People are now able to stand on top of a U-boat for the first time, nearly 80 years after it sank.
The German U-534 submarine sank towards the end of the Second World War after four years at sea when it was hit by a Royal Air Force Liberator bomber north-east of the Danish island of Anholt. 49 of the 52 onboard survived.
After 48 years under water, it was raised from the seabed in 1993 and between 1996 and 2006 formed part of the Warship Preservation Trust’s collection at Birkenhead Docks. The U-boat was acquired by Merseytravel in 2007.
In 2008, the vessel was cut into five sections, two of which were subsequently re-joined, and transported for display at Woodside Ferry Terminal. The U-boat Story exhibition opened on 10 February 2009.
However, the submarine continued to rust and the U-boat Story later closed. The museum has now been taken over by Big Heritage which runs the Western Approaches museum in Liverpool.
Funded using nearly £3m of a £19.6m levelling up grant for Woodside, Big Heritage is looking to create a “world class visitor destination” with an education centre, three-storey museum, and a memorial site for the Battle of the Atlantic, a military campaign to keep getting goods imported into the UK.
According to a planning application, there are plans for a riverside café, viewing platform, and new public spaces with the museum “designed as an immersive visitor experience, encompassing internal displays and exhibits together with the external enclosure, where the U-534 submarine will be encountered from multiple levels.”
Entering the new museum, people will be taken under the U-boat where they will be able to see the damage left by the explosion that sank it. The U-boat is one of the four German submarines which survived the Second World War but the only one that was sunk to be later recovered.
Big Heritage also hopes to do guided group tours through the engine and control rooms inside the U-boat though it is currently in the process of removing the toxic asbestos inside.
When the U-boat was brought up from the depths, a lot of the top deck washed away. Scaffolding and more decay left it open to the elements but now a weather-resistant cover has gone over the top meaning people can walk on it for the first time since its sinking.
Before any plans are approved, work has been carried out over the last 18 months looking at restoring the U-boat, repainting it, as well as sealing it off from the elements. A website and social media has been set up documenting the journey to fix the U-boat.
Big Heritage has also visited Chicago to study the U-505 submarine stored there. Dean Paton, Big Heritage’s CEO said, “The whole point with How to Fix a U-boat is that nobody knows how to fix a U-boat so it has been left to us to experiment and see how things go.”
He continued, “We have just got to get things right,” adding, “It’s been at the bottom of the sea for nearly 50 years so the damage has already been done. Repairs have been done and at the same time, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. These things take time.”
Big Heritage hopes to have an official opening event by May 2025 which would be the 80th anniversary of the end of WWII and have everything in place by 2026 including a wider gardens and public square as part of the regeneration outside the ferry terminal. These are expected to be delivered by 2026 but most of the money has not been spent.
The new museum would be ten times the size of the current one and Big Heritage hopes to double the numbers of people visiting Woodside. Mr Paton said, “It’s a coup for Wirral to have this. We have Cammell Lairds, you can see them from the top of the U-boat, there’s so much more to it than just the old U-boat is being done up a bit.”
The new Battle of the Atlantic Museum will tie into the Western Approaches museum in Liverpool. This was a secret headquarters during World War II that tracked submarines like the U-534 and people will be able to use one ticket to visit both museums.
Mr Paton said, “Liverpool has got a world-class skyline but Birkenhead is where you can enjoy it. It’s not just the U-boat, it’s the Battle of the Atlantic, it’s both sides.”
Lead image: Dean Paton, CEO of Big Heritage, said there was a lot of work going on behind the scenes repairing the U-boat
All images/video credit: Ed Barnes