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Ports At War


Enemy action

Bomb damage

Magnifying glassBomb damage to Rank flour mill caused by an air raid

Ports are vital in time of war. In both major wars of the twentieth century, food, raw materials, and oil came through ports. Troops, their equipment and ammunition were sent overseas. The Royal Navy had to be supplied and its ships repaired. Later in both wars there were immense numbers of US troops, plus aircraft, tanks and other supplies shipped into the UK on their way to the continent of Europe.

Of course, the Germans recognised the importance of ports. In the First World War (1914-18), their battle fleet attacked ports like   Hartlepool, although damage was minor. During the Second World War (1939-45), ports were prime targets for air raids. Substantial damage was done to London, Liverpool, Plymouth, Southampton and other ports.

Air raids on ports caused much temporary disruption, with ships sunk or set on fire. In Liverpool, for instance, the ammunition ship Malakand blew up after incendiary bombs set it alight, in May 1941, destroying the dock it was in and surrounding ships. However, immense efforts were made by firefighters, other emergency services and troops stationed nearby. As a result, ports began working again surprisingly quickly. In Liverpool, the dock in which Malakand had blown up was simply filled in with rubble and the port got on with its work.

Southampton Speaks

audioShips return from World War 1 (0:39)

audioTroop and hospital ships (1:02)

audioTransport ships at war (0:49)

audioTroops marching to war (1:01)



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London and east coast ports were particularly vulnerable to air raids. This was particularly so after the fall of France 1940 when German aircraft could be based just across the Channel. So these ports were used less, and ships were diverted to west coast ports, which were less vulnerable through being more distant.

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