Battle of the Atlantic – 70th anniversary Liverpool 2013

To mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic, Liverpool hosted a series of commemorations and events over the Spring Bank Holiday last weekend from Friday 24th to Tuesday 28th May.

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The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest continuous military campaign of the Second World War lasting for 2,073 days of the total of 2,075 days that the war lasted.  The Battle of the Atlantic began on the first evening of the war on 3 September 1939 with the sinking of the liner Athenia north-west of Ireland as it sailed from Liverpool to Montreal in Canada and ended on 6 May 1945 with the capture of U-boat U.881 to the east of Newfoundland two days before Germany’s unconditional surrender.

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The Battle of the Atlantic was pivotal to the overall success of the allied forces.  During the campaign some 90,000 people lost their lives defending the UK and over the weekend there were many veterans proud to wear their medals and share their experiences from this historic period in twentieth century history.  Many were on the Pierhead close by the statue of Johnnie Walker who was the most successful anti-submarine warfare commander during the Battle of the Atlantic.  He died in July 1944 of a cerebral thrombosis at the Naval Hospital at Seaforth aged only 48; his death was attributed to overwork and exhaustion.

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Liverpool’s waterfront saw a number of vessels from several countries navies berthed in the various docks some of which were open to the public as well as a whole range of events including fly pasts by a range of military aircraft, static displays of helicopters, artillery, planes and other exhibits.

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Over 20 naval vessels were berthed on the Mersey from many of the allied countries’ navies.  At the cruise liner terminal was the Russian destroyer Vice Admiral Kulakov 626, the Canadian destroyer HMCS Iroquois and the Polish frigate the General T Kosciusko.  The amphibious assault ship HMS Bulwark and the Belgian frigate Louise- Marie were berthed at Alexandra dock in Seaforth.  HMS Pembroke was berthed at Canning half tide dock and the German minehunter the Groemitz was moored in Canning dock.   Some of the fleet of eleven patrol ships were berthed in the Albert Dock along with the Jack Petchey training ship.  HMS Edinburgh was berthed in the wet basin at Cammel Lairds shipbuilders across the river in Birkenhead where she was built and launched.  Five of the ships were open to the public and the queues were very long.

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I went down to the Pierhead on Saturday.  It was absolutely packed with people many having travelled from all parts of the country to see the spectacle.  It was estimated that on Saturday alone some 120,000 members of the public thronged the waterfront with around 250,000 over the whole weekend.  Saturday was a glorious sunny day.

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The celebrations marked one of the most important battles of the Second World war.  The German high command knew that Britain as an island nation relied heavily on supplies of food, clothing and vital equipment being shipped to our shores.  The plan was simple Germany would through its U-boat fleet attack the allied convoys of ships laden with supplies.

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The Battle of the Atlantic was fought to ensure that sea routes were kept open not just across the Atlantic but also to ensure supplies could reach our forces in other campaigns such as in North Africa.  It was also fought to ensure that equally vital supplies of US food, armaments and medicines could reach another of the allies the USSR.

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The Battle of the Atlantic claimed the lives of 36,200 sailors from the allied navies, 36,000 merchant seamen and some 30,000 German sailors.  3,500 merchant ships and 175 allied warships were lost and 789 German submarines were destroyed. 174 U-boats were taken over by the allies and most were destroyed.  The last U-Boat to leave Germany before the war ended, U-534, was sunk by depth charges dropped by an RAF Liberator bomber whilst sailing towards Norway on 5 May 1945.  Maintaining the Merseyside connection the U-boat was raised from the sea bed in 1993 and in 1996 she was brought to the Warship Preservation Trust’s museum in Birkenhead Docks until it closed in February 2006.  She now is on display at the Woodside Ferry terminal in the town.

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In the afternoon there was a fly past by a Spitfire and a Hurricane these two planes were crucial to Britain winning the Battle of Britain, the air campaign waged by the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, against the United Kingdom during the summer and autumn of 1940.  The name came from the famous speech delivered by Prime Minister Winston Churchill that: “the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.”

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The objective of the Luftwaffe campaign was to gain air superiority over the Royal Air Force (RAF).  It saw the largest and most sustained aerial bombing campaign that there had been with the Luftwaffe bombing coastal shipping, ports, RAF airfields and aircraft factories and sites of industry.  The failure of Germany to achieve its objectives of destroying Britain’s air defences and forcing Britain to negotiate an armistice or an outright surrender was a turning point in the Second World War.  By preventing Germany from gaining air superiority, the battle ended the threat that Hitler would launch Operation Sea Lion, a proposed amphibious and airborne invasion of Britain.

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During the Second World War these two British fighter planes took on the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt Bf 109E fighter planes and Bf 110C fighter bombers.  The key aim of Fighter Command was to stop the Luftwaffe’s bombers; in practice the tactic was to use Spitfires to counter German escort fighters, particularly the Bf 109s, while the Hurricane squadrons attacked the bombers.

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The Spitfire and Hurricane made three fly- pasts along the River Mersey and the Pierhead before flying down to London for another event later in the day.

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During each of the three days the armed forces carried out an enactment of a rescue of a vessel from modern day ‘pirates’.  In the enactment the ‘pirates’ captured a ferry boat and Royal Marines boarded the ship from a zebra striped camouflaged Sea King helicopter followed by Royal Navy assault ships and patrol craft.

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There a number of memorials along the waterfront in Liverpool.  This plaque was erected at the Pier Head Liverpool to commemorate the fact that over a million US soldiers passed through the port on their way to take part in D day and many American seaman on cargo ships sailed into Liverpool as part of the Battle of the Atlantic.

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The whole of Merseysdide and beyond seemed to be at this event and there was a great deal of coverage in the local newspapers and as one article in the Liverpool Echo concluded that it is the last time we will be able to see anything like this again.  Many of the servicemen are now in their nineties and some of the British ships were going on from this event to be decommissioned.

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