The Churchill War Rooms
This post is about the Churchill War Rooms in London with a tip on how to gain entry for free. The Churchill War Rooms is actually a combination of two separate pieces: The Churchill Museum, exploring the life of Winston Churchill, and the Cabinet War Rooms, the underground complex where Churchill directed the forces during World War II. Preserved and looked after by the Imperial War Museum, the Churchill War Rooms are a must see for lovers of history, or those who are interested in learning more about our military past or the life and times of Mr. Churchill himself. The Churchill War Rooms are a stop on our guided Westminster Tour, our London in a Day Tour as well as our GPS-enabled anytime audio tour.
The War Rooms actually were initially created to be used in the event of war or aerial bombing. Meeting in 1936, the Air Ministry (the British government department that oversees the Royal Airforce) recommended that, in the event of enemy bombings on London, key government offices should be taken out of central London to the suburbs. To prepare for this, the Committee of Imperial Defence began a search to find a suitable location for a temporary emergency government meeting point. The area that was chosen was the basement of the New Public Offices (which now houses HM Treasury).
TIP: Entrance to the Churchill War Rooms exhibition is included in the London Pass.
Conversion of the basement of the New Public Offices into the War Rooms began in June 1938. Work done in the basement installed broadcasting and communication equipment, provided ventilation, and also reinforced and sound-proofed the basement. Around this time, it was decided that should war break out, a Central War Room would be needed for Chiefs of Staff of armed forces and the government Cabinet to be able to meet. This would also mean that members of the Cabinet would need to be housed nearby senior military figures – so it was decided that the Cabinet would be housed inside the Central War Room. This decision meant that the Cabinet War Rooms would become the centre of all British military decisions made during WWII.
The works on the War Room were completed in 1939 and became operational on 27th August in that year – literally days before Britain’s declaration of war on Germany on the 3rd of September 1939.
Use During World War II
The War Rooms were divided into a number of different spaces, with two taking primary importance: The Map Room and the Cabinet Room. The Map room was in use 24 hours a day and was manned by officers from the Royal Airforce, the British Army and the Royal Navy. It was here that these officers tracked the movement of soldiers and forces throughout Europe and it was here that they prepared daily intelligence summaries for the King, the Prime Minister, and the military Chiefs of Staff.
The Cabinet Room was (obviously!) the room in which the government Cabinet would meet. At the outbreak of the war, Britain’s Prime Minister was Neville Chamberlain – who met at the War Rooms only one time. Shortly after Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940, he visited the Cabinet Room for the first time. On walking into the room, Churchill stated, “This is the room from which I will direct the war.” As opposed to Chamberlain’s single Cabinet meeting, Churchill would hold over 100 in this room.
As enemy bombing began in London (referred to as the Blitz), it was decided to reinforce the Cabinet War Rooms by installing a gigantic piece of concrete – known as ‘the Slab’ over the Rooms. At this time it was also decided to increase accommodation in the bunker so that during the nightly bombings, individuals working in the War Rooms would not have to brave the streets to go home. Despite the available accommodation and his own private bedroom in the bunker, Winston Churchill stayed the night in the War Rooms very seldom and preferred to walk around the corner to his house at Number 10 Downing Street. However, his daughter Mary occasionally stayed in his War Room bedroom!
Decline and Preservation
As soon as the end of World War II was declared, personnel switched off the lights, left the bunker, and closed the door. Totally abandoned, the War Rooms were available to view only by special appointment. Care of the rooms was lax at best and the dry and dusty conditions of the abandoned rooms were beginning to destroy the furnishings, maps, historical documents, and other goods kept underground. Although a small amount of money (£7,000) was raised to help repair the rooms, it was obvious a permanent solution would be required.
In 1974, the government asked the Imperial War Museum if they would consider taking over the administration of the site, an offer rejected initially. The rooms again lay abandoned and in 1981, Margaret Thatcher expressed her desire that the War Rooms could be opened to the public before the next general election! The Imperial War Museum was again asked to take the reigns and they agreed – on the agreement that the government would make necessary resources available. Once the agreement was made, the Rooms were transformed and preserved in the museum-like-state they are in today and were opened to the public on 4th April 1984 by Margaret Thatcher at a ceremony attended by Churchill family members and previous staff who had worked at the Cabinet War Rooms.
In addition to the preserved War Rooms where so much important work took place, the Churchill War Rooms now also holds a museum dedicated to the life and legacy of Winston Churchill. Using the rooms that previously housed accommodation for Churchill and his family was transformed into a £6million Churchill Museum. The Museum displays objects worn by, associated with, and used by Churchill Himself – including his original front door to No. 10 Downing Street! The highlight of the museum is a 15metre long electronic table that enables visitors to interact with a ‘timeline’ of Churchill’s life displayed on top of the table. Guests can press various dates and names on the table to receive more information about Churchill’s life and times, and pressing on specific dates (say, 11th November – Remembrance Day or 15th April – Sinking of the Titanic) will trigger an electronic display that takes over the entire table, referencing an event that took place on that day.
- Daily: 9:30am to 6:00pm (Last admission is 5:00pm)
- NOTE: Occasionally the Churchill War Rooms are closed early or unexpectedly, but these closures are often mentioned on the website (www.iwm.org.uk/vists/
churchill-war-rooms/closures) so always check before you go.
- Adults: £17.50
- Children Under 16: FREE
- Concessions: £14.00
- Admission to the Churchill War Rooms is included for free in the London Pass.
How To Get There
- Nearest Rail Station: Charing Cross, Victoria, or Waterloo Stations
- Nearest Underground Station: Westminster or St. James’s Park Stations
- Buses: 3, 11, 24, 53, 87, 88, 109, 159, 184, 211, 453 (phew!)
+++Not sure where it is? We are passing the Churchill War Rooms on our pay-what-you-like Westminster Tour. Just ask your guide, he or she will gladly point it out to you.++++