“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender!”
The voice on the reception room’s speaker system echoes down the years, evoking an image of Winston Churchill, cigar in hand, pugnacious and defiant, leading his country to victory despite all odds in Britain’s ‘darkest hours’ of the Second World War.
More than 75 years after those words were spoken, I am in an underground labyrinth of offices, conference rooms, and living quarters that functioned as the Cabinet War Rooms from 1939 to 1945.
Known today as the Churchill War Museum in the heart of London’s Whitehall area, it was the nucleus of wartime tactical planning and communication. A hideout cloaked in deepest secrecy.
It is a strange feeling to walk these corridors of history, to peer into rooms that were once peopled by the men and women who held the weight of Britain’s destiny in their hands.
In the Cabinet meeting room, where Churchill, imperious and irascible, chaired meetings with Navy, Army and Air Force Chiefs of Staff, one can imagine the tension lying as thick as Churchill’s cigar smoke curling up to the ceiling.
Churchill was Britain’s knight in shining armour — albeit a rather rotund one — as he led his country to a triumphant, jubilant victory in 1945.
Born in 1874 at Blenheim Palace, his family’s ancestral home, he saw action in South Africa’s Boer War, and in Afghanistan.
As First Lord of the Admiralty during the First World War, he was roundly excoriated for the debacle of Gallipoli and resigned shortly thereafter. However, he was back at the helm in 1940, declaring that he could offer the country nothing but his “blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
I can’t but wonder about daily life in this hidden underground basement, a mere nine metres below the surface.
Sounds of bomb blasts, the shrilling of air raid warnings and ambulance sirens must have been unnerving.
By some extraordinary stroke of fate, the Cabinet War Rooms never suffered a direct hit, although an area in the back of the adjacent Treasury building suffered some damage.
Had it been otherwise, the loss of England’s Prime Minister, his Cabinet and the heads of the country’s armed forces, all of whom met here regularly, would have changed the course of history. An unimaginable, indeed unthinkable outcome.
As it was, nobody had a clue as to what was transpiring below ground in the very heart of
The Museum’s corridors are flanked by administrative offices which were once alive with activity — stenographers at typewriters, clerks poring over ledgers, cabinet ministers at meetings, and military big-wigs studying the deployment of military and marine units as marked with coloured pins on detailed wall maps.
Churchill presided over all this, brandy snifter at his elbow,
stogie in hand, dictating at rat-a-tat speed to his quaking secretaries, delivering thundering speeches over microphones set up on his desk.
Despite these dark times, the unquenchable British humour bubbles to the surface and I can’t but smile at a little caricature of Adolf Hitler scribbled on a wall map in the Chiefs of Staff conference room; along a corridor wall, a weather board says “windy” — a private joke indicating that an air raid was in progress.
There are human touches too: an envelope containing three shaved cubes of precious sugar (rationed at the time) were hoarded away in Wing Commander John Heager’s desk drawer, only discovered 40 years later when the War Rooms were opened to the public in 1984.
As far as living quarters went, senior military brass and Cabinet officials were accommodated in small but well-furnished bedrooms, while lesser mortals had to make do with utilitarian bunk beds with thin mattresses and blankets.
Stenographers and clerical staff slept in the “Dock” several floors below, and had to trek upstairs for showers or use of the toilet facilities.
Churchill’s own study-cum-bedroom is luxurious by these standards, but he reputedly only slept overnight here on three occasions during the entire course of the war.
VE Day (Victory in Europe Day) on May 8, 1945, marked the end of the war.
Deliriously joyous crowds thronged the square in front of Buckingham Palace.
Along with the Royal Family, a beaming Winston Churchill stood on the palace balcony, waving in acknowledgement of the chant, “Winnie! Winnie! Winnie!”
For the stubborn old British bulldog, this was indeed his very own “finest hour.”
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