The 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic, which was pivotal to the victory of the Allies in the Second World War, takes place next month. “Never for one moment could we forget,” said Churchill, “that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea, or in the air, depended ultimately on its outcome.”
This was because after the fall of Europe the only supply route to the UK was from America, via the North Atlantic. If that had been blocked, there would have been no way to import food, supplies or munitions; the country would have been completely cut off.
And this battle, the longest continuous campaign of the war, was masterminded from 1941 in Derby House in Liverpool - an underground complex of 100 rooms, designed to be bomb and gas proof, and known locally as the Citadel. It is now open to the public as the Liverpool War Museum. But you’d hardly know from the state of it what a vital part it played in winning the battle.
When I visited last month with friends, I was confronted by a scrawled message taped to the door: “Back in ten minutes.” This was after the advertised opening time. And even when someone did eventually peer through a smeared glass window, she explained that she wasn’t quite ready to let us in, so left us standing outside in the freezing cold.
When we finally got inside, we descended into the burrow of chilly rooms, past fading newspaper extracts and makeshift offices of dusty typewriters and ancient telephones, to the central Operations Room. Dwarfed by a huge map, large tables were laid out with fleets of miniature boats that were supposed to be moved around by uniformed manikins with sweepers on poles. Although nothing actually moved. And the accompanying text describing the activities was a little sparse. Even the account of the sinking of the Bismarck, an absolutely decisive moment in the campaign, was so cursory as to be incomprehensible.
And this, it turns out, was where information was transmitted straight from Bletchley Park where the German Enigma code was being cracked: information that was used to guide the naval strategy. The Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and Royal Marines worked jointly there to monitor enemy convoys and “wolf packs” of German U-boats that threatened to bring Britain to her knees in the early part of the war. During the Battle of the Atlantic, between 30,000 and 40,000 Merchant Navy sailors died, and more than 5,000 Allied ships and cargoes were sunk.
It is a world away from the Liverpool War Museum, where the only interactive offering was the chance to try on a few battered sailor hats and gas masks
Given its vital role, the museum seemed dispiritingly neglected. Some of the exhibits were curling at the edges, in one area the lighting had gone. There was no shop, not even a chance to buy postcards of any of the evocative photographs and wartime posters on display. We dutifully thanked the person on duty - I won’t call her a ticket collector as there were no tickets, so unlikely did it seem that anyone would actually visit. We said we’d enjoyed it and she told us that everyone did. But we wondered who everyone was, as we appeared to be the only visitors that day.
All the tourists were probably at the other end of the Queensway Tunnel (one of the Mersey tunnels) in Woodside, home of the lavishly appointed U- Boat Story museum, whose centrepiece is one of the last remaining German submarines, U-534. Sunk by an RAF Squadron at the end of the war off the coast of Norway, the boat remained forgotten on the seabed for nearly 50 years, until it was raised in 1993.
For a while it was housed at Birkenhead’s Historic Warships Museum, but when that went into liquidation it was offered a new home by an enterprising chief of Merseytravel as part of an effort to revive the Mersey ferries. The boat - one of only four in the world - has been elaborately restored, with glass-fronted sections that allow visitors to peer into its workings and to marvel, or perhaps shudder, at the cramped, stinking, airless conditions where 50 submariners would share one toilet and where the only member of the crew allowed to wash regularly was the chef. You can see how the men had to dive at speed through a narrow opening in order to manoeuvre the boat to slide under water.
Accompanying the boat is a smart visitor attraction, complete with interactive exhibits: you can look through a periscope, have a go at cracking the Enigma code and view a film of the raising of the vessel watched by the 14 remaining survivors.
It is a world away from the Liverpool War Museum, where the only interactive offering was the chance to try on a few battered sailor hats and gas masks. The U-Boat Story has a shop packed with memorabilia, toys, postcards and merchandise, whereas the War Museum had nothing at all. And I couldn’t help wondering why there was no link between the two attractions. Surely they could have shared the provision of souvenirs, or offered some cross-trailing so that visitors could experience both and understand the connections.
And in a city with such a vibrant higher education culture, why has no one in academia thought to fill the gap? Liverpool John Moores University, for example, with thriving courses in tourism and marketing, is practically next door to the War Museum. And if it isn’t interested, what about the four others in the city? What a brilliant project it would be to involve students and staff in the regeneration of a massively important cultural landmark. History, marketing, business, tourism, military studies, marine studies - all could combine in a truly collaborative, business-facing, impact-rich enterprise.
So here’s a challenge. Make the bid. Get the commission. Recreate the city’s cultural map. And I’ll expect in return at least a U-boat tea towel. And some toffees.