Churchill War Rooms review
You know that war's inevitable when they start digging government bomb shelters. Chamberlain began planning these four months before his 'Peace In Our Time' speech, so while he was standing on the tarmac waving that little piece of paper about he was simultaneously ordering the furious digging and drilling beneath the Treasury. They got the whole thing rushed and done just one week before his declaration of war. The first bomb dropped four months later and Churchill took over four months after that.
The Churchill War Rooms aren't much to look at from the outside, just a door and some descending stairs that go down about fifteen feet. The first time I came here I was expecting a proper bunker not a basement, i.e., something that you reached in a military lift. But in reality it's just 15 steps beneath the street. Then you pass the shop and toilets and ticket desk, pick up some headphones, put them on, reset your imagination to May 1940... and enter the world of the Blitz.
You'll be walking down long corridors supported by heavy metal girders with skinny wires snaking their way between buzzing lighbulbs -- the kind of lightbulbs that don't give out any light. They've got rifle racks and fire hoses on the walls, old signs swinging on hinges saying fire and water and exit this way, and a couple of waxwork soldiers guarding the restricted areas.
The first room you see is the most important one: the War Cabinet Room. They've laid everything out exactly as it was with Churchill's chair in the middle, his desk decorated with a cheap tin ashtray and a half-chewed cigar. Everyone else has got a dog-eared paper pad and pencil stub.
Next up is the pokey little Transatlantic Telephone Room where he plotted with the President. It's no bigger than a broom cupboard really, just a desk and a telephone and a waxwork Churchill with a big cigar in his hand.
After that you have to make a detour through the Churchill Museum which is easily the best WW2 museum in London (definitely better than the Imperial War Museum). It's like a shrine to Churchill. You'll find everything in here from news reels and posters to photos and postcards. They've got his letters and self-penned books, his black bowler hat, his red romper suit and military uniforms, and even the pistol he would have brandished had the Nazis made it all the way to Horse Guards.
Most interesting are the diary writings from his staff. They all seemed to find him absolutely infuriating, but loved him nonetheless. Even his wife Clemmie seemed to battle with him daily, but I get the impression that he was a big softie when it came to her. He'd argue with her and drive her mad and then regret every single word he said. You'll also learn lots of nice little details like how many cigars he smoked a day (eight... including one straight after breakfast), and his favourite brand of champagne (but not for breakfast -- he had wine with breakfast). More booze at lunch, one for dinner and a brandy before bed. You can't help but admire the guy.
You get lots of information about the build up to the war and the battles, and a bit about the Enigma machine. After that comes his collection of medals and honourable citizenships, plus a couple of his watercolour paintings.
Then you get to watch his State funeral at St. Paul's. I definitely recommend sitting down and watching this movie. It covers the whole thing from start to finish and has some of the saddest sounds you'll ever hear: especially the slow, shuffling footsteps up the stairs as they carry his coffin inside. It's just a sea of sad faces and a few flags flapping against their poles and the muffled thud of the bells. It chokes me up every time.
After that you head back onto the tour and see a series of pokey little bedrooms for the detectives and military advisors. They're not much bigger than prisons cells -- just a tubular bed and an itchy rug, maybe a rug if they're lucky. You can see their p|ss-pots under the mattress and their toothbrush and mug, and even an Ebenezer Scrooge-like candle stub melted onto a saucer.
After that comes the Chiefs of Staff Conference Room... strangely placed next to Clemmie's bedroom. So you've got the heads of the Army, Air Force and Royal Navy discussing battle plans on one side of the wall and the flowery bedspread of Winston's wife on the other.
Then you walk past some secretaries peering into little mirrors and doing their best to doll themselves up in the dark. Amongst all the pots of pens and pencils and faded papers are a couple of candles and gas marks, and you get an idea of what this place must have been like during the war. One minute they were typing out a letter on a clunky old typewriter and the next minute it was a deafening air raid siren and dust flooding the tunnels.
After a few more pokey little rooms you reach the HQ of the Home Forces with desks covered in folders and files and ink pots, pens, stacks and racks of letters (all exactly how they were in the war). There's a big filing cabinet at the back and a couple of red telephones... plus a sand bucket and shovel in case the Germans dropped a bomb on the roof.
Next comes the Map Room with huge charts and graphs and plans punctured with pin-pricks and coloured strings tracing out the shifting front. It's like a war game on the wall. They've got a long desk with a spider of wires and ten telephones on it: black and white ones, red and green, they probably had the PM on one line, General Ismay on another. The desk is overflowing with more piles of files and folders marked 'Important!' and 'Immediate!' and I'm guessing these waxworks never had a tea break -- and never slept either judging by all the ringing and binging phones constantly sounding off on the speakers. In other parts of the War Room you hear sirens, but in here it's telephones. Apparently they left this room exactly as it was at the end of the war -- even down to the rationed sugar-lumps on the table. They froze it and closed it, and here it is behind a pane of glass... a perfectly preserved piece of 1945.
The final stop is Churchill's plush bedroom with a chamber pot and candle by the bed (and his obligatory cigar, of course) and a big desk and microphone where he recorded some of his most important speeches.
It's worth mentioning that they have a very good shop at the Churchill War Rooms if you're into WW2. They have a huge selection of books and memoirs and wartime posters and postcards from the forties.
I’ve been here before…
Events at Churchill War Rooms…
|Military events in May|
|Military events in June|
|Military events in July|