Bite-size Histories: Captain Kinley and the May Blitz 1941

Liverpool endured a harrowing time in the Second World War as a major target for the enemy, suffering great devastation, both in her communities and infrastructure. In the first week of May 1941 alone, Liverpool experienced the heaviest bombing of the war in Britain outside London. The docks were the main target, but 3,000 people were killed and 11,000 homes completely destroyed. The first German bombs landed on Merseyside on 9 August 1940 at Prenton, Birkenhead, and in the following sixteen months, German bombs killed 2,716 people in Liverpool, 442 people in Birkenhead, 409 people in Bootle and 332 people in Wallasey. The worst periods of bombing were the ‘Christmas Raids’ of December 1940, and the ‘May Blitz’ of 1941, and these enemy raids continued for months, until the final bombs were dropped on 10 January 1942.

As the most important port outside London, Liverpool had become a crucial route for military equipment and supplies into the country, and consequently the ‘Western Approaches Command’ headquarters based in Plymouth were transferred to Liverpool in February 1941. The purpose of the Command was to co-ordinate intelligence information from the Admiralty and the Air Ministry, and to protect supply ships on their approach to the Mersey. This move was instigated by Winston Churchill, and an underground complex was constructed, known locally as the ‘Citadel’ or ‘Fortress’. Located underneath Derby House in Exchange Flags (to the rear of the Town Hall) it was designed to be bomb proof and gas proof, with a 7ft. thick roof and 3ft walls, and 100 rooms covering an area of 50,000 square feet. The decoding room was home to the Enigma decoding machine, which had been recovered from a sinking U boat. (The headquarters have been reopened to the public as the Liverpool War Museum). In the docks were sited important munitions factories, while naval U-Boat hunters were stationed at Bootle. As the German campaign of destruction to immobilise London’s docks became more intense, and the Mersey became more important to the British war effort, it was inevitable that Merseyside would soon become a target for the Luftwaffe. Evacuation would be essential.

When war broke out in September 1939, 95,000 people were evacuated to escape the threat of bombing. 57,000 of these were school children, and 31,000 were mothers and children under five years of age. Yet, as the ‘Phoney War’ convinced many that this threat was minimal, around 40% of the children were returned home by January 1940. Lancashire, Cheshire, Shropshire and Herefordshire received a total of 51,000 Liverpool evacuees, while another 44,000 were sent to live in Wales. A second programme of evacuation followed the ‘Christmas raids’ of 1940, when 1,399 children were rushed out of Liverpool between 20-22 December. Yet more children were evacuated during the ‘May Blitz’ of 1941.

During the summer of 1941, the threat of bombing seemed to lessen, and increasing numbers of children began to return home. More came back to the city in late 1944. But in many cases the upheaval changed the destiny of families forever. Some of the evacuated children did not stay in Merseyside when they were returned. There were cases of some children returning with their foster parents to live together in Liverpool. In other instances, family bonds had been irreparably broken, or parents felt their child would have better prospects if they grew up with their foster parents in their place of evacuation. Other foster parents were known to have funded their evacuee’s education even after they had returned to their Merseyside homes. Paradoxically, by January 1942, Liverpool had taken in more evacuees from other parts of the country than it had children staying elsewhere.

If the docks were vulnerable from enemy action, then so were the local population with labour housing in close proximity, with cramped court housing and endless rows of terraces spreading in regular rows away from the dock road, both north and south of the city centre. Consequently, it became Dock Board policy that if munitions trains arrived too late in the day to be accepted by the docks then they would be shunted back to the nearest available sidings, which was a compromise between being safely away from the docks, but near enough to get on with the job of unloading in the morning. The Breck Road sidings, about three miles away near Anfield, were deemed most suitable.

And so it was, that such a train arrived too late on the evening of 3 May 1941, and was directed to the Breck Road sidings. However, this was to be the most intense night of the Blitz over Liverpool, as the docks and city centre endured a third night of pounding.

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Captain Kinley's tale and the devastation Liverpool had to endure during the Second World War is featured in Tales from the 'Pool A Collection of Liverpool Stories. Available to purchase here.