Churchill War Rooms

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Winston Churchill making a radio address from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. © IWM (H 20446)

Everyone has heard stories about the Second World War, Britain’s involvement and the famous speeches of wartime-Prime Minister Winston Churchill. With the conflict still fresh in the older generation’s minds, the media is forever portraying the battles, the bombed-out cities and living conditions of the public on our wide-screened TVs. It is a topic that is unlikely to ever be left alone.

Although documentaries and films tend to focus on the violence and dangers of war, a lot of it was fought in secret, unbeknownst to the general British public. In more recent years, these classified undertakings have gradually been revealed, bringing to light many unsung heroes.

Winston Churchill (1874-1965), the prime minister during the war, is obviously not overlooked in British history, however, at the time, it was not clear exactly what he was doing. Nevertheless, the hidden location beneath the streets of London, where Britain’s leaders made decisions to lead the country to victory, has been revealed to the public in London’s Westminster. The Cabinet War Rooms were situated underground in the basements of the New Public Offices and since 1984 have been widely available to tourists. The Imperial War Museum has restored many of the rooms to their original appearances to give an authentic insight into the daily life of the War Cabinet. Adding a Churchill Museum in 2005, the site was renamed Churchill War Rooms and celebrates the life of one of Britain’s greatest heroes.

“This is the room from which I will direct the war.” – Winston Churchill, May 1940

After descending the stairs underground, paying a fee of £19, and receiving an audioguide, visitors find themselves in the masses of corridors hidden beneath the Treasury Building (the former New Public Offices) opposite St James’s Park. At some times narrow and claustrophobia-inducing, these corridors connect a series of rooms where vital meetings and work took place during the Second World War. Even the main corridor, now mostly empty, would have been full of typists crammed together at small desks, toiling away at the never-ending piles of written correspondence.

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Cabinet Room at Churchill War Rooms. Source: Imperial War Museum

The audio tour begins with a glance into the Cabinet Room where the Prime Minister would chair meetings with his advisers and Chief of Staff (heads of the army, navy and airforce). The room is displayed exactly as it would have looked like before a meeting commenced, with paper and pencil in front of every seat, and ashtrays ready to receive the ashes from Churchill’s legendary cigar.

Churchill’s position at the table is clearly marked by a posher, more comfortable chair, whereas everyone else had to make do with the uniform basic versions. For the interest of visitors, a diagram is provided detailing the seating plan, explaining the importance of each meeting attendee.

The audioguide directs each visitor around the war rooms, explaining the uses of rooms and adding in interesting bits of information. Although some information boards are positioned around the corridors and rooms, the audioguide is much more beneficial, providing details about and describing the atmosphere during the war years.

There are still secrets to be revealed about the war rooms, mostly because a lot of the rooms were stripped bare at the end of the war with many items being thrown away. Fortunately, the most important rooms were left as they were, and in some cases, photographs have assisted museum workers to reconstruct the various chambers.

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Transatlantic Telephone Room

Some of the secrets the Imperial War Museum has unearthed were not even known to the majority of people who worked there. One of these was the Transatlantic Telephone located off the centre of the main corridor. Originally a storeroom, a lavatory-style lock was added to a door in 1943, giving rise to the rumour that Churchill had been given his own private toilet (there were no flushing toilets available to anyone underground). However, this cupboard-sized room had actually been adapted to accommodate a secure radio-telephone link between the Prime Minister of Britain and the President of the United States of America.

Although not allowed to enter these small rooms, doors are left open so that visitors can peer in at the 1940s decor and furnishings (although rather sparse) and imagine what working underground must have felt like. Also on show are the private rooms such as bedrooms, kitchen and dining areas, built with the intention of being used during bombing raids.

Included in the tour is Churchill’s bedroom, although it is reported he only stayed the night there three times. However, he did make good use of the room, retiring there for a nap during the afternoon. Often, Churchill would dictate his speeches to his Private Secretary whilst lying on his bed, which would then be given to a typist to type out ready for use later in the day. In fact, Churchill made four radio speeches directly from his bedroom using microphones installed for this very purpose. The wall behind the bed is covered with a large map of Europe, implying that the Prime Minister would plot out potential landing sites for invasion.

The most important room of the entire Cabinet War Rooms was the Map Room. Here, officers from the army, navy, airforce and Ministry of Home Security would sit awaiting phonecalls to tell them of the latest news in Europe. This information would then be passed on to “plotters” who would attach pins, ribbons and so forth to wall-sized maps, displaying the latest situation and location of enemies and allies. From these maps, potential courses of military action could be assessed and planned –  a vital contribution to the eventual victory.

To try to prevent confusion, the Map Room contained phones of varying colours, each connecting to different correspondents. White phones were connected to the armed services, black to the outside world, and green to intelligence services. Rather than ringing, which would have caused an incessant racket, the phones would light up to indicate an incoming call.

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The private rooms contain items that had to be sourced elsewhere by researchers because nothing remained of the original furniture and so forth. The Map Rooms, however, were left exactly as they were when the lights were turned off after six years of war. Other items have been fortunate to survive and are also on display around the corridors and rooms to create an authentic appearance. This includes a door complete with key rack where many of the original keys to the rooms still hang, as well as a gun rack mounted on the wall of the corridor (thankfully, the guns are nailed down).

“The greatest Englishman of our time – I think the greatest citizen of the world of our time.” – Clement Attlee, Churchill’s wartime deputy, speaking in the House of Lords the day after Sir Winston’s death

The Cabinet War Rooms were already in use during the year before Churchill became Prime Minister. Neville Chamberlain held the first war cabinet meeting on 21st October 1939, however, it is Churchill who the war rooms have now been named after. In some ways, it is thanks to Churchill that the war rooms were built. In a meeting in July 1936, Churchill asked the present Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, “Has anything been done to provide one or two alternative centre of command, with adequate deep-laid telephone connections and wireless, from which the necessary orders can be given by some coherent thinking mechanism?”

Despite so many people being involved, Churchill was certainly the leading man in the underground rooms and deserves the recognition he has received. In celebration of his life, a third of the tour of the Cabinet War Rooms takes place in a museum dedicated to the Prime Minister. The Churchill Museum tells the story of Winston Churchill’s extraordinary life from birth until his death at the age of 90.

The museum is split into five sections that can be viewed in any order, although the audioguide suggests sticking to a clockwise path around the exhibits. The most pertinent of the five sections is set between 1940-45, which outlines Churchill’s time as War Leader. The other sections cover his childhood (1874-1900), his entry into politics (1900-29), his political exile (1929-39), and his life after the war (1945-65).

Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born on 30th November 1874 in Blenheim Palace. His aristocratic parents, Randolph Churchill and Jennie Jerome, sent him to boarding school at the age of eight and had very little to do with his early years. Rather than immediately following his father’s footsteps into politics, Winston opted for a military career, eventually becoming a Boer War journalist for the Morning Post. However, Churchill could not avoid the pull of politics for long, and as of 1900, started a new career as the Conservative candidate for Oldham.

To begin with, Churchill was not the popular man he was destined to become and clashed with many other politicians. With so much antagonism against him, Churchill returned to military service in 1915 until 1924 when he rejoined the Conservative Party. Unfortunately, he fell out of favour with the subsequent Prime Ministers, eventually becoming exiled from politics in 1929. However, with the beginning of the war in 1939, Churchill was given the responsibility of the role of First Lord of the Admiralty and eventually began to earn respect. As a result, at the age of 65, Churchill was chosen as the new Prime Minister after Chamberlain’s resignation.

From 10th May 1940, Churchill supported Britain through the war, working extensively in the Cabinet War Rooms. Evidence of his hard work can be seen in the museum through visual, audio and interactive displays.

02_churchillIn the centre of the museum stands a 15-metre-long, digital, interactive table that provides a timeline of Churchill’s life. By using a touchstrip at the edge of the table, visitors can select and explore dates and events during Churchill’s life, viewing over 2000 documents, images and videos. This lifeline is continuously updated as more is discovered about the prodigious War Hero.

Unlike the War Rooms, preserved in their original appearances, The Churchill Museum is a contemporary feature. With so much to watch, read, hear and touch, the large room becomes crowded and overstimulating as everyone tries to explore the life of the famous figure. But with so much to learn, it is inevitable that the room becomes cramped and filled to capacity. Fortunately, the Imperial War Museum provides an in-depth guidebook which can be purchased at the entrance, or later in the gift shop. However, seeing personal items belonging to Britain’s most famous Prime Minister is much better in person, than within the limited pages of a book.

Following the audioguide and taking time to look at everything in the museum may take a couple of hours. A café is located two-thirds of the way through the tour, providing refreshments and a selection of lunches to replenish people’s energy for the final section, which includes the Map Rooms.

The Churchill War Rooms is a vital place to visit to get a true sense of the wartime efforts of the British government. If you are willing to pay the price (£19 adults, £9.50 children), it is certainly worth a visit. School history lessons barely cover the Second World War in comparison to the information provided in this secret bunker. You are guaranteed to learn something new.

The Churchill War Rooms is only a 20-minute bus ride from IWM London or HMS Belfast. It is also close to a wide range of famous tourist attractions including Tate Britain, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye and Buckingham Palace. St James’s Park is also on the doorstep.

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