Google+ A Bit About Britain: Churchill's War Rooms Google+

Introduction

Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Churchill's War Rooms

Cabinet War Rooms, Churchill, underground, London, museums
They say there are many secrets buried under London.  One that is no longer classified is the underground complex beneath the Government Offices Great George Street (GOGGS) in Westminster, known as the Cabinet War Rooms.  They will forever be associated with Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (1874-1965); thus, now including a remarkable Churchill Museum, the complex is known as Churchill’s War Rooms.  Here, during the dark days of World War Two, while the Blitz raged overhead, Britain’s war effort could be planned and coordinated.  Never one to avoid a cliché, you can almost smell the cigar smoke.

Received wisdom in the 1930s was that a future war would unleash devastating aerial bombardment on civilian targets, resulting in hideous casualties and, potentially, the dislocation of governance.  So it may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that the decision to establish a safe emergency refuge in London for the leaders of Britain’s government and armed forces was only made in 1938.  Perhaps this is indicative of the British Government’s faith in the efficacy of appeasement, or their sincere desire to avoid war at any cost.  Meanwhile, the storm clouds of war gathered across the English Channel.  In any event, the secret underground shelter was created on a strictly need-to-know basis and became fully operational just a week before war was declared on 3rd September 1939.  It was not a specially constructed shelter; unlike Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, the Cabinet War Rooms were cobbled together from existing basement storage rooms, chosen for the strength of the building above and the central location at the heart of Whitehall, close to the Prime Minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street and the House of Commons.  I heard a rumour that furnishings were stealthily diverted from other places to avoid suspicion that anything was going on.  It’s a good story, though it smacks a little of ‘make do and mend’, doesn’t it?

Cabinet War Room, World War Two, underground shelter, government

Later, a slab of concrete, between 1 and 3 metres thick, was ingeniously inserted, using American-supplied pumps, between the ceiling and ground floor above.  This was extended, allowing the complex to occupy a larger area.  Despite the concrete, though, the Cabinet War Rooms were far from bomb-proof and were by no means immune from other risks like poison gas, flooding or, of course, penetration by the enemy.  However, they remained safe and sound; and it seems that the Nazis never cottoned onto this particular British secret.

Churchill War Rooms, Map Room, museums, London

Entering the Cabinet War Rooms is to step back in time to the period of Churchill’s leadership.  He became Prime Minister, not by popular vote but by a process of political manoeuvring, on 10th May 1940.  It was the same day that Germany invaded France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland; and Britain invaded Iceland.  After the fall of France, one of Churchill’s greatest achievements was to continue the war – there were many who would not have – and to inspire others to do so.  He later said, “I felt as if I were walking with destiny and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.”  As JFK later said, Churchill “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.”

Churchill's bedroom, study, war rooms, Westminster, museum, Second World War

Churchill recognised that Britain and the Commonwealth was unlikely to be able to win without help, but could do enough not to be beaten.  He knew that, in time, the USA would recognise that Hitler was evil and had to be removed.  He also knew that, eventually, mainland Europe would need to be invaded.  And, somehow, this spirit of resistance, of planning some great crusade against evil with inadequate resources, seeps from the drab painted concrete walls of the Cabinet War Rooms.  Churchill’s Assistant Private Secretary, John Colville, said: “Immediately Churchill became Prime Minister the pace in Whitehall changed: people started to think faster and to act fast.  Distinguished civil servants could be seen running down the passages…”  The man’s pace of work was legendary; he is reputed to have regularly worked 19-hour days; and he expected others to do the same.

War Rooms, Dining Room, Churchill, Second World War, bit about Britain

Churchill actually disliked his underground lair and only used it when he had to.  Nevertheless, this place bore witness to discussions and decisions about great events, through the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, triumph at El Alamein and, gradually but inexorably, to final victory.

Roosevelt, Churchill, transatlantic, telephone

The Cabinet War Rooms remained functioning for six years.  During that time, the War Cabinet met there on 115 occasions, the final time being on 28th March 1945 when the last V1 and V2 weapons had fallen on Britain.  Churchill himself left office in July 1945, defeated in the General Election.  It is said that at its peak around 300 people (one account said more than 500) - clerks, typists, serving officers, politicians - worked down ‘the Hole’.  Never before have so many worked in a space designed for so few.  It is astonishing that security was maintained – but these were different days, when people not only knew their place but also that careless talk really did cost lives.  The Map Room was staffed, 24/7 as we would say today, with officers from the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.  Each day, at 0800 hours, they would produce a situation report on the war for the King, George VI, Prime Minister, Churchill, and the Chiefs of Staff.  In 1943, a transatlantic telephone room was installed, so that Churchill and US President Roosevelt could speak directly.  The charming method hit upon to disguise the real purpose of the room was to install a toilet lock on the door; so everyone thought this was the PM’s private lavatory.  There were sleeping quarters – Churchill, other key officials and Churchill’s wife, Clemmie, had their own rooms; others slept in dormitories.  To say that accommodation was ‘basic and without frills’ is a classic piece of British understatement.  There was no proper drainage.  Washing and sanitary arrangements were primitive: buckets, bowls and chemical toilets mixed with tobacco smoke must have helped create an arresting aroma.  Many lived a troglodyte-like existence, with no exposure to sunlight for long periods, and were given access to sunlamps to reduce the risk of vitamin D deficiency.

Transatlantic telephone room, Churchill War Rooms

In August 1945, the Cabinet War Rooms became redundant.  People went home, or onto other work.  Some rooms were locked up; others were used for storage.  Aside from informal guided tours, the complex was largely abandoned and forgotten until, in the 1970s, it was decided to restore and preserve it.  In 1984, it opened to the public.  Many of the objects and furnishings on display are original.  In 1980, an envelope with an officer’s name on it was found in one of the desk drawers in the Map Room.  The envelope contained rationed sugar cubes and had been there since the 1940s; it is now back on the officer’s desk.

War Rooms, working in, switchboard, doll's eye, gas mask

The complex also contains the unique Churchill Museum, which opened in 2005. 

Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born into an aristocratic family in 1874, the son of Conservative politician Lord Randolph Churchill and the beautiful American heiress Jennie Jerome.  He was a complex man – an imperialist and adventurer, yet also a man of the people who helped introduce social reforms that paved the way for the Welfare State.  He is worshipped by many as Britain’s greatest war leader, but reviled by others who see him as an unreliable maverick, an enemy of the working-class and a shameless self-publicist.  Maybe he was all of those things; but even most of his critics recognise that he was a Great Man to whom we owe an enormous debt. 

Churchill, poster, WW2, go forward together

Churchill died at just after 8am on 24th January 1965 following a massive stroke.  He was given the honour of a State Funeral, which took place on Saturday 30th January.  At his request, he was buried in the churchyard at Bladon, near to his parents and just a few miles from where he was born at Blenheim Palace.  You can visit Churchill’s grave.

The Churchill Museum at the Churchill War Rooms attempts to capture the life of Churchill in the times and events he lived through.  Of course, it also helps that he lived through such fascinating times, as the Victorian age died away and the white heat of technology began to burn.  And I think the museum does a pretty good job.  There is an astonishing interactive ‘table’, called the Lifeline, from which you can access all manner of documents, including official and personal correspondence.  The collection is a treasure-trove of items, ranging from a German enigma machine to one of Winston’s famous siren suits and the old door to No 10 Downing Street.  My only criticism is that the museum is, mysteriously, somewhat dark.  Perhaps it is considered atmospheric, rather like some modern dramas; perhaps they are trying to save money.  But I like to imagine the Old Boy growling something like, “Ah – be good enough to turn the lights on.”  Pause.  “What do you think I am - a bloody bat!?”


10 Downing Street, door, Churchill Museum, London

Visit the Imperial War Museum website for more information about Churchill’s War Rooms.  Action this day. 

Boris Johnson has written a new biography of Churchill - no idea what it's like; I did enjoy the TV documentary narrated by Sir Ian McKellen.


36 comments:

  1. A fabulous read. Very informative. Reminds me of the bunker we have in the USA at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia.

    Janis

    ReplyDelete
  2. Your side remark about appeasement struck me hard. The world is appeasing another evil today, and I sit abashed that educated men and women can't learn from history. Sigh. Two more years under this incompetent president, we have. The next president will have to deal with a nuclear Middle East.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. ..we have a nuclear Middle East already. Hitler actually set out what he wanted to do - his threats were quite specific. I think that's a lesson to take on board today.

      Delete
    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
    3. @Arthur R. Mac Wheeler ~ I completely agree! I hope our country can survive two more years of Bloody Barry. I pity the next prez.

      Delete
  3. And of course...thoroughly enjoyed your essay. :)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Churchill's War Rooms was probably the most interesting place we visited in London, with a close second being Parliament in session. The War Rooms were simply fascinating!

    ReplyDelete
  5. it would be nice to think these types of bunkers would never be needed for our world's leaders. sadly, not the case.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Another place high on my list to visit along with Bladon even though I have visited his grave a few times. I'm proud to say I watched Churchills train go by on his way to be buried along with many other people from our village. Dad even tood a phoo blurred as it was. Great essay

    ReplyDelete
  7. This was so very interesting. I have heard of the War Rooms. My father collected all of Churchill's books which my sister now has. All but one...."Their Finest Hour"....which I found in the attic recently. My father fought in WW1 and served in WW2 , the latter in a mysterious secret position which we know nothing about. Churchill was a great man indeed. I would love to tour these rooms. Fascinating!

    ReplyDelete
  8. I wouldn't mind paying this place a visit.

    There was something similar built here west of the city during the Cold War out of concerns of a nuclear attack. Today the bunker is open as a Cold War museum.

    ReplyDelete
  9. When we meet people going to visit London we ALWAYS tell them this is the first place they should visit -forget the Tower, Parliament, St. Paul's - do them later, it's that fabulous, especially for the history buffs.

    Great story here as always Mike - you really do keep us informed, both on historic facts and modern updates. I knew about the Brits working in underground locations during WW2 being given sunlamp treatments! My mother, in the WAAF, was a 'plotter', locating and moving models of German planes crossing the Channel on those huge wall mounted boards, and worked underground on the southeast coast. She told me that on Fridays they would have to strip to the waist for the sunlamp treatments - so unhealthy and dangerous as we now know!

    Wow - since you got me started here, I've just spent 2 hours reading WW2 stories of bombing raids on Torquay - I knew some of it but learned a heck of a lot more!
    You certainly know how to get us involved through your wonderful posts Mike.
    Happy day - Mary

    ReplyDelete
  10. At the risk of sounding like Uncle Albert from Only Fools and Horses, my Grandad used to tell me about this place as he did have to source things for it as one of his 'many fingers in many pies'. Once again you have bought a place to life with such rich history and information. Take care. Chel

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thank you for taking us underground to see this historic site. I feel like I've been given a marvelous tour of the place. Churchill may have been many things, but he certainly was what Britain needed at the time.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Did I ever mention how I adore secrets? I know most folks do. But while speaking of secrets buried under London, it reminds me of a unique experience we had while visiting Dover Castle, in Dover, England. We had the great opportunity of seeing their "Secret wartime tunnels" recently opened at the time. Perhaps you've been there? If not here is a clip!
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0It5GhlUD8

    ReplyDelete
  13. Thank you for the very thorough and interesting review of the War Room. Great photos too! Funny thing, I just watched a show on PBS (Public Broadcasting System) titled "Underground London". They spoke briefly about the War Room. Churchill was a forward thinking leader and predicted the evil that was to come. It must have been frightening and frustrating to feel so helpless. Kinda like what America is feeling now. We're facing a real crisis from within. I agree it's sad how much our world country has changed as far as morals and character. I partially blame modern technology. It's been proven that using these portable iphones are actually just like being on mind bending drugs. When the technology is removed, people go through withdrawals! We're all leaving ourselves very vulnerable. I'll bet our ancestors are spinning in their graves.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Marvelous article Mike, and very interesting. I am sending this link to all my friends. Next time I am in London this will be on my list.

    ReplyDelete
  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I would very much like to visit Churchill's War Rooms. I have a long list of things to see when I am next in London! I also admire Churchill very much. Besides being a great leader, I loved his command of the English language. (JFK was no slouch in that department either.)

    ReplyDelete
  17. An interesting read for me and I do like your photos. Yet another place I would like to see in person. Do you work for British tourism? :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No - British Tourism doesn't give it to you 'warts and all'! I can be bought, of course.

      Delete
  18. Very interesting. I think Churchill is the only British Prime Minister widely known and widely respected by people from other countries like myself, people who generally don't know many details about UK politics. There's just something about him that has grown into mythic proportions. Thanks for this.

    ReplyDelete
  19. A fascinating story and great photos as always. I haven't been but it is one of the places on my list to visit. There is an underground bunker under County Hall here in Taunton. Not built during the war but in the 70's in case of a nuclear attack. My first job when I left school was here and we were given a tour. In the early 80's nuclear war was still considered very much a threat.

    ReplyDelete
  20. This is a wonderful museum. We were there exactly six years ago this month, and were absolutely fascinated by it all. It is intriguing that its existence was apparently concealed for many years, and has only become open to the public fairly recently. Such a contrast to the world of warfare in the 21st century. Thank you for the reminders!

    ReplyDelete
  21. Maybe it was dim during war times? Perhaps they want the same "feel"... who knows though, I can barely see as it is, so I like lights!! :) The envelope with the sugar cubes is a reality check, we have sugar in everything we eat now and there is so much food in England and the United States that it's shameful at times, yet even his sugar was rationed. I have read a few books that take place during WW2... One is the Shell Seekers, and I love the talk and the history, there is so much talk of food rationing, which is so foreign to me. To most reading this I would think.
    Have a great weekend Mike!
    Tammy

    ReplyDelete
  22. I happened to catch an interesting film on TV today - Brian Walden talking about Churchill. Your words about contrasting views of Churchill, the heroic leader and the arrogant politician, reminded me of Walden's "warts and all" picture of the man. Everyone seems to agree that we needed his charismatic leadership to win the almost impossible fight against Hitler, no matter what we think of his faults.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I enjoyed reading your account and photos of the Cabinet War Rooms. I visited there two years ago and it is one of my favorite museums in London.

    ReplyDelete
  24. A wonderfully fascinating post Mike. Thank you! A great tribute to Churchill too. Another place that I really must go to someday - although all this virtual blog travelling is pretty darn good too!

    ReplyDelete
  25. Amy, (above in the comments) led me to your blog. Looks like we have both been visiting the same places. I have blogged about the Churchill War Rooms to. Great to find your blog & I'm adding you to my reading list. I'll be back for more, especially museums.

    ReplyDelete
  26. I have been to London several times Mike, but have missed the war rooms. Next time they will be on my list! I enjoyed the documentaries about Churchill on the BBC this week. What an special, a multi talented man he was.

    Have a good weekend!

    ReplyDelete
  27. Your post reminded me of the day I visited the Cabinet War rooms. It was so intereting I was actually able to stay though I'm claustrophobic and did panic a little at some point. But visiting the HMS Belfast later was even more difficult for me, though, again, very interesting.

    ReplyDelete
  28. you always share places i really want to see in person one day. hope you are well. i need to get to finding more churches, I have only one post left. enjoy your weekend. ( :

    ReplyDelete
  29. Thank you for this amazing tour!! I'm such a history buff-- so drawn to this era-- I would love this tour!! I love reading about Churchill-- is so love to walk this place and feel the spirit of all that was there. On our last trip to Great Britain we toured the underground war rooms at Dover Castle-- we found that so interesting also.

    You are so blessed to have all of these historical places in your country-- never any shortage of places to visit.

    Thanks so much for all the time you put into your amazing blog so that you can bring your world to all of us--
    Vicki

    ReplyDelete
  30. I love you commentary on the museum. It is a few years since my visit there and it is on my list of places to revisit when I am in London.

    ReplyDelete
  31. There you go. I live just a few miles away from Blenheim, where I have a membership. Love seeing his childhood home and some of his letter, paintings, personal rooms. Magical place. X

    ReplyDelete
  32. Great post, with a couple of photos reminding me of my visit there probably about 1999 / 2000 (pre churchill exhibition anyway).

    ReplyDelete

Hi - thanks for dropping into A Bit About Britain. New material is now being posted to www.bitaboutbritain.com and most of the material here will gradually be updated and moved over to that new site. Please drop in there, click on the blog page, and take a look round. TTFN - Mike.