Liverpool has long played a key role in the security and prosperity of Britain. Its key role has been as a port, some would argue the key port, of the north west, of England, of Britain and of the empire as it was during the wars. Its sailors, dockers and traders kept Britain’s vital supply lines open during some of Britain’s darkest hours. However, we should not forget the thousands of men and women who served in the army and the RAF during the wars as well.

Liverpool and the Great War

Like most British cities, Liverpool was awash with patriotic war fervour in August 1914. The Liverpool Pals were the first of all the famous Pals Battalions to be created. Some 4000 men, mainly from the business sections of the city, formed the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th service battalions of the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment. They, and other units involving many Liverpool men, fought at the Somme in 1916 and at Passchendaele in 1917. They were still going strong in 1918 when the German attack was held and they were part of the final victory over the Germans in November 1918.

You may be surprised to know that the Mersey ferries also played their part in the war. They were used for the regular transport of troops from Britain to France. They were even used on a raid on the German held port of Zeebrugge in Belgium, and were badly damaged in the process. For their war service the ferries were given the title Royal Mersey Ferries.

Back home, Liverpool men and women were doing their bit for the war effort. Liverpool’s key contribution was its port, docks and shipping. The merchant navy and the Royal Navy kept Britain supplied with vital food, supplies and equipment. Most of this came from the USA and Canada. To reach Britain the supplies had to cross the Atlantic and there they faced the terrible threat of the U Boats. Germany was being blockaded by the British navy, and German U Boats tried to achieve the same impact on Britain by attacking ships which supplied British ports. One of the most famous victims to sail from Liverpool was the luxury liner Lusitania in May 1915 with the loss of over 1200 passengers. There was much worse to come however. In 1916 the Germans intensified their operations, using unrestricted submarine warfare. This meant that any ship using a British ship was a target. It was to prove the most serious threat to Britain’s survival in the Great War, and at one point in the summer of 1917 it was estimated that Britain had only 6 weeks’ food left. The struggle took its toll on Liverpool. It is estimated that at the height of the U Boat campaign Liverpool lost at least one ship every day.

The U Boats attacks led to the destruction of many British ships, but also American ones. It was this which eventually led the USA to join the war against Germany. Now Liverpool became even more important. As well as landing supplies and equipment, Liverpool became a port for American troops on their way to the trenches. This vital role continued right up to the end of the war in 1918.

Liverpool and the Second World War

Liverpool’s contribution in the Second World War was similar in many ways to its contribution in the Great War. Liverpool sent many thousands of soldiers to the front line, such as the Liverpool Scottish Regiment. You can read more about their war on their web site at

Liverpool also sent thousands out to sea in the Merchant Navy and Royal Navy. Liverpool was the headquarters in the Battle of the Atlantic from 1941. This was absolutely vital for Britain to win, just as it had been in the previous war. Without supplies, food, equipment and soldiers from the USA and Canada Britain’s situation would have been even more desperate than it was. From the headquarters in the basement of Derby House naval officers tracked the position of convoys crossing the Atlantic. Something like a thousand radio reports came in every day. These reports dealt with weather, location of convoys, location of U Boats and similar information vital to guarding Britain’s supplies and safeguarding the seamen. The situation reached its most serious point in 1942-43. In that period Britain was only able to import one third of what it normally imported in peacetime, and the navy almost ran out of oil. However, directed from Liverpool, British and Allied forces gradually turned the tide in 1943 and by March 1944 the U Boat campaign was called off. We can gain some idea of how important the Battle of the Atlantic was from the fact that British leader Winston Churchill said it was the only thing that ever frightened him.

Liverpool’s importance as a port made it an inevitable target for a new kind of warfare – bombing. Liverpool was bombed many times during the war, but the most intense period – the blitz – came in May 1941. On just one night (May 3rd) around 500 bombers attacked Liverpool using high explosive bombs and incendiaries (fire bombs). The bombers hit the freighter SS Malakand, an ammunition ship. The explosion was heard over 30km away and the damage was terrible. The docks were wrecked and the explosion ripped into the tightly packed housing in the dock areas. Fire burned out of control because the water mains were hit. The bombers returned several times, and it was later discovered that Liverpool was second only to London in the intensity of attacks against it.

Despite this, the city survived and did its bit for the war effort. At the same time the city underwent the same tremendous social changes that were taking place in the rest of the country. Young children from Liverpool were evacuated to the countryside, and people who would never normally meet got to know each other. Women began to take on jobs they could never have dreamed of before the war. Women became firefighters, police officers, farm hands, bus drivers and countless other jobs.

By the time the war ended in 1945 Liverpool was weary of war but proud of its achievements. Like the rest of the country it was ready to begin the task of rebuilding.

Source: Our City Our Heritage Teachers' notes