They that go down to the sea in ships

I know that councillors all over the Country get a massive satisfaction from their role and from serving their community. Me too! But I don’t really think I would ever have wanted to be a councillor anywhere else than Liverpool. Yesterday showed why!

For five days Liverpool has been at the centre of the battle of the Atlantic commemorations. Yesterday I had a front row seat at the Service in Liverpool Cathedral attended by the Princess Royal. I was sitting next to a former First Sea Lord. We had the 3 Masters of Trinity House, commanding officers from all the ships from all the navies that were moored in the docks, the current First Sea Lord and enough “scrambled egg” to keep all of Liverpool in breakfast for months.

But more important than all those grand folk were the 24 veterans who formed the centre piece of yesterday. The people who unlike so many of their brave compatriots returned from the seas and from the grim tedium and fear of the convoys to America and Russia. More than 5,000 ships and 80,000 men were lost in a battle that lasted almost the entire length of the war as the U Boat packs sought to destroy our lifelines and food and fuel which made it possible to fight the fascist tyranny which, at one time, seemed invincible in mainland Europe.

We thanked them and the Royal Navy who sought to protect them and the US and British air forces of coastal command who gave what support they could near as the convoys left or neared their bases. Brave men and women all. I talked to an old salt who had served for 3 years as a stoker on the convoys. This was the most dangerous place of all. If a torpedo got the ship very few people escaped from the engine rooms. Their death if they were lucky was quick; if unlucky they were scorched and then waited for the waters to engulf them.

Most people of my generation will not know what it is like to fight for our country. Advances in the technology of weaponry mean that there will never again be conscript armies in Europe. Instead we allow other people’s sons and daughters to be our proxies to fight from freedom in theatres of war all over the world. Whether you politically think that the conflicts in Afghanistan or Iraq were right one cannot doubt for an instant the bravery of our forces men and women.

Liverpool was the centre piece for the national commemorations because if was from Liverpool that the Battle of the Atlantic was master minded. It was from Liverpool that the convoys and the fleets sailed. The war for Europe was won from a bunker in Liverpool which still exists – this is a battle that is often forgotten. Very few films have been made about this battle but as Churchill said the only thing that kept him awake at night was thinking about the U-boat packs. From Liverpool we defeated them.

For four days and hopefully today and tomorrow the City has been packed. More than 100,000 on Saturday alone and I suspect even more yesterday. Our hotels have been full and according to the Commanding Officers there has been a concerted attempt by some of the crews to drink Liverpool dry (they didn’t succeed – we were ready for them!). Many of the people I talked to either had never been to Liverpool before or had not been for a long time. Many of them intend to come again.

This 70th Anniversary will effectively be the last of its type. There will be few, if any, veterans left on the 80th Anniversary. Some say we should let things go. We should forget the past – we should stop our Remembrance Sunday. I say they are wrong. No-one should glorify war – those that that have fought in them are the first to say that – but we should remember. Once we forget the suffering as well as the heroism it is more likely that we will once again resort to death and not to reason in settling our differences.

The first war ship I saw when I went down to the Pier Head yesterday was a German mine sweeper. A wonderful act of reconciliation. Because now most of us now know we are part of Europe a war with Germany or France, which was the way of life for this Country over the centuries, is almost impossible to imagine.

Liverpool is always a wonderful place but for this weekend it has been somewhere special. It showed itself off well as it paid homage to the memories of the brave. It is so easy now to forget that we are a seaport but so many of our citizens are still engaged in the Merchant and Royal Navies and all the ancillary trades. Even today danger lurks. I sat with the Head of the Bibby Line (the only major line still with its HQ in Liverpool) and he told me of the dangers of piracy off the coast of Somalia.

So let Liverpool always remember the past as it shapes it futures. Whether we believe in a divine being or not surely we can unite behind these words of the great seafaring hymn;
O hear us when we call to thee
for those in peril on the sea.

About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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