Western Approaches Command moved to Liverpool in early 1939 from Plymouth, where it was first established. Its function was to protect Allied shipping in the Atlantic Sea, for the duration of the Second World War. This period has come to be known as the Battle of the Atlantic. Not a single battle as such, but a long drawn out campaign in which the combined forces of the Navy and RAF would protect allied ships, while destroying enemy ships, submarines and planes.
Liverpool was a vital port during the Second World War as it received millions of tons of goods from America and Canada. Over 1000 convoys would successfully reach Liverpool during those years. The Liverpool docks also became vital for repairing allied warships and merchant ships. The operation was based at the newly built Derby House at Exchange Flags, a huge suite of impressive buildings that can still be visited today. Underneath Derby House was built a large reinforced bunker 50,000 feet square containing a whole host of rooms.
Protective walls three foot thick and a reinforced roof seven feet thick would have hopefully given protection from a Luftwaffe bombing raid. This was Western Approaches Combined Headquarters which housed both the Royal Navy and RAF No.15 Group Coastal Command, working hand in hand. The Commander in Chief was at times in charge not just of British forces but naval ships from Canada, America, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, India and South Africa.
The centre was tasked with protecting allied convoys and their escort ships by monitoring their position and even more vitally the positions of enemy planes, ships, and the feared submarine U Boats. Both men and women worked at Western Approaches, the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) forming a substantial part of the staff. As well as feeding this information to the navy and air force over the Atlantic, special communications lines were in place in the bunker connecting to the War Cabinet in London and the top secret code cracking headquarters at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire.
By the end of the war the Western Approaches Command had achieved a great deal. Losses had been heavy in the Atlantic: 330 convoys were attacked by U Boats. Of theses 565 escorted ships and 234 ‘stragglers’ were lost. Over a thousand independent (i.e. unescorted ships) were also sunk. However 96,977 ships did make it across the sea intact, a staggering number. The loss of life though for the allies was huge though- 30,000 merchant sea men died during the campaign.
The Western Approaches headquarters was closed on August 1945. However, the bunker has remained intact and in 1993 it was reopened to the public. It is now known as Western Approaches Liverpool War Museum and is well worth a visit. Not only are many of the rooms viewable in their original state, but much of the machinery of the operations, including the rare code breaking machines can be still be seen today.
The Operations Room is still an impressive site, as it must have been 70 years ago. The massive plotting maps on the walls dominate the room and visitors can get a sense of what it would have been like to have worked there. Cabins overlook the main Operations Floor, and you can see where the operators could contact the Navy and RAF bases to give the details of where enemy forces were located in the Atlantic.
For those interested in the incredibly secret world of codes and ciphers there are numerous intriguing rooms and machines. Bletchley Park would send decoded Enigma messages used by the U Boats to Western Approaches. The Hotline Telephone booth (which looks like a brown wooden version of our iconic public telephone boxes) is one of only two left in the country and this directly communicated with the War Cabinet.
The Cypher Room is a tiny space where one operator would be locked in while an armed guard stood at the door outside. The cipher machine can still be viewed within the room. Other rooms contain decoding machines for top secret messages to be sent. Particularly impressive is the GPO Western Approaches Relay Station room with its hugely complex machine, in excellent preservation. It would have connected to Bank Buildings Main Exchange. This is where much of the telephone and teleprinter messages would have been sent, as the Post Office telephone network was integral to the Second World War, as it was in the Cold War later.
While much of the technology was cutting edge at the time, some is very simple. Speaking tubes where messages were sent from one room to another down what was essential a metal hosepipe look very primitive. The punched paper tape hung up by teleprinters also speaks of a bygone age. There are many rooms to see on a visit, including the offices and sleeping quarters, as well as the high tech rooms.
The Western Approaches Museum is a unique piece of Lancashire’s history. We really need to support our local independent museums and you won’t be disappointed if you visit. Their website is here http://www.liverpoolwarmuseum.co.uk/
Western Approaches Museum
1-3 Rumford Street
Information taken from the interpretation signs in the Western Approaches Liverpool War Museum
ABOVE: The Operations Room
BELOW LEFT: The Hotline Telephone Booth
BELOW RIGHT: Decoding Top Secret messages
ABOVE: The Cypher Room
ABOVE LEFT: The Speaking Tube
ABOVE RIGHT:Machines using punched paper tape.