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Inside Churchill’s Bunker

by John Lee

PhotoS: Imperial War Museum

PhotoS: Imperial War Museum

London’s Cabinet War Rooms museum includes (from top) the operations room and the bed where Churchill slept.

It is 8.30 a.m. on a chilly September in 1940. While Londoners struggle to mop-up after yet another overnight Blitzkrieg bombardment that reduced many homes to twisted rubble, Prime Minister Winston Churchill is propped up in bed in his favourite gold and green dressing gown, puffing on the first of the day’s dozen or so cigars. But this is no ordinary lie-in.

Two secretaries sit hunched over their notebooks on either side of the bed, straining to take dictation from the British leader’s famously muffled delivery. A uniformed officer rushes in with a sheaf of confidential papers for the prime minister’s custom-built lap table. A couple of hours later, with Churchill reclining in his regular morning tub, there’s a string of bathroom briefings with senior military personnel.

Although some wartime Londoners might have raised an eyebrow at their leader’s unusual working habits, many more would have been shocked by his location on this particular morning: A few steps from the end of Downing Street, three metres below ground, in a highly secretive facility known officially only as Number 1 Storey’s Gate, the site’s anonymous postal address.

The 21-room subterranean complex—later named the Cabinet War Rooms and now open to the public as a unique museum—–was the Central London evacuation point of Britain’s senior wartime administration, along with an army of several hundred support staff that included secretaries, Royal Marines and Churchill’s own butler. But rather than being a simple bomb shelter for hiding out during air raids, the covert site was a fully functioning government facility where the co-ordination of Britain’s war effort could be continued, uninterrupted by the ferocious bombing above.

The bunker became operational on Aug. 27, 1939—a week before the German invasion of Poland and Britain’s declaration of war. When Churchill made his first visit a few months later he declared to his senior retinue, “This is the room from which I will direct the war.” The prime minister was specifically referring to the complex’s cabinet room, a cramped subterranean meeting space poorly lit with 40-watt light bulbs where Britain’s inner sanctum of ministers, government advisers and military chiefs of staff gathered 115 times between 1939 and 1945—accounting for one in 10 of all cabinet meetings of the period.

Visitors to the museum can only imagine the tense atmosphere that must have filled the rooms during the final hours of planning and preparation for the June 6, 1944, Allied invasion of Normandy. A specially commissioned play for this year’s 60th anniversary celebration, titled The Night Before D-Day, tells of the deception plans, the troop movements and intelligence decoding.

While records are scarce, it is known that some overseas Allied politicians and military leaders also visited the complex during the war. The bunker’s guest book, now on display to visitors, records a New Year’s Eve 1942 visit from Canadian General A.G.L. McNaughton, commander of the nation’s armed forces in Europe from 1940-43, who signed himself “J. McNaughton, Lt.-Gen., Commander Canadian Expedition Force.” An unintelligible signature appears on another entry dated Nov. 27, 1943, which records the visitors’ position as “Capt. RCN, ACNS (Canada).” Of course, New Brunswick-born press baron William Aitken, better known as Lord Beaverbrook, was also a regular attendee, being a key member of Britain’s wartime cabinet. In fact, he was one of only three cabinet members to serve in the British government during both world wars.

To keep these leaders and VIPs informed of developments, the facility had some highly sensitive intelligence and communications features, the most strategically important of which was the map room. Here, amidst the metal filing cabinets, code books and bank of multicoloured Bakelite telephones, the latest reports on troop and ship movements around the globe were feverishly charted, providing the most up-to-date snapshots on the successes and setbacks of the Allied war effort.

The room’s largest map—now faded yellow but still hanging by the entrance—used pins and wool threads to show the routes taken by the convoys that criss-crossed the Atlantic to collect and deliver vital supplies. Ominous black dots pinpoint where many ships were destroyed by enemy submarines.

Churchill was able to directly discuss developments like this with United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, after a small room in the bunker was adapted for scrambled transatlantic telephone calls between the two leaders in 1943. While even those who worked here believed it was Churchill’s private washroom, the secret telephone room forged an elaborate high-tech link between the Allied commanders. Now declassified, the conversations conducted on this line show that Churchill and Roosevelt had the utmost confidence in the coding capability of the machinery.

Outside broadcasting equipment installed by the BBC in another room also enabled the prime minister to speak to the people of Britain, the Commonwealth and occupied Europe while secreted below ground. He made his first live radio broadcast from the bunker on Sept. 11, 1940, a few days after the start of the London Blitz.

But most of Churchill’s subterranean conversations were held face to face. Accurate minutes of every Cabinet War Rooms meeting had to be typed on-site, with two carbon copies available for circulation within hours. Not surprisingly, the facility’s typing pool was active

24-hours a day and many hard-working underground typists were given ultra-violet treatment to compensate for rarely seeing daylight.

Workers were expected to sleep in the bunker when required. While some typists had beds next to their desks, most—carrying their helmets, gas masks and fire warning whistles—had to trudge down to a giant sub-basement that ran the length of the complex. Known colloquially as “the dock,” rooms in this dormitory housed up to 40 people each in dozens of narrow bunk beds. With bare floors, exposed brick walls and ceilings below 1.5 metres, this humid dungeon was never popular with staff.

But not everyone had to cope with such basic conditions. Gen. Sir Hastings Ismay, Churchill’s chief of staff, had a private bedroom on-site that included a desk, lamp, rug and a single bed. Senior civil servants and inner cabinet members enjoyed similar privileges, but Churchill’s own accommodation was naturally superior—although even here Spartan remained the watchword.

In 1941, as the war began to intensify, nine rooms were set aside for Churchill and his wife Clementine, including a kitchen, dining room, separate bedrooms and dedicated quarters for Churchill’s servants, typists and private detectives. Trebling the size of the museum, these rooms were restored and opened to the public for the first time in 2003, affording an unusual glimpse into the subterranean domestic arrangements of Britain’s wartime leader.

Despite the elaborate arrangements, historians have not determined how many nights the couple spent in the complex during the war. Churchill is said to have loathed sleeping in the Cabinet War Rooms because he preferred to carry on defiantly above ground—although a bomb that seriously damaged 10 Downing Street on Oct. 14, 1940 was a stark reminder to him of the leadership’s vulnerability.

It is easy to understand why Churchill was reluctant to stay overnight in the bunker. He had to sleep on a narrow single bed with his regulation ministerial chamber pot nearby, since the complex had no sewer system. Musty “fresh air” was circulated by noisy ventilators and the only decorations in his suite were military maps. The austere surroundings, of course, were an indication of the serious job in progress.

The covert underground complex enabled Britain’s wartime administration to continue its vital day-to-day work during London’s darkest hours. Indeed, the number of high-level meetings held here suggest that important decisions were routinely made on-site—although the wisdom of housing such a large number of senior leaders in a shelter that offered only rudimentary protection should perhaps have been more closely scrutinized.

Although a bomb fell near its entrance in September 1940—one of more than 140 dropped in and around Whitehall in the first two years of the war—there were no direct hits on the Cabinet War Rooms. This was extremely fortunate, because while the original requirements had been for a bombproof shelter, corners had been cut in the haste to complete the project.

In late 1940, in a half-baked attempt to bolster its defences, a one metre-thick reinforced concrete slab was inserted between the complex and the offices located above. It is doubtful whether this would have offered much protection from a direct hit, particularly from one of the ever-larger bombs that emerged as the war progressed. Churchill insisted on staying in central London, though, and most of those working at the facility remained unaware of the dangers.

On Aug. 16, 1945—the day after VJ- Day—the lights in the underground map room were switched off for the first time since the war started. The heavy steel doors were locked and the mothballed complex was quickly forgotten until 1948 when an announcement from Parliament deemed the now declassified bunker a historic site. Most Londoners still remained oblivious of its existence until the 1980s, though, when plans were announced to renovate it as a satellite of the Imperial War Museum. The restored Cabinet War Rooms opened to a surprised public on April 4, 1984.

Following the recent opening of Churchill’s private rooms, the museum’s next step is a dedicated Churchill Museum, planned for January 2005, the 40th anniversary of the wartime leader’s death. The first British museum dedicated solely to Churchill’s achievements, it will showcase hundreds of important World War II documents—some of which were no doubt dictated from the underground bed occupied by the prime minister more than 60 years ago.

Visiting The War Rooms

The entrance to London’s Cabinet War Rooms is located at Clive Steps on King Charles Street, within walking distance of Westminster underground station. The complex opens from 9.30 a.m. to 6 p.m. from April 1 to Sept. 30 and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Oct. 1 to March 31. Admission charges range from £6 (approximately $14.50 Cdn) for senior citizens to £7.50 ($18 Cdn) for adults, with under-16s admitted free. For further information, call 44 (20) 7930 6961 or click on the prominent link at the main Imperial War Museum Web site:


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