May Blitz 1941: Liverpool 75 years on
The May Blitz of 1941 saw the most concentrated series of World War II air attacks on any British city outside London target Liverpool. For seven consecutive nights ferocious bombing raids by the German Luftwaffe caused devastation across the city, raising large parts of it to the ground. As we approach the 75th anniversary of this notorious week in Liverpool’s history, Your Move looks back at how the event shaped the city and finds out what’s in store to mark the occasion.
Bombing raids on the strategically vital port of Liverpool began in August 1940, continuing for the rest of that year. The aerial offensive reached its peak in May 1941, when for a week from 1 May, over 850 tonnes of high explosive bombs and more than 112,000 incendiary devices were dropped on the city.
The May Blitz was one of the last series of major raids on Britain before Germany shifted its attention to the invasion of Russia and the last significant air assault on Merseyside during the war. It left a mark which is still visible to this day.
“The easiest way of visually explaining the devastation caused by the May Blitz is with the area we now know as Liverpool ONE which was essentially flattened,” says Neil Holmes, expert on the Liverpool Blitz and author of two books on the subject.
Numerous prominent buildings were severely damaged or destroyed, including Blacklers department store on Charlotte Street; Lewis’s, which took a direct hit and had to be pulled down and Custom House, which suffered intense bombing throughout the Blitz but took its knockout blow during the May offensive.
“Behind the sweeping slum clearances of the 60s and 70s, the Blitz was probably the thing that had the next biggest effect on the redevelopment of Liverpool.”
It wasn’t just the docks and the city centre which suffered under the bombardment; residential areas also experienced vast devastation. An astonishing 40% of Liverpool’s houses were either destroyed or seriously damaged, leaving 51,000 people homeless.
In many districts, large swathes of terraced housing was wiped out, most notably in Bootle, which was left with just 15% of its housing standing as a result of the week-long barrage.
Much of the city centre was rapidly rebuilt following the events of May 1941 and the wider German bombing campaign, but in some cases buildings affected by the Blitz were left untouched for decades.
Parts of Albert Dock, for example, were severely damaged during the Blitz yet stood ruined after the war, with the area falling into dereliction before a major regeneration project began in the 1980s.
Although a devastating week in Liverpool’s history, the May Blitz eventually proved a watershed moment in the shaping of both the city’s skyline and its development into what it is today.
Following the war, Liverpool City Council was faced with the task of replacing houses destroyed during the Blitz. Much like other cities, Liverpool redeveloped central areas of the city in the 1950s and 1960s whilst constructing large amounts of new council houses and flats in the suburbs.
“Behind the sweeping slum clearances of the 60s and 70s, the Blitz was probably the thing that had the next biggest effect on the redevelopment of Liverpool,” adds Neil.
“I think for someone living then, it would be very difficult to imagine what life and housing in the modern day period would be like. If you told a docker in 1940 that the warehouses he was working in would be housing in 2016, he would think you were mad!”
The human cost of the May Blitz should, of course, not be overlooked- 1,453 people lost their lives across Liverpool, with a further 1,065 suffering serious injuries.
“This was all in the space of a week,” Neil adds. “It’s hard to imagine anybody who wouldn’t have known somebody who had been killed.”
One of the most vivid and poignant symbols of the May Blitz and its impact on both the buildings and people of Liverpool is of course St Luke’s Church, known to many as the ‘Bombed Out Church’.
It was on the night of 5 May 1941 when the Gothic-styled parish church on Leece Street suffered a direct hit from a German incendiary device, leaving the building a burnt-out shell.
Unlike Custom House, which was controversially pulled down after sustaining damage which was not irreparable, St Luke’s was left to stand as a reminder and a memorial to the thousands of Liverpool men, women and children who died during the Blitz.
A city remembers: Event guide
Out of the Darkness
St Luke’s Church, 6-8 May
Out of the Darkness will transform St Luke’s with a free moving light and sound display to mark the 75th anniversary of the May Blitz. Innovative artists METRO-BOULOT-DODO (MBD) are the team behind the installation which will feature a 12-minute film retelling the story of the Blitz and how it affected Liverpool. Archival photographs will also be projected onto the church and into the windows alongside a live performance. Taking place over three nights, audiences can visit the garden of St Luke’s to view over 2,000 lanterns which have been created by primary school children from across Merseyside. The lanterns have been made to look like shards of broken stained glass, with some based on the small remaining pieces which are still visible at St Luke’s. “It’s a really emotive and reflective piece – I think people will come away quite touched and shocked by just how much Liverpool was affected,” says Esther Simpson, artistic director of MBD.
Merseyside Blitz – An Unconquered People
Liverpool Cathedral, 3 May
Liverpool Cathedral will mark the anniversary of the May Blitz on 3 May with a special event staged by BBC Radio Merseyside, written and produced by Pauline McAdam. The occasion will feature music from the 1940s and beyond, taking the audience on a journey of Liverpool’s recovery and regeneration since World War II. A military-style brass band and 170-strong choir will be among the performers on the night alongside Frank Cottrell Boyce and Roger McGough, who will be presenting original pieces.
National Museums Liverpool
various events, 1-7 May
> Bombed Out! World Museum and the Blitz – online exhibition
On the evening of 3 May 1941, Liverpool Museum (now World Museum) was attacked by the Luftwaffe, leaving the building and its remaining collections in a state of disrepair. To mark the 75th anniversary of that night, an online exhibition of more than 30 objects will launch on 3 May, exploring the museum’s relationship with the people of Liverpool.
> Curatorial Talk: The May Blitz
Museum of Liverpool, 3 May
One of the museum’s curators, Sharon Brown, will share her knowledge of the May Blitz and explain the impact the week of bombing had on the city.
> Memory Walk
Museum of Liverpool, 5 May
The Museum of Liverpool presents a journey through the last 100 years and shows how the May Blitz changed the lives of many local people whilst exploring some of the unique stories and objects from the city’s past.