On September 1st 1939, Germany launched its ‘blitzkrieg’, or lightning war, on Poland. The ‘Phoney War’ that followed came to an abrupt end in 1940 when Germany attacked by air.
Following the Battle of Britain, Germany turned to civilian targets in air raids that became known as the Blitz.
Merseyside, the gateway to the Atlantic with its factories and its docklands was heavily bombed.
The Blitz was at its most intense during May 1941 and Bootle bore the brunt of the German aerial bombardment. On May 3rd over 3,200 homes were destroyed or damaged with the Town Hall, Bryant and Mays’ both hit.
During the first week of May, 262 people were killed and, with only one house in ten escaping damage, one in four were homeless. Routinely half the population trekked up to 20 miles out of the town each night toward the relative safety of the countryside.
GIs enter the war
In 1939 the attitude of the USA toward Britain had been supportive, though the USA Neutrality lobby was very influential, and against being drawn in. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an ally to both Winston Churchill and the royal family, was fearful of Japanese ambition in the Pacific and German aggression in Europe and the Atlantic.
Then, the Japanese attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbour on December 7th 1941. Roosevelt called on the USA to meet its ’rendezvous with destiny’. On December 8th, the USA declared war on Japan, prompting Germany to declare war on the USA. Churchill said he knew that the USA was ‘in the war up to its neck and in to the death’.
By January 26th 1942 the first GIs had arrived in Belfast increasing to 770,000 by 1943. Many disembarking at Gladstone Dock.
GIs come to Merseyside
GIs became involved in British family life. The Anglo-American Hospitality Committee encouraged positive responses to accept invitations to British homes.
These visits were popular with the families and it was reported that each GI received 50 invitations. To the younger GIs, the wife often became a surrogate ‘mom’as they ‘filled the chairs left by British fighting men.’
For the families it was a chance to share hospitality rations including fruit juice, bacon, sugar and prized tinned goods. The children were able to enjoy chewing gum Hershey bars and comics.
Christmas visits were particularly popular with the promise of nylons and cigarettes. GIs visited and also arranged Christmas parties for British children. US traditions such as Thanksgiving, Halloween and Independence Day also became opportunities for hands to be joined across the ocean.
Many of the 1.5 million GIs that came to Britain arrive in Liverpool. The Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth liners were used, but it was mainly purpose-built Liberty ships that brought the GIs to Britain who were assured that ‘The British will welcome you as friends and allies.’
Arriving at a low point in the war in 1942, they were regarded with both enthusiasm and fascination. Crowds flocked to greet a succession of troop ships at the Pierhead Landing Stage and then watch as they marched in columns followed by enormous trucks, jeeps, tankers and every conceivable type of military vehicle to their new camps in Huyton, Maghull and on the Grand National racecourse.
As D-DAY approached, GIs continued to arrive. By the end of the war The Wakefield had made 23 round trips across the Atlantic.
GIs socialised freely and frequently with the British particularly the women. As one observed, ‘The world simply changed when the Yanks arrived. I thought they were sublime and cute.’ British women found the Yanks flattering and entertaining and went to lengths to get ‘dolled up’ when in their company.
Social clubs and events were run by the American Red Cross and by British Welcome Clubs.
Burtonwood airbase in Warrington was a chief centre of entertainment hosting performers such as Jeanette MacDonald and Bob Hope. The Skyline Club was an all ranks club but mostly served up to Sergeant and the American Liberty Bus, known as ‘the passion wagon’ transported women to dances and restaurants.
Socialisation brought with it problems. There was a rise in sexually-transmitted diseases and in the number of prostitutes.
From early 1942, U.S. servicemen, overfed and oversexed, streamed into Britain.
70.000 of these were to marry a British bride with 6,500 marrying GIs that were stationed at Burtonwood.
With female admiration won by a mix of high salaries and with seemingly endless supplies of cigarettes, nylons, candy and coke-cola, first came love, then marriage and then the promise of a new life in a new land
Instructions issued to the troops encouraged friendliness but discouraged “special relationships” and particularly marriage, fearful that the war effort might be derailed. In July 1942, an article in the armed forces magazine Yank ran under the headline “Don’t Promise Her Anything — Marriage Outside the U.S. Is Out.”
Yet, many did marry and, often against parental advice, went to the USA. Disillusioned and armed with tales of poverty, abuse, alcoholism and unfaithfulness, many returned on the next boat!
Construction of the Gladstone dock, named after Robert, a second cousin of WE Gladstone and designed by Thomas Monk Newell, began in 1913 at a projected cost of £8million.
The last of the conventional docks to be built on Merseyside, it was to include three miles of quays and warehouses and a graving dock, the largest ever in the world at the that time.
Delayed due to World War One, was finally completed in 1923 and the dock was formally opened by King George and Queen Mary in 1927.
Gladstone dock played a crucial role during World War Two, home to the anti -U-boat fleet and a base for transatlantic escorts, minesweepers, destroyers and merchant vessels. 1285 convoys left the dock at an average of four per week, each with an average of 60 ships.
Today, following the many changes since the 1960s, the dock is part of the Freeport.
Gladstone Dock Shipping
The new Gladstone dock was to be used for cargo steamers and as a graving dock with the Lusitania the first ship to use this facility. The dock became home to the great liners and to the great shipping companies.
The depression of the 1930s disrupted the amount of shipping. Many of the great liners lay idle and were used to offer cheap cruises.
1939 -1945 proved to be the port’s busiest period. Its quayside and dry dock were vital to the war effort and it was a pivotal cog in the battle of the Atlantic.
Post-war, passenger liners resumed and the dock was also at the heart of the export drive across the Atlantic, Europe and Australia.
The 1960s witnessed a slowing down of trade. In 1967 the graving dock was closed as work commenced on the new Seaforth Container Terminal.
With Britain’s supply lines under threat particularly from German U-boats in the Atlantic, the government acted to deal with the inevitable shortages. There was encouragement to ‘dig for victory’ and to ‘make do and mend’.
Most of all, rationing, masterminded by Fred Marquis, Lord Woolton and the former managing director of Lewis’s, was introduced.
Buttressed by radio programmes, such as ‘The Kitchen Front’ and ‘The Radio Doctor’ and the appearance of Potato Pete, rationing intended to ensure shortages were evenly distributed.
This was done through a system of rationing books for all the main necessities. With exceptions made for expecting mothers, who were issued with Green ration books, and old-age pensioners, entitlement was strictly controlled.
Typically, the butter ration was 4 ounces and cheese between 1 and 2, eggs were rationed at best one per fortnight and tea was 2 ounces each week.