On 7 February 1941, Combined Operations moved to Derby House at Exchange Flags because German aircraft and U-boats were attacking ships travelling in from the continent. The department became known as Western Approaches Command as it monitored Western Approaches, the rectangular area of the Atlantic Ocean lying immediately to the west of the British Isles. Liverpool subsequently became an important strategic position in the Second World War.
About Western Approaches
A bunker was built below Derby House, which became known locally as the ‘Citadel’ or ‘Fortress’ due to the extensive reinforced concrete protection given to the basement. It was bomb proof and gas proof, with a 7 foot thick concrete roof and 3 foot deep concrete walls, containing 100 rooms covering 55,000 square feet.
The Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and Royal Marines worked together in the bunker to monitor enemy convoys and ‘wolf packs’ of submarines, which threatened to destroy Britain in the earliest stages of the war.
The strategy employed in the bunker played a huge part in the victory of the Battle of the Atlantic, enabling us to successfully import supplies into wartime Britain from America and Canada.
Victory in the Battle of the Atlantic was essential for Britain to survive; the invasion of Europe in 1944, which instigated the beginning of the end for Germany, could not have occurred if the U-Boats threat had prevailed.
Only after the war did Winston Churchill confess that it was the Battle of the Atlantic that concerned him the most: “The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.”
The greatest challenge, Churchill felt, was to manage strategy around the Atlantic shipping routes which required “statistics, diagrams and curves unknown to the nation, incomprehensible to the public.”
During the war, three different men held the position of Commander-in-Chief for Western Approaches Command HQ. Admiral Sir Martin Dunbar-Smith was Commander-in-Chief in Plymouth, and remained so during the changeover to Liverpool.
Admiral Sir Percy Noble then held the position from 17 February 1941 to 19 November 1942 and Admiral Sir Max Horton, who was given the Freedom of the City of Liverpool after the war, was Commander-in-Chief from 19 November 1942 until Western Approaches Command closed on 15 August 1945. His dynamic leadership played a vital role in the final defeat of the U-Boat menace.
The City of Liverpool
In the Second World War, Liverpool was Britain’s main convoy port and helped to maintain Britain’s relationship with the United States and Canada – a lifeline which was crucial for Britain’s survival and the ultimate Allied victory.
During the course of the war, over 1,000 convoys arrived on the Mersey. Many warships and merchant ships were repaired and built on the Merseyside, and thousands of ordinary Liverpool people were involved in the war effort.
The first German bombs landed in Merseyside on 9 August 1940 at Prenton, Birkenhead. In the following sixteen months, German bombs killed 2,716 people in Liverpool, 442 people in Birkenhead, 409 people in Bootle and 332 people in Wallasey.
The Bunker Today
Today, the wartime bunker has been restored to exactly how it used to be and is open to the public as a memorial to those who died to save Britain and the rest of Europe. Visitors can take a step back into history to the original building where the battle was fought and won.