As a safeguard against sudden and unexpected air attack, the British government decided to establish a central emergency working refuge in London for the War Cabinet and Chiefs of Staff. The result was the Cabinet War Rooms, a secret underground shelter fashioned from the basement storage rooms under the then Office of Works and the Board of Trade (now The Treasury), and just yards away from the Prime Minister’s office at Number 10 Downing Street.
The underground space became operational at the end of August 1939, just a week before the outbreak of Word War II. The rooms really came to fruition, however, after Winston Churchill was appointed Prime Minister in 1940. Upon seeing the Cabinet War Rooms for the first time, Churchill said, “This is the room from which I will lead the war.” From then until March 1945, when Germany’s last V-bomb fell on central London, Churchill and his staff held critical meetings here, particularly during the intense period known as the Blitz, when the German Luftwaffe bombed London for 57 days straight.
The Churchill War Rooms, now one of the Imperial War Museums and open to the public, welcomes visitors to enter this unique site where great figures made crucial and monumental decisions at a pivotal time in history. The rooms have been preserved as they were when Churchill, his Ministers, Chiefs of Staff and civil and military support staff worked long, grueling, pressure-filled hours. The space also contains the Churchill Museum, the only one dedicated to this great man.
Bill, Ann and I took a step back in time at both the Churchill War Rooms and the Churchill Museum, and found their stories fascinating.
The developers chose this site because of the strong structure of the building, and reinforced the Churchill War Rooms with a concrete slab overhead and concrete outside. Even so, because the space was a converted basement and not designed from the get-go as a bunker, a direct hit by a bomb certainly could have collapsed the building. Other concerns included possible flooding, poison gas attack, and infiltration by enemy spies or parachutists.
They planned this subterranean warren to be a temporary short-term measure, and the rooms were outfitted with basic, no-frills furnishings and accommodations – even Churchill’s sleeping room. Services were limited. Perhaps the most problematic feature of the Churchill War Rooms was the lack of proper toilet facilities. They used chemical toilets, which emitted odors. Buckets and bowls were available for washing. Rooms were generally smoke-filled (especially from Churchill’s ever-present cigars), and the noise of the air supply system droned on. Because people worked underground during long periods of daylight, vitamin D deficiencies were an issue, so they received sunlamp treatments.
Secrecy was, of course, vital as the best defense. People kept to their own routines and areas, and were keenly aware of the importance of their work. If someone asked too many or the wrong kinds of questions, they were posted elsewhere.
Conversations between Churchill and his ally President Franklin D. Roosevelt were via a radio- telephone link, with access to the communications room strictly controlled and monitored. They disguised the top-secret function of the room by installing a toilet lock on the door. Those not in the know assumed it was for Churchill, as who else but the Prime Minister would have a proper toilet?
The Map Room, high-tech for its day, was the around-the-clock central point for information. Here they planned and charted the course of various military campaigns. The original wartime maps still cover the walls and are punctured with tiny holes where colored map pins were inserted to track the voyages of naval ships and the movements of troops and weaponry along the front lines.
The displays in the adjoining Churchill Museum help tell his remarkable life story in interesting and intimate detail. Churchill realized that his early life, both victories and defeats, led him to this page in history: “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,” he said.
From the perspective of today’s instant global communications and general loss of privacy, it was hard for us to fathom how the Churchill War Rooms remained one of the best-kept secrets of the war. Further, we marveled at how people accomplished so much and so effectively within such restricted confines.
Together, the Churchill War Rooms and the Churchill Museum form an intriguing and inspiring time capsule that further enhanced our appreciation of this great city.