“ A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
[Sir Winston Churchill]
On a quite side street in the leafy heights of Neasden & Dollis Hill that screams suburban mediocrity, there is a door on a most non-descript brick wall that is in fact the entrance to one of WWII’s biggest secrets. For this door leads to what was intended as Churchill’s emergency Cabinet War Rooms during the war in response to the prospect that Whitehall’s war citadel was not immune from a direct hit by Hitler’s Luftwaffe. The site of Chartwell Court, 151 Brook Street was the pioneering communications research station (officially the Post Office Research and Development Station of Dollis Hill) where Tommy Flowers built Colossus, the world’s first electronic computer, before it was moved to Bletchley Park in order to aid break the Enigma code. Its conception came about as a result of the panic caused after the Munich Agreement of 1938. The settlement permitted the Nazi Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia’s borders that were inhabited by German speakers. It became know as the failed and final act of appeasement towards Hitler and prompted Neville Chamberlain and the other major powers of Europe to re-evaluate their own defences. It’s a perfect case of cloak and dagger, for until recently, the general public have not known of its existence and more surprisingly, even the government forgot where they had built it.
The final proposal for an underground, bombproof war headquarters was put forward on October 14th, 1938. Sir Warren Fisher (Permanent Secretary of the Treasury and the first ever Head of the Home Civil Service), Major General L C Hollis (Secretary to the Chiefs of Staff Committee) and General Sir Hastings Ismay (Chief of Staff to the Minister of Defense) headed the undercover operation of building the two-storey citadel 40 feet below ground. A facsimile of CWR1 in Whitehall, the 37 rooms incorporated a map room, a Cabinet room to seat up to 30 people and ancillary offices. A 5ft layer of concrete formed the protective ‘roof’, making it near impossible to destroy. The entrance was discreetly hidden inside the GPO research station as a decoy to suspicious eyes. Construction amounted to £250,000 and was completed in 18 months. Essential staff instantly manned the site in readiness for the unfolding threats of WWII. The codename ‘Paddock’ was coined by Winston Churchill (who succeeded Chamberlain as Prime Minister on May 10th 1940), perhaps in reference to the adjacent Willesden Paddocks racing stables on Paddock Road. When the Blitz of London began on September 7th 1940, Churchill immediately came to inspect Paddock, suggesting that the War Cabinet give it a dry run to ensure the bunker was capable of realizing its purpose, stating, “We must make sure that the centre of Government functions harmoniously and vigorously. This would not be possible under conditions of almost continuous air raids. A movement to Paddock by echelons of the War Cabinet, War Cabinet Secretariat, Chiefs of Staff Committee and Home Forces GHQ must now be planned and may even begin in some minor respects. War Cabinet Ministers should visit their quarters in Paddock and be ready to move there at short notice. They should be encouraged to sleep there if they want quiet nights. All measures should be taken to render habitable both the Citadel and Neville’s Court. Secrecy cannot be expected but publicity must be forbidden.” However, after Paddock hosted its first Cabinet meeting on October 3rd 1940, Churchill realized how damp and claustrophobic the conditions were inside the bunker. He wrote, “The accommodation at Paddock is quite unsuited to the conditions which have arisen. The War Cabinet cannot live and work there for weeks on end…Paddock should be treated as a last resort.” A second meeting utilized Paddock on March 10th 1941, but more as a PR stunt to dazzle the Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies. The meeting was chaired by Clement Attlee (the Lord Privy Seal and eventual successor as Prime Minister to Churchill), since Churchill had a sudden case of bronchial cold. In June 1941 the Axis alliance turned their attentions toward Russia and it suddenly became apparent that Paddock might not be required at all. The site was reduced to a skeleton of staff. When the German threat of V-weapons became apparent in 1943, Churchill decided to use the purpose-built North Rotunda (‘Anson’) in Westminster instead and had all the best furnishings moved over from Paddock. In 1944 the site had become superfluous and was locked up and left forsaken. The research Station closed in 1974 with the Post Office moving out in 1976 and since the 1980’s the site has been left to the forces of nature. When the land was rebuilt with new housing in 1998, Brent Council made it a requirement to maintain the bunker, to pump out the two feet of water that had seeped in over the years and to make safe and open it up to the public twice a year.
Although the pumps are still in place, a dark, mildewy and dank undercurrent still pervades. The mould and condensation hinders inquisitive fingers and the scarcity of furniture, the disparaged clues of its former life, the deafening drip-dripping from stalactite to stalagmite that penetrates the solitude, the stifling lack of fresh air reminds you of a sadness born of a life unlived, a vision unfulfilled. Such a massive effort was afforded in its undertaking: with blast-proof doors; massive ventilation shafts to combat all the heavy-smoking; a BBC studio and broadcasting room with fitted acoustic tiles; map rooms complete with window views to the army, naval and air forces; a battery storage room with floor tiles to combat corrosion from leaking battery fluid; tiny message and telegraph hatches; and even angled light fittings to highlight the map-room walls, – and for what? You can take it either way: nostalgia and remorse for its unfulfilled role in the war effort: or relief in the knowledge that we didn’t need to use it. Utilizing it would have meant that Hitler was gaining the upper hand. Churchill brought much wisdom and courage to the people of Britain during the darkest days of the war. He once famously said, “ A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” I believe Churchill saw the importance of Paddock for the sole reason that he hoped he would not have to use it, that not using it meant we were not defeated. The fact that Churchill disliked the space inside Paddock is also completely understandable, – it’s not supposed to be a livable or breathable space. Hitler eventually gave up bombing London because Londoners simply got back up, dusted themselves off and started rebuilding again. He could not get the better of the spirit of the British people…which is why the rousing words of Churchill played such an important to his people…as did the idea of Paddock to Churchill.
PADDOCK is open to the public in September each year as part of the Open House Weekend. (2013 dates – September 21st & 22nd)