The Churchill War Rooms

imagesOn a short break in London last week, we visited the Cabinet War Rooms for the first time. These are the underground rooms where Winston Churchill and his Cabinet met during the war and where much of the crucial planning and decision-making of the war was carried out. Originally the basement of a building in Whitehall, the War Rooms were created in 1938 as war began to look inevitable. At the end of the war, the rooms were abandoned, some left intact and some restored to their former use as storage rooms. Tours were available, however, and the interest in them was so great that eventually the Imperial War Museum took over and in 1984 they opened to the public in the form we now see.
I am particularly interested in the social history of the Second World War, and this provides a remarkable insight into the political and social history of the time. What wasn’t preserved has been restored, and so one can see the small room where the Cabinet met, complete with maps, ashtrays and blotters, and imagine the heated debates that must have gone on there, debates which determined Sir-Winston-Churchillthe course of the war. There are a lot of corridors, long, narrow passages with doors off to staff bedrooms, stairs down to an underground bunker where some staff would have slept (apparently plagued with rats), and original signs and warnings on the walls. One can see the map room, where for six years the lights were never turned off and work must have been incessant and frantic; and even Churchill’s bedroom, in which he rarely slept but where he did his radio broadcasts.
There is also a Churchill museum, which aims to bring the man himself to life, since, as the audio tour admits, he has become an icon but also a rather two-dimensional figure, and it is interesting to see behind the bowler hat and cigar. We see a rather sad little boy who wanted more visits from his parents while he was at Eton, and a young man determined to impress his father, Sir Randolph Churchill, who had thought his son would never amount to much. We get a glimpse of Churchill’s relationship with his wife, Clementine, as well as insight into his interests outside politics, including writing and painting. The museum is filled with quotations; Churchill must be one of the most quoted, and 2013-03-28 10.55.51quotable, men of the twentieth century. I particularly liked ‘We are all worms. But I do believe that I am a glow-worm’.
Whatever one’s feelings about Churchill and about the war, I think it is difficult not to be somehow moved by the vision the museum clearly gives of the many, many staff who worked and often slept in these rooms, trying to ensure the safety of Britain and its allies. Photographs and recordings as well as original objects and furnishings recreate the atmosphere of the War Rooms very well, and although entrance is quite expensive, it is an excellent museum which shows a different and very important aspect of the history of the war.

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