There are many secrets buried beneath London’s streets. Once classified, but no longer, is the underground complex beneath the Government Offices Great George Street (GOGGS) near Whitehall, in Westminster: the Second World War Cabinet War Rooms. These will forever be associated with Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (1874-1965); thus, including a remarkable Churchill Museum, the complex is now often 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 tempting cliché, you can almost smell the cigar smoke.
These days, we expect responsible governments to have contingency plans. 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. Therefore, consideration was given to the means by which government could continue, including, when circumstances demanded, the evacuation of key members of staff, the cabinet and the prime minister, away from London. However, a refuge would still be needed in the capital and there were also concerns that public opinion may perceive ministers to be basking in relative safety somewhere, whilst the hoi polloi was taking a pasting. Even so, it is a bit of a surprise to learn that the decision to establish a safe emergency shelter in London for the leaders of Britain’s government and armed forces was apparently made as late as 1938. Perhaps this is indicative of the Chamberlain Government’s faith in the efficacy of appeasement, and their sincere desire to avoid war at any cost. Meanwhile, the storm clouds of war gathered across the English Channel…
London’s Cabinet War Rooms became fully operational just a week before war was declared on 3rd September 1939. At least one other secret underground government complex was constructed during 1939 in the London area, code-name Paddock, at Dollis Hill, NW2. This was specifically designed as a back-up to the Whitehall operation and parts of it are still there, underneath a housing estate. Both facilities were created on a strictly need-to-know basis.
However, the GOGGS Cabinet War Rooms was not a specially constructed shelter. Compared with a Cold War era purpose-built air-conditioned fully-serviced subterranean sanctuary, designed to withstand attack and ensure survival, where a government could function until safe to emerge into the smouldering ruins and pick up the human story, the Cabinet War Rooms facility was extremely primitive. Unlike Hitler’s specially constructed bunker, 8 metres below Berlin and protected by 3-4 metres of reinforced concrete above, the British Government’s underground nerve-centre was cobbled together from existing basement storage rooms, chosen for the calculated 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, they were just 12 feet below office workers innocently going about their business at street level. Furnishings were stealthily diverted from other places to avoid suspicion that anything was going on. The whole thing smacks a little of ‘make do and mend’; it shouldn’t have worked, but it did.
Later, a slab of concrete, between 1 and 3 metres thick, was ingeniously inserted between the ceiling and ground floor above, using American-supplied pumps. The Slab was extended, allowing the complex to occupy a larger area. Despite the concrete, though, the Cabinet War Rooms were never bomb-proof and were also 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 somehow never cottoned onto this particular British secret.
Entering the Cabinet War Rooms now 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. He later wrote, “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 – himself no slouch when it came to rousing and memorable lines – once remarked (quoting Ed Murrow), Churchill “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.”
After the fall of France, one of Churchill’s greatest achievements, if not the greatest, was to continue the war – there were many who would not have – and to inspire others to do so. In that darkest hour, Churchill recognised that Britain and the Commonwealth were 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 and his regime had to be eliminated. He also knew that, eventually, mainland Europe would need to be invaded and set free. And, somehow, this spirit of resistance, of planning some great crusade against evil with inadequate resources, seeps from the drab, painted, inadequate concrete walls of the Cabinet War Rooms.
“We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…”
House of Commons, 4 June 1940
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.
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, final victory.
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 awful 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 as it was sometimes called. 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, in an old broom cupboard, 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 wasn’t enough room for the special scrambling equipment; this was installed in an annexe basement of Selfridge’s department store on Oxford Street.
There were sleeping quarters – Churchill, other key officials and Churchill’s wife, Clemmie, had their own rooms. Though Churchill is said to have only slept three nights there, he did use his room for naps. There was also a state of the art kitchen and the Prime Minister had his own dining room. Others, the rank and file, lived in another part of the complex, a labyrinth of tunnels and rooms at foundation level beneath the visitor accessible parts of the Cabinet War Rooms; it is still there, though not open to the public. Here, there were dormitories, bedrooms and eating facilities. To say that accommodation was ‘basic and without frills’ is a classic piece of British understatement. Proper drainage was impossible – a tributary of the Tyburn is said to trickle through part of it – and pumps were constantly at work. Washing and sanitary arrangements were primitive: buckets, bowls and chemical toilets mixed with the ubiquitous 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.
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. Most of the population had no idea the complex even existed. Aside from informal insider-guided tours, it was largely abandoned and forgotten until, in the 1970s, it was decided to restore and preserve it. In 1984, the Cabinet War Rooms 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 on the officer’s desk.
The clocks are set to 4.58pm in the Cabinet War Room itself; the first ever cabinet meeting held there began at 5pm on 15 October 1940.
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 (1849-1895) and the beautiful American heiress Jennie Jerome (1854-1921). He was a complex man – sometimes a bully, sometimes insecure; 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 all owe an enormous debt.
Churchill died at just after 8am on 24 January 1965 following a massive stroke. He was given the honour of a State Funeral, which took place on Saturday 30 January. At his request, he was buried in the churchyard at Bladon, Oxfordshire, near to his parents and just a mile or so from where he was born at Blenheim Palace. You can visit Churchill’s grave and his home at Chartwell, in Kent.
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 the museum does a pretty fine job, telling the story of the man from cradle to grave, aided by a host of original items and graphic displays. 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 which includes a German enigma machine, the revolver Winston used when escaping the Boers in 1899, one of his famous siren suits (looking exactly like a maroon, velvet, onesie) 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; or perhaps they are trying to save money. But I like to imagine the Old Man growling something like, “Ah – be good enough to turn the lights on.” Pause. “What do you think I am – a bloody bat!?”
Visit the Imperial War Museum website for more information about Churchill’s War Rooms. As the man himself would say, “Action this day!”