The Churchill Museum & War Rooms

By Sharon Whitley Larsen ~ When friends ask us where they should go in London—after visiting the usual touristy sites such as Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, and surveying the city atop The London Eye—my husband Carl and I have just the answer. We frequently visit this popular, historic city and always recommend the Churchill Museum and War Rooms, which have been open to the public nearly 30 years.
It was here, in these secret underground rooms not far from Buckingham Palace, where Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a former army reporter hailing from a distinguished family, safely and successfully conducted World War II operations. And much of the rooms are eerily left—or at least reconstructed–just as they were during those dark days from 1939-1945. The same desks, wall clocks, telephones, chairs, typewriters, gas masks, cots, maps.
The only thing missing is the stuffy cigar and cigarette smoke and the occasional putrid smells from the primitive toilet facilities in these cramped quarters. It’s hard to imagine that Churchill and his staff—and, at times, his family—worked, lived, ate, and slept here. In fact, Churchill had relocated from the Prime Minister’s nearby official home at 10 Downing Street to the safer headquarters here dubbed “Number 10 Annexe.”
Known as a tough task master, he often endured 18-hour days, keeping his exhausted staff working late hours. Employing no speech writers, Churchill dictated his own, which inspired not only his fellow British citizens but worldwide allies. He delivered four impassioned wartime speeches from these Cabinet War Rooms.
Elizabeth Nel, one of his secretaries, remembered not completing a dictation until 4:30 one morning.
Her boss, she recalls on an audiotape, would pace the room while dictating, always with a cigar in his mouth–and always requested two carbon copies. “You must be prepared to go fast and for heavens sake don’t make any errors,” she remembered of those stressful days. Not seeing much light of day, she and other secretaries were known to use sun lamps to avoid vitamin D deficiency.
“He could be charming and generous,” one secretary recalled, “but also exasperating, rude, and bad tempered.” Yet he inspired devotion among his staff.
One displayed sign sums up the work routine: “There is to be no whistling or unnecessary noise in this passage.”
It was in 1938, with the ominous war clouds approaching, that a central emergency working area was selected for the War Cabinet and Chiefs of Staff—an emergency refuge safe from surprise bomb attacks. Basement storage rooms under the Office of Works and the Board of Trade were chosen for their ideal, central location and because of the fortified structure. With a staff of civil servants, military personnel, and government ministers, it opened on August 27, 1939—just one week before the outbreak of World War II.
As Churchill stood in the Cabinet Room, he proclaimed, “This is the room from which I will lead the war.” And that he successfully did. Some 115 war cabinet meetings were conducted here over the next six years, with Churchill seated in the larger chair in the center of the table, a massive world map on the wall behind him.
The Map Room, where the war was plotted, was staffed by various officers, including one each from the Royal Air Force, Army, and Royal Navy, 24 hours a day. Each morning at 8:00 a daily summary was prepared for King George VI, Prime Minister Churchill, and the Chiefs of Staff. In 1941 the Cabinet War Rooms were expanded to include bedrooms for the staff—and a bedroom, kitchen, and dining room for the Churchills. The lights were finally turned off on August 16, 1945, and books, documents, and furniture were placed in storage. The Transatlantic Telephone Room—via a complicated system where Churchill conducted strategic phone calls with President Franklin Roosevelt—had been left intact. In 1948 the government formally preserved the rooms, with guided tours beginning in 1984.
“It’s hard to imagine an entire country managing a war from such a relatively small space, yet that space is filled with so much history,” observed Michael Canepa of San Diego, Calif., when he toured the rooms during his first trip to London.
In 2005 Queen Elizabeth II opened the adjoining Churchill Museum, which encompasses a high-tech, multimedia display of lights, sounds, photos, news clips, and black and white news reels—some 1100 documents, 1150 images, and ten films–sharing important moments of his life, his distinctive voice blaring in some of his famous speeches. It’s here in the museum that visitors can see the books Churchill wrote, the artwork he painted, and other personal items, such as his hairbrush, wooden breakfast tray, silk bow tie—even his baby rattle and childhood toy soldiers. There are his school poetry, notebooks and letters, including one begging his rather distant parents to come visit him more often at the boarding school where he was sent at age 7, and was unhappy and lonely. There’s even an entry dated May 5, 1891, from the Harrow School punishment book that the future prime minister, then 16, received seven cane strokes for “breaking into premises and doing damage.”
“I was what grown-up people in their offhand way called a ‘troublesome boy,’” he later said.
It’s ironic that the creative, gifted, yet lonely youngster who received poor report cards, got into trouble now and then, and had a stammer—trouble saying his “s’s,” which was a challenge later for his secretaries taking dictation—became known as a world leader for his electrifying speeches: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat,” he proclaimed in his first speech as Prime Minister on May 13, 1940.
Special moments of his life are displayed here, allowing visitors to learn even more details from family photo albums, intimate letters, recordings, reminisces from his friends and staff—and even from Churchill himself, with his writings and radio broadcasts.
One black and white photo on display is of his beloved nanny, Elizabeth Everest, who died when he was 20. There’s even a June 27, 1940, letter from his wife of 56 years, Clementine: “My Darling—I hope you will forgive me if I tell you something that I feel you need to know”—then she sweetly admonishes him about the “deterioration” in the manner he treats his colleagues. The couple exchanged hundreds of letters, of which some 1700 survive. There are also letters from King George VI on Buckingham Palace letterhead, including one dated May 31, 1944, urging Churchill to reconsider his plan of having both of them participate in the D-Day landing: “I don’t think I need emphasize what it would mean to me personally and to the whole Allied cause, if at this juncture a chance bomb, torpedo, or even a mini should remove you from the scene. . . .”
The popular Prime Minister, who loved Havana cigars, smoked about eight each day, having the first after breakfast. (He was said to re-light and never inhale.) He also enjoyed fine wines–and French Pol Roger champagne with lunch. No matter how busy he was, he took a daily nap and two daily baths.
Not only was he a popular leader in wartime, known for his energy, ambition, and intelligence, but he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1953 and numerous other honors, including honorary U.S. citizenship (his mother was American-born).
It was an eerie irony that Churchill predicted that he would die on the anniversary of his father’s death—and he did, on January 24, 1965, aged 90. In one area of the museum is a BBC clip of his state funeral, the British royal family and other world leaders in attendance, held at St. Paul’s Cathedral on January 30, 1965. He was the first commoner to be honored with a state funeral since 1898, and his was the first commoner funeral attended by a reigning monarch.
If You Go
The Churchill Museum and War Rooms
For information on visiting hours, lectures, the gift shop, restaurant, and special exhibits: — —