In spring 2019, as a preliminary to observing the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2020, a major work by the author will be released by Lyons Press/Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Each of 22-chapters will examine overlooked aspects of the war. The 87,000-word book, with scores of rarely seen photos, results from decades of investigation and includes author photos comparing the appearance of the same locales from then to now. Additional excerpts will be periodically added.
Coming soon to these pages in 2018 will be dramatic then and now photos and a chapter excerpt from THE USAAF IN EUROPE, and a return three quarters of a century later to the remains of the same bases from where the “Mighty Eighth,” the Eighth Air Force launched thousands of attacks on Nazi Germany. Hint: much more remains than previously thought.
(THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 11 – LAUNCHING THE INVASION – SOUTHWICK HOUSE AND D-DAY)
“HISTORY DOES NOT LONG ENTRUST THE CARE OF FREEDOM TO THE WEAK OR THE TIMID” (Dwight D. Eisenhower)
0500 SUNDAY 4 JUNE 1944 DELAY AND DISAPPOINTMENT
Shortly after a 415am weather briefing on June 4, General Eisenhower stepped-out for another smoke under the portico with the eight Doric columns of the immense 1841 three-story mansion near Portsmouth on England’s southeast coast. Into the first of up to four daily packs of Camels and fifteen cups of coffee, before dawn he and his subordinate commanders had already completed the first of two daily weather briefings with British meteorologist, Group Captain J. M. Stagg. Within the elegant interior, Stagg and his staff had just recommended a delay to the start of Operation Overlord, the liberation of the European continent from Nazi oppression. Ike had immediate major decisions to make.
Throughout the mansion’s spacious gardens were scattered numerous half-cylindered corrugated steel structures named after their inventor, Peter Nissen. Tents of various sizes and temporary housing extended from the surrounding woods almost to the mansion’s entry. For a brief time the ancestral home of the Thistlewaite family, Operation Overlord’s pre-assault naval communication center, would be the most important place on earth.
From where the stately home resided in the low hills above Portsmouth Harbor, Ike could almost see the water and part of the vast armada containing every type of naval vessel afloat. In addition to Portsmouth, eleven other British ports were equally laden with so many ships that it was almost possible to walk with dry feet from one vessel to the other, so closely were they moored. The supreme commander of history’s mightiest invasion force knew that every man from general and admiral to mechanic and rifleman, all 156,000 of them and millions more behind, awaited his command to instantly move from camps to landing vessels, or from the ships to the beaches. But it wouldn’t come that day and it wouldn’t come the next.
The first met report that June 4 – the second weather update would be at 645pm – painted a discouraging picture of high winds, low clouds, and reduced visibility predicted for June 5, the date of the invasion. Any one of the expected weather disturbances would hinder accurate naval gunfire and make certain the swamping of LCVP landing craft – the Higgins Boats – at the moment of dropping their bow ramps on the beach, if they even made it that far. Without fair visibility, erroneously dropping 300 paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Pathfinder teams, could fatally divert the 23,000 jumpers in the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to follow. Any expectation of air cover over the beaches on June 5, Ike had been bluntly told, would be “impossible.” The ceiling would be under 1,000 feet. Yet, on June 4 major elements of the naval forces were already at sea, and, as Churchill would later write, “the movement was as impossible to stop as an avalanche.”
…As Eisenhower asked around the room for opinions, General Bernard Montgomery told Ike of his keenness to go, but none of the others were as hopeful. Each had a reasoned objection to explain why his part of the invasion force faced operational hurdles if not defeat. On that June 4, 1944 pre-dawn, weather made the decision: the invasion planned for June 5 stood-down as a no go. While a disappointment, it was not yet a setback. At least two, perhaps three days remained within the window of ideal low tide and bright lunar conditions needed to launch the invasion. But if the elements continued sour, the next time the moon and tides aligned wouldn’t come until June 19.
Waiting another two weeks came with the potential of defeat at the water’s edge. Keeping men already at sea or fenced-in at temporary camps another fortnight risked discovery and a loss of the vital edge needed for soldiers approaching sudden combat. Fresh troops rotating into the camps expected to be vacated by the invading soldiers would have nowhere to go. Miles of pre-positioned equipment on roads and at supply depots throughout England would need to be re-situated, presenting a logistical muddle on the narrow roads.
Some of the 6,939 vessels of all types, including 59 convoys stretching over 100 miles, would need re-fueling or re-positioning. By then, German spies or overhead recommaissance might have concluded from the evidence of masses of troops at scores or camps, and lurking ships in all the harbors, that the invasion wouldn’t happen at the Pas de Calais as expected. Maybe, the German high command could have concluded, maybe the invasion would begin at an obscure location not as well fortified. Maybe it would begin in Normandy.
(NEXT – Buffeted by coils of lashing wind and rain – Ike returns to Southwick House in the pre-dawn hours of June 5 to make the decision of the century.)
Thank you to the unknown 500,000th reader to access this site somewhere in mid November 2016, and to the other half-million, each and every one of you. Indeed, by spring 2018, the count reached three quarters of a million, necessitating a restructuring of the site and part of its contents.
This site continues to be one of the most read on the internet. Your interest in the war that defined the world of today contributed to a major international publisher approving a comprehensive literary work with photos that will enter and describe many of those same places critical in wartime but lost to history. Yet, almost all exist to this day. Expect that the new book, my first, will reveal even more “secret places” associated with the war and the European Theatre of Operations. They are in America and Europe, and include the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Russia. I visit and extensively photograph and research every locale, so you the reader may be assured of the most up to date descriptions and tips on visiting them for yourself. Thank you for your support and return often for updates.
Liverpool’s Western Approaches Command Center,the unknown link with the Battle of the Atlantic,may be World War Two’s last remaining major secret.
By Jerome M. O’Connor
MEMBER: American Society of Journalists and Authors
Discovering the legendary underground fortress that once controlled Britain’s part in the Battle of the Atlantic seemed unlikely. British tourist offices in New York and London and several war museums could not verify the existence of the 100 room, 50,000 sq. ft. underground enclave. A local man had a discouraging opinion: “It was open but they locked it and threw away the key.” Did the intelligence headquarters that so powerfully contributed to Britain’s wartime salvation exist only in memory or did it languish ignored and unheralded?
“ LONDON BLASTED ANEW FROM AIR” “…Attacks were most violent in all the five previous weeks of the aerial siege of Britain’s capital…400 killed… Waterloo Station, St. Paul’s Cathedral hit.” (Headline: Frederick, MD POST) On that day in 1940 the forward movement of democracy and civilization seemed to pause. The Nazi invasion of the British Isles was expected by spring 1941 at the latest, and America’s ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy, no supporter of England ’s chances, was summoned to Washington for urgent talks. The lights in the White House burned brightly all night, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt readied a seven-minute radio address to the American people. It would announce a compulsory peacetime draft of 16 million men. That day, fourteen months before Pearl Harbor, America readied for war.
TUESDAY 15 OCTOBER 1940, LONDON, ENGLAND
At 5 feet six inches, Winston S. Churchill possessed a resolute bearing that denied his height. Boarding his limousine for the brief trip from Number 10 Downing Street, he had an especially vital task that day. London’s port facilities were in ruins from almost daily air attacks, and needed immediate repair. Nine hundred fires raged out of control. The heaviest air raid to date thundered overhead. Five months earlier, May 10 1940, the day he became Prime Minister, Germany invaded the Low Countries. Two weeks later, 338,000 Tommies and other troops evacuated Dunkirk in defeat. Six British and three French destroyers were sunk. All of the army’s heavy equipment and vehicles remained on the beach. Only the English Channel lay between the Nazi hordes and victory. The battle of France began that first day in office, only to end in a humiliating French surrender a mere six weeks later. Now, five months on, Churchill knew well that Britain’s fate hovered over a vast chasm, with the near certainty of apocalyptic destruction rained from above over the storied kingdom by the sea. Perhaps Ambassador Kennedy was correct in saying that England’s prospects were “hopeless.”
As he entered the underground concrete compound, two bodyguards following, a Romeo and Julieta cigar haze trailing, a Royal Marine came to attention on a coconut and rubber floor mat. Whistling, loud talk, and hall gatherings stopped. The PM was acutely sensitive to any sound – except the sound of his own voice. He entered the hastily built Cabinet War Rooms, an enclave more resembling a basement – which it was – than the stronghold there was no time to build. Churchill’s war headquarters resided a mere ten feet below the 1906 built Ministry of Work’s ground floor. As conspicuous as a jack-o-lantern in a snow bank, the squat, sooty government building hid in plain sight. The labyrinth of rooms on which Britain’s future depended, stood directly across from St. James Park, an easy target for German paratroopers, and a two minute walk through a connecting tunnel from Downing Street to the Cabinet War Rooms. The previous night, a bomb hit Number 10, killing three people. Only a single Royal Marine guarded the entry known as Number One Storey’s Gate, and he was concealed behind the double-door exterior entrance. Only a three foot exterior concrete blast wall hinted at something unusual occurring inside. At precisely 5pm Churchill went into the relatively spacious Cabinet Room, his ministers smoking and whispering among themselves, prepared to discuss red-flagged briefing papers in manila folders. “Gentlemen, let us begin.”
Taking his seat at a wooden chair in front of a five by ten foot Rand McNally world map, the King’s red wooden dispatch box on the table before him, Churchill knew that of all the current and coming crises England confronted, the circumstances at sea were especially appalling. Anticipating action, on September 1, 1939, the day war started, eleven U-boats were already at sea. Two days later on the day war was declared, U30 sank the passenger liner Athenia, signaling the start of unrestricted submarine warfare. By the end of the war’s first month, U-boats had already sunk 63 merchant ships, losing only five in return, an exchange Britain could not long sustain. When the war began, Britain had 6,700 merchant steamers, the largest such fleet in the world, and more than twice that of her nearest competitor, the United States. But, as an island empire, Great Britain’s dependence on peacetime imports proved to be her greatest weakness in wartime. Only one month after the first minister’s meeting in the war rooms, coordinated wolf-packs sank thirty-four merchant ships in only 48 hours. In the early years of the war, 280,000 tons of Allied shipping went to the bottom each month. In memoirs after the war, Churchill wrote that, “…the U-boats were the only fear I had in the entire war.”
Returning for rest and overhaul to their five impregnable bases along France’s Bay of Biscay, the wolf-packs were soon back at sea, proving they were the hunters, and the thin convoy fibers originating from the United States and Canada were the hunted. Churchill had to buy time before regaining mastery of the seas. But there was neither money nor time. England ’s only hope lay with the 32nd President of the United States, his great and good friend, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
On February 9, 1941, transmitted by BBC short wave, Churchill addressed these words directly to America : “The other day President Roosevelt gave his opponent… a letter of introduction to me. And in it he wrote out a verse in his own handwriting from Longfellow…here is the verse: ‘Sail on oh ship of state, sail on oh Union strong and great. Humanity with all its fears, with all the hopes of future years, is hanging breathless on thy fate.’ What is the answer that I shall give in your name to this great man? Here is the answer that I will give to President Roosevelt: Put your confidence in us. Give us your faith and your blessing, and under Providence all will be well. We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle nor the long drawn trials of vigilance will wear us down. Give us the TOOLS and we will FINISH the job.”
The “Arsenal of Democracy” Dismayed by the results of the 20th Century’s first Great War, its outcome pointing directly to a second, even bloodier conflict, FDR presided over a fractious electorate of 132 million. He had won 38 of 48 states in the 1940 election, but held only a slender 5% plurality. Still in recovery from the Great Depression, in 1940 American unemployment exceeded 14%. Yet, FDR largely succeeded in reassuring the American people with Sunday evening radio “fireside chats,” and an infectious upbeat outlook. But, at the end of the day, how could he help England when Congress had prohibited full rearmament by enacting a series of neutrality acts punishing friend and foe equally? And, lacking naval contracts, America’s shipyards echoed with emptiness. Congress finally gave the Navy a trivial $250 million for new shipbuilding and systems modernization of its mostly obsolete ships. The American military had all but disarmed after 1918, with the US Army fielding thousands more cavalry horses than fully armed mobile divisions. If stressed, the US could muster 6 divisions. but Germany’s globe-dominating military had ten percent (6.8 million) of its population already fully trained and ready for war. In 1940, the US military ranked 18th in the world; even tiny Portugal had more men under arms than America.
The United States had no munitions industry, and with Holland ’s surrender came the potential of ending virtually any manufacture of arms requiring rubber. Ninety percent of America’s rubber came from the Netherlands East Indies. Newspaper publishers savaged FDR almost daily. Unsympathetic editorials in 85% of America’s newspapers opposed Roosevelt ’s pleas for re-armament. Gallup polls reported that the majority of Americans supported appeasement. And the powerful isolationist’s lobby had a new champion in America’s hero, Charles Lindbergh. In packed speeches, including the 18,000 seat Chicago Stadium, Lindbergh accused the Roosevelt administration of promoting a “defense hysteria.” Sensing danger, Congress conceded by approving “cash and carry” accords, grudgingly sending the Royal Navy 50 WW1 destroyers. Churchill had been informed that rescue from America by sea was only a matter of months away – if England could survive that long. Liberty ships, the war’s “ugly ducklings,” eventually would number 2,751 vessels built on average in only 42 days at 18 U.S. shipyards. The past failures and likely future setbacks on land and at sea, tugged at Churchill’s thoughts before that first meeting on October 15, 1940. He needed America and he needed her now, or England would lose the war. It was that certain.
The Cabinet War Rooms, LondonAlthough the current public entrance is not the original wartime entry, CWRstaffers returning for a nostalgic visit decades later would not be disappointed. The rooms are as complete in appearance and appointments as they were then. The entire headquarters staff seems to have departed for a celebratory pint on VJ Day,15 August 1945, but never returned.The same places are set in the Cabinet Room as when Churchill opened the first meeting in 1940. Here, the wartime coalition government and separate Defense Committee convened regularly. Meetings, called the “Midnight follies,” could begin at any time of the day or night. A famously late-retiring Churchill might call an evening conference, only to conclude it well after Midnight. On average, 15 ministers and ministers without portfolio attended. At various times they included Neville Chamberlain, Clement Attlee, Sir Hastings Ismay, General Alan Brooke, Viscount Halifax, Anthony Eden, Lord Beaverbrook, and others. Churchill presided from a wooden chair with arm rests at the top of a hollow square of tables covered with blue cloth. The ministers analyzed briefing papers, summaries, maps and charts. An overhead brightly red painted interlace of steel beams glinted over the proceedings.
Today, as if ready for a hastily called meeting, the table holds the same ink stained blotters, with pencils and files askew. One tagged file on the table reads OPERATION OVERLORD – TOP SECRET. Hitler would have sacrificed millions more lives for that one file detailing plans for the Allied invasion on June 6, 1944. The separate Map Room is even more complete. A wall to ceiling map showing punctures from thousands of colored push-pins, displays the perilous convoy routes from Hampton Roads to Halifax and on to the British ports. On a raised center console surrounded by desk positions strewn with notes and manila files, seven different colored telephones, dubbed the “beauty chorus” were linked worldwide.
Their insistent ring-ring sent watch officers and messengers scurrying to receive or send messages over the telephones or through pneumatic tubes. Fourteen telephone lines went to British forces, the U.S. military, to embassies, and to the Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches in Liverpool. Two lines connected to the White House. Frequent calls between Churchill and Roosevelt originating from a separate broom- closet sized room, discussed the latest discoveries from top secret ULTRA. Over 12,000 code-breakers at Bletchley Park, the “golden geese that never cackled,” had already solved the primary means of secret German military communication.
They had deciphered the myriad intricacies of the electro-mechanical Enigma machine. Fifty decrypts a day in 1940, multiplied to 3,000 daily in 1943. The war-winning accomplishment gave the Allies details of Hitler’s schemes, even before his armies knew.
Back in the narrow, windowless, single corridor in the Cabinet War Rooms, a notice board with changeable cards reported on the weather outside, such as “fine,” “rainy,”and “windy.” With typical British stiff upper lip, the “windy” card referred not to the movement of air, but to the presence of air raids above. Nonetheless, the sound of bombs falling within yards of the building was sufficient indication of conditions above.
Midway along the hall, a room with signs above the door states: THE PRIME MINISTER, and SILENCE. This was Churchill’s austere combination bedroom and office, called the “holy of holies” by the ever dutiful staff. Photos, personally selected by Lady Clementine, line the walls. On one side of the room, his desk has a bound copy of “Dod’s Parliamentary Companion,” awaiting his unlikely perusal. From the two BBC desk microphones, Churchill made four speeches rallying the world at war. At the room’s opposite end, his single-sized bed with walnut headboard is routine enough – his folded bedclothes are at the ready – but oversize wall maps verify that this was the headquarters of a leader under siege. A seven by nine foot wall map in the bedroom was almost always concealed by drapes; General Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of few to view it. Here, in the innermost sanctum of the Cabinet War Room’s secret spaces, the map shows the British beaches where the Nazi’s were expected to land. Red and blue circles, and dotted and straight lines, reveal how little of the country was fully defended. For all of Churchill’s boldness in thought and action, even he expected the worst. A separate telephone room has – for the time and place – state of the art switchboards. Six operators were on duty day and night. In another tiny room, a pool of four typists hunched over black Remington’s, and duplicated correspondence on a mimeograph. Another small room contains a full kitchen, lacking only cooks to prepare meals. A range, a double-doored oven, cooking utensils, containers of additives and ingredients, electric oven-top grill, and the essential oversize metal tea kettle, anticipate a hurried Midnight meal request.
Overall, here is a museum that not only portrays a valuable segment of the 20th Century’s most important event, World War Two, but lives and breathes that same history in unsurpassed detail. Even more, the bulldog tenacity of one of history’s transcendent giants is on full display, starting from the day when Winston Churchill first inspected the facility and said: “This is the room from which I will conduct the war.”
Jerome M. O’Connor, Chicago Tribune, October 22, 1978
The elegant country house where,on 5 June 1944,General Dwight D. Eisenhower made the historic and risky decision to launch the D Day invasion. After its momentary fame the mansion near Portsmouth – ignored for decades by authors and historians – receded into history. Not quite. We discovered the house as it was on D Day. And now it can be visited with advance application.
Urged by coils of lashing winds and rain, on the evening of June 4,1944 General Dwight D. Eisenhower entered Southwick House, a mansion near Portsmouth, England appropriated for the Allied Expeditionary Force advance headquarters.
The two greatest secrets of World War II – the Manhattan Project and the breaking of the German ENIGMA cypher. This how the “Secret of the Century” saved Britain from defeat in World War II.
“In wartime truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies” Winston Churchill .
Now read the little known story describing how 12,000 code-breakers at BLETCHLEY PARK systematically revealed the ENIGMA labyrinth,the principle means of communication for the entire German military in the Second World War.
The discovery of the unchanged Churchill War Rooms in London – the first in the continuing “living history” series – came about, as did most of the situations in the articles to follow – quite by accident.
In 1978, a former RAF pilot friend told me about Winston Churchill’s top secret headquarters, as we rocketed at high speed on the motorway between London and Oxford. He had been informed that Churchill’s wartime HQ not only still existed, but was virtually unchanged and fully intact. He said that a few VIP guests such as military officials and diplomats, were occasionally allowed to visit the enclave for tours conducted by a solitary employee functioning as both guide and curator. After much pleading my friend convinced the guide and curator, a Mr. Christian Truter, that a minor military record and a journalism background merited me a special tour.
The next morning we descended into the cluttered warren of rooms and records, the appearance of which suggested that the occupants had suddenly departed the premises – perhaps for afternoon tea – decades ago, never to return to wartime posts staffed for six years. We were given tiny one-cell military flashlights, told to keep our heads down to avoid low overheads, and set off ever deeper into a rarely seen subterranean world. It was a memorable adventure into the living history of the 20th Century’s defining event – World War Two.
Scattered throughout more than 10,000 sq. ft. of alternately spacious and cramped rooms, masses of overflowing files and unruly papers, documents and reports were idly scattered on tables, desks, chairs, atop filing cabinets and on virtually any flat surface. Large maps and charts anchored almost every wall. Color-coded telephones, loose-leaf binders, and office supplies from a bygone era littered the trestle tables and desks. Quite by accident – although it could hardly have been avoided amidst the disorder – I knocked over a yellowing, brittle manila folder. A typed label identified the contents: OPERATION OVERLORD – TOP SECRET. It was a planning folder for the Normandy invasion. Returning the file to its more or less correct location, I imagined the price Hitler would gladly have paid to read the contents of that folder.
But first Hitler had to know that the headquarters of one of the two men he hated and feared most (FDR being the other), was in the heart of London, the VERY heart of London. It was only steps from Number Ten Downing Street, a short walk from Buckingham Palace, around the corner from Trafalgar Square, and directly across from St. James Park – a perfect landing site for paratroopers. His principle enemy’s nerve center was hiding in plain sight and easily accessible to anyone, or, at least, anyone with the proper clearance to be there. And there weren’t many.
Thus began the first in the still-continuing series of articles revealing – often for the first time – places and events of great importance, events affecting the lives of everyone living in the Twentieth Century – history’s most tumultuous one hundred years.
The below article and the accompanying photos appeared in the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine on October 15, 1977. It was the first major feature revealing the existence of the now famous rooms, and led to their opening as a museum in the early 1980s, now one of London’s most visited. For WWII history enthusiasts, a visit to London will not be complete without seeing the Cabinet War Rooms. But be ready to wait. During a recent visit the entrance line snaked outside and around the corner of the still unchanged building.
Additional articles and commentary will appear periodically. Every effort will be made to reply to comments and questions. Contact the author here.
UNVEILING THE CHURCHILL WAR ROOMS
Chicago Sunday Tribune Magazine, 15 October 1977
Although few are aware of its existence, tourists may now visit the subterranean bastion in London from which Prime Minister Winston Churchill directed Britain’s war effort
By Jerome M. O’Connor
It’s in the center of London, only five minutes walk from Buckingham Palace, and not long ago was considered to be the most impregnable and top secret bastion in Britain. To obtain access to its innermost sanctum, one had to first pass a hidden machine gun post in the entry, then descend a winding stairway past three control points manned by Royal Marines ready to deny further passage to those without the proper code word for the day. This “holy of holies,” known as the Churchill War Rooms, is more accessible now to small daily tours, but is practically unknown to most Londoners and visitors, many of whom walk daily over its miles of serpentine passages twisting below the traffic.
In 1906 construction began on the white stone building facing St. James Park, but it wasn’t finished until 1916, then turned over to the Ministry of Works as an office building. The remains of deep wine cellars from the stately homes that earlier occupied the site would later serve as the starting point for the network of chambers, tunnels, offices, and dormitories that Churchill and his staff referred to as the “Annexe.”
The decision to move into the fortified Annexe and its recently finished basement War Rooms was made on October 14, 1940, as the Prime Minister and Mrs. Churchill dined at No.10 Downing St. A bomb exploded fifty yards away and the blast had destroyed the kitchen, pantry and offices of No. 10. As the air raid continued, the Churchill’s calmly walked through bomb-cratered St. James Park to the roof of the nearby Annexe building to watch the fires searing parts of Pall Mall, St. James and Piccadilly. That night they moved into the war rooms, to sleep, however reluctantly, during the heaviest air raids.
Wartime Londoners were not unaware of the existence somewhere in the capital, of a bomb shelter designed for Churchill, but they assumed it to be in the Citadel, the grim looking concrete pile at the Horse Guards Parade, which Churchill called “that vast monstrosity.” Little did they know that the Citadel, with its twenty foot thick reinforced concrete walls actual contained only offices for female army Wrens and a cinema, while the nearby and much more vulnerable Annexe housed the Churchill’s, the War Cabinet and the Defense Committee, as well as hundreds of staff and troops. To this day, most Londoners believe that Churchill masterminded the war from the Citadel, now converted into luxury apartments for government ministers, while the Annexe, since re-named the Ministry of Works building, with its vast storehouse of history, is still largely unknown.
Today the Churchill War Rooms are maintained as a shrine to the spirit of a people who denied Hitler his most sought after prize, England, and to the bulldog tenacity of the man who gave Britain hope and courage when the rest of the world expected surrender. Until this spring (1977) they faced a different crisis, a lack of funds to maintain the crumbling relics of the Battle of Britain. Now the Imperial War Museum has stepped in with money to sustain for another year or two, the daily trickle of visitors to a museum without glass. While the battle of permanent funding continues, the 2 ½ hour tour is an unforgettable and sometimes chilling reminder of Britain’s darkest days.
The sole guide and curator, Christian Truter, about 53, was as surprised as everyone else to learn that the War Rooms were actually under the Ministry of Works Building not the Citadel when he was assigned as the first permanent guide in August, 1975; he had been a guide in one of Britain’s stately homes. Since then, his job has become an avocation and much of what is known today about what happened then was gained from personal interviews, then a meticulous re-assembling of the original furnishings, equipment and documents. So vivid was the realization that William Stephenson, about whom the best-seller, A Man CalledIntrepid, was written, broke into tears when he visited the rooms two years ago for the first time since the war.
A maximum of fifteen participants are given flashlights for a part of the tour going below the level of the Thames, then beneath the sewer level to view the former offices and dormitories, the occupants of which, judging by the overhead, must have been shorter than Britain’s legendary Gurkhas. During the war secretaries with top security clearances, the “secret ladies,” performed staff functions from damp, dungeon-like warrens. Passageways were lit by candles, while overhead pneumatic tubes whistled and pinged from the sounds of message canisters being propelled from one post to another. William J. (Wild Bill) Donovan, head of America’s wartime OSS, likened the activity of the War Rooms to stepping into a Shakespearean play complete with stage directions like, ‘army heard in distance, sound of trumpets.’ Outside the map room a sign post had slots describing the weather overhead, COLD, SUNNY, WINDY, FINE. Either optimism or wishful thinking dictated that there be no sign for RAIN. General Eisenhower’s cell-like room, with its army cot and dresser remain as he left it. A “schedule of alarms” posted outside Ike’s room proclaims the type of perils to which the staff could be subjected, including fire, air raid overhead, gas, or ground attack in or outside the building. A notice near the Prime Minister’s bedroom warns that, “there is to be no whistling or unnecessary noise in this passage.”
The enclave was protected by so many layers of secrecy that a recent visitor was amazed to discover the existence of a map room manned 24 hours a day between 1939-45, and adjacent to the room which was his duty station for the entire war. The map room appears as if its occupants had left for tea, expecting to return soon to the red, yellow, white and black telephones on the cluttered desks, still heaped with top secret codes, clearances, books and maps. Large area maps on the walls also display thousands of pinholes tracing the dangerous paths of convoys around the world, including New York, Gibraltar, or frozen Murmansk. Almost lost in a corner of the organized disarray is a frayed empty map case with the legend, “Operation Overlord Maps, War Cabinet Chiefs of Staff, 30 July, 1943.” It contained maps of the Normandy invasion beaches, for which Hitler would gladly have paid any price to obtain their precious contents.
One map shows the progress of the last air raid on Berlin. Detailed reports reveal the amount of destruction in Britain caused by the V1 and V2 bombs. Status boards tell how close enemy bombers were to London. One board has a white chalk entry recounting how many British and German planes fought and were shot down on the final day of the Battle of Britain, September 15, 1940. On that day Hitler indefinitely postponed “Operation Sea Lion,” the invasion of Britain.
Only steps from the map room, Churchill’s bedroom door is marked “Prime Minister.” The austere 18X20 ft enclosure has a cot occupying one end and a desk and chair at the other. From the simple desk were made the stirring broadcasts that rallied and sustained the nation and a defeated Europe. In the unlikely event that the great man faltered in composing his calls to battle, a pocket size version of “Dod’s Parliamentary Companion” on the desk awaited his perusal.
Covering an entire wall of the bedroom, a map of the British Isles showed the color coded invasion beaches where Hitler was expected to launch the attack on England. This information was so sensitive that even here in Churchill’s bedroom in the center of the most secret place in England, heavy drapes covered the knowledge that even Churchill expected the worst for England. The only personal memento in the room is an antiaircraft shell base to collect his numerous cigar ends, later to be mysteriously smuggled out and sold on the streets (along with thousands of others, no doubt) as genuine “Churchill cigars.”
In his anthology of the Second World War, Churchill describes in “Their Finest Hour”, how Lady Clementine, despite Mr. Churchill’s preference for unadorned walls, had sufficient confidence in “this solid stone building,” to hang favorite pictures in the austere living quarters.
The first transatlantic hot-line was installed in a nearby cubicle everyone thought was the PMs personal toilet. In true Churchillian fashion, he didn’t take telephone calls from the operator until certain that Roosevelt was first on the line. At his end of the telephone, an annoyed FDR was constantly awakened in the middle of the night to take calls being placed early in the morning London time. That problem was solved by the addition of a red painted indicator on the wall clock showing Washington time in relation to London time.
The visit to the Cabinet Room is the tour’s emotional highlight. Numerous times between 1939-45, war cabinet meetings were held in this room, usually between Midnight and 2am. These “Midnight follies” were led by Churchill, who padded into the room in robe and slippers with attached pom-poms, trailing a plume of cigar smoke. He occupied a wooden chair with leather upholstered seat (see photo). A large wall map mounted behind was constantly referred- to by the Prime Minister. On the floor at Churchill’s right side, a bucket occasionally caught the cigar butts unceremoniously tossed over his shoulder. The table in front, covered in the same sturdy black cloth used to make police uniforms, held a red painted wooden dispatch box for the Prime Minister’s documents. In a hollow square around Churchill sat his ministers and the chief architects of Britain’s wartime policy. A hand lettered and tattered placard on the table admonished all that; “there is no depression in this room and we are not entertaining the possibilities of defeat; they do not exist.”
To a hushed tour group four decades later, seated at the same table where England’s survival was discussed, a recording of Churchill’s war speeches is played. As the sonorous sibilance echoes throughout the room, each participant became part of one of the century’s most moving experiences.
What General Weygand called the “Battle of France” is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. If we fail then the world, including the United States and all that we have known and cared for will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister and perhaps more prolonged by the likes of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that, if the British Commonwealth and Empire last for a thousand years, men will still say, “this was their finest hour.”
The biggest secret about the existence and purpose of the Churchill War Rooms wasn’t known until 1976 when the British government revealed that a single 500 pound bomb could have damaged the Annexe and destroyed the War Rooms. It would have stilled the rolling resonance of the voice that gave wartime Britain its roar.
Most Londoners are unaware of the historical treasure under their streets. Only 75 visitors a week make the advance reservations necessary for the tour. But the rooms are open and visitors are welcome. To miss the Churchill war rooms when in London is to miss an important part of 20th Century history.