Churchill’s Bunker: The Cabinet War Rooms and the Culture of Secrecy in Wartime London
by Richard Holmes, Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 2010, $27.50
The best niche histories teach readers new information about oft-covered events, and this World War II account of Winston Churchill’s underground headquarters is an admirable example.
During World War I, writes veteran British military historian Holmes, German aircraft dropped about 300 tons of bombs on Britain, causing 1,500 deaths and a good deal of terror. These sorties had no effect on the war’s outcome but great influence later, as British leaders assumed bombing would determine the outcome of the next war. In 1936 the Air Ministry estimated that raids on London in any new conflict would kill 60,000 during the first week (in fact, 80,000 Londoners died during all of World War II). Working on an assumption that “the bomber will always get through,” British leaders decided the best way to deter a potential enemy was to match his bombing capacity (a take on “mutual assured destruction” two decades before the Cold War nuclear standoff). Thus, when rearmament began, the Royal Air Force clamored for bombers. In 1937, realizing it could not afford them, it switched to defensive (and far cheaper) fighters. We now know what British intelligence didn’t—that Germany ignored the prevailing obsession with bombing. Adolf Hitler intended the Luftwaffe as tactical support for ground forces and never built a heavy-bomber fleet.
In the debate over civil defense, British leaders decided against evacuating London, as much to avoid mass panic as due to its difficulty. They did consider evacuating the government. Indeed, many departments moved to the country, but in 1938 the search began for a safe place in Whitehall to house the leadership. The prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street, old and unreinforced, could not serve. The Office of Works quickly settled on the steel-framed New Public Offices, two blocks away. Its huge basement, 10 feet below ground, housed archives.
Within a month, crews had cleared, reinforced, soundproofed and installed communications in several of what became the Cabinet War Rooms. By the war’s outbreak, dozens of rooms were functional, fitted with air conditioning, independent water and lighting, medical facilities and sleeping quarters. The Office of Works considered the arrangements temporary, and the budget for expansion was tight. Inhabitants paid the price. The rooms were chilly, damp and poorly ventilated. In an era when almost everyone smoked, tobacco fumes mingled with cooking odors and smells from the primitive toilets.
Ironically, while low-level staff worked there permanently, Churchill preferred meeting above ground. Even during the 1940–41 Blitz, leaders met in the bunker at night, when air raids were likely, but elsewhere during the day. Use by senior staff declined sharply in 1942 and 1943, peaking again in early 1944 during the “little Blitz” and later that year when V-1s and V-2s posed a risk.
The war had barely ended when nostalgia for Britain’s finest hour occasioned an avalanche of requests to visit the bunker; only a favored minority was granted informal tours. The government ultimately set aside money to restore the complex, under the auspices of the Imperial War Museum. The Cabinet War Rooms opened to the public in 1984. Its success prompted the opening of the adjoining Churchill Museum [http://cwr.iwm.org.uk] in 2005.
With nearly two dozen history books to his credit, Holmes has no trouble delivering an opinionated, thoroughly entertaining account that follows the hyperactive Churchill, his family, servants, staff, advisors, cabinet and generals as they troop in and out of the bunker, various London command centers, country estates and world capitals while fighting World War II.
Originally published in the May 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.