Our recent visit to Banqueting House was the starter, not the main course. The main part of that days feast of history and heritage came just a little later when we visited the Churchill War Rooms. Having lain neglected for decades once it has served its purpose in WW2, the war rooms opened in the 1980s, although they are a little bit hard to find, despite their very central location. But that was the idea, I guess. A large German bomb landing on the heads of Churchill an his war cabinet wouldn’t have been ideal, given the already desperate circumstances of 1939 and beyond.
The Churchill War Rooms are ever so British. The epitome of Britishness, even. The idea that a bunker was needed was appreciated incredibly late in the day, prmopting a last minute rush to come up with a plan. The site chosen was basically the first place they found with a decent bit of depth below the surface, just yards from Downing Street – they didn’t look too hard in other words. It wasn’t deep enough to be bomb proof, so in typically British fashion, they just plonked in a sheet of concrete reinforced steel in slap dash fashion without really going to the effort of working out if it would, well…work.
Would it stop a direct hit from a bomb now? The general consensus was that no, it wouldn’t. Nevermind, shoulders were shrugged, cigars lit and the great war effort carried on from the bunker regardless. It’s just have to do. Whether the bunker would have withstood a direct hit is perhaps a moot point. Churchill lived in the annexe above ground most of the time anyway, and frequently went up on to the roof of the building to watch the German air raids. Winston was many things, but a coward he was not. Brave or just plain stupid? Absolutely. A bit of both, I’m sure.
The final very British aspect of the bunker? Luck. Jerry never did aim right, and no bomb ever put that slab of concrete to the test. More to the point, and as one of the diagrams in my Flickr set show, the tide quickly turned and it was British bombs doing all the damage. Most Brits would agree that the Germans got what they deserved in WW2, regards bombing. Few, I suspect, genuinely understand how one sided it ended up being. British bombs vastly outnumbered German bombs when the tallying up was completed post war.
The War Rooms are an interesting jaunt through recent history. Being the youngster I am, I sometimes have trouble relating to the war, although my grandfather had plenty of war stories to tell us when we were young. I remind myself that, if time went backward, not forward, then I’d still be 41 of course, but the year would be 1931, and Hitler not even yet in power. Our sense of time is a funny old thing. But these rooms do bring back how recent and how relevant those dark days of the early 40s are.
The bunker is stark and industrial. There’s nothing luxurious about them. All purpose, no pomp. You have to use your imagination a little. Set yourself back a little in time – Churchill strode these sparse corridors, my steps following his. That’s where he held cabinet meetings. There’s where he ate, and sometimes (but rarely) slept. He was just one of a small army of generals, admirals, typists and civil servants who kept the bunker, and the war effort, working.