The Merseyside Blitz: acts of bravery

Photo of damaged Liverpool buildingDuring World War 2, Merseyside was one of the most heavily bombed British conurbations outside of London.

The location of the port of Liverpool made it a lifeline for essential imports of fuel, food and materials, as well as naval repairs, and the city was also a strategic hub for the coordination of the Battle of the Atlantic. This also made it a prime target for the Luftwaffe.

Merseyside had suffered sustained bombings since August 1940, with the most severe incident for loss of life at Durning Road, Edge Hill, in November, when 166 people were killed after a college collapsed on to a shelter in which they were hiding, with others severely injured. Other heavy raids tore through the city, with just three days in December seeing the death of 365 people (the ‘Christmas Blitz').

The first week in May 1941 saw seven nights of sustained bombing that destroyed and set ablaze areas of the city of Liverpool and the surrounding area, killing 1,746 civilians and injuring 1,154 others. After May, the raids became less intense, but continued until January 1942. By its end, some 3,899 people had been killed.

The many individual acts of bravery and courage at this time are stories that deserve to be told.

George Medal recipients, 1941

Instituted on 24 September 1940 by King George VI, the George Medal and George Cross came about at a time when brave acts during the Blitz by civilians, both men and women, needed to be publically recognised and rewarded. The royal warrant for both medals was published in The London Gazette on 31 January 1941, Gazette issue 35060.

Here are Gazette entries for Merseyside recipients of the George Medal in 1941:

Edward Crann, police constable, Liverpool Police Force, Gazette supplement 35174, 30 May 1941

Edward Crann was on duty when several bombs caused fires in buildings in the area. After displaying tireless bravery and saving the lives of four men, he was reported to have said, “There was nothing in it. I am no stranger to bombs, because, after being wounded at Ypres in the last war, I was blown out of a hospital bed by a bomb.” Prior to receiving the GM, Crann had been awarded the Police Medal for 20 years’ service.

‘During an air raid Constable Crann extinguished fires at a warehouse and an office, and was assisting the A.F.S. [Auxiliary Fire Service] at another fire when a high explosive bomb dropped on the building.

This caused the whole of the premises to collapse and become a raging inferno. The Constable, although severely shaken by the blast, searched for and found two injured and unconscious A.F.S. men. With assistance the Constable carried them to a nearby air-raid shelter. Although there was grave danger from burning timber and collapsing walls, Crann returned and at once set to work to release a man who was buried. Being without tools of any description he removed the debris with his hands and after a time was able to extricate the victim and carry him to safety.

The Constable then again returned to the burning building and rescued an injured and unconscious fireman. The Constable's unselfish and brave efforts, which were carried out in the worst possible conditions, were primarily responsible for the rescue of four men who would otherwise have lost their lives.’

Sergeant Harold Frederick Claydon, police sergeant, Liverpool Police Force, Gazette supplement 35180, 3 June 1941

On 13 March 1941 a parachute mine fell on tenements in Adlington Street. Sergeant Claydon attended and organised the search and rescue work and the digging of a tunnel.

‘Bombs demolished houses and several people were trapped. Sergeant Claydon tunnelled twenty feet through the debris and rescued two women. He then shored up the tunnel with wood and masonry and, after strenuous efforts, succeeded in releasing another woman who was buried beneath rubble. The sergeant, owing to his exertions in a gas-laden atmosphere, was overcome and had to rest. He recovered and, though warned of the danger from gas, returned to the tunnel and continued his rescue work. A large piece of wood was wedged blocking the passage. Claydon obtained a saw, crawled into the space again, and, lying on his stomach, sawed through the block of wood and was able to release two casualties. Removing more debris he freed a child and a man and cleared a space so that others could effect the rescue of those remaining. Claydon showed exceptional courage in extremely dangerous circumstances and by his efforts ten persons were rescued.’

James Henry Wheeler, warden, Gazette supplement 35194, 17 June 1941

James Wheeler was a part-time air raid precautions (ARP) warden in Liverpool. His act of great bravery took place during a raid on the city. Later, he gave a modest account of his actions, saying he wanted no credit. Police sergeant Littledale assisted by holding a prop to prevent further debris falling.

‘High explosive bombs demolished houses and a woman and child were trapped. Mr. Wheeler began to remove debris whilst a prop was held under a wall to prevent it falling. The wreckage of the adjoining house was on fire and there was a serious escape of gas. Wheeler worked his way into a recess formed by the roof rafters. Any false movement would have been disastrous, for the rafters and the wall would have fallen on him. Smoke was pouring into the recess but, on his hands and knees, with a handkerchief over his mouth, he continued working for nearly an hour and rescued a woman and a little boy. Wheeler, on leaving the wreckage, collapsed but recovered and entered other badly damaged houses to continue rescue work.’

Thomas Flood, fireman, Liverpool Auxiliary Fire Service, Gazette supplement 35210, 4 July 1941

‘During an air raid a dwelling-house was wrecked. Flood tunnelled under the debris and, after working for an hour, heard a baby crying. He continued and found a child underneath a perambulator. He obtained food and fed her and, with difficulty, he eventually extricated her unharmed. Flood heard the cry of another child under the rubble and, after tunnelling seven feet and sawing through an iron cot, he was successful in rescuing a small boy. Whilst Flood was under the rubble releasing the children, heavy pieces of masonry and timber were continually falling making his task both dangerous and difficult. Flood was exhausted but refused to be detained in hospital. Although he was too weak to take any physical part he directed further operations, which resulted in two more children being found. Flood displayed great gallantry and determination in effecting these rescues.’

George Stevens, Wallasey, Gazette issue 35210, 4 July 1941

‘A woman was trapped in a house which had been extensively damaged by a H.E. bomb and the outer walls were in danger of collapse. Stevens, regardless of all personal danger, burrowed through the wreckage and found the victim. Despite falling debris and continual enemy action, Stevens persisted in his untiring efforts to rescue her. After working for two hours in a very limited space he succeeded. Stevens then continued with further rescue work, showing great zeal and courage in his endeavour to help the stricken people.’

Christopher John Gartland, sergeant, Herbert Frederick Collier Baker, constable, John Edward Willington Uren, constable (all Liverpool Police Force) and Thomas Tolen, member, ARP rescue party Liverpool, Gazette supplement 35233, 29 July 1941

‘During an air raid a building was demolished by enemy action. Portions of the interior walls collapsed, and the outside wall was leaning dangerously inwards. Gartland, Baker and Uren, accompanied by Tolen, entered the building and, after searching in complete darkness, they found a firewatcher, trapped and almost buried under the debris on the ground floor. When some of the wreckage had been removed, a large wooden beam, which was carrying the weight of the debris of the roof and upper floor and which was directly over the trapped man, appeared about to collapse. Constable Uren at once got under the beam, supporting it with his shoulder. He remained in this position for a considerable time, during which the other three men worked frantically to free the victim. The weight of the beam became too much for Uren to support and Baker took up a position beside him. It was clear that the whole building might collapse at any moment and the Sergeant, who is a man of exceptional strength, placed his arms round the man's body and with a powerful and sustained effort pulled him clear of the debris. Constable Baker then got away from trip beam but owing to the great weight Uren was unable to move. The Sergeant took hold of him and snatched him away bodily. As he did so the upper floor collapsed, completely covering the place where the rescuers had been working. During the whole of this time Tolen had been untiring in his efforts to release the trapped man, entirely regardless of the near danger. Constables Uren and Baker, by supporting the beam for over an hour, made the rescue possible. Had they collapsed under the severe strain, the rescuers and rescued would have been killed. Sergeant Gartland, who was in charge of the operation, showed initiative and leadership of the highest order with complete disregard of danger.’

Charles Leslie Cairns, constable, Bootle Police Force, Gazette supplement 35233, 29 July 1941

‘During an air raid a shelter together with its occupants was blown into the rafters of a house. Under the leadership of Police Constable Cairns, rescuers climbed to the damaged roof' and lowered the victims to the ground. During this time adjacent houses were on fire and bombs dropped nearby shaking the roof which was in a very dangerous condition. The Constable fell through on two or three occasions but recovered himself and carried on until the rescue work was completed. It was due to the initiative and energy of Police Constable Cairns that the rescues were achieved.’

James Tarbuck, constable, Liverpool City Police, Gazette supplement 35233, 29 July 1941

‘High explosive bombs demolished several houses and trapped a number of people. Constable Tarbuck, who was off duty, was engaged in extinguishing an incendiary bomb on the roof of a nearby building. He was blown to the ground by the blast of the bomb and injured his left knee cap. Despite his injury, he immediately went to the incident and organised a rescue party of volunteers. Under his direction and leadership ten people were rescued alive from the debris. During these operations the district was subjected to a very heavy bombardment. Although in considerable pain from his injured knee Constable Tarbuck worked with courage and untiring devotion to duty.’

Daniel John Collins, sergeant, Liverpool City Police, Gazette supplement 35293, 3 October 1941

‘A shop, with house quarters above, was demolished by a bomb. The occupier's wife and two children were trapped in the cellar by a large quantity of debris. Sergeant Collins began tunnelling and after strenuous efforts reached the casualties. Portions of the building were continually falling, there was an escape of coal gas and the wreckage was on fire. In spite of these dangers, the Sergeant redoubled his efforts and, with other help, the three persons were eventually released. Collins' excellent work, performed with total disregard of his own safety, was instrumental in saving three lives.’

Percy Albert Jones Green, constable, and Frederick Albert Spicer, constable, Liverpool City Police, Gazette supplement 35302, 7 October 1941:

‘During an air raid a dock shed caught fire. The shed contained a cargo of army stores, including explosives. Immediately outside were railway trucks loaded with ammunition and moored alongside the quay was a motor vessel containing a similar cargo. The fire spread rapidly towards the stores and the ship. Constables Green and Spicer gave directions for the ship to be moored on the other side of the dock, cast off the mooring ropes and then began the gigantic task of removing ammunition and stores to a safe place. A Police party arrived and the ammunition trucks were pushed out of the direction of the fire, guns and gun limbers were dragged out of the shed and tins of kerosene and the ammunition were taken away on hand trucks. During this time the area was a constant target for enemy bombers and burning debris fell alt around the workers. Constables Green and Spicer showed great courage and tenacity and by their efforts valuable stores and plant were saved.’

William Alfred Leigh, toolmaker, Liverpool, Gazette supplement 35302, 7 October 1941:

‘During an air raid a house was damaged and a gas main fractured. Leigh squeezed through a small opening in the debris and, after hours of toil in the gas-laden atmosphere, succeeded in tunnelling under joists and other obstructions, freed a man and dragged him to safety. Although suffering from the effects of the gas Leigh returned to the tunnel and endeavoured to reach others who were trapped. He worked until fatigue and gas fumes compelled him to withdraw. Mr. Leigh showed great courage and determination without thought for his own safety.

George Roberts, goods guard, LMS railwayman, Gazette supplement 35344, 11 November 1941

A munitions train had received a direct hit, causing wagons to be set on fire. Roberts led the move to uncouple the wagons to prevent the spread of fire as 10 men risked their lives to minimise the damage.

‘During an enemy air raid a bomb fell on a train of munitions stabled in an old siding. Roberts, accompanied by Kilshaw and Rowland, volunteered to go to the scene and, at considerable risk to themselves, the men made an inspection of the sidings and uncoupled wagons which were in danger of burning. During the whole of the time the men were engaged upon this work, explosions were occurring in the munitions train and there was added danger from high explosive bombs which continued to fall nearby. Roberts, as the leader of the party, set a high example and showed considerable initiative and courage.’

John Lappin, section officer, Liverpool AFS, Gazette supplement 35384, 16 December 1941

Lappin was recommended for leadership and devotion to duty when SS Malakand, loaded with thousands of tons of munitions, was ablaze at Huskisson Dock.

‘Enemy action caused a serious fire at a Dock in which a ship containing a quantity of explosive was berthed. The ship and large sheds alongside were burning furiously and bombs continued to fall all around. With full knowledge of the tremendous risk involved, an A.F.S. crew, under the leadership of Section Officer Lappin, fought the shed fires in a gallant but vain effort to reach and save the blazing ship. The ship eventually exploded causing many deaths, but the Section Officer rallied the men under his command and, although on the verge of collapse from fatigue, he continued to hold the situation. Lappin displayed a fine example of courage and devotion to duty and led his men without any regard for his own safety.’

John Samuel Mercer, pressureman, Liverpool Gas Company, Gazette supplement 35384, 16 December 1941

Mercer worked alongside James Hayes (BEM) during an air raid, when a large gas holder received a direct hit, and the gas immediately caught fire.

‘Mercer, who was about thirty-five yards away, received a severe shock: With utter disregard for his own safety and-in the face of terrific heat from the flames, he forced his way into the Valve House, only fifteen feet from the blazing holder. With great presence of mind, he closed and opened valves, thus isolating the damaged holder. By directing jets of water on the fire and beating the flames down, Hayes prevented the flames setting fire to plant nearby. The courage and promptitude with which Mercer and Hayes dealt with the situation saved much valuable property from destruction.’

Richard Bonser Wilde, leader, Reserve Rescue Party, Bootle, Gazette supplement 35384, 16 December 1941

‘A H.E. bomb partly demolished a building, and adjoining premises caught fire. Under the leadership of Wilde, debris was cleared from the entrance to the basement, which was being used as a shelter, and seven people were rescued. Although warned that the building was liable to collapse Wilde would not leave until he had searched the premises and ascertained that all persons had been rescued. Wilde showed courage and devotion to duty.’

George Cross recipient, 1941

Norman Tunna, shunter, Great Western Railway, Birkenhead (Gazette supplement 35053), George Cross, 24 January 1941

Air raids resulted in a number of serious fires involving railway and dock warehouse properties. In an astonishing act of bravery, Tunna discovered two incendiary bombs burning in a sheeted open wagon. He removed the sheet and extinguished the bombs, for which he was awarded the George Cross, the highest gallantry award for civilians:

‘Enemy action over the Liverpool Port Area resulted in a number of serious fires involving railway and dock warehouse properties. A large number of incendiary bombs fell on and about the goods station and sidings. Amongst the wagons in the yards were a train load of ammunition, various trucks of petrol in tins, bombs and ammunition fuses. Most of the enemy incendiary bombs were extinguished by the prompt action of the staff on duty before damage could be done, but a serious fire developed from incendiaries falling in one section of the station premises. In the course of these events Shunter Tunna discovered two incendiary bombs burning in a sheeted open wagon, containing 250-lb. bombs. With complete disregard for personal risk, Tunna removed the sheet, extinguished the incendiary bombs and removed them from the truck. The top layer of these heavy bombs was hot. Tunna's action displayed courage in very high degree and eliminated the risk of serious explosions, the results of which it would be difficult to measure.’

The final German air raid on Merseyside took place on 10 January 1942. Despite the bombings, the port remained open and working for most of the war, handling over 70 million tons of cargo.

Winston Churchill, prime minister, after a visit to Liverpool in April 1941, said that, ‘I see the damage done by the enemy attacks, but I also see the spirit of an unconquered people.’

Explore Your Archive campaign

Stephen McGann, actor, and Heidi Thomas, writer, are hosting an event for The National Archives in Liverpool (their native city) on the 15 November, called ‘Tea and testimony’, as part of the Explore your Archive campaign. Heidi’s great uncle was James Henry Wheeler, featured above.

Do you have a relative who lived through the Merseyside Blitz, and whose story should be told? Tell us, via our 350 page.

Images: courtesy of Merseyside Police photo archive, from photos taken by Liverpool City Police.