Ted has been looking forward to today for 5 years. In 2017 when we visited London as part of an escorted tour, we ran out of time on our free day, so touring the Churchill’s War Rooms at the Imperial War Museum was high on our list for this year.
I honestly didn’t think I’d be that interested, despite having watched several recent movie and TV depictions of the famous statesman: Gary Oldman in The Darkest Hour, John Lithgow in The Crown, Brian Cox in Churchill, and Timothy Spall in The King’s Speech.
I was wrong. The exhibits in the War Rooms are fascinating as an insight not only into Churchill as a politician and strategist, but also into the lives of those working in the underground offices, from aides and military staff to secretaries, typists, and even Churchill’s cook.
This was the secret underground headquarters where the British military strategy of World War II was discussed and ultimately decided.
An audio guide that comes with the £26 per person senior rate admission ($28USD/$38CAD) narrates the stories of 29 different rooms; there are lots of signs, audio, and videos that supplement that, especially in the Churchill Museum area adjacent to the War Rooms.
We entered the basement – and it really does just look like a concrete basement meant for storage – and immediately got a look into the room where all the strategies were hatched. Although we now look in at the table and chairs through large glass windows, during the war it would have been a sealed room filled with smoke from Churchill’s famous cigar, lots of cigarettes, and men. Only men.
Soon after we passed steep stairs leading to an even lower level, where staff slept in bunks when air raids prevented them from being able to,go home. Everyone who worked here had a packed suitcase in the building “just in case”; the higher ranking staff had small private bedrooms in which they could store a few things.
Before continuing on to the rest of the “war rooms”, there was a large room with display cases containing documents and artifacts, and video screens playing interviews with some of the support staff who had worked here during those critical war years. I found it particularly fascinating and inspiring to hear the stories of the young women (quite old women as they retold them) who worked long hours underground and then walked home – often through now unfamiliar recently bombed streets – knowing that they were privy to information that would change the tide of the war. One elderly lady who had been in the typing pool said “I don’t know what would have happened if I had been captured. I’ll never know if I could have endured interrogation or torture. Fortunately I was never tested.” It’s hard to imagine life like that, and really puts our own “job issues” into stark perspective.
We then detoured into the Churchill Museum, set up in a large room off the end of a hallway. The exhibits are broken into 4 eras, beginning with the war years, to tie into the rest of the museum, and then moving into Churchill’s life and careers pre- and post-war.
What we found interesting was that the museum was not set up to glorify Churchill, but presented him as a complete picture, along with his flaws. In addition to quotes from people who found him a difficult taskmaster, there were also records of times when he was on the wrong side of history. It’s the kind of balanced historic record we don’t often see.
One of the “extra” artifacts kept in the basement is the door to Number 10 Downing Street, the UK Prime Minister’s residence, that was in place when Churchill was PM.
We then continued our tour of the War Rooms, beginning with staff offices and bedrooms, and Churchill’s dining room and kitchen, before reaching the famous “map room”.
Several of the exhibits included soundbites from the war years’ news broadcasts, or transcripts of long-since declassified discussions about strategy. It was eye-opening. Had Churchill not prevailed in many cases, and had his speeches not been so inspiring to the British public, the England we’re visiting could be a very different country, in a very different world.
Coming out into the bright sunshine after touring the War Rooms really brought home the sacrifices made by those working underground during the war. Thank goodness they did.