Approach with Care

Western Approaches is a World War II museum, located in the basement of Exchange Flags, an office block in Liverpool City Centre.

During World War II, the building’s cellars were converted into a headquarters for the Battle of the Atlantic, the struggle to keep Britain supplied with essential supplies and equipment, as Nazi Germany’s U-Boats stalked vessels making the transatlantic crossing.

After the war, the complex was largely abandoned, and fell into disrepair until opened as a museum in the early 1990s.

The building was top secret at the time, and still seems to be rather well-hidden today, with many visitors to the city seemingly unaware of its existence. This is despite the big signs pointing to “TOP SECRET WARTIME HQ” – definitely one for fans of irony.

Entrance to WWII Museum in Liverpool

I visited a few years ago with my German friend (awkward) but when my boyfriend revealed that not only had he never visited, but had never even heard of the place until I told him about it, we both agreed a return visit was needed. So on Saturday afternoon we braved the rain and headed out to the museum.

I’m extremely glad that I went back again. The museum — now managed by Big Heritage — has been expanded since my last trip there, so there were lots of new things to see.

Admission is £13.50 for an adult, but that gets you a ticket granting access for a whole year – an excellent idea, as this is a museum that demands repeat visits.

One new feature was a recreation of a wartime street, with greengrocers and newsagents windows covered by anti-shatter tape, and most heartbreaking of all, an ice cream shop proclaiming that it was “Closed for the Duration”.

I enjoyed this replica poster, apparently produced by the town of Hove, instructing residents on how to conduct themselves in the time of crisis.

Poster headed "Morale - how to play your part". Text reads:-

"Forget yourself in helping your neighbours. In days of tension this casts out your own fears and worries. Help them to carry out all instructions about air-raids, evacutation, rationing and waste.

"Keep the moral standards of the nation high. Don't weaken the home front by trying to wangle something for yourself on the quiet. Make a break with all the personal indulgence, selfishness and private wars which undermine national morale and unity. Everybody has his part to play in the moral re-armament of the nation.

"Be a rumour-stopper. Those who love their country sacrifice the luxury of being the ones to pass on 'the news'. Any patriot shoots a rumour dead on sight. Face the facts, but don't exaggerate them. Prepare to meet them instead. Faith, confidence and cheerfulness are as contagious as fear, depression and grumbling.

"The secret of steadiness and inner strength is to listen to God and do what He says. God speaks directly to the heart of every man and woman who is prepared to listen and obey. Write down the thoughts He gives you. His voice can be heard wherever you are - in the home, in the factory, in the air-raid shelter, in the first-aid post.

"Forearm yourself by listening to God first thing every morning. This provides a clear plan for each day and the power to work with other people in complete unity. In a time of listening God takes away fear and fortifies against uncertainty, hardship or bereavement; He gives foresight and cool judgment; He offers limitless reserves of energy and initiative.

"A British General who has fought through two wars said this: 'Telephone wires may be cut, wireless stations be destroyed, but no bombardment can stop messages from God coming through if we are willing to receive them. To listen to God and obey Him is the highest form of national service for everybody everywhere.

"The distribution of this message is approved by Councillor A.H. Clarke, JP (Mayor of Hove), Sir Cooper Rawson MP and Lord Erskine, GCSJ, GCIE, MP.

"Pin this up in your home, office or shelter"

Click to enlarge and read the whole thing, but one paragraph in particular leapt out at me:-

Be a rumour-stopper. Those who love their country sacrifice the luxury of being the ones to pass on “the news”. Any patriot shoots a rumour dead on sight. Face the facts, but don’t exaggerate them. Prepare to meet them instead. Faith, confidence and cheerfulness are as contagious as fear, depression and grumbling.

The mayor of Hove there, predicting Twitter eighty years early.

There was a poster for a Liverpool FC match, and we were both amused to see it describing the team as playing in “Red Jerseys and White Knickers”. Sigh, if only that was the kit they played in today…

Liverpool FC Official Football Programme for a match v Manchester United on 23rd November 1940. Liverpool is described as playing in "Red Jerseys and White Knickers"

Where was I? Oh yes…

The tour route takes you round various side rooms. There’s a radio room where you can practice Morse Code; another where you can see the teleprinters that were used to send messages.

One nice feature of the museum is that many of the exhibits are not hidden away behind glass, they can be picked up and touched, played with. It’s good to be able to get hands-on rather than just reading dry descriptions on text labels.

Vintage radio equipment on display in the radio room at Western Approaches

It’s probably worth mentioning that this isn’t 100% original – many of the rooms were stripped out when the site fell into disuse, so the equipment on show is from elsewhere or otherwise a replica. However, care has been taken to provide a reasonable facsimile, and that doesn’t take away from what is a fascinating slice of history.

The highlight of the museum is the Operations Room, where the movements of convoys bringing essential supplies across the Atlantic were tracked, along with the U-Boats that were stalking them. No computers or other hi-tech equipment here, just some magnetic symbols and chalk on a blackboard.

Operations Room with a map of the Atlantic Ocean, with magnetic symbols showing ship movements.

There is a lot of focus on the people who worked in these offices, many of whom didn’t share their stories until decades later, partly because they were constrained by the Official Secrets Act, and later because they were unaware of just how pivotal their efforts were to the war.

Confined underground in this claustrophobic environment for long periods, with bombs raining down all around, doing a very high pressure job. It’s important that they are remembered, and thankfully some of their stories are told here.

Part of the museum is dedicated to the WRNS, the Women’s Royal Naval Service (aka the “Wrens”) which was founded at the outset of the war. Exhibits told the story of those first pioneering women, who needed to prove themselves to men who often were not welcoming and in many cases threatening – one story tells of a Wren who was cornered by a male sailor and fought him off with a powerful slap to his face.

The rather surprising fact (to me, at least) was that it was only 1993 when the WRNS was finally disbanded and women were allowed to serve with men in the Royal Navy on an equal footing.

The museum is rounded off with free tea and coffee, which we sat and enjoyed while watching newsreel footage on a big screen.

And finally, there is a chance to see a bathtub allegedly used by Winston Churchill when he visited the complex.

A bathtub in a corner of a bathroom, with a poster above reading "Rumour has it... Former Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited Western Approaches fairly regularly during the Second World War. He supposedly used this very bath during his visits, as told to us by former Wrens who recalled giggling at the sounds of him splashing about."

The Battle of the Atlantic was pivotal to the war effort, and this museum tells an important story. People who toiled away in secret beneath Liverpool’s streets to safeguard the merchant vessels. Undoubtedly they saved lives and helped the Allies to win the war. It’s good to see them remembered.

Western Approaches is open 10am-6pm daily. Located on Rumford Street, a few minutes walk from James Street or Moorfields Merseyrail stations and the Pier Head ferry terminal. Visit liverpoolwarmuseum.co.uk for more info.

Plaque reading "The Battle of the Atlantic - In memory of all those who gave their lives - Combined Headquarters Liverpool"

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