Hidden in the heart of London: Churchill's secret war rooms

The "rooms" were sealed in August, 1945. Not until 1975 --when they came off the official secrets list -- did the public learn of the existence of the Cabinet War Rooms: Churchill's hidden World War II headquarters in the heart of London.

In 1936 the British government began provisions for security in case there was war with Hitler. The site selected for the vital communications center was 100-odd rooms along the subterranean tunnels that had wound beneath the government offices in Whitehall since Tudor times.

The rooms were readied gradually so as not to arouse suspicions as to the true nature of the project. A 10-foot layer of concrete was poured -- at night -- to reinforce the subground level to make the area below it safe. Sources for lighting, power, water, and air supplies were triplicated, to allow for damage during attack. Two kitchens and chemical toilets were installed. All who worked on outfitting the area were sworn to secrecy.

The Cabinet War Rooms were destined to be used. On Sept. 3, 1939, typists, telephonists, soldiers, and other staff moved in. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his wife moved out of 10 Downing Street and into quarters above the war rooms.

Government workers served 12-to 48-hour duty.So that they would never know exactly where they were employed, workers were escorted by armed guards back to their regular above-ground offices in Whitehall by underground corridors before being released for leave.

More than 80 bedrooms were part of the complex. The Churchills and each Cabinet member had rooms permanently assigned. High-ranking officers might have a small room with iron cot, chair, bureau, and wash basin to themselves. Most staff shared rooms with whoever else was caught on duty during an emergency. In a crisis as many as 300 people might remain in the war rooms for prolonged periods.

Absolute adherence to Greenwich Mean Time was essential to wartime communications. Daily, an expert would wind and set all the clocks in the war rooms.

The map room was the around-the-clock communications hub: To this room came worldwide information regarding the war, and from it went messages that had been "scrambled." Color-coded telephones were set to light up but not ring since Churchill didn't like "noise" when he was in the war rooms. Rubber-soled shoes and no singing were his orders of the day.

Three sets of maps cover the walls. They were used to indicate military fronts in Europe, the northwest Europe bombing campaigns -- both day and night attacks by either side -- and virtually all surface and submarine sea traffic worldwide.

In a room off the map room, workers kept statistics of air raids. Still spread out on tabletops are reconnaissance photographs for proposed bombing missions, others taken during and after bombing raids, and reference dossiers on strategic ports.Though only a locked door away, workers in the soundproof statistics room never knew of the existence of the map room.

Churchill's bedroom is as he left it at the end of the war: bed, maps, chair, desk -- with his stationery still upon it --and his government-issue chamber pot. From this room he gave his BBC radio broadcasts.

Churchill and his Cabinet members met at least twice a week, usually from midnight to 3 a.m. Lights over the door of the Cabinet room indicated when bombings were going on outside.

One room is particularly memorable. Small, secret, and soundproof, it housed the "hot line" to Franklin Roosevelt at the White House. Sitting here, Churchill spoke directly with Roosevelt throughout the war. On the wall is a clock that gives both English and American time.

In addition to the chair and table by the telephone is the stand-up desk at which Churchill wrote -- of the blood, toil, tears, and sweat of the times.

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