Craig recommends… Here’s my latest Churchill War Rooms review. 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-era 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.
The Churchill War Rooms are No.5 in our list of London’s best museums.
The Churchill War Rooms provided the government with a safe place to direct the war during the darkest days of World War II. The underground rooms beneath Whitehall were never completely bombproof, but were the safest place for them to meet and sleep during the Blitz.
The warren of rooms are spread out beneath the modern-day Treasury building and Horse Guards and cover an area of three acres. They originally included a shooting range, canteen and even a hospital.
The corridors are rather narrow and 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 is still decorated with the original maps and papers strewn across the tabletops to giver you 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 on the day the war was finally won. The Map Room was closed down immediately after VE day and has laid 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 giant 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 slept inside it just a handful of times 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.
The Churchill Museum houses the largest collection of Churchill memorabilia in Britain, where you can hear his speeches and see many of his clothes and personal effects.
This review originally appeared in his blog
I was expecting the Churchill War Rooms to be deep underground like a concrete bunker, ten miles down, reinforced with steel to withstand an atomic bomblast. 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 the Treasury in Whitehall. If Hitler had aimed his bombs a bit better then I’m sure he could have collapsed the whole thing like a pack of cards.
The first thing they do is give you one of those big listening devices that looks like a 1980s mobile phone. I don’t usually bother listening to audioguides but the commentary really helped to bring the building alive. You can hear the day-to-day bustle of people going about their business alongside falling bombs and sirens wailing. Every time you pass a room there’s a number on the wall and you have to type it into this big phone to get the commentary. They explain what went on inside, what all the objects are, and even a few diary readings from the people who worked there during the war.
It’s extremely atmospheric and it’s easy to imagine what it must have been like because the narrow corridors close it all in. 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 fag break, even whilst the bombs were falling, but judging by the amount of ashtrays on the desks everyone must have puffing away like a steam train.
The first room you come to is the best of the lot: the War Cabinet Room. It still has the same table and chairs where the big man sat, surrounded by his bigwigs and military men. Winston’s seat is in the middle and the rest are right on top of him – literally three-feet from his face.
They play you a dramatised transcript of one of the meetings so you can hear what went on inside. 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 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 containing lots of glass cabinets and push-button TV screens with iconic items like his black bowler hat and cigar, and even his Dirty Harry style handgun (it’s about a foot long!). They showcase a couple of his watercolour paintings as well, but luckily for us he was a lot better at politics than he was at painting.
You can even sit down a watch a movie of his State Funeral, if you want. It’s quite interesting to see all the ageing names like Charles De Gaulle and Clement Atlee shuffling up the steps of St. Paul’s to pay their respects.
After the detour into the museum you rejoin the tour and see the nostalgic kitchen and bedrooms. Churchill’s bedroom even includes the same old battle maps he had pinned to the wall, plus a cigar by his bed (who takes a cigar to bed?).
After that you come to the Chief of Staff’s Conference Room and historic Map Room, still decked out with the same pin-pierced military maps and Bakelite telephones, plus some waxwork soldiers acting out their roles, so it looks as if the staff are still going about their business.
> Craig’s review of Churchill War Rooms – “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… continued”
If you enjoy this then try: HMS Belfast (catch the tube from Westminster to HMS Belfast); Imperial War Museum (walk it in 20 mins or catch a train from Westminster to Imperial War Museum) and National Army Museum (catch the tube from Westminster to National Army Museum).
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