Winston Churchill and the Cabinet War Rooms

During the Second World War a series of underground rooms were created below government offices at Whitehall. It was from there that the Prime Minister, his Cabinet, and military leaders could meet in safety to direct the war effort while London was being bombed. The facility was known as the War Rooms.

Members of the War Cabinet sat around a table arranged in a square, with Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the head of the table. The three heads of the armed forces sat in the centre of the square facing Churchill.

Winston Churchill had been a fierce critic of the policy by Neville Chamberlain and his predecessor Stanley Baldwin of appeasement with Mussolini’s Fascist Italy and Hitler’s Nazi Germany. In 1939 Churchill was a Conservative MP who had been out of favour and was then without ministerial responsibility. On the day war was declared Chamberlain formed a War Cabinet and re-appointed Churchill to his earlier post of First Lord of the Admiralty.

The early stages of the war were disastrous for Britain and its allies. Nazi Germany quickly occupied Belgium and the Netherlands and had come within striking distance of the East Coast of England. Under criticism from all sides during the spring of 1940 Chamberlain was forced to resign in May after Germany’s occupation of Norway. Churchill was asked to form a wartime coalition government with the Labour opposition, to which he invited Chamberlain as Deputy Prime Minister. His Cabinet Defence Committee, or War Cabinet, included the heads of the army, navy and air force. To provide direct control of the military effort, Churchill appointed himself as Defence Minister, a newly-created cabinet post.

In earlier years Churchill had questioned Prime Minister Baldwin on what plans were being made for an alternative location for the government in the event of war. When the time came he therefore considered that the War Rooms were an ideal location from which he and the Defence Committee could direct the war effort. The underground warren of corridors and rooms had been fitted out with a Cabinet office, a Map Room, bedrooms for the Prime Minister, his wife, military leaders and senior politicians, offices for secretaries, typists and switchboard operators, and dormitories for all the necessary staff.

The War Rooms were quite austere and without luxuries, the space dingy and claustrophobic. The facilities were guarded by Royal Marines. Those working underground had little idea of conditions outside, so sign boards were attached to walls in the basement corridors. On these George Rance, Clerk of War Rooms, gave information on the weather, such as “Showers”. To add a touch of black humour in the bleak surroundings he would display a sign stating “Windy” to indicate an air raid.

It was soon realised that wooden props would not be sufficient in the case of a direct bomb hit, so in December 1940 a massive layer known as ‘the slab’ was created between the ground floor of the government building and the basement below, using a new American process of pumping concrete.

The Map Room within the War Rooms was a military information centre manned by officers of the army, navy and air force who monitored all aspects of the war effort, including the position of ship convoys, throughout the entire conflict until 1945. Information from around the world arrived, was collated, and daily intelligence summaries provided to Churchill, the King, and heads of the military. On the walls were large maps on which relevant information, such as the progress of convoys, could be pinned and moved as events progressed. Information officers sat around a long desk with a bank of telephones. Much was secret and some telephones were duel-purpose for normal or coded (“scrambled”) speech. The Map Room was operated by over 30 staff working on a rota basis 24 hours a day and 365 days each year.

War Cabinet meetings were held in the relatively small Cabinet War Room, with only the most basic of ventilation: a major factor considering that Churchill smoked cigars, while others smoked pipes or cigarettes. Attendees sat around a table set in a square, with Churchill at its head. In the centre of the square sat the three heads of the armed forces, facing the Prime Minister. A small sign contained a quote from Queen Victoria: “Please understand there is no depression in this house and we are not interested in the possibilities of defeat, they do not exist”. A roster of secretaries took turns to take minutes of sections of each meeting, handing over to the next secretary in line and leaving the room to type their part. In that way the minutes could be distributed as soon as the meeting ended.

Despite his intention to use the War Rooms, the Prime Minister continued to reside, and mostly work, from 10 Downing Street. One evening in October 1940, however, a bomb fell on the nearby Treasury Gardens and the Downing Street building was badly damaged while Churchill and his wife Clementine were being served dinner. More bombs fell on the surrounding buildings in the following days. From then, throughout the course of the Blitz, the Prime Minister and his wife spent most nights in the War Rooms. The Cabinet also met there regularly between September 1940 and September 1941 when the Blitz ended. For the next few years the Churchills moved into the basement of the damaged 10 Downing Street. Use of the War Rooms for Cabinet meetings resumed again from June 1944 until March 1945 while German V1 and V2 rockets fell on London. During the course of the war 115 Cabinet meetings were held in the basement facilities. At least 25 bombs fell in close proximity but all missed the New Public Offices and the War Rooms below.

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