who afterwards was officially commended the fire reached the hull of the ship.
On the Sunday seven fires were to be seen burning when darkness fell, and incendiaries were showered down on the city. The Rotunda Theatre, in Scotland Road, was burned out.
In another determined raid on the Monday further extensive damage was done, the Bold Street – Berry Street area suffering badly. St. Luke’s Church, at the top of Bold Street, blazed furiously, and was left a mere shell. Further damage was done to Liverpool Cathedral windows. At Liverpool Town Hall windows were shattered and the Council Chamber made unusable for the time being. The meeting of the City Council that week was held in the Municipal Annexe.
On Tuesday, May 6, a good deal more damage was done. The Customs House, which had suffered six or seven months earlier, was set on fire. St. Catherine’s, Abercromby Square, was another well known “down-town” church to sustain fire damage. Patients in the adjacent Heart Hospital had to be evacuated on account of the flames during the height of the raid.
A curious effect.
During the following night a curious incident happened in a well-known commercial building. A high-explosive bomb dropped right down the “well” of the building, bursting at the bottom, but doing little damage to the upper floors, which are still in use.
On the Thursday night the raid was a feeble effort compared with earlier nights, and with this the blitz was over for the time being.
While Liverpool had been the principal target of the week, other Merseyside boroughs did not escape the unwelcome attentions of the enemy. Bootle, indeed, suffered heavily, the Wednesday night here being the worst. During the week the town’s main shopping street was rendered “almost unrecognisable.” The Town Hall and several churches received damage.
Tribute must be paid to the spirit of the people, even the most humble, and to all branches of civil defence. Thousands of folk had to be evacuated either temporarily or permanently, and the emergency services were stretched to the utmost in catering for their needs in regard to feeding and sleeping accommodation and the supply of clothing.
In a week when nobody knew when it would be his or her turn to suffer or die, people generally showed remarkable courage and cheerfulness. The raids seemed to bring out in many unsuspected qualities of pluck, resource and endurance. In addition to the many gallant acts that gained official recognition, countless acts of bravery in inconspicuous form must go unrecorded.
Endless personal bravery.
Examples of personal bravery on the part of men, women and children, trapped in burning houses, warehouses and shelters abounded – heroism that was matched only by that of firemen, wardens, rescue workers and ambulance drivers in facing risks “without regard for their own safety.” And when bravery and stoicism “under fire” are being mentioned, the womenfolk cannot be too highly praised.
In spite of the tragedies revealed on every side, the utmost humour – some of it grim enough in all conscience – was extracted from the situations. One example will suffice. Dashing for the garden shelter, and old lady called out to her husband, who was following. “Bring my false teeth: I’ve left them in the bedroom.” Whereupon he shouted back, “What do you want them for? They’re dropping bombs not ham and sandwiches.”
(Liverpool Echo, 01-05-1942)