The Role of Western Approaches Command in the Battle of the Atlantic

One of the crucial decisions made during the Battle of the Atlantic, was to relocate the Western Approaches Command on the 7th. of February, 1941, from Plymouth to Liverpool.

Admiral Sir Martin Dunbar-Naismith had previously been in control at Plymouth whilst the main convoy route to and from North America was sent around the south  of Ireland.

He now became C in C at Plymouth, and the convoy route was moved to the north of Ireland, and Liverpool became the logical choice to locate the Western Approaches Command structure.

HQ of Western Approaches

Inside the HQ of Western Approaches, this picture shows the main plotting table, behind it the huge Wall Map, on it were plotted every ship, every U-Boat and every aircraft. It was kept up to date from the code breakers work at Bletchley Park. In this room, C-in C Western Approaches and his staff, made decisions that decided the fate of thousands of Merchant and Royal Navy sailors. It was from this site that at long last the Battle of the Atlantic was finally won in May of 1943.

Admiral Sir Percy Noble was given the onerous task of C in C Western Approaches, his Head Quarters set up beneath Derby House, deep below street level, in a bomb proof area, with a large Operations Room linked to the Admiralty, and duplicating the London Trade Plot.

The huge wall chart  carried the plot showing the position of all Allied Convoys, their Escorts, and the estimated or known position of all German U-Boats currently at sea.   This new HQ gained information from the Operational Intelligence Centre, the Submarine Tracking Room, and the Air Ministry in London.

Control of Number 15 Coastal Command under the leadership of Air Vice Marshal J.M.Robb also moved from Plymouth to Liverpool.

It was essential that co operation between both the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force was of the highest order if maximum toll was to be taken against the U-Boats, towards this objective, the complete operational control of RAF Coastal Command, was passed to the Admiralty on the 11th. of April 1941.

Admiral Sir Percy Noble worked assiduously in his Western Approaches Command to keep open Britain's sea lifeline  from North America, and probably he was not given the kudos that should have accrued to him for the result he attained here.

To win the Battle of the Atlantic was paramount for Britain to survive, it carried far more significance than winning the Battle of Britain in the air.  The invasion of Europe in 1944, spelling out, the beginning of the end for Germany;could not have been mounted if the German U-Boats had been the victors of the Battle of the Atlantic.

Admiral Sir Max Horton, in November 1941 assumed command at Western Approaches H.Q. He remained in this position until the war ended, an ex-submariner, his dynamic leadership played a vital role in the final defeat of the U-Boat menace.

It is May of 1943 that is usually accepted as the month that marked victory for Allied Naval forces over the German U-Boat arm in the Atlantic.

50 years later it was decided to commemorate this famous victory at Liverpool in May of 1993.

Why choose Liverpool as the venue for Battle of the Atlantic 93 (BA 93)?

  • Throughout the years of WW2, Liverpool was Britain's main convoy port, the vital lifeline  was maintained with the United States and Canada, it was crucial both for Britain's survival and the ultimate Allied victory.
  • During WW2, over 1,000 convoys arrived in the Mersey, on average 3 or 4 per week.
  • As already noted, Western Approaches Command was based in Liverpool from 1941 to the end of the war.
  • Warships and Merchant ships were repaired and built on Merseyside, and thousands of Liverpool people were involved here in the war effort.

Liverpool chose its self as the venue for the Battle of the Atlantic 93 celebrations, no other site came close to this famous port.

HMAS Australia

As a Midshipman in HMAS Australia, during 1940/1941, I had been involved on convoy duties working out of Liverpool.

As part of these 50th. anniversary celebrations, Her Majesty the Queen had reopened Western Command Head Quarters after extensive rebuilding that cost about a Million Pounds sterling.

Thus, in May of 1993, I was delighted to return to Liverpool, and be able to visit this site, again set up as it had operated during those dark days, when Britain's survival depended on the skill of the sailors manning the Naval escorts, and the courage of the Merchant crews, as they fought against the unrelenting waters of the North Atlantic, and the dedicated and determined U-Boat crews.

Prior to actually entering the Ops Room, there is a list of all the ships involved that played a part in the Battle of the Atlantic.  I was pleased to note that my first ship, HMAS Australia was acknowledged as one of the participants in this battle against U-Boat supremacy.

I stood and gazed at the huge plotting wall where no doubt the name of HMAS Australia was shown when we were part of a convoy operation some where in the Atlantic ocean operation somewhere in the Atlantic, so long ago.

So much history and drama had been played out right there in this room, two ladies were talking together in a very excited way.  I detected an Australian accent in one of them, I enquired why they were so hyped up.

It turned out both had worked here during the height of the Battle against the U-Boats.  One was and Australian from Tasmania, she had been traveling in Britain when war was suddenly declared and had joined the Women's Air Force.  The second lady was English, and became an member of the women's royal Naval Service.  Both were thrilled to again this Operations Room so perfectly restored.

"Look! There is the phone that Winston Churchill used to phone in on," one remarked.

I was pleased that I had been able to visit this area that had played such and important role in WW2.

Western Approaches Tactical Unit
This unit was housed at Derby House.  A large plotting table could take 24 players, and the Directing staff could simulate a convoy escorted at sea, and its defense when both threatened and then attacked by U-Boats.

The Director, Captain Gilbert Roberts, Royal Navy, and his staff devised tactics code named Raspberry, Pineapple, Beta Search, Step Aside, etc. all designated to combat and outwit specific German submarine tactics and moves.

Roberts would sum up a session saying, "It is the war of the little ships and the lonely aircraft, long patient and unpublicized, our two great enemies -- the U-Boats and the Cruel Sea."

Nicholas Monsarrat as a young Lieutenant did not forget this summing up.  He recalled his tactical course and wrote about it in his now classic book, The Cruel Sea.

Escort Commanders and Coastal Command Staff all came together here for WATU courses

Liverpool Docks

During my wartime spells in Liverpool amidst its miles of docks, it was a vital, vibrant port. By 1993, container ships had taken over, and the Docks of Liverpool were silent, I walked some miles along the Dock Road, empty and  showing signs of a great deal of decay. The overhead railway that I had used and remembered, used to span much of this area, gone, now totally dismantled. Liverpool, 50 or more years on, but a shadow of its former glory.

I preferred to recall the Liverpool I knew so long ago, standing up to the full fury of the German Blitz, its proud people, bloodied, embattled, but never to know the meaning of "giving up, or surrender."

I had been back, and I had remembered.

I salute you Liverpool! Without your victory in the Battle of the Atlantic, total victory would not have been possible. 

Bibliography

Gregory, M.J. Midshipman's Journal, 30 August 1939- 16 February 1941.

Under Water Warfare. The Struggle Against the U-Boat Menace.
The Naval Historical Society of Australia Inc. Sydney, 1997.

Van der Vat, D. The Atlantic Campaign. The Great Struggle at Sea 1939-1945.
Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1988.

Stealth at Sea, The History of the Submarine. Orion Books, London,
1994.

Woodman, R. Arctic Convoys, Robert Murray ( Publishers Ltd. ) London, 1994.

50th Anniversary Battle of the Atlantic. Official Souvenir Brochure and Programme of Events. Brodie Publishing Company, Liverpool, 1993.


   

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