This week we were invited by the Imperial War Museum to go behind the glass on a special after hours tour of the Churchill War Rooms. We last visited the museum in 2021 (you can read our Full Guide to Visiting the Churchill War Rooms here) following the audio guided tourist route around the labyrinth, but this time we were able to step inside the time capsule-like rooms themselves, guided by expert IWM curator head of content, Nigel Steel, to see some amazing details that we missed before.
A quick recap about the history of the Cabinet War Rooms:
The basement where the Cabinet War Rooms were built was chosen and secured in 1938. By now war in Europe seemed inevitable and the sense of threat was growing about the very real possibility of London being bombed. There were some who held the opinion that the government should not even stay in London, but should be moved to the countryside for quick evacuation in case of a land invasion.
The New Public Offices building, now the Treasury on Whitehall, was selected for the Cabinet War Rooms because the building already had a steel frame. The basement was shored up first with sturdy, solid wooden struts, then with the red metal girders that you can see bracing the ceiling as you walk down the corridors, made by Middlesbrough steel manufacturers Dorman and Long, who also build Tyne Bridge and Sydney Harbour Bridge. The building was further fortified in 1940 by The Slab, a 4ft layer of concrete poured into the lower ground floor of the government offices above the War Rooms by two borrowed American concrete pumps.
It was here that the Prime Minister, his war cabinet, Chiefs of Staff and 500 civil servants would be able to work and sleep during the air raids, safe from German bombs. Or so they thought - research suggests that the building would not have actually withstood a blast from anything larger than a 500-pound bomb! Luckily, thanks to extreme secrecy, the building never took a direct hit, although several bombs came very close as you can see on a table top model in the War Rooms. One bomb badly damaged 10 Downing Street, and another landed very close to Clive Steps where the entrance to the museum is today - pretty much exactly where the monument to the victims of the 2002 Bali bombing now stands.
Although the basement was being developed under Neville Chamberlain, Churchill was the first Prime Minister to use the Cabinet War Rooms. After winning leadership in 1940, he was determined to stay in the city, conscious that any move to relocate the government would look like running away and so in May 1940, Churchill, his chief ministers and strategists moved the government underground, where it would remain until August 16th 1945. After Japan surrendered and the war was finally over, the lights were turned out and the rooms were left intact, effectively mothballed, for the next 39 years.
In 1984, the Imperial War Museum took over the site and it was reopened to the public, a fascinating time capsule of London's incredible war effort.
Our behind the scenes tour with Nigel Steel: Going behind the glass
Standing beside the uniformed mannequin of a Royal Marine guarding the Cabinet War Room, we collectively held our breaths as Nigel turned the key, opened the door, and we stepped into history. The first thing we noticed about the room was the smell - dust, felt and leather, like "school and visiting your grandfather's house" as David suggested. The Cabinet Room is the first site you will see on the standard tourist route, viewed through large glass windows like a zoo enclosure. A horseshoe of chairs sit around long tables, with the three Chiefs of Staff seated in the centre, directly in front of Churchill's curved wooden chair like school boys called before the Headmaster. Here, Churchill would deliberately provoke and challenge his team, enjoying the arguments and discussions.
Stepping behind the glass, you get much more of a sense of the working space. From the pencils, blotting paper and ash trays at each seat (with poor ventilation, we can only imagine how smoky the rooms and corridors must have been!) to the scratches on the arms of Churchill's chair caused by his stressed fingernails and his emphatically punctuating his points of view with his signet ring, we had to keep pinching ourselves that this was the exact place where history happened. It was here that Churchill declared "This is the room from which I will direct the war." You can stand behind Churchill's chair, looking across the room over his red despatch box and curious looking document fastener called a klop (Churchill had a distrust of staples and refused to have them used on his paperwork), and examine up close the world maps on the walls. A message for the Chiefs of Staff is propped against a glass decanter; a quote from Queen Victoria which reads "Please understand there is no depression in this house and we are not interested in the possibilities of defeat, they do not exist." A reminder from the Prime Minister that he wanted his staff to bring him solutions, not problems, and that defeatism was not an option.
The next room we visited was the Chiefs of Staff conference room, which has been developed into a new, very effective audio visual experience since we last visited. Based on the actual minutes of a meeting on July 5th 1944, actors voices, along with overhead footage of their hands and paperwork, recreate the Chiefs discussing Churchill's ideas for retaliatory bombing raids on German cities following V1 flying bomb attacks on London. It really helped to bring the room to life and portrayed the pressures that Churchill's tea were working under.
This room, along with surrounding corridors of officer's bedrooms, the bedroom built for Mrs Churchill and the kitchen used by the Prime Minister's cook were almost lost in the 1990s when the current government unbelievably wanted to turn the space into an underground carpark! Originally, the Imperial War Museum had only taken over the Cabinet Room, Churchill's bedroom, the Map Room, Churchill's Transatlantic Telephone Room (disguised as the PM's private toilet) and the surrounding corridor. Everything else had been repurposed in 1947 and the Chiefs of Staff room had become the Treasury gym! Luckily common sense prevailed and the rooms were reclaimed by IWM and reconstructed using period furniture so we can see them today.
Stepping behind the glass again, we entered Churchill's bedroom. The Prime Minister was famous for his power naps throughout the day (he rarely slept overnight in the War Rooms themselves, preferring the annexed flat prepared for him and his wife beneath Number 10) and it was here that he would hold meetings and broadcast important speeches using the equipment installed for him by the BBC. It was absolutely fascinating to stand behind the desk where famous speeches such as Churchill preparing the nation for the idea of German invasion in 1940 and his response to Pearl Harbour in 1941 were made.
The maps on the walls detailing Britain's coastal defences had curtains that Churchill could draw across if the visitors didn't have the right clearance levels to view them, and his was the only room in the complex to have wall to wall carpet!
The absolute highlight of the tour was going behind the glass into the Map Room. Here, the movements of Allied and enemy convoys and troops were painstakingly tracked and marked by pins on enormous maps covering entire walls. You can see areas of particularly heavy traffic by the intensity of the pin holes, such as around Gibraltar and Suez, off the eastern coast of the USA and between Ireland and Scotland.
Hastings Ismay, Churchill's chief staff officer, said that entering the Map Room was like visiting a friend in hospital, where you hoped for the best but feared the worst. Churchill was very concerned about German U Boats stopping supply convoys, and it wasn't until the cracking of the Enigma Code in 1943 that Britain saw a significant decrease in allied shipping losses, because naval intelligence could now understand German communications about where the U Boats would be. This can be appreciated in a wall chart counting British naval losses that dramatically decreases after 1943.
David's grandfather helped to guard the Arctic convoys during his time in the Fleet Air Arm and it was amazing to think that his aircraft carrier could have been represented by one of the little pin holes up over Scandinavia.
Getting behind the glass allows you to see details not visible from the tourist view point through glass windows: as well getting up close to the pins on the wall maps, you can examine charts hidden behind pillars and papers on desks, the sign out book for maps with a little worn down stump of a well used pencil (one listing in capital letters is very concerned about the theft of two sheets from a drawer) and one of the most light hearted and human discoveries when the rooms were reopened in the 1980s: Wing Commander John Heagerty's precious sugar ration, the sides one cube scraped and curved where he would allow himself a little bit in each cup of tea, left tucked in an envelope in a drawer and forgotten about for nearly 40 years. The calendar on the wall is frozen in time, August 16th 1945: the day Japan surrendered and the lights in the Cabinet War Rooms were switched off for the first time in 6 years.
Even if you're not a huge WWII history buff, you can't escape the feeling that something hugely significant happened in these underground corridors. These aren't reconstructed dioramas in a museum, this is exactly how things looked in the exact rooms where history happened. Churchill walked here, worked here, planned the war effort and phoned presidents Roosevelt and Truman from here, and nearly 80 years after the Second World War ended, the period still holds an enormous fascination for generations around the world. Still within living memory for some and tangibly real for those who have a parent or grandparent that lived through the war, the recognition of a global effort to defeat the evil of Adolf Hitler, the Nazis and the fascist axis is a powerful, unifying force that so many can relate to. The Blitz Spirit, the feeling that we're all in it together, perhaps it feels even more relevant now as NATO forces around the world pull together to support Ukraine against Russia.
Can members of the public go behind the glass at the Churchill War Rooms?
Yes indeed! While the standard tourist route of the Churchill War Rooms doesn't allow access inside Churchill's bedroom, the Map Room and the Cabinet War Room (although you still get a very good look at them through the large plate glass windows that IWM have installed), the Imperial War Museum does offer a special private tour which follows the route we took today. Led by an expert, you too can go behind the glass and immerse yourself into the history of Churchill's wartime cabinet.
It's worth pointing out that the tour is a bit of a splurge - private tours begin at £500 (or £600 to visit outside the museum's opening hours), but when you think this experience caters for up to 10 people, it's not so bad! Gather a group of family and friends for a special occasion and you're looking at £50-60 each- the same amount you'd easily spend on a West End show, a private pod on the London Eye or an evening dinner cruise on a Thames river boat.
Private tours can be booked in advance by emailing IWMPrivateTours@iwm.org.uk , and you can read more about what's involved here. Be aware that high heels are not permitted at the Churchill War Rooms as they will damage the historic floors, and due to security reasons (the museum is underneath working government buildings), there is no cloakroom/luggage storage available, so don't bring large bags! Rucksacks will not be allowed in the rooms behind glass as it would be a disaster if anything was knocked over or damaged.
Churchill and Pol Roger
Our tour was finished off with a talk and tasting led by a representative of Churchill's favourite drink, Pol Roger, which it's said he enjoyed in Imperial pints! A s well as it's long, happy relationship with our wartime PM, this champagne has another historic connection with conflict in Europe: the 1914 vintage was harvested early by women, children and the elderly before France was occupied by Germany and was released after the First World War was over. "Picked to the sounds of gunfire and drunk to the sounds of trumpets", this is fondly remembered as Pol Roger's Victory Vintage.
The first concrete links with Churchill and Pol Roger can be found in 1908, when he ordered 12 bottles and 12 half bottles of the 1895 vintage, and the company sent him a case for his birthday every year. It is said that his favourite vintages were the 1928, followed by the 1945, and he loved the champagne so much that he even named a racehorse after it!
As a tribute to such a loyal customer, when Churchill died in 1965, Odette Pol Roger had black borders added to the bottle labels.
You might also enjoy our blogs about visiting the other Imperial War Museum Sites:
Churchill War Rooms opening hours and prices
If you're interested in visiting the Churchill War Rooms on the standard tourist route (audio guide included), the site is open 9:30 - 6pm daily (last entry at 5pm). Be sure to visit the Churchill Museum which is also part of the complex, where you can learn all about 5 chapters of Churchill's 90 year life, before, during and after his two Premierships. As well as a fantastic range of footage and audio, exhibits include Churchill's cigars and famous Derby hat, love letters to his wife Clementine and the original black door from 10 Downing Street.
Tickets cost £27.25 for adults, £24.50 for concessions, under fives and IWM members are free.
The address for the Churchill War Rooms is Clive Steps, King Charles Street, London SW1A 2AQ.
Your nearest tube station is Westminster - Turn left off Parliament Street, head down King Charles Street, walk down Clive Steps and once you're looking at St James's Park look for the dark coloured bunker-like entrance tucked immediately to the left.
As before, the museum is beneath Government buildings, so there is no cloakroom for bags or coats.
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