On Winston Churchill’s 141st birthday, Phil Reed, the Director of London's Churchill War Rooms, takes a look at the rooms and objects which tell the tale of his leadership
The Cabinet Room
Pictures taken at the end of the war show that the appearance and the contents of the Cabinet Room have scarcely changed since it was last used in late March 1945.
The furnishings are those that the War Cabinet – and the Chiefs of Staff, stuck in the ‘well’ in the middle – together with their retinue, used for 115 War Cabinet meetings and some 300 Defence Committee meetings, the vast majority of which Churchill personally chaired.
His wooden seat shows the signs of the tension he was under, with the deep rills in the wooden arms, made by his signet ring and his finger nails.
The maps could only have been a form of decoration, their large scale making them useless as planning tools, though the vast stretches of pink, marking the British Empire, must have been a depressing site, as it gradually diminished.
The windows looking into the Cabinet Room were put in place by Imperial War Museums to enable visitors to see this magnificent room, but not risk damaging its historic contents.
More than any other room in the site, this room reeks of history. It is just a shame we could not also recreate the reek of Churchill’s cigar smoke which, along with the cigarette and pipe smoke of almost all the occupants, would have filled the room.
Elizabeth Layton worked as one of Churchill’s private secretaries during the war. Here she recalls an average day for the Prime Minister…
“He did have quite a long day. Normally he would wake up at eight and he would then have his breakfast in bed. Then about half past eight he would be ready to start work and from that time until he got up one of his personal secretaries would be sitting near his bedside behind the typewriter.
“And then he would work on his papers or sometimes somebody that he knew well might come for an interview while he was sitting in bed. Sometimes he would have to get up, say, about 11 for a meeting, perhaps a Cabinet meeting or a Chiefs of Staff. But sometimes he would stay in bed until, say one o’clock.
“And he would get up at one and go for his bath, which his valet would arrange for him. Then lunch would be at half past one.
“So the Personal Secretary would sit next to him from half past eight until one, and perhaps that was quite a long morning…but he hated wasting time. In any case he always seemed to have a great deal to do – almost too much to do.
“He wanted to get it done and get it done efficiently. And anything which he could sign at the end, usually he wanted sent off at once.
“Usually in the afternoon…he would work or meet or interview in the Cabinet Room, if he did not have a Chiefs of Staff meeting or something which would take him elsewhere. Then he always went for a rest in the late afternoon when he would have a hard sleep of an hour and so he kept his strength up and his working energies.
“He had a tremendous workload. He never went to bed before two in the morning. And then he was able to have a really hard sleep for six hours. And that seemed to be enough.”
So pervasive is Churchill’s presence that you can almost smell his cigar smoke as you walk down the corridors.
In the Centre of Command, the atmosphere was thick with cigarette and cigar smoke and heated discussion. Positioned in the central well of the tables, the three Chiefs of Staff sat eyeball to eyeball with the Prime Minister, thrashing out their plans for every theatre of the war.
Then – sometimes long after midnight – the door to the room would be opened and the minutes rushed away to be typed up and circulated. And so would be defined the next cycle of tasks to be carried out by the ever-busy staff of the Cabinet War Rooms.
Frank Higgins, a military policeman who worked as a guard at the Cabinet War Rooms, used to see Churchill most days. “We saw more of him during the evening and night,” he says.
“He walked around in deep contemplation, as if he was studying things in his mind. And it did, on several occasions, give rise to cabinet meetings being held in the early hours of the morning.
“He never contemplated speaking to anyone outside of his own people, in the cabinet, and I suppose higher officers. But I wouldn’t say he ignored us. We were always there and he acknowledged us with just a nod of the head and murmured something as he went by.
“And he always seemed to make a pantomime of climbing out of his vehicle. He used to climb in and out…take off his coat and put it on again, and raise his hat, cigar in one hand and victory sign in the other.
“People clapped and cheered…at a time when things were low.”
Shorthand typist Ilene Hutchinson remembers how she and others from the Joint Planning Staff climbed up from the Cabinet War Rooms to get a rooftop view of the VE Day celebrations in May 1945. “We got up onto the roof of the office and we managed to walk right along to…the Home Office, I think,” she recalls.
“But on the roof…we watched all the crowds, thousands and thousands and thousands. There’s hardly a hair’s breadth between them.
“They just held hands…and it was amazing. And then when Mr Churchill appeared in this open limousine he had his hat in one hand, cigar in the other and he was just standing waving them both and of course they went mad, absolute frenzy there was. Then I had to go back to work.”
Winston Churchill was strategically located adjacent to the Map Rooms, where the noise of the phones could be substituted by flashing lights at night, so he could be instantly updated whenever he was in residence.
However, his presence in the Rooms was infrequent and, despite having by far the most comfortable bed in the site, he only slept in it three times. The potty at the bottom of the bed indicates that there were no sewage ejectors in the site – hence no toilets but, more importantly for Churchill, no means of having his daily morning and evening bath, the latter following on from his ritual hour-long sleep in pyjamas, in the late afternoon.
The desk is where he delivered four speeches during the war, including one on September 11 1940 and one just after Pearl Harbour. All the fixtures and fittings reflect the fact that this room was that of the senior-most person in government, despite his only using it occasionally.
The Map Room
This room was Churchill’s pride and joy. He regularly used to bring his eminent visitors to show off its ultra-modern, high-tech operation – we know this, as we have the signing in book which the Chief Map Room officer began in 1941 and which, among others, has the signatures of the King and Queen and General Eisenhower.
The room operated 24/7 and was manned by one officer of each of the armed services, who would be connected by the colourful, direct dial phones to their underground map rooms and intelligence rooms.
The ‘Lamson’ vacuum message tubes would send messages all the way around the building, while the wall maps charted the progress of naval convoys around the world, as well as the progress of campaigns in all theatres of war.
Churchill was something of an obsessive about maps and, like many politicians since, appreciated their at-a-glance up-dates fast and efficient.
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Three places to follow in the footsteps of Churchill in
Churchill War Rooms, London
Visit Churchill War Rooms to discover the original Cabinet War Rooms, the wartime bunker that sheltered Churchill and his government during the Blitz. Explore the historic rooms to experience the secret history that lives on underground.
Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire
Sir Winston Churchill was born in the Palace in 1874 and a permanent exhibition about him is located next to his birth room – both are included in the Palace tour. He is buried in a simple grave in the nearby church at Bladon. A separate exhibition, ‘Churchills' Destiny – the story of two great war leaders’, celebrates the achievements of Winston and his great hero and ancestor, John Churchill.
The Library and Museum of Freemasonry, London
Items belonging to famous and Royal Freemasons, including Churchill and Edward VII, are on display here, together with examples from the museum's extensive collection of prints and engravings, photographs and ephemera.