Finest Hour 145, Winter 2009-10
The View from the Two Bunkers
Churchill’s Bunker: The Secret Headquarters at the Heart of Britain’s Victory, by Richard Holmes. Profile Books, hardbound, illus., 246 pages, $27.40, member price $22.
By Ted Hutchinson
Seemingly every Churchill admirer outside of England eventually conducts a pilgrimage to the island home of his hero. My first visit was in 1999, and I was determined to see all the sights. I went to Blenheim, and was also able to visit the House of Commons. (A tolerant security guard, in those easygoing pre-9/11 days, even let me sit in Churchill’s old seat below the gangway.) For pilgrims, Chartwell is Mecca, but a close second is the underground complex known then and now as the Cabinet War Rooms. They were, author Holmes states, at the heart of Britain’s victory in the Second World War. I wish I’d had a copy of Churchill’s Bunker when I visited the War Rooms that first time.
One of the finest of a dwindling number of academic military historians, Holmes offers an engrossing narrative history from conception during World War I to frantic planning in weeks leading up to World War II, when everyone assumed cities like London would be bombed to dust. Prewar plans for an underground headquarters accommodating Britain’s political leaders were first thought feasible only in the suburbs, away from the destruction central London would witness. Circumstances made these contingencies unnecessary; Churchill and his staff would eventually work with the largely improvised (and, as the author points out, not altogether safe) War Rooms beneath what was called the New Public Offices (Number Ten Annexe), just a few steps from Ten Downing Street.
Holmes does yeoman work in sorting out the tricky chronology of where Churchill was during the war, and what offices he used. Even meticulously researched volumes like the official biography sometimes are unclear about WSC’s location. Holmes explains that Churchill first preferred Downing Street, but spent most of his war at Number Ten Annexe. Contrary to myth, WSC ventured into the underground rooms rarely, and probably slept there only on a handful of nights. The importance of the War Rooms, however, go beyond the presence of the Prime Minister.
Holmes provides fascinating detail about how the War Rooms worked, from the all-important Map Room to the men and women who staffed the various offices. These lower-level workers, and particularly the military and civilian women who did the grunt work, are the real heroes of the War Rooms. Totally dedicated and professional, “the girls” kept secrets as well as any military officers: some did not reveal their wartime activities to their families until the 1980s.
It is largely through these women that we see the development of the War Rooms, from a headquarters for Churchill and his staff early on, to an administrative and communications center as the Blitz waned. (The rooms still proved their worth as a shelter when rockets began falling on London late in the war.) Holmes also follows the staff on their trips abroad: the War Rooms staff became so indispensable that they had to travel to key meetings overseas.
The final chapter is an excellent summary of the history of the War Rooms from 1945 to its present status as the Churchill Museum. That journey in itself is interesting. In a sense the War Rooms have functionally been a museum since the day the war ended. Worthies who knew the right people could always get a tour of “the bunker.” But the situation now is much improved; everyone gets a chance to view this fascinating slice of history.
Visitors will be able to enjoy the Churchill Museum much more if they read Holmes’s book, which captures a lost age and brings many people, some well known and some not, into the light of history.
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