Wirral Blitz: An Unnoticed People

The standout cultural event marking the 75th anniversary of the May Blitz was undoubtedly that staged by BBC Radio Merseyside on Tuesday 3 May. Held at the magnificent Anglican Cathedral, the special concert wove together first-person testimony with a 170-strong choir to transport the 1,000 in attendance back to the war-ravaged (and regenerative post-war) period(s). Listeners to the radio station evidently felt at home seeing the likes of Tony Snell, Linda McDermott, Roger Philips, Billy Butler and Wally Scott up close and personal at the two-hour-long ceremony. But their respective ‘Blitz Stories’ – be it personal testimony or a news report – were near-exclusively confined to Liverpool, overlooking my home the Wirral notwithstanding the event being called Merseyside Blitz: An Unconquered People. For Wirralians and others left disappointed with producer Pauline McAdam’s script, below is my (limited) attempt to provide some light on what was a dark period in the peninsula’s past.

Wirral has the (unwanted as well as wanted) honour of claiming three “firsts” in Merseyside’s Blitz: the place where bombs were first dropped; the location of the first fatality; and the home of civilians first decorated for gallantry. According to Trinity Mirror’s 70th anniversary supplement Mersey Blitz: Liverpool Under Siege, the first bombs fell on Thurstaston, Irby and Neston in July 1940. These proved harmless, falling as they did on rural parts, though the same cannot be said for the raid on suburban Prenton in August. It was during the attack of Friday 9th, Neil Holmes author of Merseyside Blitzed illustrates, that maid Johanna Mandale was killed. Lives were likely saved by the bravery of Birkenhead railwaymen Norman Tunna, Ivor Thomas and Frank Newns, however, and their extinguishing of incendiary bombs on ammunition trucks was duly rewarded in 1941, as Bryan Perrett eloquently explains in Liverpool: A City at War.

The bombing of Mill Road Hospital in Everton is the most heart-breaking chapter in the book of broken hearts caused by the intermittent raids during the eighteen-month period July 1940-January 1942. The attack of 3 May 1941 was described by ‘a German communique’, Mike Royden informs readers of Mill Road: The People’s Hospital, ‘as “the heaviest raid yet on any English town”.’ The direct hit on the maternity ward claimed the lives of at least 78, eight of whom were new-born babies. This fact, when mentioned during last week’s event, visibly moved actors and audience members alike. Yet one wonders why the latter – most of whom if not all were cognizant of this – were not informed by the former of the bombing of Mill Lane Hospital in Liscard? I say this because two children were killed three nights later, on 6 May, after their ward was hit by a bomb.

Another 318 souls were claimed in Wallasey during the Blitz although the bombing – exactly eight months earlier – of a convalescent home associated with the Children’s Hospital on Woodchurch Road did not contribute towards Birkenhead’s final death toll of 442. The little occupants survived another day, free to play with their dolls’ houses, which was what many homes on the Wirral resembled. The urban scene of war-damage fast-became familiar: tin-opener-like bombs peeled back the lids of premises to lay bare furnished rooms. The raids on Wallasey and Birkenhead destroyed 3229 homes and damaged a further 43,000 yet statistics fail to convey the true Blitz experience. As the black-out became alight, Wirralians heard window-rattling booms before seeing the hiss of ruptured water mains and smelling the cinder-laden smoke which drifted all around. With glass crunching under their feet, many felt their way in the dark, spitting dust as they searched for survivors.  

Liverpudlians experienced something similar on a larger scale, of that this much is known, however few will know that Wirralians came to their aid. The decision by McAdam to omit the opening of two emergency homes in response to the Blitz by the armed forces charity SSAFA, formerly known as Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, is not inconsequential but inexcusable. After all, with their opening in 1941 wives and children of troops were no longer disheartened at dawn or distressed at dusk: the days of rising to a new landscape and going to bed fearing another new creation by an eardrum-rupturing bombardment were all-but eliminated. I say all-but since St. Fillan’s in Heswall was not far from Burton Marsh, the bombing decoy site for Garston Docks. Decoys on the Dee were also surprisingly omitted yet are surprisingly included in Les Dennis’s May Blitz: The Seven Days that Rocked Liverpool.

Lee Ruddin