The British World War II war effort was directed from these basement rooms. In some cases, the rooms have been restored to be just as they were when the lights were turned off after victory in 1945. They were painstakingly reconstructed from photographs taken at the time.
I assumed the rooms would be in a heavily reinforced bomb-proof bunker prepared in advance to protect the British leadership. In fact, while they started work on the basement rooms in 1938, they were intended to be temporary until the leadership could move to the suburbs. Neville Chamberlain’s cabinet met there only once in 1939 just after Germany invaded Poland.
Winston Churchill declared he would “direct the war” from those rooms, and it wasn’t until late 1940 after the beginning
of the blitz that engineers managed to reinforce the ceilings with steel and thick concrete. In one case, a vulnerable hall and staircase from the rooms above were just filled with concrete (a tunnel has been since drilled through this plug to allow tourists to pass through). A total of 115 cabinet meetings were held in the war rooms.
In many places one can see heavy wooden braces put up by an Admiral to provide further support. They are just the sort of bracing that would have been used at the time in damaged ships.
Despite all this, today it is felt that one direct hit by a large bomb, let alone a V2 rocket, would have severely damaged and perhaps even destroyed the bunker. Fortunately, while bombs fell in the area, none struck the war rooms.
We had seen pictures of the “map room” with all its pins used to depict forces and their movements during the war. Naval, Army and Air Force officers were responsible for keeping the Cabinet informed of the course of the war on a day by day basis. It was interesting to see the real thing — so small. We also found interesting the humble quarters used by senior officers and their staff. “Lesser personnel” such as the many stenographers had bunks in a narrow sub-basement. Churchill had a bedroom and dining room but preferred to sleep at Number 10 Downing Street or at its annex above the rooms.
They all worked long hours driven by the Prime Minister who was there from 8 a.m. to 3 a.m. with an hour’s nap in the afternoon. He was described as very testy and demanding with little understanding of those who couldn’t keep up with his schedule. He was also described as very caring and concerned for his staff. He probably was both.
We saw something very few of the people who actually worked in the war rooms saw. There was a door with a sign that directed people wanting a key to the “duty officer, map room.” There was also a little wheel much like one might find on a port-a-
potty that said “occupied.” Those who worked there assumed it was the only flush toilet and was reserved for the Prime Minister. In reality, the door led to the first “hot line,” a phone by which Churchill could get direct secure contact with his ally, the President of the United States.
Click on photos to enlarge.