Lancashire At War.co.uk

Exploring the hidden history of War sites in Lancashire

New Brighton

Munitions factory & Air Raid Shelters

You can see other photos of the tunnels here:  http://www.subbrit.org.uk/db/1480965682.html

 

You can see more of the tunnels on this video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AERg_hNSjHM

 

The tour we went on was via Hidden Wirral:  http://www.hiddenwirral.org/home/4583570707

Our thanks to our tour guide for an interesting tour.

ABOVE: Courtesy of the IWM, their description: "The War Effort: Women working on 20mm cannon shells in an underground munitions factory in Liverpool, which also produced .303 rifle bullets for the Ministry of Supply". c. 1945

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RIGHT: "Two war workers carry boxes of ammunition up the steps from the underground factory on the Wirral in which they were produced". Courtesy of the IWM

RIGHT: "A portrait of a woman war worker as she operates a machine producing 20mm cannon shells at an undergroud factory on the Wirral".

Courtesy of the IWM

RIGHT: "Women war workers collect their lunchtime meal from the serving hatch of the canteen of this underground factory on the Wirral". Courtesy of the IWM

 

RIGHT: A group of women war workers enjoy tea and sandwiches in the underground canteen of this factory at New Brighton, on the Wirral.

Courtesy of the IWM

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RIGHT: A general view of the 'lounge' at a underground factory on the Wirral, showing munitions workers relaxing with a cigarette and a cup of tea or Horlicks. A game of darts is on progress in the background. Courtesy of the IWM

Underneath the New Palace and Adventureland, New Brighton (near Liverpool) is a hidden piece of Second World War history. It is opposite Fort Perch Rock, a Napoleonic era fort that was still used during WW2 (unfortunately closed to visitors at the moment). Underneath the funfair arcade is a network of tunnels, thought to be once used as air raid shelters and, secretly, as a munitions factory. But is everything as it seems? Or do things seem a little bit "fake"? Are we really in a "secret place" or at a WW2 propaganda photo opportunity? There are several reasons for our concerns.

 

We visited the tunnels as part of a paid tour, where we were told all sorts of stories and theories. And as interesting as they were, we like to deal in verifiable facts. With this in mind, we will report this site only on the facts that we know and our opinions based on our knowledge of similar sites and structures of the time.

 

Surprisingly (as this was supposedly a secret munitions factory) there are lots of contemporary photos of this site in use. Some of these, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, are on the RIGHT HAND SIDE of the page.

 

Photos of Munitions Factories were not uncommon (as they were not named or their locations known) but our "worry" is the way these photos look like "set ups", posed photos for the camera. So much so that you begin to wonder if the photos of this site are nothing more than a propaganda exercise.  As so many of the photos do not look natural but instead look "staged".

 

There are then further complications to what should be a simple story. The above ground area (which was then and still is today) an Amusement Arcade (Wilkie's Amusement Park - in the 1940's) was used as a U.S. Military vehicle pool in the war (as were other places nearby). Research done by our friend, Euan, shows that there is a mention of maintaining small arms (U.S.) but not manufacturing anything on the site - so that the two sites (US military and UK Munitions) were not interacting as far as we know. But what are the chances of having a U.S. operational site on top of a secret UK munitions factory?

 

So what could be going on?

Let us look at what we can see below ground. These are not purpose built WW2 structures. They look to us more like Victorian underground storage facilities with their vaulted brick ceilings and cast iron supports. Which have been re-used during WW2. Due to their proximity to Liverpool, its docks and the River Mersey, and the danger that this posed to local residents - you can see how these structures could be used for air raid shelters. The second set of stairs out of the site (later used to load in supplies when it was used as a nightclub) were most likely built and used as an escape route for the air raid shelter itself.

 

But what of the Munitions Factory?

We have reservations about the idea that this was really a munitions factory. The IWM photos look staged. Some of the details in individual photos do not seem realistic or credible to us. But we may be wrong....

 

Then there is the comparison of the photos of this site back in the 1940's compared with today, what do they tell us? We were told on the tour that the machines had been left since the war. However, we were not able to find any of the same machines in the IWM photos (RIGHT) matching up with the machines seen here today. Indeed, they seem set up today to mimick those old photos. Is this a deliberate set up or are we being too cynical? Further inspection of the machines leads to some interesting conclusions.

 

We put photos of the machines up on a website for enthusiasts for this sort of thing - OWWM.org - a site for fans of old wood working machines and old metal working machines. The comments and knowledge from this group of American specialists was really interesting.

 

For instance, 'Rockfish' commented: "Maintenance and supply sounds more like it. I worked in an area in daily contact with explosives and none of the machinery pictured would ever have been allowed near. Munitions factories utilize a large amount of wooden jigs ,compressed air drives and remote switching, none of which are shown. These machines look like a dealers choice of what was sent on the victory ships to aid the war effort .I've seen some of those presses and lathes locally and they always had a nametag stating "Property of the War Department."

To conclude, this is a perplexing site that is probably not all that some claim it to be. It was probably used as an air raid shelter at some point during the war. It was certainly used for a photo shoot opportunity during the war for propaganda purposes as a munitions factory. Whether it really was a munitions factory is unclear. What it made if it was a munitions factory is also uncertain. If you take the contemporary photos at face value - it made shells and rifle bullets. Presumably just the casings?

 

The machinery in place today looks to have been used until very recently. It doesn't match the photos, but does look similar and is mostly old enough to have been used during WW2. But its current layout looks purposefully "staged" to reproduce the layout of the old photographs.

 

Above it there was a U.S. Army Ordnance Maintenance depot O-616, founded on 30th July 1943 in Wilkie’s Amusement Park, to service vehicles, small arms artillery & instruments. This alone we have evidence for.

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ABOVE: This Trident machine in the tunnel today has "WAR FINISH" marked on its side.

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ABOVE: On the tour this is the one tunnel with machines in it. None match the ones in the IWM photos (as members of the OWWM.org site pointed out to us),

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ABOVE LEFT: A set of stairs leading from the tunnels to the surface - The original way into the air raid shelter? An escape route from the air raid shelter? Or access to the munitions factory?

ABOVE RIGHT: The outside view of the Art Deco facade of the amusement arcade. Note the large metal grid in the foreground is the same metal grid seen at the top of the stairs seen in the adjacent photo.

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Fort Perch Rock

Fort Perch Rock was commissioned during the Napoleonic Wars but was not completed until 1826. It was built to protect the mouth of the river and continued to do so, undergoing many changes, over the years, until the last guns were dismantled in 1954.

 

During the Second World War, it protected the approach channels to the port of Liverpool with two 6-inch guns. (Two more were at Fort Crosby).

 

According to Bryan Perrett in 'Liverpool a City At War': "These weapons fire a 100-pound shell to a maximum accurate range of 6000 yards, assisted by optical range-finders. Fort Perch Rock also contained four searchlights, each believed to be six million candlepower. Two were movable lights. One being mounted on top of the East Tower and the other directly below it; the remaining two were fixed beams built into the base of the original South Tower, illuminating the area across the river mouth to Gladstone Dock. An electrically activated minefield, controlled from ashore, was also laid between New Brighton and Gladstone Dock, and this was covered by torpedo tubes concealed on the New Brighton landing stage".

ABOVE: Fort Perch Rock a Napoleonic era fort still used during WW2. Sadly it is not currently open to the public. It sits opposite the Amusement Arcade, detailed above on the page, in New Brighton.

References:

'Liverpool A City At War' by Bryan Perrett

 

Yesterday's Wirral No.4 Wallasey and New Brighton by Ian & Marilyn Boumphrey

ABOVE: A portrait of a woman war worker as she operates a machine producing 20mm cannon shells at an underground factory on the Wirral. Courtesy of the IWM.

Opposite the Amusement Arcade is Fort Perch Rock: