Rattling the Cabinet
London’s Cabinet War Rooms and adjoining Churchill Museum – both components of the larger British Imperial War Museum -- stand out among the world’s best examples of their type. The War Rooms (also called the Churchill War Rooms and Churchill Bunker), in the former subterranean headquarters of the WWII-era British High Command, aren’t only among the world’s few publicly accessible military bunkers, but are also linked to a warren of tunnels under the streets of Whitehall that is as extensive as it is little-known.
The Cabinet War Rooms lie beneath the British Treasury Building, part (and a relatively small part) of a larger buried complex with some two hundred rooms, protected in places by more than fifteen feet of reinforced concrete whose corrugated steel cladding (to deflect bomb blast) is visible in portions of the bunkers’ roofs. Even today some bunker sections remain in active use below the buildings that comprise the New Public Offices between Parliament and 10 Downing Street. The entrance to the complex, its roof topped by sandbags, lies at the foot of Clive Steps, a short stairway near the end of King Charles Street in the purlieus of St. James Park, bearing a statue of sometimes renowned, sometimes reviled, Clive of India.
Visitors soon come to an area called the Dock. This was the main operational center and sleeping quarters for low-level staffers including clerks, typists, orderlies and cooks who kept the complex running throughout the war years. Rows of coat pegs, blocks of lockers and framed art, including a photo-portrait of Winnie and a relief map of Malaya and Singapore, decorate the cream-colored walls, the paint barely concealing the underlying brick and mortar. Signs posted outside some rooms, such as those reading "P.M.'s Typists,” "P.M.’s Detectives,” and “P.M.'s Dining Room" indicate the purposes they’d originally served.
These rooms, and the larger operational spaces deeper within, have been opened to view by glass partitions. All are spartan enclosures, equipped with a bare minimum of creature comforts, as befitted the somber years that endured the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz. The barracks décor also applies to Clementine Churchill's room. Churchill's devoted wife "Clemmie" was a frequent leaning post to a sometimes faltering Prime Minister and was rarely absent in times of crisis. As in US factories where "Rosie the Riveter" filled gaps on production lines vacated by men fighting overseas, so women made up a sizeable portion of regular staff, serving as typists, radio operators and general functionaries.
The greatest attractions of the Cabinet War Rooms are its operational spaces. The Chiefs of Staff Conference Room and the Cabinet Room are among the most iconic, the former for its walls lined on three sides with strategic maps including a Mercator projection on the right made of sections carefully pieced together to form a geographic composite centered on Russia, Eurasia and the Indian subcontinent beside a framed portrait of King George VI in full military regalia. However, it's the wall-length map on the left that catches the attention when visitors notice the hand-drawn cartoon of Adolf Hitler, perched beneath the heading “North Sea,” launching a salute westward in a curious sitting posture that makes a "V" for victory of the caricature’s splayed legs. This was drawn in an idle moment by none other than Churchill himself, otherwise occupied artistically with watercolor painting at Chartwell, his country estate. Most rooms, by the way, include mannequins in lifelike poses that seem almost real in the dim bunker lightning.
Visitors of a literary bent may, whatever else they gather from the Cabinet War Rooms, take away the impression of having rattled through something of an Orwellian Ministry of Peace out of the novel 1984. A tenebrous atmosphere that seems the product of more than mere claustrophobia invests the stark corridors. As awesome an experience as is a visit to the War Rooms, it's a relief to return to street level again. Churchill may have felt something similar, for his memoirs, published as the six-volume History of the Second World War, record that the P.M. often preferred his offices in the Admiralty and 10 Downing Street, even at the height of the London Blitz, to the relative safety of the buried complex.
A post-visit stroll through nearby St. James Park, or along the adjacent Horse Guards Road, is highly recommended after touring the subterranean confines of the Cabinet War Rooms, as is a pint of Guinness at any of Whitehall’s excellent pubs for reasons similar to Bogie’s quip in Casablanca that, “It’ll take the edge off being occupied.”
Copyright (C) 2012 David Alexander