Thursday, 12 February 2015

Churchill War Rooms

Wednesday 11 February 2015

Clive Steps, King Charles St
Whitehall SW1A 2AQ

Today was a real treat for me, as I returned to my former work place, accompanied by Mary, Linda and my British Library friend Molly.  I was hoping they would enjoy the amazing warren of small 1940s rooms and the technological splendour of the Churchill Museum as much as I always have, and they did.

But there was an even bigger treat in store as the Director, my old boss, took us into the Cabinet Room itself, and Molly was able to sit where Churchill sat for the 115 meetings of the War Cabinet which took place down here.  We thought about the atmosphere, with Churchill's much-chewed cigar smoke blending with Attlee's pipe and the many cigarettes to make a really choking blend. 

Audio guides are included in the entry price, and come in many languages, but my long suffering colleagues agreed that I should be their guide instead.

We decided (well, all right, I decided) that we would look round the rooms first and then go into the Churchill Museum afterwards, although the entry to the Churchill Museum comes near the start of the route.  So we walked past the dingy (and now safely glassed in) staircase down to the sub-basement.  During the War, this was known as the Dock, for its grim ambience of poor air, rats and other vermin and of course the smell of the Elsans, which were the nearest the War Rooms got to plumbing.  There is one, clean and hygienic, on display.  Those of us who used to go camping in the olden days did not need this reminder....
We saw where the Slab has been exposed for all to admire:  as the threat of bombing intensified, large amounts of concrete were pumped into the area above the War Rooms.  The extra weight necessitated wooden bracing pillars to be installed, thus reducing the space in the rooms even further.

We turned into the small suite of rooms reserved for some of the more senior people, passing the accommodation for the PM's detectives, with its narrow bunk beds, and then past the rooms of Brendan Bracken, Tommy Thompson and others, to reach the Churchills' dining room, and Mrs Churchill's bedroom.  (When I was a Learning Officer down here, I used to explain to school students that people of 'that class' normally had separate bedrooms).  Mrs Churchill did not sleep down here, preferring the Number 10 Annexe, an apartment in the building above.  We also passed the kitchen, before emerging into the corridor, to continue our tour.

The Imperial War Museum drilled a second corridor, parallel to the original, to make visitor flow possible, so we walked past the little BBC studio, and various rooms for typists and duty officers, to reach the HQ of the Home Defence Forces. Towards the end of the war, with the threat of invasion merely a nasty memory, they were moved out, but the IWM decided to fix the date of the rooms as at 1940.  On the audio guide you can hear a quotation from Alan Brooke, who was absolutely convinced that Hitler would invade. 

Next comes the Camp Commandant's HQ, with the many keys of his domain securely behind perspex.

This brought us to one of the oddest sights in this odd place: anxiety about the impact of a bomb falling into the stairwell of the great building above caused the authorities to fill an entire room with concrete.  Drilling a passage way through it in t he 1980s proved to be a great deal harder than anyone might have predicted, and pieces of the cores drilled out were in use as door stops in several offices back in my day, early this century.  The corridor brings you to the operational heart of the War Rooms, the Map Room.

Staffed day and night, by officers from the three services, mostly 'dug out' of retirement like the Royal Marine Guards and orderlies who ran the place, the Map Room was an information hub.  Information was marked onto maps with knitting yarn and coloured pins; graphs were drawn by hand, and the phones rang constantly as news came in.  There was also a vacuum tube system for pieces of paper, and a rack of rifles, in case the basement came under attack.

The final room of the tour is the great man's bedroom, complete with the curtains which covered the maps to ensure he got some sleep, and BBC microphones sitting on the desk.  It was from here that Churchill broadcast one speech, in September 1940.

And then you are out into the shop, quite possibly feeling that you have had your money's worth.  

You have, however, barely begun. Because, since early this century, this basement has been the home of a comprehensive and extraordinary Museum of the Life of Winston Churchill. The Museum is accessed through a splendid exhibition about life in the bunker, featuring biographies of many of the people who worked down here, and screens showing several of them recounting their memories.

Once you are into the Museum itself, the technology makes exceptionally innovative use of all the photographs, films and sound recordings that the IWM holds.You can listen to his speeches, try your hand at composing one or more of them, flip through his painting and his witticisms, look at photographs of his family and his pets, and dabble your hand into his fish pond, to bring up some of the things he wrote and said about his goldfish.You may, if you wish, finger paint one of his own pictures.

More seriously, though, the museum takes you through the five stages of his life, each signalled by an iconic David Low cartoon.  Starting with 'His Finest Hour' (because you have just stepped from the 1940 War Rooms) the story carries on to his life after the war, both as Leader of the Opposition and Prime Minister, and culminating in his funeral, which has been so much remembered in the past few weeks.

Then you take a deep breath and head back into his childhood and schooling, his time in the army, and his first achievements as an author. (You can purchase 'The Malakand Field Force' in the shop, by the way). You follow him into government before the First World War, noting with regret his attitude to womens' suffrage, but with approval his involvement in the social reforms of the Liberal Ministry. His time as First Lord of the Admiralty is interesting, because there is a whole feature about Gallipoli, with quotations from him and many others, including Admiral Fisher and Lord Kitchener, neither of whom ever gave the full backing which he thought had been agreed.

The last section concerns his 'Wilderness Years' with time to consider his attitude to the abdication of Edward VIII, and a chance to think about and vote on whether his attitude to India was based on racism.  He may have been wrong on several issues, but with the rise of Hitler, his ability to see straight and think ahead at last becomes clear.  And so you come to the very door through which he walked as PM on 10 May 1940. (Available to the Museum because 10 Downing Street now has metal blast proof doors)  You can read his words, 'I was sure I should not fail' beside it.

But I have not yet mentioned the most remarkable piece of technology in the Museum:  right down the centre runs the 'Lifeline':  a computer driven table which enables you to open a file on every month of his life and, for several years, virtually every single day.  So you can find out anything about him.  Was he a Freemason?  the answer is in the Lifeline.  Did he ever learn to fly? Ditto.  When were his children born?... you get the picture.  In addition there are contextualising events as well, some of which affect the whole massive table:  open the file for 11 November 1918, and the whole table is covered with poppies.  Somewhere on the table is the first biro, Fred Perry winning Wimbledon, the first VI to hit London, and much, much more.

The only reason we left was that, as one of  us said, our brains were full.  So pausing to look at a case of Churchill memorabilia, since we had recently seen similar items celebrating Brunel and Nightingale, we headed out into grey and chilly Horseguards Road.

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