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 Posted Thursday, November 22, 2001

I had the good fortune to be shown over these entire Cabinet War Rooms in 1966, before the Auschwitz-style 'reconstructers' could get to work on the fabric of the underground labyrinth. -- David Irving

The Times

London, Thursday, November 22, 2001


Churchill's secret lair


WINSTON Churchill waged the war against Germany from his vast underground bunker between champagne-fuelled lunches and afternoon naps. Our correspondent gets a first glimpse of Cabinet war rooms sealed for decades.

Deep beneath the pavements of Whitehall lies a labyrinthine village, a network of narrow passages and tiny rooms secretly built before the Second World War, where some 2,000 people, from Cabinet ministers to typists, waged a cramped, subterranean war, working around the clock. Here, protected from the bombs by a layer of concrete five feet thick, Churchill slept, dined, consulted his advisers and maps, wrote his speeches and spoke from a transatlantic telephone room, disguised as the Prime Minister's private loo, to President Roosevelt.

But the atmosphere inside Churchill's lair, as the war dragged on, was closer to Osama bin Laden's hideout in a dank cave somewhere in Afghanistan, than the gleaming high-tech war room of modern times. Here Britain's most senior warriors hunkered down, planning and plotting, with rats underfoot, the air fetid, while the bombs rained overhead.

A handful of these Cabinet war rooms, underneath the government offices overlooking Saint James's Park, were opened to the public in the 1980s, but most have remained sealed since the war. Now the Imperial War Museum has been granted permission to open them up again, with the aid of £2 million from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, to create a new museum dedicated to Churchill's life and times, while precisely restoring all the private quarters used by the Churchills.

When the rooms are reopened, visitors will be able to see the kitchen where Churchill's meals were cooked, his private dining room, and the complete warren-like military nerve centre where so many men (and almost as many women) toiled to defeat Hitler. By the time "Project Churchill" is completed early in 2003, 90 per cent of the area in use in the run-up to D-Day will be accessible again. As Britain fights another conflict in distant Afghanistan, the vast underground shelter provides an extraordinary contrast, a vivid reminder of how war was fought in another, sepia-tinted age.

"This is the room from which I will lead the war," Churchill declared in May, 1940, when he visited the Cabinet War Room for the first time.

Churchill has been recalled many times in the current war on terrorism. The spirit of the Blitz has been evoked on both sides of the Atlantic, and in their speeches both Tony Blair and George W. Bush have sought to scale the heights of Churchillian rhetoric. A bust of Sir Winston now stands in the Oval Office.

And yet, a tour of the musty, long-sealed world 50ft beneath London's streets demonstrates how very differently Churchill made war. The bunker is now crawling with workmen in hard hats, but one has an eerie sense that its uniformed occupants of 60 years ago have only just left: in the corner of one room is a box of glass transparencies, aerial photographs of the bombing of German cities, identified in careful copperplate and abandoned after victory, when military staff simply locked up and left.

This was a war fought with drawing pins and bits of coloured wool, with pen and ink in dusty corners, in rooms so gloomy that sun-lamps were brought in to try to boost the vitamin D levels of workers living a troglodyte existence in a six-acre underground maze with more than a mile of corridors. By contrast, Blair's war day is a frenetic succession of carefully measured meetings, travel, public statements, private e-mails and telephone calls, starting at 8am and ending when the last call is made to the US, often after midnight. Modern technology ensures that information moves at blinding speed, between individuals, departments and capitals; the rules of modern politics require that as much time is spent on presentation as policy. Coloured pins on wall maps showed Churchill the Second World War's approximate progress; Blair gets a daily computer printout, depicting the bombing of Afghanistan with pinpoint accuracy.

If Blair seems more exhausted after two months of war than Churchill ever appeared, that may be because the modern Prime Minister must fight a public war, under permanent scrutiny, on a stage rather than in a bunker. Churchill could spend days, personally crafting and honing a single speech, a luxury denied his modern counterpart.

One of the overriding impressions of the Cabinet War Rooms is how private, informal, sedentary and secret they were, and how shaped by the war leader's personality and idiosyncratic rhythms. Churchill could run the war exactly the way he wanted, and the underground maze beneath Whitehall, soon to be restored to the way it was in wartime, proves that he did exactly that.

Blair moves in an iron wartime security bubble, where Churchill strolled to work. When the bombs started falling Churchill was more often to be found on top of the building, observing the destruction from the roof of what is now the Treasury Building, than safely underground. "He tended to put his head above the parapet," says Phil Reed, director of the Cabinet War Rooms.

After October 1940, when 10 Downing Street was damaged, and a bomb landed a few hundred yards from the underground complex, Churchill remarked nonchalantly: "Pity it wasn't a bit nearer so that we might have tested our defences." From then on he began using the underground quarters more regularly, but grudgingly, preferring to sleep above ground rather than in the cramped private quarters beneath the concrete.

It is easy to see why. Although a kitchen was installed for the Prime Minister's cook, all water had to be pumped in by hand, while fresh air was circulated with vast ventilators, equipped with filters in the event of the feared gas attack. Churchill slept on a narrow single bed (although he is said to have insisted on a thicker mattress), in his own room, along with the regulation (crested) ministerial chamber pot, there being no sewer system in the complex. A sheltered bedroom, kitchen and dining room were installed for Mrs Churchill, as were bedrooms for the Churchills' private detectives, senior aides and secretarial staff, which are now undergoing restoration by HOK, architects to the Churchill project, under the direction of the conservationist Neil Cooke.

The unvarnished surroundings reflect the starkness of the job for which they were intended. The only decorations in Churchill's suite were military maps; the only personalised item was a table with folding legs for use in bed, which was altered to accommodate Churchill's expanded girth after he returned from America in 1941.

If the prime ministerial quarters were Spartan, the sleeping accommodation in the sub-basement, a floor down and now undergoing renovation, was even less comfortable. Known as Storey's Gate or "The Annexe", the bombproof government headquarters was designed to sleep and feed 270 people in 150 offices, rooms and dormitories. During air raids, when it was too dangerous to go home, in this dank sub-basement area known as "the dock", typists, civil servants and officers crammed together, sometimes as many as 30 to a room, under ceilings barely over five feet high. One of the most sophisticated items of technology, rigged up by Royal Engineers, was a button that could be pushed to turn on an electric cigarette lighter. Many young civilian women worked at the Cabinet War Room, and while the rats and spiders flourished, so did romance. As the Cabinet War Rooms guide observes discreetly: "A number of romances blossomed there during the war years."

Churchill set a punishing but peculiar pace for his underlings. Waking at about 8.30, he would light a cigar and hold court in bed, giving dictation or discussing developments with his senior military advisers. Lunch would be accompanied by copious champagne, followed by a mid-afternoon nap, in pyjamas, and then a bath -- an extra-large hot-water tank had to be installed because the preoccupied Prime Minister tended to forget that his bath had been run, allowing it to get cold, and thus requiring another bath to be filled. Churchill would then work until three or four in the morning, but even as he slept, his staff continued to work, producing the briefing that had to be ready for presentation to the Prime Minister first thing in the morning.

The stress told on even Churchill's granite constitution. "The adrenalin kept him going -- like Tony Blair, I'm sure -- but there were physical relapses, illnesses, and the famous 'black dog' depressions," says Mr Reed. Churchill's War Cabinet met underground no less than 115 times, as the course of the war was vetted, plotted and altered day and night. Here the London Control Section worked on "Fortitude", the deception plans for the D-Day invasion; nearby were the offices and sleeping quarters for the Double Cross (XX) Committee under John Masterman, which controlled turned German spies.

On August 18, 1945, the lights were switched off for the first time in six years, the doors were locked, and the huge bunker fell silent, awaiting another war. The Royal Marines had been responsible for cleaning the place during wartime, but after victory the dust settled and the spiders multiplied in peace. Through a bureaucratic error, no cleaners were issued with passes. In 1956, during the Suez crisis, there was a move to reuse the underground lair, but officials took a look at the accumulated dirt and thought better of it. The rooms were shuttered, closing down but also preserving an extraordinary slice of wartime history.

Blair's war -- of evanescent electronic signals, computers, shuttle diplomacy, snatched meals and photo-ops -- will leave few such traces, and no such places.

Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd.


... on this website:

  David Irving: Churchill's War, free download
Website note: Churchill's monthly desk calendars for the war years September 1939-1945 are available as a service to historians on CD Rom in pdf format for $50 from Focal Point Publications, 36 Hertford St, London W1J 7SE


Mr Irving writing at Key WestDavid Irving recalls:

I HAD the good fortune to be shown over these entire Cabinet War Rooms in 1966, before the Auschwitz-style "reconstructers" could get to work on the fabric of the underground labyrinth. I well remember those glass photographic plates: in fact there was a stereoscopic viewer in the entrance corridor, with aerial stereo views of the damage that RAF Bomber Command had done to Dresden; Churchill invited his more privileged visitors to gloat, looking through the viewing lenses. (I don't remember Hitler doing to same with pictures of Auschwitz or Buchenwald.) A befriended Cabinet minister (Duncan Sandys) secured a pass for me, to assist me in my Churchill biography and my second book The Mare's Nest. The solitary guardian unlocked all the doors for me, and showed me around, switching the lights on and off as we went from room to room. As reached the Cabinet conference room, with its horseshoe table, he paused at one place card, with a couple of Utility pencils neatly lined up before it, and nodded at the name on it: LEO AMERY. "Amery," he said in his Cockney accent. "They topped 'is son after the war. Treason." That was the first I ever learned of the fate of John Amery, brother of Julian (a more orthodox and recent Cabinet minister), who had remained in Berlin during the war, broadcast occasionally to England for Dr Joseph Goebbels, and pleaded guilty to treason at the Old Bailey in 1947; he was hanged two weeks later. It seems that a discreet veil had been drawn over John Amery, just as it has over his father Leo's Jewish origins. Eventually I will post here my 3-page description of the Cabinet War Rooms that I wrote at the time.


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