Serving as an Engineer Officer with T&J Brocklebank in the late fifties and early sixties I had often heard tales of the destruction of their ship SS Malakand whilst in Liverpool docks during a particularly heavy blitz on the town on 3rd and 4th May 1941.
It was only many years afterwards that I have been able to piece together some accounts of the actual events of what was to extend the various fire and rescue services in the port, and immediate environs, to the absolute limit.
Even the published sources acknowledge that there are some inconstancies and omissions, and suspected dis-information in offi ial sources, in relation to the raids and the aftermath, in the wake of some fairly later critical assessments of the performance of the municipal authorities.
Whilst the main thrust of the German U-boat activity was centered, in what was to be accurately termed the Battle of the Atlantic, it was equally important from an Axis point of view that a concentrated and continual disruption be effected in the main UK cargo loading and dispersal ports around Britain.
Morale may be adversely influenced by continual and targeted bombing, but an equally effective method of affecting an enemy’s fighting capacity was to deny the supply and movement of vital foodstuffs and materials already landed, this in effect was an extension of the U-boat campaign being waged at sea.
Whilst a successful attack on a ship at sea may cost a ship, its cargo and tragically all, or most of her crew, the damage to a ship in a crowded port could inevitably spread to other ships in the near vicinity, with the added potential to affect warehouses and cargo already unloaded or ready to be loaded, all putting an added burden on the various fire fighting, salvage and other rescue agencies.
The port of Liverpool, by reasons of geography and tradition, was a key port for the transport of materials during WWII. Its western location was a convenient port for the Atlantic convoys and US traffic, and avoided the need for ships to travel around the north of Scotland to UK east coast ports, or traverse the hazardous passage through the English Channel to London.
Given that the town and immediate environs was not a large manufacturing area, a large proportion of the 900,000 inhabitants of Liverpool, and nearby Bootle, in 1939 were engaged in some aspect of port and ship operations, and was home to a signifi cant number of principal shipowners.
Taking May 1941 as an example there were no less than 241 ocean going merchant ships berthed in the many quays and docks.
Whilst the preponderance were under the British flag they were a significant number of ships under the foreign flags of nations under German control, aiding the allied effort either directly or indirectly, in addition to these were a number of neutral ships.
To service this trade, and all the other multifarious needs associated with a busy port, there were 48 tugs, 292 barges, bulk elevators, dredgers and lighters, and numerous other miscellaneous small craft, in addition there was a large fleet of naval warships, either under repair or based there.
This area was then naturally designated a prime target by the German air force, and the raids of the night of 3rd/4th May 1941 was to be the most severe bombardment from the air suffered by the towns on the east bank of the Mersey in the whole war.
It was claimed that 298 aircraft dropped 363 tons of high explosives and 49,706 incendiaries, included in that total were a number of 100kg bomb mines, which acted as mines in the water but were dropped without parachutes as normally employed in minelaying, causing an added difficulty to bomb spotters.
Whilst some scattering of bombs fell on outlying districts of Lancashire, the main weight of the attack was concentrated on a strip of land within two miles of the Liverpool dock wall, from Liverpool city centre to the southern parts of Crosby and Litherland, a full moon and light cloud giving near perfect conditions for the bombers, accounts reveal that the raid lasted for five hours.
The scale of the subsequent devastation was in part compounded by the failure of the fire service to cope with the scale of the disaster, a failure possibly attributable to organisational defects rather than any individual shortcomings. All the more regrettable in that the organisation had performed faultlessly in earlier raids in March of the same year.
Among the many ships loading or unloading at the time of the heaviest raids, were the Brocklebank steamers Mahout and Malakand, both loading about 1,500 tons of high explosive bombs in Liverpool’s Huskisson Dock.
One of the Quartermasters on the Mahout was Alex Henderson of Scousburgh in Shetland.
The explosives were arriving in ammunition trains carrying about 300 tons of 250lb and 500lb bombs for the RAF in the Middle East, each train load being split with half to each ship, a complication was that these had to be transported through the sheds before loading.
Those wagons not unloaded before dark were withdrawn out of the dock area for safety.
Given the extremely hazardous nature of the cargo in a confined space, as a built up dock complex it had been suggested that the ship should also be withdrawn out into the River Mersey at nightfall, a proposal that was vetoed in view of the danger from moored and dropped mines, with the very probable delays caused by tidal conditions.
Lying at the south quay in Branch No 3 of Huskisson Dock, the Mahout was still loading, with HE bombs and small arms ammunition in holds number 2, 4 and 6. Chief Officer Scoins, aided by members of the Lascar crew, dealt with the incendiaries which fell on the ship, other fires broke out in the shed ashore abreast number 4 hatch. The third Officer and the deck Serang with a ship’s shore party assisted the shed watchman in dowsing these, which were being fuelled by a burst gas main and leaking oil drums.
The Malakand, in Number 2 Branch, had already taken aboard ninety-two tons of soap from the Lever Bros barge Erasmic from Port Sunlight for export to the east, and now had 1,000 tons of bombs in number 1, 3 and 4 holds.
She was under the command of 41 year old Captain HC Kinley, from the Isle of Man, who had left the sea in WWI to join the Royal Flying Corps.
Another ten shore relief officers and 61 Lascar crew members made up the ship’s complement.
Around 2300 hours on the night of the 3rd May, a partly deflated barrage balloon snagged on the ship’s foremast, after falling it landed on number 1 hatch at the same time as a few flares drifted low over the ship, followed by a shower of incendiaries. Some landed astern of the ship but unfortunately one landed only a short distance from the hydrogen filled balloon.
One of the standby Chief Officers, HG Allan on his first day on duty after sick leave, who two months earlier had been rescued from the sea in the Atlantic after his ship had been torpedoed, went forward with others to smother the incendiary bomb with sand but was hampered by the remains of the balloon which was still flapping about.
It next swept over them and exploded in a sheet of flame setting the hatch cover on fire with flames reaching as high as the crows nest.
Mr Allan was hurled across the hatch and half way down the fore deck, losing his helmet and with his hair on fire, luckily otherwise uninjured he was able to organise the extinguishing of the fire.
Having only just successfully accomplished this, they were next dismayed to see two HE bombs landing on the shed next to the ship, the sides of which were about six feet in from the edge of the quay. Further incendiaries soon set the shed ablaze, which spread to the ship, aided by the stiff breeze. The ship’s starboard lifeboats and wooden decks abaft the bridge were soon alight, and eventually the heat and smoke soon made the upper works untenable.
In view of the fast developing situation, the captain sent the majority of the crew ashore out of danger, the third Officer went to the Auxiliary Fire Station at the end of Branch number 1.
The captain then considered cutting the mooring ropes in an effort to get the ship away from the source of the fires, but the direction of the wind would have taken her north with every likelihood of spreading the fire to the other side of the dock, the fire had taken such a hold on the ship that it was too dangerous for anyone to go down into the engine room to try and flood the ship, contrary to an often popularly held notion it is not normal for ships to have “sea cocks”, which can be immediately opened to effect scuttling.
His mind was soon to be made up however, when the lifeboats and other sections of the bridge on the port side took fire and the fires raging in the shed were now approaching the single gangway on the after deck, the only course now was to give the order for the remaining officers to abandon ship, according to the captain’s report this was at 0030.