This weekend’s Battle of the Atlantic Anniversary was that sort of event. Yes, we remembered the many thousands who lost their lives in the icy seas – but we celebrated the fact that, thanks to them, our sons and daughters are free to let their dreams take flight too.
It was a proud weekend for Liverpool. Chosen as just one of three British cities to represent the 70th commemoration of The Battle of the Atlantic, the city rose to the occasion with that effortless blend of dignity, humour and pride that we just get around here.
As the last ever official memorial to this lengthy and pivotal battle (one that could so easily have determined the victors of World War II) it was, in every way, a weekend to remember.
Liverpool’s role in the Battle of the Atlantic was incalculable. From concrete-clad bunkers under Rumford Street – you can still visit them, as they were all those years ago – naval personnel directed the moves in the theatre of the Atlantic ocean, ensuring vital supplies reached Britain from America and securing troop deployments following America’s entry into the war.
Somewhere in the region of 100,000 naval personnel on both sides lost their lives to the deep seas; the final, conclusive defeat of the Kriegsmarine ensured that D-Day landings were possible and the end of the war in Europe brought closer.
It’s a story you saw, vividly etched on the animated faces of the Veterans, as they marched, sure footedly, through our sun-splashed streets.
It’s a story you heard, ricocheting off the soaring Gothic arches of Liverpool Cathedral during Sunday morning’s service. Could there be a more awe-inspiring venue for occasions like these? Even Joe Anderson sounded like he’d just hot-footed it from Radio 4’s Morning Service.
But more than that – it’s a story thousands of us came to share, to witness, and to add to: as families, service personnel and tourists came to remember.
Alongside the memorial to those who died in the Battle of the Atlantic, we meet Kathy Townsend, a Royal Navy veteran, from the Queen Alexandra nursing service.
“My Grandfather used to bring me down to the Mersey to see the ships when I was a little girl,” she tells us, “and my husband, Chief petty officer Harry Townsend of HMS Pimpernel, was on Thetis when it went down Liverpool Bay. When I go, I’ll be buried at sea, off the Mersey Bar, to rejoin him….”
Her voice falters momentarily, before she adds:
“It’s the Submariners’ remembrance service soon. There’s no way I’m going to miss that.”
These are our stories. Liverpool might have turned away from the Mersey over the last few decades. But slowly, we’re heading back to the river. And events like this reconnect us to our past stronger than any museum, any library ever could.
A crowd of 50,000 people at the Pier Head gasps as a Spitfire and Hurricane roar overhead (they’re in a hurry to get to Llandudno, we’re told). Somewhere in the distance, Chinese lion dancers, Indian drummers and troops from the Polish community bask and holler in the sunshine. This is what freedom sounds like.
There were 100,000 reasons why we had to get this weekend right. Now we know: we were the right place then. And we’re the right place now.
On Tuesday, the visiting ships’ coordinated departure from Liverpool starts at 2pm.
Pics and additional reporting: Pete Carr