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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

A Brief History of the Churchill War Rooms (Cabinet War Rooms)

What are the Churchill War Rooms?

The Churchill War Rooms is an Underground bunker constructed in 1938-9 and used by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, his government ministers, and military strategists during the Second World War (one of the Imperial War Museums’ five sites).

Churchill War Rooms Entrance

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Churchill War Rooms History

During the early years of the Second World War explosives rained down on London, but newly elected Prime Minister Winston Churchill deeply resented being forced underground. Although rather fond of his bunker - particularly the Map Room - Churchill refused to spend the night in the comfortable sleeping quarters which had been made up for him. During an air raid, he would reportedly clamber up to the roof of the Treasury to watch the battle going on overhead.

But the staff based here throughout the war could tell when Churchill occupied the Cabinet War Rooms, either from the whiff of his cigar smoke, or from the sight of it curling around the corridors as he paced about. In fact, so much tobacco was smoked that from a modern perspective it seems nearly as unhealthy to have stayed down here for a twelve-hour shift as it was to hang around upstairs during an air raid. One typist recalled covering up an air vent with a handkerchief; within two days it had turned black.

Still, it was widely believed that this was the safest place for the war cabinet to stay. It’s only recently that the real reason for Churchill’s reluctance to sleep down here was revealed. In a letter written in September 1940 and discovered in 2011 in the National Archives at Kew, Patrick Duff, a senior civil servant at the time, relates how Churchill complained that the bunker wasn’t actually bomb or gas proof!

The Cabinet War Rooms weren’t Churchill’s only bunker. Down Street station in Mayfair was closed to the public in 1932, because of low passenger numbers. Before this subterranean warren was ready for the government to move in, they set up offices in the abandoned Underground station, which was a lot deeper and therefore safer than the Cabinet War Rooms. After the war, Down Street station was vacated once again – and hasn’t been occupied since. The handsome station entrance, with a façade decorated with oxblood-red tiles, can still be seen near Hyde Park Corner.

Churchill’s government made extensive use of the Cabinet War Rooms; here, they formulated the tactics and strategies which helped to turn the outcome of the war in their favour. Churchill would speak with President Roosevelt in the secret Transatlantic Telephone Room. Their conversations were highly classified; to this day we don’t know the details of their discussions.

You can also visit the Cabinet Room in which some very difficult decisions were thrashed out. Here the government held long meetings with the leaders of the armed forces (115 to be precise), and it was described by Churchill as ‘the room from which I will direct the war’. During your visit be sure not to miss the interactive Churchill Museum, which includes a collection of the Prime Minister’s personal items, and the small permanent exhibition ‘Undercover: Life in Churchill’s Bunker’, which tells the stories of the men and women who often worked 16-hour shifts here.

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