musings while allatsea

Musings of a curious individual

Tag: U-boat

Loving Liverpool (8) Western Approaches Command

As I was saying…

The war at sea was a brutal one, lasting from the first day of the war right through till the last. To make matters worse any person serving on board ship faced an even worse enemy than the Axis forces, and that was the medium which they sailed in. The convoys that plodded along between the United Kingdom and the United States were shepherded by escort vessels of all shapes and sizes, and overseeing the area of ocean between the two continents was Western Approaches Command.

The Western Approaches Command may be found at the Liverpool War Museum at 1-3 Rumford St, Liverpool. Do not expect this to be one of your normal museums geared towards children, it is mostly undergrond in the former bunker that used to serve as the operational nerve centre of the Western Approaches. I knew more or less where it was situated but came from a different direction so ended up making a wrong turning and that proved to be quite beneficial to me as I discovered two more War memorials in the process.

There is an open square behind the City Hall that is bounded by a large building that seems to have been called “Exchange Flags” but is now called Horton House and Walker House; recognise those names? 

The first memorial was dedicated to “the Men of the Liverpool Exchange Newsroom”

While the other is dedicated to “Men from the Liverpool Cotton Association”

There is a third monument in the centre of the square and it is known as the Nelson Monument. 

Nelson Monument

However, I am not going to cover these in this blog but covered them at allatsea. My main interest here is the Western Approaches facility underneath this vast space. 

Walker House (formerly known as Derby House), was adapted during its construction to include a reinforced bunker that housed the Western Approaches Command Headquarters.  Construction of the main building was completed in 1939 but the construction of Walker House was interrupted by the war. The inclusion of the re-enforced bunker to house the command centre for the Battle of the Atlantic meant that Walker House wasn’t finished until 1941. The bunker was closed on 15 August 1945 after the end of WW2 but was re-opened as the Western Approaches Museum. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exchange_Flags) The museum entrance is almost unassuming, but beneath it is another world in another era.

Please show your pass to the guard at the door (he has stepped out for a moment). 

This is not some glitz and glass museum, you really need to remember it in the context of what it was like between 1941 and 1945, it is one of those places that is stuck in time. 

I am following the file numbering of my images so hopefully they will be in some sort of order as I passed through the museum, although I did backtrack on a few occasions. I am not in a position to explain the Battle of the Atlantic as it it really did not consist of a single event but rather a whole sequence of events, milestones, disasters and victories.  The men who bore the brunt of it were the men from the Merchant Navy who manned ships that were often one step away from disaster without the enemy even being close. They faced submarines, aircraft, weather and public and official indifference just to keep the lifelines of commerce open. 

Those who served on the escorts initially faced an uphill battle to keep the convoys safe but slowly a combination of factors turned the tables on the U-boats of the Axis. Even Churchill feared the submarine menace but at the end the battle was won and Western Approaches Command  had a vast role to play in that victory.

Communication in this labyrinth was via wireless, telex, telephone and messenger. 

Radio Room

These were often manned (womaned?) by a staff of naval ratings and WRENS who often had to deal with the emotional trauma of knowing that a convoy was sailing towards a disaster and being unable to do anything about it. They had a job to do and they did it with excellence. 

The operations room was the nerve centre of the command, a large plotting wall was used to keep tabs of the situation at sea and of course track the convoys and known enemy forces. Information coming in through all means of communication available. 

The Plotting Wall

Those involved had to really keep tabs of the big picture as well as a localised view of the situation on the ground. The course of a convoy’s often painfully slow progress was tracked by means of  colour coded elastics that followed its track across the Atlantic. 

The needs of the job sometimes meant that staff slept over at the bunker and limited sleeping accommodation was available. Even back then your bed had to be square.

The reality was that it was a totally enclosed bunker with limited ventilation and considerable stress; smoking was also common back then and the air quality must have been terrible. A four watch system was in place 7 days a week with only two 15 minutes rest periods during a watch. It was a not a very pleasant place to work, but then the men on board ship probably would not have swapped with them if they were given the chance.

The “Hot Line” to the War Office in London was able to connect directly to 10 favoured lines. It was housed in a sound proof booth and it is possible that Winston Churchill was heard in it a few times. It was a standard telephone but was modified especially for this purpose. There are only 2 of these instruments known to survive.   

The man in charge of the Western Approaches Command was Admiral Max Kennedy Horton, GCB, DSO & Two Bars, SGM (29 November 1883 – 30 July 1951). A former decorated submariner,  he was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches Command on 17 November 1942.

As a successful former submariner he was able to understand the limitations of submarine warfare and instituted a number of tactical changes in the way the escort ships were to be used. 

Staff often saw him appear at the window overlooking the operations room clad in his pyjamas. As a keen golfer who may have had golf balls on his desk or clubs nearby. Given how much stress he was under golf this was his favourite way of unwinding.

He died in 1951 and there is a memorial to him in Liverpool Cathedral. 

He was one of the major reasons that the tide was turned in the Battle of the Atlantic, and of course his staff contributed to the success of this little known nerve centre. One of the stranger things to see was a film projector that was used to screen footage of the war. Originally the Gaumont Kalee Dragon projector was up in in London.  It is a fascinating piece of machinery. 

I trained as an apprentice in the telecommunications industry and quite a lot of the equipment on display was telecommunications related so it really interested me. This room housed the switchboard and probably part of the telex equipment.

Have you shown your pass?

 Below it was naval telex station

And switchboard

As well as the cipher station.

And then it was time to head upwards to sunlight.

There was a mockup street on display too, and it was really quite poignant because the reality was that once staff emerged from their bunker they would often end up finding a city that had been bombed. Liverpool was the second most bombed city outside London, the first raid taking place on 28 August 1940. Roughly 80 raids were conducted between August 1940 and January 1942, and over 75000 people were left homeless as a result of the bombing which mostly targeted the docks and warehouses on the Mersey. 

And then it was over. (my visit and the war). 

It was an extremely interesting place and it had an “otherness” about it, definitely a latent aura was present. It is very difficult to comprehend what it was like during the war, and the euphoria when it was all done and almost everybody got to go home. Sadly too many never did see that victory so this is really a part of commemoration. The men and women who worked here have all passed into history, they will however be remembered for the part they played, they were unsung heroes. 

It is a tangible link to World War 2, and one of those rare surviving places that we can see and experience. My only gripe was….  none really. I know that there is so much more that can go in here that is relevant, and I believe they are working towards it. It was well worth the visit and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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I shall leave you with my usual odds and ends pics.

DRW © 2018. Created 09/06/2018

Updated: 19/06/2018 — 13:00

Loving Liverpool (5) Birkenhead

Continuing where we left off… 

It was now day two of my Liverpool trip and outside all was grey and gloomy and I was at a momentary loss as to what to do with myself. While researching my navigation I discovered that Liverpool was also home to “U-534“,  a Type IXC/40 U-boat from World War II. She had been raised on 23 August 1993 by the Dutch salvage company Smit Tak  after being undiscovered for nearly 41 years. She now formed the nucleus of the U-Boat Story museum at the Woodside Ferry Terminal in Birkenhead, which, was a short train journey underneath the Mersey. You can see the dismembered U-Boat in the image below.

Woodside ferry terminal

I actually did not use my brains when I decided to hop the train across the river, for starters I was at least 2 hours too early, and secondly I could visit the museum free if I bought a ticket for the river cruise on the ferry.  With the clouds hanging over my head I picked up the underground at Lime Street and headed to Hamilton Square Station in Birkenhead.

Hamilton Square Station

It was chilly too, and I regretted not bringing my jacket with.  I also regretted missing the lift and hoofing up an infinite number of stairs to get out of the station. 

The promenade, U-Boat Story and Waterside Ferry Terminal were about a block away. A quick walk and I was there, but everything was closed and not a soul was in sight. It was only 8.15, why was everything closed? It was very depressing indeed. The only item that looked reasonably interesting was a replica of the Victorian submarine “Resurgam

The original ill fated vessel met its end in Liverpool Bay off Rhyl on 25 February 1880 while en route for Portsmouth. How successful it may have been as a functioning submarine is not noted. However, the information plaque records that she did sail and submerge successfully. 

At the waters edge I discovered that not only was the tide out, but there was actually a ship alongside at the ferry landing on my side of the river! Huzzah! let’s go have a look!

She was busy loading and there was no way of knowing when she would sail and of course I was on the wrong side of the river to get a proper look at her (for the record she was the Stena Mersey).  And, to my amazement a movement on my right revealed a tanker running light outbound.

I idled along checking my watch. The first ferry to Woodside was destined to arrive at 10H30 and  the museum only opened at 10H30 and it was only 8.20! I had a decision to make because nothing was happening here. Looming next to the terminal were the segments of U-534 and I peered at them through the fence with interest. 

I really wanted to see this exhibition so I either had to hang around till opening time, or head back to the other river bank and come across with the ferry after 10H30. 

There were a few other surprises on this short stretch of river bank. 

The Birkenhead Monument.

The HMS Birkenhead is one of those definitive shipwrecks that litter the pages of history, and especially early South African History, as she foundered after colliding with an uncharted rock near Danger Point (today near Gansbaai, Western Cape) on  26 February 1852. The sinking of the Birkenhead is the earliest maritime disaster evacuation during which the concept of “women and children first” is known to have been applied. There were of the approximately 643 people on board the ill fated vessel of which only 193 were saved. 

The memorial was unveiled on 5 March 2014

The HMS Thetis Memorial.

A bit further along the promenade I found a memorial to the men lost in the sinking of HMS Thetis on 1 June 1939. I recall reading the story of the disaster and unsuccessful attempts to rescue the men trapped inside her, and it was really one of those disasters that could have been prevented.

Ninety-nine lives were lost in the incident: 51 crew members, 26 Cammell Laird employees, 8 other naval officers, 7 Admiralty overseeing officers, 4 Vickers-Armstrong employees, 2 caterers and a Mersey pilot.

Thetis was successfully salvaged and repaired, being commissioned in 1940 as HMS Thunderbolt but was sunk by depth charges by the Italian corvette Cicogna on 14 March 1943 off Sicily.  All hands were lost and Thunderbolt settled to the bottom in 1,350 m of water.

She is listed on the Submarine Memorial at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport.

It was time for me to head back to the other bank of the river. The ferry was currently running 10 minutes trips across the Mersey between the terminal in Liverpool and Seacombe/Wallasy and if I arrived too early I would ride her up and down until I got tired. The round trip on the “River Explorer Cruise” runs from Pier Head Ferry Terminal to Seacombe Ferry Terminal, Wirral and then to Woodside Ferry Terminal, Wirral where the U-boat Story was and then back to the pier head. It was a 50 minute hop off and hop on trip and I intended to climb off at Woodside, check the exhibition and then reboard at 11H30 to return to the starting place.

However, I am going to skip the ferry trip in this post as I really want to do a post about the ferry separately so this one will deal with my visit to U-534. (the ferry is dealt with in Loving Liverpool (6) Having bought a River Explorer ticket I was entitled to free entry to the exhibition and I had allocated enough time to grab the ferry back at 11H30, although I was equally prepared to catch the next one at 12H30 too, although it would be much more crowded on that trip. There were not too many of us at the museum at that awful time, and I headed directly for the vessel instead of pausing at the exhibits in the hall. The submarine had been sawn into 4 parts, with the conning tower balanced between two of them. Each sawn end had been “sealed” with a transparent bulkhead that allowed you to see inside it.

I am however ambivalent about what was done because they really sliced up an intact (albeit rusty) U-Boat, but it did allow for a limited view of the interior of a U-Boat. The limitations of what they did were several: the biggest being that you could only really see a jumble of badly rusted machinery but nothing that lay beyond roughly 2 metres away. The state of the transparent bulkheads did leave much to be desired because they were badly smeared and I would have thought that they would been cleaned every morning before the exhibition opened. In some sections the machinery was also covered in pigeon crap! and if a pigeon can get in then so can the rain.     

But, those slices were fascinating to see, and while there were cross section explanations that marked certain components it was not always easy to understand what you were seeing. The vessel was full of water for over 40 years so the interiors are badly rusted, and the few wooden parts that I saw were rotten and there was a certain eeriness about that interior. I recall reading a book called “The Night Boat” by Robert R McCammon many years ago, and it was about a submarine full of zombies, and what I was seeing looked very much liked what I imagined that literary submarine looked like (although without the zombies and pigeons). I am not going to even try explain the images because it is beyond me.

It was fascinating to say the least. What really amazed me was how they squeezed so much machinery into such a small area and routed pipework and cables through the hull. The vertically orientated image shows the inside of the saddle tanks, with the curvature of the pressure hull on the right hand side. I never thought to check the underside of the saddle tanks because technically they were free flooding.

On 5 May 1945 she was underway heading north towards Norway, when she was attacked by a Liberator aircraft from RAF 547 Squadron which dropped depth charges. the submarine took heavy damage and began to sink by the stern. Forty nine of the fifty two crew members survived, including four who escaped via a torpedo hatch.

Inside the main building is an exhibition of items that were found inside the submarine, and these were very poignant, and obviously from long ago. 

For me it was a rare glimpse at the inside of a ship that could have ended the war if affective countermeasures were not found, and at times it was a close run thing. U-534 never sank a ship but did shoot down two British aircraft. Her end came right at the end of the war, and today we are able to catch a tiny glimpse into a vessel that descended from primitive hand powered machines that were considered an ungentlemanly weapon. We have come a long way since U-534 was built way back in 1942, and today the nuclear powered submarine is a true submarine and even deadlier than before.

It was time to catch the ferry on the next part of my journey, so I headed outwards, slightly miffed because the shop did not have prices on their ferry models.

My next post will deal with the ferry and my 2 trips on board the ferry Snowdrop.

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DRW © 2018. Created 03/05/2018

Updated: 19/06/2018 — 12:54

The only way to fly?

Ships are my first love, and I have always had an affection for aircraft too. But there is one aircraft that transcends both land and sea, and that is the flying boat. I was very amazed to discover one in Southampton at the Solent Sky Museum, and I shifted my priorities slightly to be able to experience this piece of aviation history. 
  
Technically the aircraft is a Short Sunderland, but she was converted into a Sandringham in 1947. She is a chunky aircraft and on land she looks clumsy, and it seems as if she is looking out of the window at the distant water and dreaming of the days gone by.
 
Her passenger accommodation is spacious, and much better than the “knees up your nose” sardine tin accommodation on todays mass market aircraft. But back in those days long distant travel was a much longer affair, and it could take many days to get to your destination. Going by ship was a very viable alternative too. 
 
In 1947 she made the long trip out to New Zealand and remained in service with various operators until withdrawn in 1974. A further career in the Caribbean kept her going until 1978. She was then placed in storage. 
 
She finally arrived in Calshot in 1981, having flown a total of 19500 hours. In 1982 the aircraft was purchased by the Science Museum and was destined to be the centre piece of what is now the Solent Sky Museum in Southampton. 
 
The aircraft is in the Ansett Flying Boat Services “Delta” colours, and is registered as VH-BRC, and carries the name “Beachcomber”. 
  
The aircraft could carry 30 passengers, and it must have been quite a thrill to be on board during take-off and landing.  She is a big aircraft and it is difficult to imagine her taxing across the water. 
 
The aircraft is “open” for viewing and a guide will take you up into the cockpit to see the view outside from “the office”.
.
 
And, you can stick your head out of the hatch for a view of the tail…
 
It must have been quite an experience to sit up there with those  4 engines so close to your head, and just blue sea below, or even just standing on that maintenance platform working on the engines. 
 
solent_sky086
 
Even her wing floats are big, and compare with some of the smaller aircraft in the museum.
 
And being a working aircraft she had lots of hidden areas too, which were the domain of members of her crew.
  
Like many other Sunderlands this particular aircraft saw service during World War 2, and as such would have looked very different inside. They were particularly feared by U-boats and earned the nickname “the Flying Porcupine” by those who ended up on the wrong end of the stick. 
 
Sadly, there are very few of these big flying boats left, they were part of a unique part of world and aviation history and as such have faded into memory. However, I am glad that I got to visit this sleeping beauty in a city that they would have called home. I just wish that I had been able to see her in her natural element.
 
Solent Sky is a wonderful museum and it is worth going there just to see this old lady. I have more pics of the museum  on allatsea
 
© DRW 2013-2018. Images recreated 10/04/2016
 
Updated: 29/12/2017 — 07:47
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