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  • Sarah

VISITING THE CHURCHILL WAR ROOMS, LONDON

A vast network of rooms and passageways underneath the streets of Westminster in London allowed Britain’s war cabinet to plan strategies and missions during the war in relative safety away from the repeated bombings by the Luftwaffe. Now a branch of the Imperial War Museum, the labyrinth of tunnels house the Cabinet War Rooms, the Churchill Museum and an exhibition about life for all of the staff who worked in the bunker during the war.

Cabinet Room in Churchill War Rooms
The Cabinet Room

Located beneath the Treasury building in Whitehall at the very heart of British government, the Cabinet Rooms were completed in 1938 as the threat of war was imminent and negotiations were underway but looking dubious. The idea for them had first been mooted in 1936 when the RAF determined that an aerial bombing of the capital could lead to countless civilian deaths and officials realised that the government would need somewhere to stay safe and keep the wheels turning. Plans were made for staff to move out of London, but also for there to be somewhere for them to go in the event of bombing.


The basement of a government building was identified as a suitable place and work hurriedly took place to extend and convert it. Walls were reinforced, soundproofing, ventilation and water pumps were installed, communication and broadcasting systems were wired in. Meanwhile, the decision was made for a central War Office to be formed to give government staff and military easy access to each other. The rooms were completed just days before the declaration of war in September 1939.

One of the offices in Churchill War Rooms

Little used under Chamberlain, Churchill declared that he would run the war from these rooms, and they became the focal point for the decision making process of the war. During the Blitz in 1940 a huge 5 foot thick steel reinforced concrete slab was installed for added protection, and the whole area was extended still further with additional rooms including bedrooms and accommodation, not just for Churchill but also for staff, so they did not have to venture out during the bombing raids.

A bedroom in Churchill War Rooms

The War Rooms were in continuous use until 1945 when the war in Japan ended; the lights were turned out for the first time in 6 years and everyone went home.


Over the following years some of the rooms were used for storage, with the more important rooms being kept as they were due to their historical significance.


They were not open to the public but some people were allowed to visit with special permission, and over the years there was such demand to see them that they were handed to the Imperial War Museum who opened them up to the public, in a ceremony officiated by Margaret Thatcher, in 1984. A museum dedicated to Churchill's life was incorporated within, and the whole place was rebranded as the Churchill War Rooms in 2010.


Your visit starts, once you have descended the stairs into the basement and picked up your audio guide, with the main cabinet war room, laid out exactly as it was during the war. Churchill’s wooden chair sits right in the middle and it is easy to imagine how this room must once have been with the discussions and negotiations which must have raged within its walls.

Telephonist in Churchill War Rooms

The whole place is a huge maze of tunnels and rooms, some of which are behind glass, many with costumed mannequins to bring the rooms to life.


Staff lived down there for most of the war; many could go weeks without seeing daylight or feeling fresh air on their faces. Although people such as Churchill had their own rooms, others had to sleep in dormitories in claustrophobic and unhealthy conditions.


There are countless bedrooms, offices, communications rooms, kitchens, typing pools and more, all very basic with brick walls painted in a utilitarian cream colour with pipes and wires running between them. There was little ornamentation or decoration; it is basic and rather bleak, and must have been hard work for those who were confined underground for much of the war.


A highlight of the visit is the map room which was staffed 24 hours a day and which has not been touched since the war, with maps on every wall, still with drawing pins in them to mark out the various campaigns. Another is the old broom closet that had been disguised as Churchill’s loo but was actually a Transatlantic Telephone room where he used to speak to the President of the USA without being overheard, everyone thinking it was improper to loiter outside.

The Churchill museum is incredibly comprehensive and provides information about his entire life, including all of his early military career, his political campaigning and his latter days after the war. There are plenty of interactive screens and devices to keep children entertained and the whole museum is well thought out. The only downside is that it was utterly packed with people; you really do have to fight your way around and through crowds at times. Museum fatigue sets in quickly in such situations, and the lack of daylight adds to the slightly claustrophobic nature of the place.


It is highly educational, very interesting and most definitely worth a visit. Just outside is St.James Park which makes a great place to get something to eat and to watch the resident pelicans while you enjoy some welcome fresh air after your time underground.

 

Visiting Churchill War Rooms

Opening Hours:

Every day from 9.30am - 6pm

Closed 24 - 26 December


Ticket Prices:

Adults £30

Children £15

Other concessions and family tickets available


I strongly recommend pre-booking tickets to visit the War Rooms, as the queues can be large, even in the colder months. If you pre-book, you just show up at the allotted time and you get guaranteed entrance and usually will get to walk straight in. For the people who just show up on the day, they face a long and uncertain wait as to if they will even get in, and on my visit, we did overhear grumbling in the ranks as we walked past them, trying not to look too smug.


Nearest tube stop: Westminster which is 3 minutes walk away.

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