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.

When in the War Rooms the Prime Minister worked from an office-bedroom that contained a bed, a desk, and maps on the wall. On his desk was a BBC microphone and he broadcast four live radio speeches from there during 1940 and 1941. Clementine also made several broadcasts in support of Russia after that country joined the Allies against Germany. The Prime Minister took phone calls from world leaders but there had to be caution because even scrambled calls could be deciphered by the enemy. The Bell telephone company in New Jersey therefore created the SIGSALY Secure Radio Telephone Scrambler. The deciphering terminals of the SIGSALY system required an entire room of equipment, with efficient air-conditioning, which was not possibly in the confines of the War Rooms. Therefore, its London terminal was installed in the basement of Selfridges department store in Oxford Street, with a connection to the War Rooms and with the Pentagon. It was used from August 1943. Calls made to the American president Roosevelt and his successor Truman had to be kept so secret that the scrambler terminus within the War Rooms was marked as Churchill’s private toilet into which he could disappear when necessary.

Churchill kept a structured daily schedule that could be tiring for his staff and other officials. From early in the morning until late in the evening assistants, secretaries and typists were on hand to manage his incoming and outgoing communications. He worked from his bed from 7am until mid-morning. During that time Churchill ate a light breakfast, reviewed official papers and correspondence, and dictated to his staff. Much of the communication he sent during the war was read and dispatched from his bed. When that work had been completed in the late morning he rose and dressed. Following the War Cabinet meeting he spent the afternoons visiting parts of London, speaking to Parliament, having discussions with military personnel, and undertaking any other meetings. He then returned to bed at around 5pm for a one-hour nap. That was followed by either a light supper, or a private dinner with a government person. At the end of each day he read through the newspapers to gain an understanding of what was happening in the country, while dictating memos to members of the government on points he felt needed to be addressed.

Despite the danger, Churchill tended to climb onto the roof of a government building to witness air-raids. There were a few times during the Blitz when he sneaked over to spend the night at the disused Down Street tube station near Hyde Park Corner. While the War Rooms operated as a shelter for the Cabinet, Down Street, much deeper and safer, played the same role for the Railway Executive Committee. They were the intermediary between the War Office and the railway companies, an important link when troops and equipment had to be efficiently moved around the country. The connections between the REC and London’s railway hotels allowed them to source luxuries such as Champagne, brandy and cigars that were otherwise difficult to come by, a particular attraction for Churchill.

The War Rooms remained in use for six years until two days after the surrender by the Japanese in August 1945. The complex was immediately sealed to keep its contents intact for security reasons, with all its fittings still in place. In the following years the facilities remained closed to the general public. In the 1980s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, an admirer of Churchill, was keen to open them to the public and responsibility was given to the Imperial War Museum. Mrs. Thatcher performed the official opening in April 1984, attended by members of the Churchill family and former War Rooms staff. The wartime facilities can now be seen, largely preserved as they were left in 1945, an evocative reminder of wartime London. Even to this day a great number of pinholes can be seen in the wall maps showing the progress of wartime ship convoys. The site has since been expanded and now includes the Churchill Museum, which was opened by Queen Elizabeth, and in 2010 rebranded as The Churchill War Rooms.

Source include: Philip Ziegler ‘London at War 1939-1945’; Neil Hanson ‘First Blitz’. With thanks to the Imperial War Museum for allowing access to the War Rooms to take photographs.

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