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Private tour of the Churchill War Rooms From Churchill War Rooms Westminster
The Churchill War Rooms (once known as the ‘Cabinet War Rooms’) gave Winston Churchill’s wartime government a safe place to direct the war during the dark days of World War II. Safe in their underground rooms beneath London’s Whitehall, they met and slept in bunkers to plan Hitler’s defeat.
The War Rooms are only ten feet beneath London, spreading out beneath the Treasury, Horse Guards and Downing Street. They stretch over an area of three acres, and originally included a shooting range (for when the Germans invaded), a canteen and hospital. The vast majority of the rooms are still closed to the public, and tickets for the tour are limited to those involved in wartime planning.
The warren of corridors are rather narrow, but the rooms have been shorn of their doors so you can get a good look inside. As you stroll around the complex you’ll hear the atmospheric sounds of falling bombs, air-raid sirens, and some hurried steps clanging up the metal stairs.
The Cabinet Room was where Churchill met his Chiefs of Staff. The room has been festooned with the original papers strewn across the tabletops to get a feeling for the atmosphere.
The Map Room was perhaps the most important room in the entire complex. You can still see the original pin-riddled charts on the wall – the same ones they were looking at when the war was won. The Map Room was closed down immediately after VE day, and has remained undisturbed ever since.
The Transatlantic Telephone Room was how the British government kept in touch with Washington. The room seems remarkably small and cramped nowadays, and that’s because it was – it used to be a broom cupboard!
The top-secret telephone inside was codenamed Sigsaly, and had a scrambler located in the basement of Selfridges in Oxford Street, which enabled Churchill to talk to President Roosevelt in complete privacy.
The Prime Minister’s Room was where Winston Churchill made his famous radio broadcasts to the nation. He frequently slept inside it when bombing raids made it too dangerous to stay in No.10 Downing Street. You can still see his original bed, desk and troop maps pinned to the wall. You can even seen one of his famous cigars on the bedside table.
A visit to the Churchill War Rooms also includes the Churchill Museum – the biggest collection of Churchill memorabilia in Britain. As you’re walking around you’ll hear snippets of his famous speeches and see many of his clothes and personal effects – including his bowler hat and handgun.
This review originally appeared in his London blog
I went to the Churchill War Rooms today and it was pretty good. I thought it was going to be deep underground like a concrete bunker, ten miles down, reinforced with steel to withstand an atomic bomb. But no, it was nothing like that. It was literally just ten steps down from the street. It seemed to be housed in the basement of a big building in Whitehall, and probably stretches right under Downing Street. If Hitler aimed his bombs a bit better I’m sure he could have landed one on Churchill’s head.
They give you one of those big listening devices when you go in that looks like a 1980s mobile phone. I don’t usually bother listening to those things but the commentary wasn’t bad. You can hear stuff like falling bombs and sirens wailing, and the day-to-day bustle of people going about their business. Every time you pass a room there is a number on the wall and you have to type it into this big phone to get the commentary. They tell you about what went on there, what all the stuff is that you can see, and even a few diary readings from the people who did the job.
It’s quite atmospheric down there and it’s easy to imagine what it must have been like because the corridors are cramped and the ceilings are low, the lights are barely lit. It must have been pretty dark and smokey, judging by all the 1940s fag packets on the tables. These days they’d probably make you stand outside in the street if you wanted a puff, even whilst the bombs were falling. But judging by the amount of ashtrays on the desks down there everyone was puffing like a steam train.
The first room you come to is the best of the lot: the War Cabinet Room. It’s got the table and chairs around which the big man sat, with all his bigwigs and military men. Winston’s seat is in the middle and the rest are right on top of him – two-feet from his face.
It’s very cramped down there. You’ve probably got the twenty most important people in London sitting in twenty square-feet. They play you a dramatised transcript of one of the meetings so you can hear what went on. It’s quite amusing to hear Churchill pretending to be deaf to fob off someone’s arguments.
Then you go past the secret telephone scrambler room, which was cunningly disguised as the Prime Minister’s personal toilet. It’s even has one of those ’engaged’ locks on the door to keep people out. I wonder what people thought when he came out two hours later.
After that you have to make a detour through the Churchill Museum, which is basically just one big room with lots of cabinets and push-button TV screens. They’ve got all the obvious stuff in there like his bowler hat and cigar , and his Dirty Harry style handgun (it’s about a foot long!). They’ve got some of his paintings as well. Luckily for us he was better at politics than he was at painting. You can listen to his speeches and watch a movie of his State Funeral if you want. I just used that as an excuse to sit down, to be honest, but it was quite interesting to see people like Atlee (I think it was Atlee) in the 1960s, shuffling up the steps of St. Paul’s to pay his respects.
After the museum you go back on the tour and see the kitchen and bedrooms. Let me be honest: if I paid to stay in a hotel with bedrooms like that I would have left after ten minutes. There’s no luxury in the War Rooms at all. Winston’s bedroom is about the size of my bathroom. You can see all of his battle maps on the wall and a cigar by his bed (who takes a cigar to bed?). His wife’s room is a bit nicer, with a pink bedspread and a pretty cup and saucer. He certainly knew how to woo the ladies.
After that you come to the Chief of Staff’s Conference Room and the Map Room. They are decked out with military maps and telephones, plus and some waxwork soldiers acting out their roles, so it looks as if the staff are still going about their business.
It’s definitely worth a visit – as long as you don’t mind sharing the dark and dusty concrete corridors with a load of old men reliving their youth.
> Read Craig’s latest review of the Churchill War Rooms “I quite like World War II. It seems like a lot of fun. But obviously I say that as someone who has never fought a fight in his life. The closest I’ve come to war is watching Rambo on the telly. The Churchill War Rooms did a very good job of transporting me back in time to how it was in the Blitz, evoking nostalgic thoughts of things I never did. I could almost smell the army issue fags and hear the tring tring tring of Bakerlite telephones. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the ceilings shaking and dust flooding the tunnels as a bomb drops on Whitehall. The whole place is a portal back to the 1940s… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of the Imperial War Museum “I’m back at the Imperial War Museum today. It’s been closed for quite a while because they’ve been refurbishing the inside, so I’m quite interested to see how it’s turned out. I like a bit of war (as long as I don’t have to do any of the fighting). I am from a generation where Nazis were just the bad guys in Indiana Jones movies, and not the ones rampaging across Europe killing millions of Jews, so war still has the derring-do of Commando comics to me. The entry hall has been… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of RAF Museum “I saw Band of Brothers on the telly last night so that got me in the mood for World War II. I love a bit of World War II. I love it so much, in fact, that I might start World War III so we can have a re-run. We wouldn’t have much chance of winning it now though. Our army these days consists of six guns, two tanks and a clapped out jeep. Instead of telephoning America two years after it started we’d be begging them to bail us out before we’d even fired a shot. That’s why you need to come to a place like… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of Bletchley Park “I went to Bletchley Park yesterday. That’s where they cracked all of the Enigma codes in World War II. Unfortunately I can’t tell you anything about it because it’s all top secret, and they would kill me if I told you where it was. They make you sign the Official Secrets Act before you go inside, and then wipe your brain of all memories when you come out (seriously). I can’t even remember who I am now. Ha ha… only joking. It’s a big tourist attraction now so you don’t have to worry. They even let the Germans in. Seventy years ago they would have had to slip in under the cover of darkness… continued.”
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If you’re interested in the Second World War then don’t miss the Imperial War Museum. The World War II battlecruiser HMS Belfast is also worth a visit. The RAF Museum has a great collection of Battle of Britain planes, and you can see where they cracked the Enigma codes at Bletchley Park. You might like to look at our page of military attractions in London as well, and the upcoming military events and exhibitions.
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