Lee Ruddin visits an often overlooked gateway into Liverpool’s past
The International Mersey River Festival attracted a quarter of a million visitors for an ‘extravaganza’ of street theatre and theatrical shows recently, duly entertaining landlubbers and water babies alike. With Canning and Salthouse docks taken over by tall ships and power boats respectively, many – including me – sought refuge in the Maritime Museum. The majority of museum-goers unsurprisingly flocked to the ‘On the Waterfront’ exhibition, perfectly positioned as it is next to the gift shop on the ground floor. This proved more than satisfactory, though, since it allowed the minority elbow-room to enjoy the ‘Battle of the Atlantic gallery’ on the first floor.
This permanent exhibition tells the story of the longest, arguably most crucial, campaign of the Second World War. Divided into eight sections, the artefacts on display guide you through the near six-year-long battle that commenced on the first evening with the sinking of the passenger liner SS Athenia. Particularly welcome is the inclusion of audio and visual exhibits which further enable visitors to submerge themselves in Merseyside’s seafaring heritage. For those, however, wanting to delve deeper – literally so – they must take the short walk to Liverpool War Museum on Rumford Street. Staff who worked in Western Approaches successfully prevented the Kriegsmarine (the navy of Nazi Germany from 1935-1945) from severing transatlantic arteries, yet some remain unaware that the bunker beneath Derby House goes to the heart of the region’s – indeed the country’s – nautical history.
The ‘some’ I refer to on this occasion were locals who, as they peered into a model of what was called Combined Headquarters, wondered aloud as to its location. With members of the party staring at one another, each beholding a bewildered expression, one of them eventually turned to me – who was standing close by waiting to take a photograph of the miniature concrete-clad “Citadel” – and asked if I knew anything about it. Please allow me to briefly expand upon what I said.
With the fall of France in June 1940 Plymouth came within easy bombing range of the Luftwaffe (German air force). Prime Minister Winston Churchill had already planned to relocate the HQ of Western Approaches to Liverpool and in February 1941, as soon as Derby House had been converted into a bomb- and gas-proof bunker, the Commander-in-Chief took up residence. The 50,000 square foot nerve centre that Admiral Sir Percy Noble presided over consisted of 400 men and women, drawn largely from the Royal Navy but also included members of the Royal Air Force. Given its main purpose was the joint control of the naval and air forces, commanders from both branches occupied adjoining offices from where they could oversee the Operations Room. Facing their respective glass-fronted offices was a huge wall map of the North Atlantic and, just beneath it on a massive table, a large situation one upon which was posted – and constantly updated by Wrens using a rolling ladder – the estimated positions of every ship, friendly and enemy alike.
This room, I said, is the jewel in what is arguably the crown of Liverpool museums. Unlike those galleries which comprise National Museums Liverpool, Western Approaches is less commercialised and arguably more authentic. For good or ill, it has an unpolished feel about it – literally: the smell of densely-thick dust accompanies you through the intricate labyrinth of rooms. That this was my only form of company when I visited only added, I informed them, to the atmosphere. While walking between the rooms – which appear to remain exactly as they were left on the day the lights were switched off in 1945 – your imagination begins to take over. In one instance, I recalled, when gazing at the seat where an operator would once have sat, an eerie silence gave way to the sounds of typewriters and telephones; in another, I added, in between the imagined sound of Morse code chirping away, could be heard the faint drones of bombers overhead. As uplifting an experience as this was, though, the fact that I was the only visitor for 30 minutes left me feeling downhearted. It is a sad state of affairs, to be sure, that what was once Britain’s best kept secret is now Liverpool’s.
Liverpool-born broadcaster Peter Sissons said something similar three years ago, during the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic, yet neither his BBC documentary nor a period of refurbishment has helped Western Approaches fast-become Liverpool’s worst kept secret. And yet, thanks to the workers’ efforts yesterday, I reiterated, we have our tomorrow – which is just as well, I joked, since my monologue prevented them from paying a visit later that day. The opening times are inconvenient (Monday to Thursday, and Saturday, 10.30am to 4.30pm, from March 1 to October 31) although visitors will not, I reassured them, feel short-changed from this inexpensive but priceless, relatively unattractive attraction (adults £6, concessions £4). Before I departed I instructed them to take photos of the model by us because the one at Western Approaches is, I stated, inferior in quality notwithstanding its superior size.
I finally concluded by recommending Jonathan Dimbleby’s latest book, The Battle of the Atlantic: How the Allies Won the War, which might, I noted, be stocked in the shop below. As gripping as Dimbleby’s narrative of this ‘deadly game of aquatic cat and mouse’ is, it is putting this campaign at the epicentre of the Allied victory in the Second World War for which he deserves particular praise. The author duly acknowledges the pivotal role Western Approaches played not only in preventing our island nation from being starved into submission by German U-boats but also for paving the way for D-Day, so it is no surprise to see Margaret Jones feature in the acknowledgements section. First opened in 1993, it is not before time that more Merseysiders (and outsiders) acknowledge the tireless efforts of the curator (and founder Fred O’Brien) by visiting Liverpool War Museum – if nothing else but to get away from the huge crowds lining the docks and gathering around the Pier Head.
Photos: Lee Ruddin
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