Travels through Historical Fiction: the Cabinet War Rooms
As we begin History Imagined’s second year, I am excited about beginning a new series of posts, as well. They will be organized around places distant and near that I have been fortunate enough to visit or have placed on my bucket list. As a devotee of all things historical, I rarely miss an opportunity to peek into the past of any location in which I find myself, and being a complete Anglophile, the United Kingdom felt like a wonderful place to start. One of my favorite discoveries there is the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms, major exhibits of the Imperial War Museums.
The Cabinet War Rooms are a complex of basement and sub-basement level rooms and passages used by Churchill and his staff at the height of World War II. They served as the bunker that sheltered the most critical government and military officials during air raids and the Blitz. The rooms’ location was, of course, a secret of the highest order. The Cabinet War Rooms still stand beneath the Treasury Building in Whitehall in the heart of London’s Westminster section and are part of the Imperial War Museums system, which has locations throughout the UK. The entrance to the War Rooms, where tourists begin their visits, is located at the Clive Steps on King Charles Street, London, SW1A2AQ.
During our first trip to London in 1983, the Cabinet War Rooms were not available for public viewing, but by the time we returned in 1992, they were open for business. Being in the space where the wartime prime minister and his cabinet and staff planned Britain’s response to Hitler’s monstrous evil increased the already considerable awe and reverence in which I held Churchill. The passageways are narrow, the alcoves and rooms where the work was accomplished are almost too small for the amount of necessary furniture, and the accommodations were utilitarian at best, but it was from these cramped, stuffy, underground spaces that Churchill and Britain waged a war that would determine their very survival and that of the Free World.
Winston Churchill, like all human beings, had his faults, not the least being intransigence and arrogance, but his strengths far outweighed his personal failings. His leadership during one of the darkest periods of British history makes him one of my personal heroes.
Cressida Finch of the Imperial War Museums shares this brief history of the Cabinet War Rooms:
During the Second World War, a group of basement offices in Whitehall served as the centre of Britain’s war effort. The complex, known as the Cabinet War Rooms, was occupied by leading government ministers, military strategists and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Plans to evacuate the prime minister, cabinet and essential staff from London were drawn up as early as the 1920s, but concern that Londoners would feel abandoned if the prime minister and government were in a safe place, and issues about the speed of evacuation, led to a search for an emergency shelter in central London.
In June 1938 the New Public Offices building was selected. It was near Parliament, with a strong steel frame and a large basement.
The basement was adapted to provide meeting places for the War Cabinet during air raids and also housed a military information centre based around a ‘Map Room’. Here, vital information for King George VI, Prime Minister Churchill and the armed forces was collected.
The Cabinet War Rooms became fully operational on 27 August 1939, a week before Britain declared war on Germany.
The Cabinet War Rooms were in use 24 hours a day until 16 August 1945, when the lights were turned off in the Map Room for the first time in six years.
In 1984, IWM opened the rooms to the public for the first time and they can be visited today.
In 2005 HM the Queen opened the Churchill Museum, which examines the life and work of Winston Churchill.
Plans by Nick Catford from his book Secret Underground London
Use of the above drawings graciously permitted by Nick Catford. You can read more about Nick’s research at Subterranea Britannica and purchase his excellent resource and guide to underground London Here.
- http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/sep/06/blitz-night-fire-new-war, accessed 11/17/2015.
- http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/a-short-history-of-the-cabinet-war-rooms, accessed 11/16/2015.