Hidden beneath the streets of London’s Westminster is the underground bunker from which Winston Churchill and his inner circle plotted the route to Allied victory during the Second World War. Now, in his new book, writer Jonathan Asbury reveals the behind-the-scenes secrets of Churchill’s War Rooms – sights that members of the public can’t experience on a tour of the bunker
Containing more than 150 photographs and details from once-top secret documents, the book offers a close-up look at items that have until now been seen by only a few people in the world. Highlights include Churchill’s chair in the Cabinet Room gouged with anxious scratch marks; the phone that he used to speak to the president of the United States; and 70-year-old maps from drawers that were abandoned when the lights to the War Rooms were switched off on 16 August 1945.
Here, writing for History Extra, Asbury explores the lesser-known history of Churchill’s War Rooms…
In late summer 1943, a small storeroom on the main corridor of Churchill’s War Rooms was fitted with a new door. It sported a lavatory-style lock and its appearance explained the construction work that had been going on in the room for the previous couple of months. Churchill, it seemed, had been given the luxury of a flushing toilet.
A passing secretary may have felt a moment of slight envy (all the other workers had to choose between foul-smelling chemical toilets underground or a trip up at least two flights of stairs), but would otherwise have given the door little to no thought. But when the lock on the door was switched from ‘vacant’ to ‘engaged’, it didn’t mean that the prime minister was answering a call of nature; he was instead making use of a secure radio-telephone link to talk directly to the president of the United States of America. It was perhaps the most secret communications facility in the world, but there were no armed guards, no security passes – just the clever misdirection afforded by that simple lavatory-style lock.
Stories like this cropped up again and again when I was looking into the history of the Churchill War Rooms. To my mind they are characteristic of the way the war was conducted from this hurriedly constructed underground facility, and they say a great deal about the improvisational brilliance and practical capability of the men and women who worked there.
The origins of Churchill’s connection to the War Rooms are usually traced back to the famous moment in May 1940 when he first entered the facility as prime minister and declared: “This is the room from which I will direct the war.” However, as I discovered during my research, it is possible to argue that the War Rooms may not have existed at all without Churchill’s intervention.
It was as early as July 1936 that the then backbench MP addressed Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to ask what the government planned to do if a resurgent Germany unleashed an aerial bombardment on London. “Has anything been done,” he asked, “to provide one or two alternative centres of command, with adequate deep-laid telephone connections and wireless, from which the necessary orders can be given by some coherent thinking mechanism?”
He was talking about creating some kind of ‘war room’ and, while he was not alone in his concerns, it is fair to say Churchill led the calls for action to be taken. It nonetheless took until May 1938 for a suitable basement site to be selected – and the construction work that followed took place against a political climate so fraught that war was expected to break out within a matter of days. It is also noteworthy that all of this was managed when no such war room had ever existed before and no one quite knew who would need to use it, or how. There was a very real sense that the whole venture was being made up as it went along.
While working my way through some old filing cabinets in the back offices of the War Rooms, I was delighted to uncover a letter that adds new colour to this aspect of the site’s history. It was written by Brigadier GMO Davy in response to a call for information about the site from historians at the Imperial War Museums. “War was in sight,” wrote Davy, “and [the deputy director of operations at the War Office] asked me if I would stick up the relevant maps in the basement war room… Work space was limited among the concrete and he told me to go and look at it. I did, and when I went back and asked what maps he had in mind, he said: ‘Your guess is as good as mine!’”
There it is again – that need to improvise, to make decisions on the spot, and to do so with authority, efficiency and dependability. After all, these weren’t just any old maps; they were the maps to be used in the Map Room – the single most important room in the whole underground complex. It was here that a team of officers would sift through intelligence from every theatre of the war and arrange for it to be plotted on the maps that Davy provided. And it was here that the daily intelligence bulletin would be prepared – the bare facts of the war situation circulated every morning to the prime minister, the chiefs of staff and the king.
There were other fascinating details hidden away in the files: a BBC engineer’s memories of the liberties taken by Churchill with the scripts of his broadcast speeches (liberties that would have seen anyone else taken off the air), and a wonderfully evocative description of a colleague at work in the War Rooms “sitting at his desk… under the glare of a fluorescent tubular light, a man of intense energy and mental activity… He used to pore over his contours making calculations and noting the results in countless numbers of extremely small figures… his face always wreathed in smoke.”
Perhaps most remarkable of all was a letter written to the Imperial War Museums in 1983 on behalf of retired US signals officer Captain Ray Edghill. It was Edghill’s job to set up the secure transatlantic telephone calls between Churchill in the War Rooms and Roosevelt in the White House. On one occasion in late May 1944 he was allowed to listen in to the first few minutes of their conversation to check that there were no technical issues.
This is Ray’s recollection of that afternoon – as related in the letter by his wife Dorothy: “Churchill greeted Ray cordially, calling him by his first name… They talked about the similarity in their last names… about the United States… and particularly about old British coins and stamps. Ray mentioned he collected [them] and Churchill was very interested. Churchill offered Ray a cigar to smoke. Ray said he’d smoke it later, so Churchill gave him another one to smoke later. Ray was offered a drink of brandy, but refused because he was on duty. Churchill then continued to drink his brandy that was on a table beside his chair.
“Ray then set up the conference call and listened for the first few minutes to their conversation which was very friendly and cordial. President Roosevelt referred to Sir Winston Churchill as ‘Winnie’ saying: ‘Hello Winnie, how are you?’ Churchill referred to President Roosevelt as ‘Old Pal’… Then they talked for a long time about ‘a surprise attack’ to be made at night by moonlight about the 5th or 6th of June.”
They were talking, of course, about the plans for the Normandy Landings – plans that were devised in the War Rooms by the joint planners of the army, navy and air force, the results of which would be recorded on the walls of the Map Room just days later. It is an extraordinary glimpse into the secret world that existed beneath this otherwise anonymous corner of Whitehall, a world preserved so faithfully by the remarkable work of the Imperial War Museums.
The truth is, though, that many of the secrets of Churchill’s War Rooms have yet to be revealed, and some may never see the light of day. What other papers are still out there gathering dust in attics and cellars? What artifacts were taken from the site as mementoes in the last days of the war? (Ray Edghill, for example, admits visiting the site later in 1945 and retrieving the door sign to Mrs Churchill’s room from a bin). And what might a more modern eye see in a new search of the government’s archives, research that hasn’t been undertaken since the early 1980s? The story will never be fully told – and that, to me, is one of the many things that make the War Rooms so endlessly fascinating.