Episode 336 – Churchill’s War Rooms

March 1948. Sir Norman Brook had the foresight to propose the preservation of Churchill’s War Rooms.

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.

Top: the War Cabinet Room. Lower right: the men who worked in the room beginning in October 1940. Lower left: one of the many other “cabinets” – of documents – located in these top secret underground offices (I couldn’t resist).

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.

Back in the days of female staff wearing sensible heels and slim skirts, the steep stairs (hidden against the front of the “hatch”, with no railings, must have been a challenge to navigate.

Continuing down the basement halls, we came to this corner with a “weather” sign that was changed daily to let those working underground know what the weather was like above ground. “Windy” was a code word used to indicate air raids. Because workers in the war rooms were so deprived of fresh air (it was air-conditioned though!) and sunlight, they were required to spend time under sunlamps each week.

Churchill’s private secretary’s office. Secretary was an official male political/military job description, as opposed to “typists”. “Quiet please” was a reminder that Churchill abhorred noise. Even the typewriters were fitted with special “silenced” keys.

“Normal” things had to be dealt with from within the war rooms, like getting mail delivered to the outside world (post box on the left), but there were also lots of reminders that this was not a normal office in normal times, like the Schedule of Alarm Signals. There were lots of clocks in the offices – those on display were all set to 4:58 p.m., just 2 minutes before an important daily cabinet meeting.

Hidden behind a door labelled as the Prime Minister’s private bathroom was the hotline connecting Churchill to the Oval Office in the White House.

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.

A few of the items on display. Top left: images from the War Cabinet room. Top right: samples of correspondence, along with one of the “silent key” typewriters. Centre left: the basement was not originally intended as offices. “Lavatories” were pretty basic. Centre right: Churchill’s “to do” list for D Day, June 6, 1944. Bottom left: I particularly liked the quote from the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Bottom right: Germany surrenders unconditionally!! “THIS DOCUMENT IS THE PROPERTY OF HIS BRITANNIC MAJESTY’S GOVERNMENT) – SECRET
For the 24 hours ending 0700, 8th May, 1945.”

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.

The entrance to the first of 4 sections in the Churchill Museum, along with one of the most iconic paintings of the Prime Minister, by Graham Sutherland.

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”.

The accommodations, even for senior staff, were far from luxurious. These are the combined bedrooms/offices for (top to bottom): Major Desmond Morton, the PM’s Military Advisor; Brendan Bracken, the First Lord of the Admiralty and UK Minister of Information; and Norman Brook, the Deputy Secretary to the War Cabinet.

Churchill’s private dining room and kitchen. Like all Britons, Churchill was subject to rationing, but he had his own personal cook who was in charge of turning those rations into meals suitable to Churchill’s upper-class tastes. He was rumoured to have said “I am quite easy to please. I expect only the best.”

Top: Churchill’s bedroom. Bottom: Clementine Churchill’s bedroom, used during air raids over London when it was not safe to stay at Downing Street.

From top to bottom: (1) Radio room from which BBC wartime broadcasts could be made. (2) Switchboard room. (3) Typing pool. Up to 11 typists, working in 2-3 shifts, could use this room, sleeping in the bunks on the lower level when air raids or darkness (no streetlights in the city during the Blitz) prevented them from getting home. (4) “Emergency” sleeping/office space for senior staff. (5) General headquarters. Note the green phone with the “scrambler” box on the floor beside it. (6) Sir Edward Bridges’ room – Cabinet Secretary until 1946. (7) a portion of the 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.

In addition to tracking troop movements, German bombs launched at and landing in England were tracked. The unmanned “flying bombs” or “Doodlebugs” were especially scary because they could not be targetted; they were simply launched in vast numbers and landed/exploded at random.

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.


  1. Wow! I sent this to Jamie He served in Bosnia and he loved the book I got him on the wars.

    Thank you so much for exposing me to such unexpected treasures … throughout all the blogs. I feel overwhelmed! Xxxxxxxxxxxxxx


    Liked by 1 person

  2. ROSE: I’m with you.  Would have thought seeing this would not have been that interesting.  Amazing what we can learn if we are open to investigating new things. Thanks. Al

    Liked by 1 person

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