If you’re planning a trip to London, be sure to add the Churchill War Rooms to your sightseeing list. Located under the streets of Westminster, this underground bunker is just minutes away from Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. It was there that Winston Churchill, his war cabinet, and support staff worked hard in planning their strategy to win World War II against the Axis powers.
Plan to carve about an hour and a half into your schedule to see everything. The building is open every day from 9:30 am to 6:00 pm except for December 24 through 26.
You can go at your own pace as you read the placards and listen to an audio guide. Some aspects of the bunker will look very familiar if you’ve seen the film The Darkest Hour. The route takes visitors through permanent exhibits including the Churchill Museum, the Cabinet War Rooms, and an intriguing display called “Undercover: Life in Churchill’s Bunker.”
The exhibits do an excellent job of presenting a wealth of information about the conditions everyone operated under when the rooms were in use from 1940 to 1945. Even though the bunker was outfitted with concrete slabs, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s essentially a converted basement. Therefore, “safety was not guaranteed,” as one placard indicated. Gas masks, bells, water hoses, and fire buckets sit ready in the corridors as answers to potential hazards that could strike at any moment.
Some less-alarming artifacts highlight trivia about Churchill and the day-to-day administrative and planning tasks. The room for the typing pool provides a snapshot into how objects were set up for the female typists: pencils, 1940s newspapers, hats and handbags on hooks. Just steps away is the Map Room with pushpins that plotted points on the wall maps. Shrill telephone rings of the 1940s add to the busy atmosphere.
Mannequins in period dress also establish the scenes further. Similar attention to detail is given to the dorm room-sized bedrooms. The exception among the bedrooms is Winston Churchill’s, the largest chamber in that section. Some rooms are inaccessible by foot, but it’s fun to peer through the glass or over the barrier rope. You might even encounter some friendly exhibit staff doing minor projects to keep the rooms in tip-top condition.
Supplement what you’ve learned on your visit by watching interviews with people who worked in the bunker during the 1940s. There is a small viewing station along the way to the Map Room. Letters and other documents in a wall exhibit add further testimony to this intriguing and important time in world history.
Many parts of the exhibits focus on the technology of the time period. The Transatlantic telephone is definitely worth a look. It’s housed in a room that Churchill wanted “disguised as a private lavatory.” Near the café, you’ll find audio and broadcasting equipment that would have been used to record Churchill’s speeches.
Before you exit, check out the gift shop, which has interesting souvenirs reminiscent of the 1940s. These include flying jackets, small Spitfire plane and poppy trinkets, and my personal favorite, an apron decorated with the words “Victory is in the kitchen.”
The Churchill War Rooms are part of the Imperial War Museums (IWM) family in the United Kingdom. For more information on the ongoing exhibits and events at these museums, visit the IWM webpage. Documentaries and films are wonderful tools for expanding your knowledge of history, but there’s nothing as incredible as venturing to these historic sites yourself.