Churchill War Rooms tour, London
Imagine it. Air raid sirens blaring and bombs dropping from the sky. Across the city, residents seek shelter from the attacks while fires break out indiscriminately. Nowhere is safe because anywhere could be the next target.
For 57 consecutive days or nights in 1940, the Germans bombed London relentlessly. Through it all, the man trying to win the war for Britain was working furiously underground.
Winston Churchill – the new Prime Minister brought to power by a wave of desperation and hope, ultimately justified – had set up a secret headquarters from where he mounted his plans to defeat Adolf Hitler.
This bunker under the buildings of Whitehall is now open to the public and a visit is a journey back in time. I’m struck immediately by the size of it.
Technically it’s called the “Churchill War Rooms’ and I had expected a few rooms where meetings were held. In fact, there is a mini city here underground.
Hundred of people lived here – sometimes for days on end – and so there are dormitories and kitchens to support them. There are rooms for war tacticians, rooms for maps, rooms for broadcasts and rooms for telephones.
It’s hard to get a grip of the size because you have to leave your sense of direction at the door. You place your faith in a rabbit warren of paths through large metal doors and along concrete corridors.
During the wartime, there were tight restrictions on access. Everybody beneath the ground had a certain level of clearance and guards at the doors would only let you through if you were approved. Today, thankfully, it’s a bit easier.
It’s especially easy for me because of my guide, Robert Gunning. He knows these rooms well and is able to lead me through the labyrinth, pointing out the particularly interesting places and filling in some of the history.
Robert points out a door that everyone at the time was told was Winston Churchill’s private bathroom. It had a permanent ‘engaged’ sign on it and nobody used it for fear they would upset the Prime Minister.
In fact, hidden behind the door, was a secret telephone room, not a toilet. It was a direct line to US President Franklin Roosevelt and the pretence was just another layer of security.
It’s somewhat eerie to see the rooms for yourself that were so critical in the biggest event of the past century. The small cabinet war room where the key people in the government and military would sit (and smoke) and plan operations; the larger meeting room with walls covered in maps where more regular briefings would occur; and the bedroom of Winston Churchill where he would sometimes sleep and made a few broadcasts to the nation from.
A large museum has also been built in the bunkers covering the life of Churchill from his birth through to his death. There’s more information here than you could absorb on one visit but I am particularly struck by a collection of his toy soldiers from his childhood. It seems as though everything he did in his years before becoming Prime Minister were leading to his defining moments in a world war.
Robert takes me through some of the key items in the museum. Everything we’re seeing and everything he’s telling me is creating a broader picture of the man.
In fact, we spent at least an hour before arriving at the Churchill War Rooms walking through Westminster – Churchill’s London by this point in time. The tour goes past places like the House of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, 10 Downing St and Whitehall.
This is a mix of old London and new London, looked at through the prism of history. In many ways, it’s appropriate. Without Winston Churchill, new London could be a very different city. Everyone could be speaking German.