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Great London Buildings: The Churchill War Rooms

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The Map Room © IWM

The process of constructing the emergency centre began in 1938 when Sir Hastings Ismay ordered the Office of Works to survey Whitehall for a suitable location.  That agency determined that the best place for this centre was the New Public Offices.  The Office of Works concluded that the building was close to Parliament and possessed both a strong steel frame and a large basement.  Ismay and Sir Leslie Hollis began working on the basement in June 1938, installing communications and broadcasting equipment as well as installing soundproofing, insulation, and reinforcing the walls and pillars.

At the same time, the War Office, the Admiralty, and the Air Ministry were conceiving of the War Rooms as a central hub of decision-making between the various Armed Forces.  The government also decided that the War Rooms would house the Cabinet, or at least a smaller War Cabinet, in order to facilitate quick discussion between the civilian government and the military.  Thus, it was decided in May 1939 that the War Cabinet would occupy the Central War Room.  The War Rooms became operational on 27 August 1939, only days before the invasion of Poland on 1 September.  The War Rooms soon expanded to include the Transatlantic Telephone Room and an office/bedroom for the Prime Minister.

Churchill's bedroom
Churchill’s bedroom © IWM

During World War II, the Cabinet met in the Central War Room 115 times, most notably during the Blitz and later the V-1 and V-2 attacks.  Their use caused its name to change to the Cabinet Room.  While Churchill’s War Cabinet made use of the Cabinet Room most of the time, Neville Chamberlain’s Cabinet used it only once.  Besides the CWR, the Map Room was the other heavily used room out of the three original rooms, manned around the clock by members of the Royal Army, the Royal Navy, and the Royal Air Force.  The Map Room saw continued use until 16 April 1945, when the lights were turned off for the first time in six years.  The War Rooms ceased seeing usage in September after the Japan’s surrender and the war’s end.

Shortly thereafter, the maintenance and preservation of the War Rooms fell to the Ministry of Works.  Some of the rooms were left intact, while others had their contents completely removed and repurposed.  Three years later in 1948, Parliament considered the opening of the rooms to the public for the first time, but Charles Key MP, the minister in charge of the Ministry of Works, felt it “would not be practical to throw open for inspection by the general public accommodation which forms part of an office where confidential work is carried on.”  This, despite the fact that the rooms had not been used in nearly three years.

It would not be until 1984 that Parliament opened the War Rooms to the public for the first time.  The Imperial War Museum had begun the process in 1974 and a feasibility study was done that ended up not moving forward.  Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, herself a fan of Churchill, had hoped that they could be opened before the next general election.  This time, the Imperial War Museum was given the necessary resources to reopen the War Room and make them self-sustaining.  Thatcher officially opened this division of the IWM on 4 April 1984.  In 2003, the museum was expanded to include many of the rooms that Churchill, his family, and associates had used during the war, and the museum was rechristened as the Churchill War Rooms in 2010.

Visiting Information

Open Daily 9:30 a.m. -6 p.m. Adults £18 ($26), Children £9 ($13). We recommend booking ahead and doing the guided audio tour. Accessible easily by Tube (Westminster Station) and any Black Cab driver will know the way.

John Rabon
Author: John Rabon

John is a regular writer for Anglotopia and its sister websites. He is currently engaged in finding a way to move books slightly to the left without the embarrassment of being walked in on by Eddie Izzard. For any comments, questions, or complaints, please contact the Lord Mayor of London, Boris Johnson's haircut.

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  1. I really wanted to see this when I was home in Feb but thought it was a bit pricey…..

  2. I visited Churchill’s War Rooms in Oct ’15 and stayed almost five hours. Very good coverage by this article, and we’ll worth the price of admission. C’mon, they found one of the officer’s sugar cubes rationed by his wife still in the desk drawer!

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