Hidden beneath the streets of Westminster in London is a secret underground network of rooms that played a major role in the Allied war effort. While ordinary citizens went about their business on the streets above, below them military strategists, government ministers and Winston Churchill himself were plotting the Allied route to victory, relatively protected from the threat of exploding bombs.
The need for a safe place in which the British War Cabinet could meet in case of emergency had been identified in 1936, following research by the Air Ministry into the devastation that World War I had inflicted on London.
In the summer of 1938, as the threat of war crept closer, a decision was taken to create a temporary government centre for emergency usage. That place turned out to be the basement of the New Public Offices (now the Treasury) which was specially adapted for their new role as functional war rooms, with quick access for senior military figures and safety provisions such as sandbags and solid wooden doors.
It was hoped that by keeping the government’s emergency base in London itself would reassure civilians that leaders had remained in the city during a crisis, rather than abandoning them for safety elsewhere.
The rooms became operational just days before Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. Two days later, Britain declared war on Germany.
Gone to ground
Neville Chamberlain used the facility just once, but it left a much greater impression on his successor, Winston Churchill. On entering for the first time as prime minister, in May 1940, Churchill is said to have declared: “This is a room from which I will direct the war.
The War Cabinet met here 115 times during World War II, mainly during the Blitz and, later, V-weapon attacks. In October 1940, Blitz fear led to the complex being reinforced with slabs of concrete up to three metres thick, providing some peace of mind, but even then the complex was in danger. Any bomb larger than 227kg would have been powerful enough to destroy it.
Subterranean living could be difficult – staff had to stand under sun lamps to get a daily dose of ‘sunlight’, and one woman nearly went blind after she forgot to wear goggles for a session. Weather indicator boards were used to keep those underground apprised of the weather outside, with ‘windy’ often used during heavy raids.
The Map Room – the bunker’s intelligence hub – was in use 24 hours a day, staffed by members of the Royal Navy, Army and RAF. Daily intelligence was analysed and delivered from here to the King and the Prime Minister. But intel of a more sensitive nature was dealt with in what appeared to be Churchill’s personal toilet.
The perfidious privy’s lavatory style lock was a delicate ruse – behind the otherwise unsecured door was actually a small storeroom, from which Churchill could speak to US President Franklin D Roosevelt in private, via a secure radio-telephone link. Their first call in what was officially the Transatlantic Telephone Room took place on 15 July 1943. Accommodation was also created for Churchill and his family and the prime minister made four broadcasts from his underground bedroom.
After the war, the rooms were left exactly as they were. As early as 1948, the question of public access to these historic rooms was raised, but the confidentiality of the work carried out there caused government concern. This didn’t stop visitation requests pouring in, so occasionally by request, small groups were allowed in. The War Rooms were finally opened to the public in 1984.
Highlights of a visit include Churchill’s Cabinet Room chair, gouged with anxious scratch marks, and the phone he used to speak to the US president.
What to look for?
The exhibition area houses a museum dedicated to the life of Winston Churchill, with many of his personal items on display, as well as the flag draped on his coffin.
A caricature of Adolf Hitler can be seen on a map in the Chiefs of Staff Conference Room, though no one is sure when this piece of graffiti first appeared.
An office-bedroom was made up for Churchill (as was a bedroom for his wife), although he is only known to have slept here a handful of times.
Transatlantic telephone room
The cupboard disguised as a lavatory concealed a direct phone link to the US president
The map room
This room was the nerve centre of the complex, where strategies were devised. A huge convoy map dominates one end, covered in pinholes which once represented the position of a convoy.
This article is taken from the November 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed.