Churchill War Rooms, London
The underground bunker rooms in Whitehall, London
, which served as the secret headquarters for Winston Churchill and his war cabinet from where they "oversaw" Britain
's war effort during WWII
. Added to this there is also a separate Churchill Museum about the big man's life and times in general.
More background info:
The construction of the Cabinet War Rooms in London
was actually already begun shortly before WWII
, so they became operational just in time, on 27 August 1939, just a few days before the outbreak of the war with Germany
's invasion of Poland
Initially it was just a secret basement complex underneath the Treasury building, not a bunker. So when Great Britain
became a target for German aerial bombing raids too, these basement rooms were not yet bombproof in any way. To rectify this, a steel-reinforced concrete "slab" was put on top of the rooms in December 1940, right during the "Blitz". This extra bunker fortification would have withstood bombs of up to 500 lbs, so it would still not have been good enough to survive a direct hit with any thing bigger than that (a V1 or V2
, say). However, the rooms were never hit at all and survived the war unscathed.
The war cabinet consisted of the Prime Minister, i.e. from 10 May 1940 Winston Churchill, and a small selected number of ministers from both the Conservatives and the Labour Party. The small group size and constant personal contact facilitated decision-making, so the plan, and it appears to have worked that way indeed.
After the end of WWII
the War Rooms were closed in August 1945 and simply vacated by all staff. Hence many of the original furnishings remained there, untouched for decades.
In 1985 they were made accessible to the general public for the first time. Some restoration work was done, including the construction of a new entrance from the outside of the building. During the operation of the War Rooms, access was only possible from within the building above the bunker rooms.
In 2005, a separate Churchill Museum was opened. Located within the Cabinet War Rooms complex, it cannot be visited independently, though.
The complex is run under the auspices of the Imperial War Museum
as one of its four outside branches. (Apart from the main museum in Lambeth and the War Cabinet Rooms, these also comprise the IWM North in Manchester, the HMS Belfast
cruiser opposite the Tower of London as well as the huge countryside outpost at Duxford.)
What there is to see: two main things: the original (restored) War Cabinet Rooms on the one hand, and a newer, more modern, multimedia-heavy, dedicated Churchill Museum. The circuit through the whole complex is largely pre-determined, which also means that you have to do the Churchill Museum in the middle, as it were, before concluding the rest of the War Cabinet Rooms ...
So let's go through it briefly in that pre-given order. Visitation is self-guided with the help of an audio guide (of good quality). The first thing you see is the very core of it all: the actual War Cabinet meeting room, laid out as it would have looked on 15 October 1940. Churchill's seat is in the centre, a red briefcase in front.
You then proceed through a set of dark corridors, lined with pictures, charts and old siren signs, as well as a door marked 10 Downing Street (presumably connected by a tunnel). You eventually come to a glass slab on top of an opened hatch that would have led down to a sub-basement level. This was the infamous "Dock". Low and narrow corridors that one could not have walked upright in, providing extra shelter for staff overnighting down here. Given the noise, smell, lack of hygiene and constant light, it wasn't a popular option, despite the extra safety. Many preferred to take their chances and spent their nights outside the "dock" – despite the risks of bombing.
At last you come to some communications rooms, including a small former broom cupboard that was transformed into the Transatlantic Telephone Room. This was connected to a scrambling/encoding room located miles away (underneath Selfridges on Oxford Street) and provided a safe communications line to the USA
. From the Telephone Room the Prime Minister could confer with the US president without fear of their conversations being overheard by the enemy. Today you can see it dimly lit up and complete with a dummy Churchill, receiver in one hand, fat cigar in the other.
To the left an exhibition room is set aside. It's a small but very informative (and entertaining) exhibition about what life was like in the bunker, involving video screens playing eyewitness reports, as well as various documents and artefacts. One of them was an early chemical toilet – as there was allegedly only one flush toilet in these underground rooms (reserved for the top echelons only).
At the far end of this exhibition you come to the entrance to the semi-separate Churchill Museum, added to the complex in 2005.
This museum is even richer in information than the rest of the complex. It naturally focuses on the life of Churchill, as well as his legacy, but there is of course also plenty of thematic overlap with the main War Cabinet parts. In fact, the most space is given to the section about Churchill as war leader 1940-45.
In the centre of the hall is an interactive "lifeline" – a vast, oblong touchscreen basically, on which you can punch up all manner of chronologically ordered information about Churchill and his times. This alone could keep you entertained for quite while!
Four more sections cover the life of Churchill in his youth, as a maverick politician 1900-1929, his "wilderness years" 1929-39, and finally Churchill's time as elder statesman during the post-war Cold War
era up until his death and state funeral in 1965. Churchill's speeches and virtuoso use of the English language are celebrated too – as are some of his hilarious witticisms.
There is so much in this museum that it would be impossible to summarize it all. Suffice it to say that apart from all the information it also contains some entertaining artefacts, including of course some of Churchill's personal belongings, ranging from his bowler hat and bow tie to his beloved cigars, champagne and cognac (the wrong sort, though – French
; apparently Churchill preferred the Armenian
sort once he had been introduced to it by Stalin
). His love of animals, the countryside and painting is covered as well, so it's also full of personal aspects, not just politics and history.
Back in the War Cabinet Rooms, you continue further down the original corridors, passing through a section with rooms on one side for the cabinet members as well as lowlier staff (who only had bunk beds). Then you come to the Chiefs of Staff Conference Room. At the centre is a big table and the walls are covered with huge maps, of Britain
and the world, on which the movements of the war would be noted. On the map to the left that shows the British Isles and a large part of the Atlantic (and its convoys), note the little doodle of a man somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the Atlantic. It depicts Hitler
, sitting on his bum, but right arm up ...
Next you pass a kitchen, then the dining room in which Churchill and his wife would have had their meals. Mrs Churchill's bedroom is here too.
Carrying on you come to what is known as the Harmsworth Room – which is these days hired out for corporate events and such things. Along one wall you can see the controls for the War Rooms' own power supply ... cool industrial archaeology stuff.
Further along the main corridor you come to the museum cafe and after that you get to the room furthest to the south-east – a corner room with an exposed ceiling that allows a glimpse up towards part of the "slab" (see above
). From here the circuit turns round 180 degrees so you proceed parallel to where you've just come from along the last stretch of corridor.
The first room branching off to the left is the BBC broadcasting room. It is followed by telephone switchboard and radio operators' as well as typists' rooms, all complete with female dummy operators and typists, as well as more operations rooms and more staff bedrooms. Past a rack with hundreds of different keys you come to a chart where V1
bombings were meticulously logged. You can see when the worst waves of these attacks took place and how many casualties they caused ...
Finally you come to the famous Map Room. This was the operational heart of it all, staffed 24/7 and all movements of every operation in the war were plotted by pins on the maps on the wall. Staff manned a row of colour-coded telephones connecting to various important points in the outside world.
Incidentally, note that ashtrays are everywhere. There's also one ingenious contraption for lighting cigarettes electrically. It was the 1940s, of course, when practically everybody smoked. Thankfully, the various dummies populating all these rooms these days are non-smoking. I don't want to begin to imagine what the stench from so many smokers must have been like down here at the time .. and that even without Churchill's extra-evil cigars.
Right next to the Map Room you eventually come to Winston Churchill's own combined office and bedroom (quite a distance apart from his wife's room, by the way) ... cigar at the ready by the bedside.
That was the final highlight. After that there's only the gift shop (selling books, period propaganda posters, postcards, fridge magnets and all manner of Churchill memorabilia), then you're back at the entrance.
Overall, I have to confess, I was a lot more impressed by this museum complex than I had anticipated. I don't know what I had expected, but certainly not this much authenticity and such richness of well presented information. I was probably a bit apprehensive about too much patriotism and a Churchill cult of personality. There is all that, yes, but so much more to balance it out. No, all in all this place can only be highly recommended!
right in the middle of the Whitehall government district of London
, namely underneath the HM Treasury, opposite St James's Park and just south of Downing Street and Horse Guards Parade.
Access and costs: quite easy to get to; quite expensive.
Details: finding the Churchill War Rooms is fairly easy. Coming from the nearest underground station, Westminster, take the Houses of Parliament exit and turn right, cross Parliament Square and keep walking on straight along Great George Street until you come to the south-eastern corner of St James's Park. Turn right up Horse Guards Road and find the entrance to the museum on your right next to Clive Steps. It's also signposted.
Opening times: daily (except over Christmas) from 9:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., last admission at 5 p.m.
Admission: 17.50 GBP (this may sound excessively steep – but admittedly you do indeed get quite a lot for this). Without the (cheeky) "voluntary donation" part included in the price, the ticket costs ｣15.90 ... still not much cheaper.
Time required: longer than you might expect – I certainly underestimated the richness of these exhibitions. I spent about two hours down there ... and could have spent much longer had it not been for an appointment I had to keep in mind. If you want to read everything and take in all the audiovisual material on offer, you can probably spend at least half a day in here.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under London
The Churchill War Rooms are affiliated with (well: administered by) the Imperial War Museum
– so that would make the most obvious combination.
Closest to the entrance to the Churchill War Rooms, just steps north up Horse Guards Road, is a relatively recent memorial commemorating the victims of the Bali bombings
of October 2002. It consists of a curved concrete wall into which all the names of the dead are engraved. And in front of this sits a sphere covered with doves engraved on the surface.
Yet more memorials can be found in the nearby parks, in particular the 7/7 memorial in Hyde Park, which commemorates London
's own worst day as a target of terrorism, when a series of bombs was set off in the Underground as well as on a bus on 7 July 2005, killing more than 50 people and injuring hundreds more.
And on Parliament Square, just round the corner from the War Cabinet Rooms, there's a statue of Winston Churchill ... amongst many other more or less significant figures (e.g. Abraham Lincoln or Nelson Mandela).
Combinations with non-dark destinations: part of the Churchill Museum at least is already rather of a non-dark character, but for real peace and tranquillity just step into St James's Park right outside the museum's entrance or head on to the other parks beyond (Green park, Hyde Park & Kensington Gardens). Or turn north and visit the famous Horse Guards. South of these, some of London's most iconic landmarks beckon: Downing Street, the Houses of Parliament with Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey. Across the Themes a newer landmark looms high: the London Eye.
See also under London
- CWR 01 - entrance
- CWR 02 - the Blitz
- CWR 03 - underground
- CWR 04 - the Dock
- CWR 05 - war cabinet room
- CWR 06 - dummy Churchill on the dummy phone to the US
- CWR 07 - exhibition
- CWR 08 - exhibits
- CWR 09 - separate Churchill museum
- CWR 10 - electric power supply
- CWR 11 - kitchen
- CWR 12 - Chiefs of Staff room
- CWR 13 - Hitler doodle on the map
- CWR 14 - typists
- CWR 15 - bedtime
- CWR 16 - duty
- CWR 17 - V1 statistics
- CWR 18 - in action
- CWR 19 - bedroom of Mrs Churchill
- CWR 20 - combined bedroom and study for Winston Churchill
- CWR 21 - Churchill memorabilia in the gift shop
- CWR 22 - Churchill statue in Parliament Square