Category Archives: Personal Accounts

Personal Accounts

The Story of Joseph Gallagher

We were very pleased to receive this account from Gill McCarthy (née Gallagher) about her grandfather who tragically lost his life working to extinguish the fire caused by the SS Malakand explosion…

My grandfather, Joseph Gallagher, was the only fireman to be killed when SS Malakand exploded.  He was working with his fellow firefighters to extinguish the fire when the ship exploded.

fireman death ss malakand 1941
Letter of condolence from Walton Hospital 5th May 1941

The blast was so powerful, that debris was scattered over many miles across the city.  My grandmother Delia recalled when she was travelling to the hospital looking for news of her husband the air above the city was full of fine dust from the explosion which turned the daytime sky dark. Parts of the ship were found up to 2 miles from the Huskisson Dock where it was moored when it exploded.

ss malakand explosion
The scene of devastation which followed the explosion of the SS Malakand.

My grandfather was previously a seaman and ironically decided to join the AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service) as it was considered a less hazardous job for a father of two young children.  He left a widow, Delia Gallagher, and two small sons Peter and Thomas aged 3 and 6 when he died in 1941.

fireman joseph gallagher
Joseph Gallagher with his sons Peter and Thomas.

The family lived at 52 Vulcan Street in Garston and after Joseph’s death they lived on a modest widow’s pension from the Fire Service.  Shortly after Joseph was killed his wife Delia lost her sight which made the family’s already difficult life even more challenging.

My father told us that after the war ended he can recall the men returning home from to the streets of Garston, but he hid under the stairs of the house as it was too upsetting for him knowing that his own father would not be coming home.

National Fire Service Liverpool Roll of Honour

The SS Malakand explosion is well documented in history books but Joseph Gallagher’s death fighting the fire on board the ship was not recognised fully until quite recently.  My sister Julie contacted a fire service historian after reading an article in the Liverpool Echo which referred to an unknown fire fighter who died trying to extinguish the fire on the ship.  This ultimately led to my grandfather being recognised on a Roll of Honour in a ceremony in 2012 at Merseyside Fire & Rescue Services Heritage Centre in Bootle.  Prior to this, he had not been named as the fireman who had heroically sacrificed his life.  This ceremony meant a lot to us – my parents Peter and Mavis Gallagher and myself who all attended the service.

On my father’s wishes, we are currently in the process of donating some of my grandfathers letters and memorabilia to the Merseyside Fire & Rescue Services Heritage Centre.  

joseph gallagher liverpool fireman
Joseph’s Union Card 1940-1941

I will be taking my two young daughters with me to show them their great grandfather was a hero who helped to save many lives.

Personal Accounts

The Story of Chris Noone

“I was too young to remember much about the war. VE-day occurred while we lived in Liverpool and VJ-Day after we moved to Birkenhead. Scavenging children had long cleared bombed buildings of interesting treasures before I became old enough to take part.  Eventually, once the bull-dozers had cleared the rubble and condemned houses to leave large areas of wastelands, the empty spaces served nicely as playgrounds.

post-war liverpool

Both my parents were Birkenhead born and both lived through two world wars. Father was a ‘trencher’ of WW1 whose hair turned white overnight. Mother played the violin, loved to dance, joined the Flapper movement and used powder from the bottom of the Quaker Oats tin as face powder.  “It was the good times after the bad”, she once said when huddled round the fire.  I dread to think what mother would have done had she caught me wearing short sleeved dresses and going to a dance unescorted.  I hid my dress in the outside toilet and changed after leaving the house.  You could always tell which girls on the dance floor had discarded long sleeves by the Flea bites on their arms.

wartime family
From left to right: Chris’ elder brother, Chris & his Mother.

In 1937, Hitler’s Yellow Jackets paraded in Birkenhead Park so Dad joined the Legion of Frontiersmen. He was in Spain as a correspondent for the Liverpool Echo when I was born in 1938, the only way he could involve himself in a war he thought Germany just might win this time.  He returned just before the bombing of Merseyside started.

I remember watching Laurel and Hardy in a cinema with mother when the air raid sirens sounded. The projector stopped and the lights went out. Asked to keep our seats, we remained in darkness until the all clear was given twenty minutes later. The deathly silence during this incident left its impression on me, being too young to understand why at the time. Eventually, deep sighs of relief sounded when the All Clear was given and the screen burst into life again.

 Another memory I have is in Speke Park, Liverpool. Out walking with mother, we stopped to watch a group of WAAF women preparing a Barrage Balloon. Once inflated, it started to rise. One woman failed to let go of the dangling ropes and went up with it, causing howls of laughter from me. I can’t remember now how she got down, her uprising being the only event that interested me at the time.

waaf barrage balloon ww2
Women of the WAAF in training to learn how to handle a barrage balloon.

But there is one memory that sticks out above all others. An excited elder brother shook me awake as the room vibrated with the throb of engines. An endless stream of aircraft passed low overhead, the sky seeming full of them. People have argued against this memory as Liverpool is on the west coast, but the image is too vivid. One suggestion has been an ‘aviation assembly point’ for mass gathering over Merseyside, particularly when preparing for a heavy bombing raid.

I would be pleased to know if any reader saw or has heard of such an incident in Liverpool in the days prior to D-Day.”

If any of our readers know anything about a possible gathering of aircraft over Merseyside towards the end of the war, please do let us know by leaving a comment beneath…

Personal Accounts

The Story of Joan Jackson

Joan Jackson lived on Raffles Road, Birkenhead with her parents and younger sister when war was declared in 1939.  She has very kindly shared her memories of the Blitz with us…

Joan Jackson and Deryck Fairhurst
Joan Jackson and D-Day veteran, Deryck Fairhurst, at Normandy with D-Day Revisited June 2009

We had numerous bombing raids over Merseyside, but the first one I remember was in 1940 around Christmas.  I would have been 16 years old at the time.  One day, after tea my mother had decided to ice and decorate some christmas cakes (she was a confectioner), when suddenly the air raid siren started to wail.  We all made our way to the air raid shelter in the back garden.  My parents had made it quite comfortable with a mattress on bricks, cups and saucers, biscuits, candles, torches and games… it had to be relatively comfortable as you never knew how long you’d have to spend in there!

As the war progressed we used the shelter more often and when the raids became more frequent we spent most nights in there.  In early 1942 a huge raid was in progress and our road received a direct hit which destroyed several houses and seriously damaged many others, including ours.  I remember my little sister was very distressed.  It sounds silly now, but I distinctly recall saying to her, “Don’t cry Barbara, it’s only a bomb!”

The damage to our house proved beyond repair and the family was forced to split up.  My parents went to Holt and I moved to Upton where I started my training to become a nurse.

History Personal Accounts

The Sinking of the Benares

The SS City of Benares was a steam passenger ship built for Ellerman Lines by Barclay, Curle & Co of Glasgow in 1936.  On 13th September 1940 she departed Liverpool bound for Canada.  On board were 90 evacuee children, who were being relocated as part of the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB) plan to take British children abroad away from the effects of the Blitz.

Just four days after leaving Liverpool, the Benares was torpedoed by a german U-boat in the Atlantic with heavy loss of life.

city of benares postcard
A pre-war post card of City of Benares' produced by the Ellerman Line

city of benares

Once hit, the ship quickly took on a list preventing many of the lifeboats from being launched and trapping many passengers and crew members below deck.  She sank within thirty minutes.

Mary Cornish was a music teacher responsible for a group of children traveling aboard the Benares and saw the shocked reaction of those aboard when the ship was hit.  Many passengers believed the adjacent ships would pick them up, but the ships’ officers were under strict admiralty orders not to attempt rescue work once their escort had left if it involved risk to themselves.  The U-boat was still lurking nearby.  As the minutes passed so the sea became more violent.  Still many hoped for a rescue which never came.

Those who managed to survive the sinking of the ship, were then left struggling in the water trying to clamber aboard the few lifeboats.  With the nearest allied ships 300 miles away, many more people drowned or died of exposure in the 24 hours it took for help to arrive.

A Mrs. Bech from Bognor Regis was traveling to Canada with her 3 children: Barbara, Sonia and Derek.  Sonia Bech remembers the moment the torpedo hit, “I remember a thud and being woken up by my sister Barbara and automatically getting into my duffle coat and putting on socks and sandals and of course carrying my life jacket. There was a sinister atmosphere along the corridors up to the Muster Station in the lounge and I remember an odd smell in the air. The next few minutes are still very vivid in my memory and are like a long bad dream.

How I reached the tiny raft beneath I will never understand. When I got onto the raft I remember thinking we were laying very close to the ship’s side and I thought we would be sucked under when she actually sank. By some fantastic good luck a strong man was in the water at that minute and he pulled the raft out of danger.  I believe his name was Mr. Davis: he certainly saved our lives.

Eric Davis was amongst the first survivors to be spotted by HMS Hurricane the following day, clinging to a small raft along with one other man, John McGlashen, and 6-year old Jack Keeley.

raft with survivors of the city of benares

Derek Bech, aged 9, recalls, “Some of the children were killed in the explosion, some were trapped in their cabins, and the rest died when the lifeboats were launched incorrectly and children were just tipped into the sea.  All I can remember were the screams and cries for help.  It was one of the worst disasters at sea concerning children, and it should always be remembered.

Barbara Bech managed to make it onto a lifeboat after the ship was hit, whereas Sonia, Derek and her Mother only survived by clinging onto a tiny raft in the freezing, rough seas… “The long dreary night clinging to the top of the raft seemed endless, but I remember falling off the raft and obviously my head went under the foaming water for a moment and I felt a tremendous peace and a sense of great light.  Then I was hauled back on the raft by the sailor and felt very shivery.  After many hours Mummy said “Sonia, let us take off our life belt and go to sleep in the water”; and I was very insistent that we waited a little longer.  It was not long after this that we saw the sail of Mr. Lewis’s lifeboat from S.S. Marina.  He was the second person who saved our lives that night.  I believe his lifeboat was already very full, but he managed to steer towards us through the rough seas, a notable feat in such conditions.  We were hauled aboard and revived with rum and Nestle’s Milk.

Fortunately all four members of the Bech family survived the horrific ordeal and were picked up by HMS Hurricane on 18th September.

city of benares survivors
Left to right: Sonia Bech, Colin R. Richardson and Derek Bech safe on dry land

Dr Peter Collinson was the Medical Officer on board the destroyer HMS Hurricane.  He remembers what state the survivors were in when they were finally rescued, “All survivors were suffering from severe exposure, and varying degrees of shock, being physically and emotionally exhausted.  Some were dehydrated and most were suffering from bruised and sprained bodies, limbs, and suspected fractures.  Several had severe swollen legs due to prolonged exposure to sea water, the so called ‘Immersion Feet’.  Three little boys could not be revived in spite of the valiant efforts of the Petty Officers’ Mess at artificial resuscitation.  They were later given a full Naval Burial by the Captain.

City of Benares survivors
Survivors safe aboard HMS Hurricane

Lifeboat 12, under the charge of the unflappable scottish 4th Officer Ronnie Cooper, was the last to be lowered from the sinking ship and so was very overcrowded.  The 46 survivors aboard lifeboat 12, including 6 boys, were not picked up until 9 days after the Benares had been sunk.  On Sunday 22nd September the next of kin of all the children aboard the lost lifeboat were informed of their death.

As the days passed and no help came, those on board lifeboat 12 settled into a routine.  Father O’Sullivan said prayers and rations were allocated twice a day.  Mary Cornish was also aboard lifeboat 12 and kept the boys entertained with thrilling stories of lone exploits against villains and Nazis and survival against all odds.  She massaged their cramped limbs and feet.  They all baled but could not clear the few inches of water in the bottom of the boat.  Then they began to hallucinate.  11-year-old Fred Steels from Eastleigh was one of the six boys on this lifeboat and remembers, “we were virtually out of water and food, what was left the crew in the stern were giving to us kids.  They tried to collect any rainwater they could on the sails, but the trouble is as soon as it hit the sail it was salt, so we couldn’t use it.

On Wednesday September 25th, their eighth day in the boat, the survivors aboard lifeboat 12 saw a speck in the sky which, fortunately, was an R.A.A.F. plane – a Sunderland flying boat.  They waved frantically and soon it turned towards them but had insufficient fuel to rescue them.  It signalled, “Help coming“.  Airborne for many hours on escort duties, it was sheer chance the Sunderland’s  return route took them within sight of the lifeboat.  They were thrilled to realise they were looking at 46 survivors of the Benares.

city of benares lifeboat 12

HMS Anthony dropped out of convoy to rescue lifeboat 12 and on Thursday 26th September the 46 survivors were at last on dry land.  Ronnie Cooper, assistant steward George Purvis and Mary
Cornish were all decorated for bravery.

mary cornish and peter collinson city of benares
Mary Cornish and Dr Peter Collinson

12-year-old Derek Capel and the other boys on lifeboat 12 were weak, thirsty, starving and frostbitten when they were rescued, but he will always remember the warmth of the welcome they received in Glasgow, “We came into Gourock, then on to Greenock and they put us to bed and we didn’t think any more of it.  But the next day they picked us up to take us to Glasgow and there were crowds of people.  We thought ‘what do they want?’  Then we realised that we were headline news.

Derek had been traveling with his 5-year-old brother, Alan, who he had lost when the ship sank, “I kept asking about my brother, but nobody could tell me anything and that was so worrying.”  It wasn’t until a reunion in 1982 that Derek found out Alan had been rescued after the ship sank but, along with two other little boys, died from exposure aboard HMS Hurricane.

city of benares survivors 4
Left to right: Ken Sparks, Derek Capel and Fred Steels having survived 8 days adrift on lifeboat 12

In total, 248 of the 406 people on board, including the master, the commodore, three staff members, 121 crew members and 134 passengers were lost.  77 of the 90 children on board the City of Benares tragically lost their lives, resulting in the complete abandonment of further overseas evacuation plans.  The U-boat responsible had moved its searchlight over the area where the Benares had sunk and knew there were survivors, but made no effort to rescue them.  The total disregard for the plight of the survivors horrified the civilised world.

Personal Accounts

The Story of Harold Newgass

In the very early hours of November 29th 1940 a parachute mine landed on the Garston Gas Works.  It was not known whether the mine or bomb in the 4,000,000 cubic feet holder tank was magnetic, acoustic, delayed action or just a plain “dud”.  Therefore fearing it might detonate at any time, the authorities evacuated 6000 people living in the vicinity to escape what would have been an almost unimaginable explosion.

At 7.30am fitters, electricians, plumbers and others were at work disconnecting electrically driven blowers from other plants, rigging them into position on the holder tank and preparing the fire pump to draw water out.  These high-risk tasks were carried out by willing volunteers.  As the exact location of the mine was unknown, risks had to be taken.  First the fans were started up and nothing happened, then the motor pump, and still no explosion.  The men who had assembled the gear were withdrawn.  The Liverpool Fire Brigade arrived and put a pump to work, the water was taken down 5’ 6” to uncover part of the “dumping”, a brick faced island inside the holder.  This achieved, the air inside the holder tank was no longer considered explosive and means of access were considered.

Fans and pumps were stopped and the job was handed over to Lieutenant Newgass of the bomb disposal unit.  Then aged 41, Newgass was a veteran of the Great War and hailed from London.

lieutenant harold newgass-garston gas works

Donning oxygen apparatus which only lasted thirty minutes apiece, Lieutenant Newgass entered the holder tank.  He lashed the parachute ring of the mine to the top of the pillar against which it was leaning, and passed a lashing round the nose.  Unfortunately the fuse was facing the pillar so a special hoisting lug was affixed and the mine was carefully turned round with a “tommy bar”.  This was a great physical effort for one man working under immense pressure and wearing oxygen apparatus for the first time.

For two days Newgass battled to defuse the mine.  On 30th November the fuse, the magnetic primer and the clocks were all removed.  Newgass was then able to report that although the detonator was still in, the mine could be considered safe.

Garston employers then entered the holder and uncoupled the lashing.  The mine, which in size and appearance resembled a tug boat funnel, was pulled over on its side, dragged across the “dumping” to a position under the hole on the crown and lifted out by block and tackle.  It was then placed on the back of a lorry and driven away.

It is certain that had the mine be detonated, the whole of Garston Works, along with much neighbouring property, would have been completely destroyed in the blast.  Lieutenant Newgass was awarded the George Cross, the highest civil decoration available.  Local newsagent and tobacconist, Miss Connie Elliot of St. Mary’s Road, started a public collection for the mine disposal squad, resulting in generous gifts being presented on behalf of the grateful people of Garston.

The way in which the ordinary man responded to this dangerous incident by selflessly placing themselves at grave risk in order to keep many more thousands of people safe, was hailed as a great example of the blitz spirit.

Personal Accounts

The Story of Mary Halpin

During the Blitz the Liverpool Echo reported the story of one young woman – a 19 year old ARP telephonist named Mary Halpin.  During a heavy bombing raid, she took the call that her own home had been bombed and there were fears for her father, mother, four sisters and two brothers who were all believed to be inside.

Despite the devastating news Miss Halpin carried on with her duties, taking calls from all over the city until the raid was over.  When she was finally able to return to her home, she found it partially demolished.  Happily, though members of her family had been partially buried by rubble, all were rescued and even the family dog was found safe and alone in the family air raid shelter.

blitz telephonists