Liverpool has long been one of Britain’s most important naval centers, but never more so than during the dark days of World War II. Beneath Derby House on Rumford Street, the British constructed a warren of secret underground bunkers for the Royal Navy’s Western Approaches Command. Less well known than the similar Cabinet War Rooms in London, this facility was nearly as critical, assuring the flow of men and matériel into the vulnerable island nation. Today these bunkers are open to the public as the Western Approaches Museum.
The entrance at street level is modest in appearance. Located in the heart of downtown Liverpool near Town Hall, it might be mistaken for a retail establishment. But as you descend the steps into the bunker complex, it quickly becomes evident that you are entering something out of the ordinary. The light is dim and the walls feel close. It smells dank and musty. This place is not for the claustrophobic. You will easily see why those who worked here nicknamed it “the dungeon.”
Britain depended on convoys from the United States, but early in the war, U-boats took a devastating toll on them. Protecting the convoys was a top Allied priority. Since most arrived at Liverpool, the Western Approaches Command moved up from Plymouth in 1941.
Liverpool was hardly a safe location. The Luftwaffe ravaged the city, leaving piles of rubble everywhere. For defense against air raids, the command center had a concrete roof seven feet thick. By war’s end the facility encompassed more than 50,000 square feet. Derby House was an “area combined headquarters,” hosting both navy and air-force commands.
Arrows guide visitors from room to room. In many, voice recordings provide historical context. The heart of the facility was the Operations Room, also called the Map Room. The huge wall map of the Atlantic, and the equally impressive table map in the center of the room, were used to track the progress of convoys and the locations of German warships. The Aircraft State Board noted the position of available air forces. During the war, this room saw a blizzard of activity. Ship movements, weather reports, and other pieces of vital information streamed in 24 hours a day.
Female mannequins highlight the important roles that women played in these operations. The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force did much of the work in the Map Room; usually more than 50 were here at any given time. There was even one fatality: Aircraftwoman First Class Patricia Elizabeth Lane died in an accidental fall in this room. A plaque on the wall memorializes her.
Another focal point is the office of Admiral Sir Max Kennedy Horton, one of the war’s unsung heroes. A submarine officer by trade, Horton was appointed commander of the Western Approaches in November 1942. His aggressive antisubmarine tactics have been credited with turning the tide of the six-year Battle of the Atlantic. The numerous maps affixed to the walls, the pile of papers on his desk, and the picture window overlooking the Map Room all suggest that Horton was a very busy man.
Among the many other interesting items in various rooms are decoding devices, banks of telephones, and teleprinter machines. A phone booth featured a top-secret hotline to the War Cabinet in London. A look at the WRNS sleeping quarters gives visitors a feel for the daily existence of those who lived and worked in this subterranean world. The Canada Room pays tribute to Canadian sacrifices in the Battle of the Atlantic, such as that of Flight Lieutenant David Hornell. Patrolling the skies over the North Atlantic, Hornell engaged a U-boat, sank her, and then brought his damaged and blazing plane down in choppy waters. He saved his crew, but died hours later.
“The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war,” Winston Churchill once claimed, “was the U-boat peril.” Derby House is where the strategy to beat the German submarines was hammered out and executed. At the Western Approaches Museum today, you can walk through the halls and rooms where Britain may well have been saved.