Eleanor Roosevelt in Liverpool

The First Lady’s Visit to the Second City of Empire

Issue 4 of The Merseysider magazine has an article by Lee Ruddin on Eleanor Roosevelt’s historic visit to the city of Liverpool during World War Two. Here is an extended version of the article.

The Normandy Landings were arguably one of the great turning points of World War Two. Merseyside played a significant role in the success of Operation Overlord, yet it remains a region often overlooked in the historical record. Jules Hudson’s recent BBC series could have put right this wrong when illuminating the extraordinary things ordinary folks did, but How We Won the War underwhelmed as Hudson likewise overlooked events surrounding the First Lady’s visit to inspect American GIs in the “Second City of Empire”.

When it comes to morale-boosting acts, ordinary Americans did extraordinary things on Merseyside, which led one extraordinary American – Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of war-time President, Franklin – to do a very ordinary thing and tour the area on an inspirational trip in November 1942. The significance of the US presence on Merseyside, and its concomitant effect on the morale of Merseysiders, cannot be overstated. As such, it is the aim of this article to illuminate Americans’ unique contribution to the war effort and, in a very small way, honour the debt we Brits owe our transatlantic cousins.

Let us start with the Blitz.

Thanks to its seven miles of quays and 130 individual docks, the port of Liverpool was able to provide a vital link in the Allied supply chain in the war against the Axis Powers. While it was inevitable that Merseysiders would pay a price for this role, none could have predicted the events of 1941 and the “May Week” Blitz when the Luftwaffe did its inhumane best: four boroughs of Merseyside were bombed for seven successive nights, resulting in 3,966 deaths.

The number of places of entertainment, such as cinemas and pubs, formerly so numerous, was dramatically reduced; the only increase came in the amount of dispossessed persons as well as the number of scavenging cats and rats. This was, to be sure, the city’s darkest hour: never before in Liverpool’s then 650-year history had the morale of its inhabitants been so sorely tested. It was no surprise the authors of a Home Intelligence Report concluded that the city had ‘a depressed and sordid atmosphere’.

Readers would be forgiven for thinking it was the havoc wrought by the Blitz that caused morale to sap; one author did, after all, compare the aerial assaults with the 1937 bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Yet, as bad as being ‘Guerniced’ was, the neglect of anonymity had a far greater demoralising effect. Local folk, in truth, felt more aggrieved by newspapers and radio broadcasters taking little notice of their plight, referring to Merseyside under the general heading of the “North West” and preferring instead to dedicate column inches and airtime to Metropolitan affairs.

Intensive bombing on Merseyside meant that countless Merseysiders were forced to sleep in fields, yet being herded into them like cattle proved intolerable for many who had, to date, tolerated harsh conditions under a local authority that did not know how to organise its services or make adequate provisions. A sense of alienation soon manifested itself in outward hostility to local officialdom and Home Secretary Herbert Morrison was warned (in a 1941 Home Intelligence Report) that morale had dipped to dangerous levels and ‘the grimness of the people ha[d] a menacing note.’

The gap between leaders and the led had widened to such an extent that a member of the public was overheard by a Mass Observation reporter arguing in favour of surrendering to the Nazi juggernaut. A stimulus to recovery was desperately needed in 1942, given that ‘there was no power [or] drive left in Liverpool to counterattack the Luftwaffe’ at the close of 1941.

The stimulus came in the form of short visits from US officials and long ones from American GIs, which culminated in Eleanor Roosevelt’s in November 1942. The turning point in Anglo-American relations, when these transformed into the “special relationship”, occurred when John Winant replaced the isolationist Joseph Kennedy as American Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Committed to establishing the closest possible relationship between Whitehall and Washington, Winant toured Britain and received the warmest of welcomes in Liverpool, which he visited on 26 November 1941. Like Republican presidential nominee Wendell Wilkie earlier in the year, Winant went out and about, viewing the working docks and inspecting the damage done to the dockside. Wilkie’s visit to an East End air raid shelter caused those sheltering to sing “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow”; it is not beyond the realms of possibility that dockers likewise broke into song when Winant reassured them that they would ‘soon be seeing the Old Stars and Stripes coming across,’ courtesy of the Lend-Lease Agreement.

Talking of the Lend-Lease Agreement, perhaps the most significant visitors were a detachment of the US Army Engineer Corps. The first American troops to be seen in the city since World War I, they were a sight for sore eyes – not only for those living through exceptionally heavy bombing raids but also for Royal Engineer personnel – when, on Sunday 4 May 1941, they manned huge mechanical excavators to clear away the rubble onto waiting trucks and assisted in getting the city back up and running ahead of the working week.

The war seemed particularly grim in early 1942: German bombers continued to batter British cities and U-Boats continued to sink Allied shipping at the rate of half a million tons a month. The Minister of Information, Brendan Bracken, told one newspaper editor in March that ‘the Government is very disturbed about the low morale in the country, and particularly in the Army, but has no idea what to do.’ Bracken had little to worry about, though, since American GIs were Britain-bound. The Japanese had attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 and by Spring ’42 Merseysiders, in the throes of depression and austerity, welcomed this friendly invasion from across the Atlantic as a breath of much-needed hope.

From the moment when the train bearing Mrs Roosevelt pulled into Paddington Station on 23 October 1942, the news of her arrival spread rapidly across the land. Vast swathes of Britain rejoiced as out of the coach stepped America’s First Lady, but it would be another fortnight before she set foot in the “Second City of Empire”.

Churchill recognised Roosevelt’s role in raising the morale of the troops based on Merseyside yet even he could not have foreseen that civilian men would be so taken with her boundless energy and inexhaustible interest when visiting the vast Stanley Dock. The Tobacco Warehouse was the largest brick building in the world at the time and was used throughout the war as a storage depot by the US Army. Dockers who worked under the supervision of American officers remember fondly her touring the huge floors in a jeep and stopping to learn all that she could about the “Home Front”.

Roosevelt was in Liverpool on 8 November 1942 when the BBC broadcast the news of the invasion of North Africa. There was great cheering along the city’s docks and streets. People felt ‘now we are fighting together,’ she scribbled in her diary. One woman told her, ‘God bless your men. May this be the beginning of the end for old Hitler.’

And so it was.

Upholding morale on Merseyside was important since it helped to maintain full-scale war production and there is little doubt that the US presence in Liverpool, a highpoint of which was Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit of seventy years ago, assisted Merseysiders in their ability to prosecute the war and play a key role, especially in relation to Pluto (the fuel-pipe project) and Mulberries (artificial harbours), in the Normandy Landings.

 I wish to dedicate this article to my grandmother and “pal”, Dorothy Flanagan, who never fails to boost my own morale.