Behind the Glass at the Cabinet War Rooms
As a Blue Badge Tourist Guide, the Cabinet War Rooms (often called the Churchill War Rooms) are somewhere I regularly give private tours.
It’s not the most comfortable of places. Essentially it’s a series of basement rooms that are cramped, artificially-lit and often have a slight smell.
But they’re also a literal time capsule from the Second World War, where every corridor and room are permeated with the presence of Winston Churchill.
The usual public tour allows you to see into all the rooms, protected by glass, but there’s also a ‘Behind the Glass’ tour where you can actually step inside the most historic rooms.
I’ve been lucky on a few occasions to accompany guests who’ve booked this special tour, but last month I was invited by the museum for a tour with curator Kate Clement, so I can now show you some of the amazing details from the Cabinet War Rooms…
Setting up the Cabinet War Rooms
After the First World War, Britain acknowledged that if there was ever another global war, aerial bombardment was something for which they must prepare. A bomb-proof office was a must.
There was a survey of appropriate government basement buildings and a shortlist was gathered. The best option seemed to be the western end of the New Public Offices on Great George Street, a stone’s throw from Downing Street and situated under a steel-framed, stone-clad, building that would later become The Treasury.
On 31 May 1938 everyone agreed this would be the location of a secret underground head quarters, from which the Prime Minister and his Chiefs of Staff from the Army, Navy and Air Force could meet, plan and execute wartime decisions.
General Sir Hastings Ismay, Lieutenant General Sir Leslie Hollis and a small team worked on kitting out the war rooms, adding safety features and equipping them as workable offices.
By 26 September 1938 the Central War Room, as it was then called, was ready for emergency use and it was fully operational by January 1940.
It became known as the Cabinet War Rooms.
On 10 May 1940 Hitler launched an attack in the Low Countries, Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister and by 6pm Churchill had taken up what would be his defining role, wartime Prime Minister.
The Cabinet War Room
A few days later Churchill entered the Cabinet War Rooms as Prime Minister. He stepped into this room, lit a cigar and pointed to the curved wooden chair at the head of the table.
This room has been left exactly as it would’ve appeared for the first meeting held here on 15 October 1940 at 5pm, prompted by an air raid the evening before, which damaged 10 Downing Street.
Stood behind his chair you can appreciate the stifling conditions of this room that at some points held 20 people.
Looking down at the arm of his chair you get a glimpse of the tension and stress shouldered by Churchill. On the left hand side are grooves left by repeatedly scratching his nails and wedding ring against into the wood.
This room wasn’t used continuously. In total it would host 115 meetings, mainly during The Blitz. After a hiatus, the Cabinet returned here from June to September 1944 (faced with the threat V1 flying bombs) then again from January 1945 (with the arrival of V2 rockets).
The last meeting held in this room was 28 March 1985.
You can see that the tables surround three seats in the centre, spaces for the head of the Army, Navy and Air Force who must’ve felt at times like they were back at school, called in to answer a dominating Headmaster.
Other details in the room include the ashtrays, don’t forget that most people would be smoking continuously despite the lack of air conditioning.
The Map Room
On tours I often describe entering the Map Room as climbing inside a huge computer. This was the nerve centre of the war where all the data crunching took place.
At this desk five men processed up-to-the-minute information from a global war into the reports sent to the King, Churchill and his Chiefs of Staff each morning.
Intelligence arrived via letters and phone and was translated by ‘plotters’ who adjusted the markers on huge maps plastered along the length of the walls.
Churchill was a regular visitor to the Map Room and even took maps from here to study in private. This book, with a whittled-down pencil, shows “PM” along the left hand column where Winston has checked out maps.
The row of telephone along the centre of the room were nicknamed ‘The Beauty Chorus’ by staff.
The white phones connected the War Rooms with each of the armed services, green was to intelligence sources and black indicated the outside world. The phones didn’t ring with a noise, but rather a flashing light showing there was news.
Dominating one end of the Map Room is a map of the Atlantic Ocean. As an Island, Britain was reliant on supplies arriving from the United States and each pin prick on the map shows a convoy that was risking the journey, hunted at every step by German U-Boat submarines.
A bar chart in the corner grimly reports the losses.
Even after VE day there was still work to be done in the map room. Only now they solely focused on the gains across the Pacific and Japanese mainland.
The Map Room would’ve been one of the first places to hear confirmation of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki then the message of surrender. The next day, 15 August 1945, the men working here gathered their things.
After over 2,000 days of continuous work, Map Room staff turned off the lights and left this room for the last time.
Only some things were forgotten.
Today when you visit you can see something odd on the desk of Wing Commander John Hegerty. It’s three lumps of sugar – a precious, rationed commodity – which Hegerty left locked in his desk. The cubes’ irregular shapes suggest that Hegerty carefully scraped the edges of the cubes, eeking out this precious sweetener for his tea.
Next door to the Map Room is this bedroom, arranged for Winston Churchill shortly after he became Prime Minister, on 27 July 1940.
It might look basic but it’s the only room with wall-to-wall carpet. It also bears other hallmarks of Churchill’s idiosyncrasies like a small humidor for his cigars.
The benefits of keeping him safe during the Blitz were obvious to everyone. Everyone except Churchill that is. He preferred to find a rooftop to watch the Air raids as if they were a fireworks display!
Churchill slept here after the first meeting in the War Rooms on 15 October 1940.
He only stayed overnight for a further two nights, preferring other, more comfortable, locations like the Downing Street, Parliament or Down Street (especially enjoying their wine cellar).
He did however use this room regularly as an office and the bed was useful for his afternoon naps.
The bed also seems to have been used for speech and letter writing. His assistant Sir John Colville recalls how he would lie in bed and dictate his letters or speeches to secretaries, “lying flat on his bed looking, I think, not quite proper”
It was also a place where Churchill broadcast four wartime radio broadcasts, like during the Battle of Britain when he rallied the country to do their duty.
“This is a time for everyone to stand together, and hold firm, as they are doing.”Winston Churchill, 11 September 1940
We can see the direct affect of his words on a member of the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) Maria Blewitt who upon hearing this speech, wrote to her mother saying “I have just been listening to Winston. Brilliant, inspiring but just a tiddly bit frightening.”
Visiting the Cabinet War Rooms
The Cabinet War Rooms are open daily, 9.30am-6pm and the ticket (adults are £27.50) includes an audio guide to aid your self-guided tour.
I offer private tours of the war rooms and many other locations and areas across London. You can find out more and send an inquiry form here.
The Behind the Glass private tours can be arranged via the Imperial War Museums website here.
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