A few weeks ago my old mate Les French sent me a interesting picture of serious bomb damage to his local Leeds and Liverpool Canal bridge in Maghull near Liverpool. Here is the picture.
Les is a bit of a local historian and has been a key mover in Maghull’s new museum celebrating the town’s proudest son – Frank Hornby.
Les’s new museum shows a fascinating collection of Hornby’s inventions, trainsets, Dinky toys and, of course Meccano models and outfits.
Millionaire Hornby never gave cash, instead the young Les would be given a brand new Dinky toy, still in its box.
Les, however was always disappointed to discover that rather than the latest, best selling model, his were always prototypes that Hornby had decided would not be added to the range.
At the age of sixteen Les’s mum decided Les was too old for toy cars and these priceless collector’s items were disposed of in the dustbin.
But back to the picture and the bombed canal bridge.
The press picture, from a local paper at the time, was dated 12 January 1939, and that rang a bell with me.
That January, 75 years ago, was the month a young Brendan Behan, just 16, was arrested as an IRA bomber in Liverpool.
Later in his life, barely old enough to drink, not to mention argue revolutionary politics, I would actually meet Brendan and his brothers, Brian and Dominic in the Flask pub in Hampstead, but that is another story.
It was also on January 12 1939 the Army Council of the IRA sent an ultimatum to the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax.
Halifax, ignored the threat and on Sunday January 15 the IRA simply declared war on the United Kingdom.
The Irish Republican Army called the strategy the S-Plan or Sabotage Campaign.
The IRA said it would attack civil, economic and military infrastructure all across the mainland but would not include civilians.
Many of the targets were canals or canal side structures. In 1939 canals were still important arteries of commerce.
What is usually considered as the first S-Plan bomb was at the Willesden (North West London) Power Station beside the Grand Union Canal, and coincidentally less than a mile from my own childhood home in Harlesden.
Another target in North London was the huge concrete aquaduct that carried the Grand Union Canal across the North Circular Road at Stonebridge. The bomb exploded cracking the structure but not breaching the canal.
If it had it would have flooded huge areas of this important industrial quarter of North London. Nearby is the Park Royal Industrial Estate and at this time Park Royal was the biggest industrial estate in the world.
But the canal banks held, they still do today. I wonder how many motorists driving under the canal since the war realised those IRA cracks were still there.
The S-Campaign saw almost daily bombing not just of canals but also power stations, pylons and power lines, post offices and railway stations. Even post boxes were blown up.
On July 27 1939 Liverpool became the target. In the early hours there were three bomb explosions.
The first of these was at the swing bridge at Green Lane on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal in Maghull. And that was the subject of the picture Les had sent me.
The structure, known as the Methodist Swing Bridge, was seriously damaged.
The explosion was heard up to three miles away. Windows of the surrounding houses were blown out and many local buildings damaged.
The picture’s original date – 12 January 1939, inspired me to write an article for the Morning Star on the 75th Anniversary of Brendan Behan’s first arrest. There would be many more arrests in his short life.
In fact I speculated that this might have been Brendan’s first bomb. I knew at the time of his arrest as well as explosives Brendan had plans of Liverpool’s docks, rivers and canals, presumably as targets.
I was wrong in my speculation, the dates simply didn’t match – and fortunately I didn’t put my theory into the article.
I think what happened was that the date originally claimed for the photograph was confused with the launch of the IRA’s S-Plan.
The July attack on targets in and around Liverpool was comprehensive.
As well as the canal bridge other targets in Liverpool city centre included a post office and a letter box.
Nationwide the S-Plan totaled 300 explosions, 96 injuries and seven deaths.
Finally in August, just a month after the Maghull canal bombing a bicycle bomb exploded prematurely in Coventry killing five bystanders. Five people were bought to trial and two, Peter Barnes and James McCormick were hung.
The aftermath of the Coventry Bomb.
This Coventry Bombing proved a propaganda disaster for the IRA with criticism from sympathisers in Ireland and a falling away of support from Irish republicans in the United States.
The S-Plan was effectively over.
But for Liverpool and Maghull, and indeed Coventry and the rest of the country the bombing went on. This time the bombs that rained down were from Herr Hitler and his Luftwaffe.
The Methodist Street Bridge was quickly repaired and I still drive over it when I visit my old mate Les to see if he has found any more interesting stories or pictures. Like most Scousers he normally has a few good tales to tell.