For many who weren’t alive during it, the Second World War tends to be thought of as a conflict that took place pretty much everywhere than on British shores – but those who lived through it or are eager students of history are only too aware of the devastation caused by the war on many UK cities thanks to ‘The Blitz’. Moreover, vestiges of its experience – and, in some ways, its scars – are dotted here, there and everywhere throughout the country; some of them, admittedly, hidden. A good, fascinating, impressive and even uplifting example of which are the Churchill War Rooms located slap-bang in the centre of the capital and, nowadays, an important attraction visited by thousands each year.
If you have any interest in British – or, indeed, wartime – history, then it really can’t be emphasised enough just how rewarding a trip to this subterranean lair is where, during the late 1930s and for much of the 1940s, the British Prime Minister, his Cabinet and his military chiefs and advisors hunkered down in order to avoid being bombed in buildings (like Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament) within mere walking distance above ground.
Actually today part of the equally must-visit attraction that’s the Imperial War Museum in South London, this Westminster venue is split into two parts – the Cabinet War Rooms themselves (preserved, as much as possible, just as they were when left by dignitaries and staff just over 70 years ago) and the Churchill Museum, a biographical museum dedicated to the remarkable life and career of Britain’s legendary leader, Sir Winston Churchill.
The Cabinet War Rooms became operational in August 1939, just weeks before World War Two began, and were eventually abandoned six years later following the surrender of Japan to the Allied powers. During that time, the secure facility’s map room was in use 24-hours-a-day and manned by officers of Britain’s combined military forces, responsible as they were for daily intelligence briefings to the PM and the nation’s King, among others. The facility’s specific Cabinet room was used from May 1940 onwards (following Churchill’s ascension to Prime Minister), following his declaration that ‘this is the room from which I will direct the war’.
However, the underground lair also housed rooms for typists and switchboard operators, dormitories for Cabinet-related and military staff and private bedrooms for officers and senior government ministers, as well as a Transatlantic telephone room (which enabled Churchill to talk securely with the US president, Franklin D. Roosevelt) and his own office-bedroom, the latter of which contained BBC broadcasting equipment and has been preserved to include many personal effects that visitors can see today.
Opened to the public at last in 1984 in a ceremony attended by surviving relatives of the one-time Prime Minister, the Rooms became a major tourist attraction in the mid-2000s when expansion work ensured its spaces that had been used as accommodation for Churchill, his wife, his daughter and close associates could be safely opened up and the biographical museum also opened on the site.
Since then, the place has become a firm fixture of London’s hub of wartime-related venues that are available to the public and give visitors – especially families on a short break in the capital (whether enjoying a stay in London hotel suites at the relatively nearby London City Suites by Montcalm or not) – a fantastic impression of what life and the impact of the Second World War was like for people in the city, across the British nation the wider world. So much so, in fact, that the attraction enjoys around 300,000 visitors each year – and in 2006 was the worthy winner of the Council of Europe’s Museum Prize.
So, if unearthing and, to some extent, experiencing London’s wartime past and stepping in the footsteps of one of the UK’s greatest ever leaders appeals to you, then you must take an hour or two out of your time in London to descend beneath Westminster and discover the world that exists in the Churchill War Rooms.