Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms


As you walk around London, take just a moment to think about what it would have been like to be in this city during the height of World War II  The London Blitz began in September, 1940, and continued until the next May.  During its height, bombs fell on London for 57 days straight.  And on the deadliest day, May 10, 1941, 3,000 Londoners were killed.  Much of the city burned.  Residents took shelter in the Underground stations during the fiercest attacks.

Winston Churchill took shelter underground, as well.  His bunker, known as the Cabinet War Rooms, was located in the basement of the HM Treasury building, at the eastern edge of St. James’s Park, a couple of blocks away from the River Thames.  Churchill and his team lived here, underground, during much of the war.  But when Japan surrendered in 1945, the team of war planners who worked here simply flipped off the lights, and left.  The rooms were frozen in time until the 1980’s, when they were opened to the public as a museum.

A tour of the Churchill War Rooms begins at the Clive Steps.  Notice the red sign over the door on the right — that’s the entrance.  You walk inside…

… past a bust of the great man himself, leering at you, as if to judge whether you are worthy to enter.

A staircase takes you into the basement, where you pay your admission fee (if you purchased a London Pass, admission is free), and enter the museum.

The first room you pass is the War Cabinet Room, where senior staff would meet with the Prime Minister.  Churchill’s chair is the rounded-back chair in the middle, directly in front of the map.

Around the corner from the Cabinet Room, there is a hatch that leads to a sub-basement, known as the “Dock”, where lower-level staffers could sleep.  But, it was cramped (with ceilings so low you couldn’t stand up), and plagued with insects and rats, making it so unpleasant that some ventured above ground at night to take their chances with the bombs.

Those who didn’t make it to the surface could lose touch with the outside world.  So, they put up signs, telling what the weather was like above-ground.

This room belonged to the Prime Minister’s secretary.

On the wall, a list of alarms explained what the different bells and whistles meant.

The contents of room #63 was kept a secret to everyone except Churchill.  He was the only one with a key, which led some members of the staff to speculate that the room contained the only flushing toilet in the underground compound.  But…

… it actually contained a small desk, and a telephone hard-wired to the White House in Washington, DC, giving the Prime Minister secure, private access to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

About 1/3 the way through the tour, you reach the entrance to the Churchill Museum.  At the entrance, there are a few interesting displays, including these old posters which advertised the War Rooms after they opened to the public…

… and an example of the plumbing, or lack thereof, that was used in the bunkers.  Just think, Winston Churchill himself likely sat on that can!

I should have taken the time to go on into the Churchill Museum.  If I had, I would have seen an original door from #10 Downing Street, the one Churchill walked through, after becoming Prime Minister in 1940.  The museum also includes Churchill’s one-piece “Siren” suits which he often wore, an example of the encoding machine used to transmit secret messages, and the Union Flag that was draped over Churchill’s coffin upon his death in 1965.

The tour continues, passing several rooms that appear the same as they would have during World War II.  This room is for the Prime Minister’s detectives…

… and this one was Churchill’s dining room.

This bedroom belonged to Clementine Churchill, Winston’s wife.

A larger room at the end of a hallway was used as the Chiefs of Staff Conference Room…

… and one of the maps on the wall is decorated with some graffiti of Hitler.

Yes, they were going green, way back in the 1940’s.  This sign was a reminder to turn off a light in the hallway, and save electricity.

The tour route passes down a long hallway, and at one point, there’s a chance to glance upward at the thick concrete slab that was added to the bunker’s ceiling during the war.  Thankfully, it was never tested with a direct hit from a bomb.

The final stretch of hallway includes several interesting rooms, including the BBC broadcasting room, which allowed the Prime Minister to broadcast reassuring words to the British people.  A recording of one such broadcast plays for visitors, which sounds a lot like a modern-day weather and traffic update on the radio — the only difference is, Churchill was talking about bombing raids and uncontrolled fires.

The bunker’s switchboard operator had her own room, where she could work and sleep.

The pathway passes through a thick slab of concrete, which was put in place to protect a weakened area above it.  Above this spot, on the ground level, there is an entrance and stairwell.  A direct hit to the area could have damaged the basement, so the slab was added in 1941.  The tunnel was drilled through the slab in recent years, to allow for museum visitors to pass through.

One of the final rooms on the tour is the Map Room.  It was manned 24 hours a day, with information coming in (on those multi-colored telephones) from all fronts.  Staffers used the data to prepare reports for the King, Prime Minister, and other officials.

It’s almost too small to see in this picture, but the museum’s audio guide pointed out a small paper wrapper, with several sugar cubes, setting on the corner of the desk.  The sugar cubes were found inside one of the desk drawers.  They would have been rationed during the war — and most likely, the staffer who sat at that desk had tucked away his ration for a special treat, to be enjoyed later on.  But, when the war ended, everyone simply left the basement bunker, flipped off the lights, and shut the doors.  Everything, including those sugar cubes, remained untouched for decades, until work began to restore the Cabinet War Rooms as a museum.

For some reason, the sight of those sugar cubes made it all very real for me.  Real people worked here and sacrificed years of their lives here, in order to defeat evil and save the world.  Real people, who looked forward to a treat of sugar cubes, to help them get through a tough day at the office.

The Churchill War Rooms are located underneath the Clive Steps on Horse Guards Road in Westminster.  Take the Underground to the Westminster station, then walk to the surface and head away from the river on Bridge Street, which becomes Great George Street.  Walk one block, then turn right and walk a half block, and you’ll see the steps and the entrance.  For updated schedules and ticket prices, check out the Churchill War Rooms website

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