SOURCE: Special to HNN
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Lee Ruddin: The First Lady’s (Morale-Boosting) Visit to the "Second City of Empire" 70 Years Ago
Lee Ruddin is Roundup Editor at HNN. He lives in England.
The Normandy Landings were arguably one of the great turning points of World War Two. Liverpool played a significant role in the success of Operation Overlord yet it remains an area often overlooked in the historical record. Jules Hudson’s recent BBC series could have put right this wrong when illuminating the extraordinary things ordinary folks did, but How We Won the War underwhelmed as Hudson likewise overlooked events surrounding the First Lady’s visit to inspect American GIs in the “Second City of Empire.”
When it comes to morale-boosting acts, ordinary Americans did extraordinary things in Liverpool, which led one extraordinary American – Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of war-time President, Franklin D. – to do a very ordinary thing and tour the region on an inspirational trip in November 1942. The significance of U.S. presence in Liverpool, and its concomitant effect on the morale of Merseysiders (including those residing across the River Mersey), cannot be overstated. As such, it is the aim of this article to illuminate Americans’ unique contribution to the war effort and, in a very small way, honor the debt we Brits owe our transatlantic cousins.
Let us start with the Blitz.
Thanks to its seven miles of quays and 130 individual docks, the port of Liverpool was able to provide a vital link in the Allied supply chain in the war against the Axis Powers. While it was inevitable that local folk would pay a price for this role, few could have predicted the events of 1941 and the “May Week” Blitz when the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) did its inhumane best: four boroughs of Merseyside were bombed for seven successive nights, resulting in 3,966 deaths. This was, to be sure, Liverpool’s darkest hour: never before in the city’s then 650-year history had the morale of its inhabitants been so sorely tested. It was no surprise the authors of a Home Intelligence Report concluded that the city had ‘a depressed and sordid atmosphere’.
Readers would be forgiven for thinking it was the havoc wrought by the Blitz that caused morale to sap; one local author did, after all, compare the aerial assaults with the 1937 bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Yet, as bad as being ‘Guerniced’ was, the neglect of anonymity had a far greater demoralizing effect. Residents, in truth, felt more aggrieved by newspapers and radio broadcasters taking little notice of their plight, referring to Merseyside under the general heading of “North West,” and preferring instead to dedicate column inches and airtime to London Metropolitan affairs.
The gap between leaders and the led had widened to such an extent that a member of the public was overheard by a Mass Observation reporter arguing in favor of surrendering to the Nazi juggernaut. A stimulus to recovery was desperately needed in 1942, given that ‘there was no power [or] drive left in Liverpool to counterattack the Luftwaffe’ at the close of 1941.
The stimulus came in the form of short visits from U.S. officials and long ones from American GIs – the stationing of which brought Eleanor Roosevelt to town in November 1942. The turning point in Anglo-American affairs, when relations became “special,” some contend, occurred as John G. Winant replaced the isolationist Joseph P. Kennedy as American Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Committed to establishing the closest possible relationship between Whitehall and the White House, Winant toured Britain and received the warmest of welcomes in Liverpool (on November 26, 1941) when out and about viewing the working docks and inspecting the damage done to the dockside.
Perhaps the most significant visitors, though, were from a detachment of the U.S. Army Engineer Corps. The first American troops to be seen in the city since World War I, they were a sight for sore eyes – not only for those living through exceptionally heavy bombing raids, but also for Royal Engineer personnel – when, on May 4, 1941, they manned huge mechanical excavators to clear away the rubble onto waiting trucks and assisted in getting the city back up and running in time for the start of the working week.
The war seemed particularly grim in early 1942: German bombers continued to batter British cities and U-boats continued to sink Allied shipping at the rate of half a million tons a month. The Minister of Information, Brendan Bracken, told one newspaper editor in March that ‘the Government is very disturbed about the low morale in the country, and particularly in the Army, but has no idea what to do.’ Bracken had little to worry about, however, since American GIs were Britain-bound: the Japanese had attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and by spring ’42, Merseysiders, in the throes of depression and austerity, welcomed a friendly invasion from across the Atlantic as a breath of much-needed hope.
From the moment when the train bearing Mrs Roosevelt pulled into Paddington Station on October 23, 1942, the news of her arrival spread rapidly across the land. Vast swathes of Britain rejoiced as out of the coach stepped America’s First Lady – but it would be another fortnight before she set foot in the “Second City of Empire.”
Churchill recognized Roosevelt’s role in raising the morale of American Privates yet even he could not have foreseen that the British public would be so taken with her boundless energy and inexhaustible interest when visiting the vast Stanley Dock. The Tobacco Warehouse was the largest brick building in the world at the time and was used throughout the war as a storage depot by the U.S. Army. Dockers who worked under the supervision of American officers remember fondly her touring the huge floors in a jeep and stopping to learn all that she could about the “Home Front.”
Roosevelt was in Liverpool on November 8, 1942, when the BBC broadcast the news of the invasion of North Africa. There was great cheering along the city’s docks and streets. People felt ‘now we are fighting together,’ she scribbled in her diary. One woman told her, ‘God bless your men. May this be the beginning of the end for old Hitler.’
And so it was.
Upholding morale on Merseyside was a strategic necessity since it helped to maintain full-scale war production and there is little doubt that the U.S. presence in Liverpool, a high-point of which was Roosevelt’s visit 70 years ago, assisted Merseysiders in their ability to prosecute the war and play a key role, through Pluto (the fuel-pipe project) and Mulberries (artificial harbors), in the Normandy Landings.
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