The Churchill War Rooms:Site of Britain's Darkest Hour?
The tucked away entrance to the Churchill War Rooms.
The recent release of the Winston Churchill movie, Darkest Hour has brought one of London's most popular tourist attractions into even sharper focus. The movie, in which Gary Oldman brilliantly captures the look, mannerisms and voice of Britain's great wartime leader, is largely set in the Churchill War Rooms. However the rooms were not used as the location for the movie. I imagine the space would have been far too cramped and so studio sets were built. And they are incredibly accurate. Having spent much time in the War Rooms, the magic of the movies credibly conveys an accurate representation of how these vital rooms appeared then and now.
With the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany, It was essential that a secure and safe space was found from which the country could be run in the event of full scale war breaking out. The job of identifying and then equipping and preparing such a space fell to senior military officer, General Hastings Ismay (affectionately addressed by Churchill as "Pug". Have a look at his photograph and you'll understand why). With supreme military efficiency, Ismay set about his task and by May 1938, he had identified the space and by September of the same year, the rooms were ready for use. A year later, Britain was at war and the War Rooms came into immediate use.
The War Rooms, originally known as the Cabinet War Rooms, were created out of the basement space underneath the "New Public Offices". These buildings now house the Treasury and the Department for Media, Culture and Sport. Importantly, the buildings were constructed with a very strong steel frame and it was believed that this would afford an enhanced level of protection to staff. In the event this turned out to be very far from the truth.
Following the resignation of Chamberlain and Churchill's rise to the Premiership, the War Rooms became the focus of Political and Military decision making with the Chiefs of Staff and the War Cabinet working adjacent to each other in what seems to us to be a ridiculously confined space. It is hard to believe that Britain's war effort could be directed from the cramped and restricted spaces we see today. For the younger generation the idea that none of those objects of the digital age, Iphones, computers,TVs and so on that we take for granted, existed. This was an analogue war conducted using telephones, maps, drawing pins and bits of string.
The Churchill War Rooms should be on every visitor to London's list. To see the tiny room where Churchill spoke on the first transatlantic hotline to Roosevelt, is extraordinary. There is also a fascinating museum devoted to Churchill containing a wealth of artefacts including an Enigma Machine, a selection of his decorations and medals, his beautiful (and priceless) pocket watch and even the famous door from Number 10 Downing Street.
Go and see "Darkest Hour" and then book your visit to the Churchill War Rooms. I have a feeling this site will be busier than ever this year.
Copyright, Richard Ing. Photography by Richard Ing.