Go Inside the Bunker Where the Allies Defended the Atlantic
The Western Approaches Command helped to turn the tide of World War II
by MATTHEW MOSS
The Western Approaches is a stretch of the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of the British Isles. During World War II, the movement of supplies into Britain was of extreme importance. Without continuing supply from Canada, the United States and other parts of the world, Britain would have starved in months.
The Royal Navy established the Western Approaches Command in Plymouth in southern England in 1939. But the Admiralty realized it needed a separate headquarters on the British west coast.
In late 1940, the Admiralty selected the port city of Liverpool in northwest England — and, in February 1941, established the Western Approaches Combined Headquarters under Derby House in the city center.
The headquarters brought together the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force’s №15 Group, Coastal Command.
From the bunker below Derby House, the combined headquarters directed the Battle of the Atlantic, arguably the most important naval campaign of the war. The bunker, colloquially known to those who worked there as the “citadel” or “fortress,” included nearly 100 rooms totaling 50,000 square feet.
The concrete roof over the central hub of the complex was two meters thick. This offered some protection, but a direct hit from a bomb larger than 500 pounds would have penetrated the bunker and caused heavy damage.
Western Approaches Command’s primary task was to protect the hundreds of convoys that fed the British people and supplied the Allied war effort — but which had to run a gauntlet of German U-boats.
The Command oversaw the escort groups that protected the convoys and the support groups that independently hunted enemy submarines and surface raiders. The job required a substantial amount of infrastructure … and a huge staff.
Dozens of naval and RAF staffers worked in the bunker — along with up to 50 WRENs from the Women’s Royal Naval Service, who manned telephones, updates maps and collated information on convoy and possible enemy unit locations.
The bunker contained a maze of sleeping quarters, storage rooms, power generators, telephone exchanges and officers centered around the operations room, also known as the map room. The Western Approaches Commander-in-Chief’s office, which overlooked the operations room, connected via speaking tube to a typing office below.
There was also a codes and ciphers room housing a captured German Enigma code machine. The command center had a secure direct line to the Cabinet War Rooms in London. An armed sentry stood outside this soundproof booth.
Western Approaches Command was instrumental in the Allies’ victory in the Battle of the Atlantic, ensuring Britain stayed in the war. The Germans bombed Liverpool during the Blitz, but none of the bunker’s staff were killed or wounded — although a WREN reportedly died from a fall from one of the operations room’s tall ladders.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited Western Approaches Command on several occasions.
Operations at Western Approaches Command officially ceased on Aug. 15, 1945. Today the rest of Derby House is commercial offices, but the central hub of the bunker below it remains open as a museum.
Originally published at www.historicalfirearms.info.