Tag Archives: ss malakand

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.


Explosion of the SS Malakand

It was the strategic importance of the docks which made Liverpool such an important target for the Luftwaffe.  Liverpool was the main port for convoys crossing the Atlantic from the free world.

Throughout the Second World War the Mersey was full of all kinds of ships, both military and merchant.  Vital food supplies came in to Britain through Liverpool so if the port could be closed, Britain might starve.  As well as bombs, mines were parachuted into the Mersey to disrupt shipping.  These, as well as unexploded bombs, caused great disruption long after the bombers had left Merseyside’s skies.

Built in 1919, the SS Malakand cargo liner was part of the Brocklebank shipping line, named after the Malakand area of the Indian sub-continent.

ss malakand

On the worst night of the Blitz on Liverpool, 3rd May 1941, SS Malakand, loaded with a thousand tons of munitions, caught fire, blew up and obliterated the Huskisson Dock.  It is thought that a drifting barrage balloon landed on the deck and burst into flames.

Pieces of the ship were blasted over two miles away causing even further damage to the Overhead Railway.  Half the docks were temporarily put out of action as a result of the destruction caused by the blast.  Thousands of dock workers, troops and volunteers were involved in the clear up.  Miraculously, considering the size of the blast, only four people were killed.

huskisson dock

ss malakand huskisson dock damage

By the end of the 1941 Blitz, 69 out of 144 cargo berths were closed.  There were serious losses of ships, food and fuel.  Had the May bombing continued for just a few more nights, the docks could have been totally disabled.

To read the story of the only fireman to lose their lives in the fight to put out the fire at Huskisson Dock, click here.