Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Churchill's Secret War Rooms

 In early May, we managed to secure a half-price voucher to visit one of London's secret war locations - the Churchill War Rooms.

During the 1930s, aerial bombing technology developed rapidly and the threat of an international conflict grew ever greater. In 1938, it was considered necessary to plan for such an event, and thus a refuge was created in central London that could be used by senior Chiefs of Staff and the War Cabinet. The space was created out of basement rooms beneath the Office of Works, beside the present-day Treasury buildings and just blocks from No. 10 Downing Street. The Cabinet War Rooms became operational during August 1939, though they are more associated with Churchill, who used them extensively after he became Prime Minister in May, 1940.

The Rooms were very basic, and Churchill is said to have disliked them, choosing only to use the facilities when bombing made it risky to meet above-ground. The War Cabinet held 115 meetings below ground, and numerous civil servants, military personnel, and government ministers spent time in the Rooms. To this day, some of the rooms remain exactly the same as they were when abandoned at the end of World War Two, while others have been reconstructed.
Conference Room for the Chiefs of Staff
The War Cabinet Room is the largest, and it was set up in a board-room type layout, with maps covering the walls. This room has remained untouched since WWII ended. Apparently it was usually a thick fog of cigarette and cigar smoke. Eugh - it's bad enough to imagine being in stuffy, damp rooms below ground with no fresh air coming in, without picturing ten men sitting around in a closed room and chugging out poisonous smoke! (That is, in addition to the usual poisonous fumes that men chug out...)
The  Meeting Room of the War Cabinet
There was also a Transatlantic Telephone Room, where Transatlantic communications took place no, not via telephone cable, but via radio-telephone link. A civilian monitored the conversations at each end, and the leaders were soon disconnected if they strayed into forbidden topics! In 1943, Bell sent a scrambler device to London, which came with 40 tonnes of equipment (! - these were installed in the basement of Selfridges Department store, Oxford Street). An extension was installed in the Rooms, but it was so top-secret that everyone was told it was the Prime Minister's toilet, and should not be used.

Look at all those pretty telephones
The Courtyard Rooms were a series of bedrooms for Churchill, Mrs Churchill, and selected private office staff. These rooms were acquired by the Imperial War Museum in 2001, and have been reconstructed since then, as they were in a poor state. Churchill only slept in his bedroom three times, preferring to use a suite at a disused Tube station, though he did use it for business, and he even delivered four wartime speeches from the space.
The desk from which Churchill made some of his most famous broadcasts
A pair of slippers is next to the bed,
and a half-smoked cigar on the nightstand
Clementine Churchill's pretty room
The rest of the War Rooms are made up of service rooms, for typists, planning staff, and communications facilities. Some of the offices of more senior staff doubled as bedrooms.
The room of Brendan Bracken,
Minister of Information
Tommy Thompson, Aide de Camp
to the Prime Minister
The Map Room was a central point for information on the war, and featured maps, charts, books, and telephones. This room is largely the same as it was at the end of the war.
(Not the Map Room)

Post-war, four of the rooms were preserved and tours of the facility were available. In 1984, the Imperial War Museum finished a restoration of the Rooms, and in 2001, they restored the rest of the space (that which had not been publicly accessible after 1948). There is also a Churchill Museum in the middle of the War Rooms, which was fascinating - we spent over an hour just in this one room. It was very well-balanced, and this historian was very impressed by that.

This is certainly one attraction I can recommend - we really enjoyed looking around the Cabinet War Rooms and the Churchill Museum. (This is starting to sound a bit like a sales advert... But really, it was great!) I love history! And with every blog post, you all come closer to loving history too!

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