We decided to spend this day in London and picked the Churchill War Room Museum, off Clive Steps, King Charles Street, near St James Park.
In the late 1930s, as the prospect of another war on the scale of the Great War (WWI) appeared more likely, British military planners began to prepare for the expected air bombardment of London and other British targets. Aerial bombardment of cities began in the First World War and by now bomber aircraft had developed to a point that heavy aerial bombardment of cities was inevitable; expected to be frequent and devastating.
The decision was taken in 1938 to establish a central emergency working refuge for the War Cabinet and the Chiefs of Staff as a safeguard against a sudden air attack. The resulting ‘Cabinet War Rooms’, the British government’s secret underground shelter, became fully operational on Sunday 27 August, 1939, one week before the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe.
Basement storage rooms under the Office of Works and the Board of Trade in the ‘New Public Offices’ were chosen for their central position and for the uncommonly strong structure of the building above them. Developed as a short-term measure, the accommodation was cramped, basic and without frills or many everyday services. This ‘temporary’ solution was to become home to a host of civil servants and military personnel and the frequent shelter of government ministers, including the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, for the next six years.
The ceiling to the underground bunker were heavily reinforced with concrete and steel, however they would not have survived a direct hit during a bombardment. Fortunately, that event never occurred.
The rooms became operational in August 1939, but only really came into their own after Winston Churchill became Prime Minister and it is with him that they will forever be associated. The War Cabinet Room was the scene of numerous crucial meetings held by Churchill during the Blitz, as, above ground the Luftwaffe tried to devastate London. It was in his subterranean room that Churchill contemplated the route of a possible Nazi invasion, and it was to the adjacent Map Room that he brought his most important visitors to demonstrate its high-tech, intense, charting of the war activities.
Shortly after being appointed Prime Minister on May 10, 1949, Churchill said of his War Cabinet Room in the underground headquarters, “This is the room from which I will lead the war.”
The Prime Minister disliked his underground bunker, and the War Cabinet met in this room only when the bombing raids made meeting on the surface an unacceptable risk. Against the advice of his security detail, Churchill sometimes took himself and occasional visitors onto the roof of the building above to watch the air raids in progress.
Much of the underground warren has been left as and restored to as it was, minus the constant cloud of cigar and cigarette smoke, shortly after the war ended in 1945. Visiting the rooms today, you will come away with the look and feel of how it existed during the deadliest conflict of human history.
Bill Powers is author of The Pharm House a debut suspense/thriller from DonnaInk Publications.
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