The daffodils have trumpeted in the coming of spring after what seems to have been a tortuously long winter. Then again, it comes across that way every year. The cherry blossom is shaking off its confetti while optimism filters through once more as Londoners unpeel their wintry layers and once more look up to witness the rebirth of their surroundings. The coming of spring also has the tendency to remind me just how lucky I am to exist in a ‘free’ society. This is something my generation takes so readily for granted. I grew up with both my parents’ experiences through WWII, but unless you yourself have experienced living through a war I don’t think you can really begin to understand the strain and hardships involved. I take one last look at the pelicans putting on their daily burlesque show on their grassy stage before climbing down the dark and ominous steps into the hidden bowels of the Cabinet War Rooms. Like a bucket of icy cold water, the mood is suddenly serious, for it is only now that I really come face to face with an understanding of other people’s fight for the benefit of our privilege.
The Cabinet War Rooms came about when it was decided just before the outbreak of WWII to disperse all key government offices in the event of Whitehall being directly hit from German aerial bombings. Built beneath what we now know as the New Public Offices on Great George Street next to Horse Guards it began as an emergency government centre but soon proved itself indispensable and became Britain’s Central War Room. Completed and operational on the 27th of August 1939, it couldn’t have come at a moment too soon with Germany invading Poland on September 1st and Britain declaring war on Germany two days after that. The rooms helped precipitate discussion and decision-making between the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and the chiefs of staff of all the armed forces. It was, in essence, very much the ‘brain’ in Britain’s war efforts. A total of 115 meetings were held here, the last of which was on the 28th March 1945, when the German Luftwaffe V-1 fly-bomb campaign against London came to an end.
Winston Churchill proved an inspirational leader not only to the armed forces but also to the people of Britain and particularly helped strengthen the resolve of Londoners through the Blitz. Not only was he arguably one of our greatest leaders but was a noted statesman, orator, Officer in the British Army, a historian, an artist and a Nobel Prize winning writer. You could contest that anyone who saw Britain through WWII would be considered ‘great’ but not just anyone could’ve done the job quite like Churchill. Neville Chamberlain certainly couldn’t, which is why he chose to step down as Prime Minister on the 10th of May, 1940. In a speech given to the House of Commons, Churchill openly criticised Chamberlain’s lack of diplomacy when he ignored Churchill’s advice to help defend the ports of Norway and Sweden, which resulted in Germany’s successful invasion of Norway, saying “you were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour, and you will have war.” Churchill had spent most of the 1930’s in political limbo, but stood firm and quite alone in his aversion to Hitler and the startling progression of the Third Reich. And again, in the early days of the war, Britain also stood quite alone in its opposition to Nazi Germany, which many believe led to the bombing assault on London and other strategic points in Britain that we know today as the Blitz. The first bombs were dropped by the Luftwaffe on the 7th of September 1940 and continued relentlessly for the next 76 consecutive nights and then sporadically up until the 10th of May 1941. Using the Thames as their guide and Tower Bridge as their ‘drop point’ the bombers were able to destroy more than a million London homes and kill over 20,000 London civilians. The intended goal of the bombing was to demoralize the British into conceding defeat and to significantly damage their war resourses. Through the rousing speeches of both Churchill and King George VI Britain was not only able to pick itself up but continued to operate and expand its efforts.
King George VI’s speech to the nation on the eve of the war
Churchill’s “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech ( 13 May 1940)
“We shall fight on the beaches” ( 4 June 1940)
“This was their finest hour” (18 June 1940)
The War Rooms are a rabbit warren of interlinking quarters, housing the Cabinet Room, a chief of staff Conference Room, a map room, staff dorms, an area for typists and switch operators, a transatlantic telephone room, a kitchen and Churchill’s office/bedroom. The format is all about functionality and the walls were mostly stripped bare or covered in maps. Even in the bedrooms personal items were kept to a minimum. Many rooms were in continual use and the long hours spent underground forced many of the staff to use sunlamps. Instead of being a deep level bunker it is much more shallow in the ground than I expected and seems more like an extended basement. Churchill was at first appalled that the War Rooms were not totally bomb-proof, claiming that he’d been “sold a pup” and although he preferred to sleep either in 10 Downing Street or the No.10 Annexe, he did see much of the war out from within these walls. This also tells us a lot about Churchill’s grit and personal tenacity, as a man who was determined not to desert London and its people in their hour of need.
The existence of the Cabinet War Rooms remained a total secret throughout the war. It was only revealed to the public after the war ended, when the place had been somewhat left abandoned. It could only be viewed by special appointment but growing interest was so great and the place was in such risk of detrimental wear and tear that it was resurrected and opened to the public by the Imperial War Museum in 1984.
As I emerge back into the real world I feel thankful, in more ways than one, to be able to see the sun again. Walking back through St. James’ Park I see attendants laying down fresh turf in readiness for the Royal Wedding at the end of this month. For now it is time to celebrate. Many may be forgiven in thinking our British reserve as an inadequacy but really it’s just our way of accepting the highs and lows of life with dignity, something that I hope will pervade for generations to come.