Honing pin-point tactical precision, with life or death results. Maintaining nerves of steel in the face of explosions overhead. Coding and decoding top security messages, to save your troops from certain disaster. Helping critical fleets navigate dangerous U-boat infested waters and rising admirably to insurmountable challenges, to defeat the enemy and help save your nation from Nazi control.
We’re not talking about the latest hyperbolic blockbuster spy novel or even an incredibly immersive high-stakes panic room adventure. We’re talking about the real-life work of the men and women who served during WWII at Liverpool’s ‘Western Approaches’ – a once secret location that now helps to tell the story of our nation’s greatest generation of heroes. A remarkable place, often cited as ‘the building where the second world war was won’.
Marketing Liverpool were recently lucky enough to receive a guided tour of the vast underground bunker, taking in as much history, both personal and military, as we could to help position this one-of-a-kind experience to our audiences. Read on for a snap-shot of just some of the hidden historical gems buried deep beneath the streets of Liverpool, encased in reinforced steel, but revealed today in startling fashion as Western Approaches or ‘The Liverpool War Museum’.
OUR GUIDE ON THE INSIDE
Lauren will be our guide for the day. Employed by Big Heritage for just over 18 months, Lauren is certainly already a fount of knowledge on Western Approaches but the bunker’s hidden secrets still regularly keep rising to the surface,
“It’s kind of like every day’s a school day. You’re constantly learning new things. Visitors themselves often tell us stories of their parents or grandparents, who used to work here. As a top secret military base people were so used to keeping quiet about the building and their role within in it that’s it’s taken some time for finer details and personal accounts to see the light of day and we’re still discovering new things. Nevertheless, the clandestine nature of Western Approaches adds a certain appeal for many people.”
A 1940s HIGH STREET MOMENTS BEFORE ANNIHILATION
First we enter a typical 1940s high-street, complete with hundreds of seemingly small details that take you right back to the real-life struggles of ordinary people, living in wartime Britain. An immersive experience full of poignant period detail.
“This is defiantly the most theatrical room. We often have actors portraying 1940s characters right here on the street. The greengrocer talks about rationing. The newsagent talks about the role of the media during the war. The barman talks about ‘loose lips sinking ships’ and the tailor talks about ‘making do and mending’. It’s very interactive and the information sticks with you in a ways that it might not if you were simply reading it from a text book.”
Adding a menacing sense of impeding doom to the street is a giant, unexploded 500kg bomb, surrounded by fallen bricks, seemingly suspended in time, moments before it’s about to go off.
“This is a real German World War II bomb, defused of course, but still quite threatening to see up close. It was dropped on a Liverpool warehouse during the blitz, along with several others, but failed to detonate. Bomb disposal units defused it and it was given to Western Approaches by the warehouse owners in the 1990s. Despite its size, this bomb is only considered medium. If a 250kg bomb were to be dropped on this building today, as a direct hit, we’d likely still be safe here as we’re encased by three feet of concrete all around. But this bomb would certainly do some damage, irrespective of cocooned location.”
CODING & DE-CODING – WORKING TOGETHER IN TEAM ISOLATION
The primary function of Western Approaches was to keep Great Britain and its vessels (both military and supplies) free from enemy attack from the West of the country. Communicating in code to keep secrets from becoming unearthed. For this important work mistakes could simply not be made and socialising on the job was severely limited, as a consequence. Lauren led us us to the rooms where messages were received, scrambled, checked and unscrambled by separate teams to keep our nation safe.
“This is the Royal Navy Central Receiving Room. The people that worked here came from The Royal Navy, The WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) and the WRNS (Women’s Royal Navy Service.)
“Eventually all able bodied men, between the ages of 18 and 41 were called upon to fight. Women then rose to the challenge of filling other critically important roles in the armed forces at home, here in Britain. Around 80 per cent of the people that worked here at Western Approaches were women, many working for the first time in their lives.
“It was hard work, with little chit chat. Nothing was permitted to break the team’s concentration. One mistake could result in a misreading and a misreading could be catastrophic for Britain and our troops or even our standing in the war.
“One of the things that really turned the tide for Britain, directly leading to us winning WW2 was the cracking of Nazi Germany’s Enigma Code and we’re lucky to have an Enigma Machine here at Western Approaches. The Enigma Machine was considered to be so secure that it was used to encipher the most top-secret messages. Alan Turing’s cracking of the code saved millions of lives, so there’s an incredible amount of history here, even just in this one object.”
THE MAIN OPERATIONS ROOM – PINPOINTING THE PLAYERS ON A GLOBAL MAP TO MANOEUVRE TO SAFETY AND PLOT HELP PLOT YOUR SIDE’S ATTACK
Perhaps the most impressive and immersive part of Western Approaches is the Main Operations Room. If there was ever one single room that could encapsulate the high-stakes, high octave, high-casualty drama of global military operations, Western Approaches’ Main Operations Room would be it.
To the right, right across the entire wall, land and sea is divided by a two-tone, giant floor-to-ceiling depiction of the globe, with an epic focus on British waters to the rear. Both walls flanked with imposing ladders, where staff regularly report the state of play with pi-point accuracy. Dead ahead is the ‘score board’ – sharing tactical success and failure, along with international aircraft information.
To the left, overseeing it all from a long room situated overhead is the Admiral’s Quarters. The ‘All Seeing Eye’ – keeping watch, often day and night, to make tactical changes from above. A real-life, 3D game of battleship, played out on the biggest possible canvas, with a heavy toll of lives acting as a real-life consequence .
“This room really has the ‘wow factor’. It visually represents the global reach and critical importance of Western Approaches. It’s a real nerve-centre. A war room. The place epicentre where WW2 was won.
ADMIRALS OF A DIFFERENT NATURE
Lauren takes us up the stairs to the Admirals quarters, which offer the best vantage point of Main Operations Room and give a revealing insight into the lives of the men that led the RAF’s Western Approaches mission.
During WW2, two very different Admirals were in charge. One a people person, with a friendly manner. The other an austere and detached gentleman, who never took his mind of the job. Both were brilliant. Both graced the cover of ‘Time Magazine’ and both are celebrated war heroes to this day.
“Admiral Percy Noble was known to be the very friendly and sociable Admiral. He had a lot of money and he liked to show it off. He was often described as being ‘the best dress man in the Navy’. The attitudes to women in the Royal Navy were very different back then but Sir Percy was different. He was interested in people. He would learn everyone’s name and liked to find out more about their lives.
“This sociable leadership style created an open, supportive working atmosphere but some of the ‘higher ups’ in the Navy wanted someone in charge with a more formidable and overt fierceness and drive behind him, so Admiral Noble was re-dispatched to Washington in November 1942, to work with the British Admiralty delegation and Admiral Max Horton took over for him here.
“Admiral Horton was said to be completely obsessed with the operational side of his work and totally oblivious to personnel. In fact, he was known to just fire people on the spot, if he didn’t like the answer to a question that he’d asked. Which, as you can imagine, was quite a culture shock to the staff here.
“However, Admiral Horton was definitely the kind of leader that was needed during war time. Admiral Noble did a fantastic job of setting everything up and getting things going but Admiral Horton provided the drive, determination and focus on the finer details that Western Approaches needed to become the operational success that it was.”
THE WRENS MUSEUM
Admirals aside, the astounding contribution of the Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRNS or ‘Wrens’ as they were more affectionately known) comes vividly to life at Western Approaches, with the attraction’s new ‘Wrens Museum’ which was opened earlier this month by H.R.H Princess Anne, to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic.
Teeming with compelling real-life testimonials, heroic tales and tactical successes, sometimes even surpassing records set by their highest-ranking male superiors, the Wrens Museum is perhaps among the most moving parts of Western Approaches.
“Since opening, we’ve receive amazing feedback about this exhibition. It took many years but the work of the Wrens ultimately led to women being welcomed into The Royal Navy. Here we examine this journey and the challenges these heroic women faced, the lives they led and the vital role they played since WW1, being established back in 1917.
BRITISH WW2 WAR POSTERS AND THEIR PURPOSE
Sacrifice, duty and unimaginable loss are, of course, a big part of any World War story but a visit to Western Approaches leaves you with an astounding sense of pride and a unique understanding of the perils and (dare we say) thrills of war – a war fought on the home front, oftentimes by ordinary people, called upon to do extraordinary work.
Throughout Western Approaches, visitors can see a series of films, artefacts, exhibitions, scaled miniature models and wartime posters, which artfully illustrate the messages British Government wanted to urgently convey to the public. Such imagery still packs quite a punch, even today. Lauren explains the purpose of these powerful propaganda posters.
“In order to help Britain win the war everyone had to do their bit. The British government used posters, leaflets, film and radio broadcasts to get its message over to the public. Posters were put up in local shops, public buildings and village halls.
“These posters were used to give people vital messages around discretion and secrecy, being resourceful and not wasteful, keeping calm in the face of adversity and encouraging people to enlist and to support the war effort in general. They were designed to be impactful and that impact is still felt to this day. This government propaganda helped people to remember what was important and created a greater sense of shared purpose amongst the British people, who were all in it together and that incredible sense of togetherness helps wins wars”.
PARTNERING WITH US
As our tour comes to an end, I ask Lauren about Western Approaches’ status as a Liverpool visitor attraction. What are their future goals? Who are they working with to help bring the attraction to a wider audience?
“We feel that once we get people here, the Western Approaches experience speaks for itself. The challenge is awareness. We’re underground, in a fairly unassuming part of the city centre. This place was supposed to be fairly hidden, for obvious reasons. However, now we want as many people as we can to visit us and talk about us and make us part of their Liverpool experience.
“Partnering with Marketing Liverpool and getting greater exposure on the VisitLiverpool website has been amazing for us. It’s the number one portal for visitors coming to the city and people can easily find us and add us to their itinerary. When we ask people how they heard about it, it’s very often through VisitLiverpool’s publications or digital channels. We’ve also benefitted from partner events and workshops, making us feel better embedded in the fabric of the city’s visitor economy.
“Liverpool is such a great place to visit and the people here are so friendly and supportive of one another. In a funny way, it’s almost like the ‘Blitz Spirit’ is still alive in Liverpool. There’s a very strong community spirit here and that’s an absolutely fantastic fit for a place like Western Approaches – A true monument to the human spirit. A concrete reminder of our need to firmly stand up for what’s right and help our fellow men and women, who believe fairness and share our values. That’s what Western Approaches is all about.”
For more information on The Liverpool War Museum / Western Approaches visit liverpoolwarmuseum.co.uk
For further online information on becoming a Marketing Liverpool partner click HERE
If you are interested in learning more about our ever expanding partnership then please contact our Commercial Manager, Chris Adderley: firstname.lastname@example.org