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LONDON Paris has its sewers; Rome its catacombs; and Vienna its web of underground tunnels.
Hidden discoveries await those who dig below the surface of Europe’s great cities. In London, the current draw is a former government storage basement with a sand-bagged entrance and a 500-pound bomb on display in the lobby.
The Cabinet War Rooms, the underground sanctuary where Winston Churchill and his lieutenants worked as the Germans bombed London during World War II, have taken on new significance in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the pending war with Iraq.
About half of the 300,000 annual visitors are Americans, according to curator Phil Reed.
“I don’t like to draw parallels today in respect to what we now face being the same dilemma faced by Britain in 1940.” Nevertheless, he said, current events have sparked renewed interest in Churchill, the man who went from being a lone voice in urging action against Adolph Hitler to a leader credited with galvanizing support for a war that saved Europe from Nazi control.
After World War I, fears that cities, particularly London, would be the first targets of aerial bombers in another war set planners to work on various ideas for secure sites where the prime minister and his military command could be protected.
The idea of tunneling deep shelters in the northwest suburbs was scratched, and eventually the site chosen was a building facing St. James Park between Parliament and No. 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s official residence.
Ten feet below ground, in the basement of what is now the government Treasury Building, the only structure in the area at the time with a steel frame, rooms were reinforced with a 300-yard-long, three-foot thick slab of concrete laid across the top. They were finished Aug. 27, 1939, a week before the German invasion of Poland and Britain’s declaration of war.
As sirens signaled bombing raids above, Churchill and his cabinet the heads of three armed services, chiefs of staff and planning and intelligence units worked throughout the war, ducking under low ceilings into tiny bed chambers and communicating with the outside world by telephone with signals scrambled by a device in the basement of a London department store.
The rooms were kept secret, and Churchill used them reluctantly, preferring to work and sleep above ground whenever possible. Six years later, when the war ended, they were no longer needed. The lights were switched off and the doors locked.
Parliament declared them a historic site in 1948, but it wasn’t until 1981 that the Imperial War Museum, a national museum and charity, was able to arrange for restoration of the complex. It opened 21 of the original rooms in 1984.
Next month, nine more rooms set aside for the Churchills’ personal use will open to the public for the first time as part of a planned expansion of the complex that will include a new Churchill museum slated to open in 2005. The new rooms, known as the Churchill suite, include the Churchills’ private kitchen, a dining room, Mrs. Churchill’s bedroom and rooms for Churchill’s private staff.
Mustard gas and sugar cubes
Visitors to the Cabinet War Rooms enter through a metal door and sand-bagged entrance modeled on entries to government installations in the area in 1939 and 1940. A self-guided audio tour with explanations taken from written accounts of military officers, staffers and secretaries starts in a former coal cellar where displays bring home the realities of war.
With bombs raining on Britain, newspaper clippings and photos tell the stories of people who took shelter on the platforms of London’s underground stations. Next to the display hangs a huge bomb, one of thousands that caused massive destruction on both sides.
In a glass case there are samples of mustard gas, a ration of sugar cubes found hidden in an envelope in an officer’s drawer and the map used at the Yalta Conference in 1945, showing, with lines drawn around countries in black grease pencil, how control of post-war Europe would be divided among the British, Americans and the Soviet Union.
The War Cabinet Room, where Churchill and his staff met during bombing raids, has been left as it was when the room was closed in 1945. In the center of a row of seats is the wooden chair Churchill occupied.
Curator Reed obtained permission from Churchill’s daughter, Mary Soames, now 80, for President Bush to sit in the chair when Bush visited in 2001.
Leaning against a water carafe on the meeting table is a quote from Queen Victoria that Churchill is said to have placed there to remind his staff that no one should entertain the idea that Britain might lose the war.
“Please understand there is no depression in this house, and we are not interested in the possibilities of defeat. They do not exist.”
Reed gave Bush a copy of the quote “because we rather thought it was apropos of what he was going through following the election,” he recalled. “After Sept. 11, of course, it took on a different significance.”
Living conditions were less than ideal, and Churchill and his top aides rarely slept here. Although Churchill bowed to the advice of his staff, who had been pressing him for some time to meet below ground, he did so reluctantly, said Reed. He took the opportunity to leave whenever possible.
Low-ranking staff, however, did spend the night, and down the corridor from the Cabinet Room is a trap door leading to a sub-basement and their sleeping quarters, called the “dock.”
“For many of them, the routine was simple: work for 10 to 16 hours, then take your sheets and find a vacant bed in one of the dormitories in the dock below,” the audiotape explains.
One of Churchill’s secretaries, Elizabeth Nel, left this description of one of the occupational hazards of spending the night:
“As one hurried up the stairs, heavy-eyed in one’s dressing gown, ” she wrote, “one always seemed to meet the sprucest, haughtiest, most glamorous officers coming their way.”
Further down the hall is a broom closet that was turned into a room where Churchill could telephone President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and later Harry Truman, on a confidential hot line.
In a gray cabinet is a device that was linked by cable to a basement below Selfridges department store on Oxford Street, where the signal was scrambled before it crossed the Atlantic.
Other rooms housed typists who were provided with sunlamp treatments to make up for the lack of daylight. A switchboard operator was equipped with a gas mask designed to allow her to operate the switchboard during a gas attack.
Churchill was a demanding employer, according to Nel’s account.
“He dictates straight into the typewriter,” she wrote. “As he finishes dictating, you are to hand over the letter for immediate signing. It’s not easy to hear what he says. … He has a slight speech impediment. … Then there’s always a cigar in his mouth.”
The Map Room, where military officers updated reports on the war’s progress, was the nerve center of the underground complex, and it is the most impressive room.
It appears today as it did after it was closed in 1945, with every map, chart, push pin and book in place. On one wall is a full-length map used to chart the progress of Allied ships.
A bank of colored phones sits in the middle of a long desk in the center of the room. The phones connected Army, Navy and Air Force command with underground headquarters around central London.
Next door is Churchill’s bedroom-office, lined with maps, and outfitted with the bin he used for his cigar butts, a tray table and a desk with two microphones that he used for radio broadcasts, one to the United States after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Churchill slept overnight here just three times and used the room mainly for naps. When he did spend the night, his routine went something like this:
“The Prime Minister habitually worked until two or three in the morning, but stayed in bed until eight or nine a.m.,” recalled Admiral Sir Henry Moore of Churchill’s naval staff.
“Then he’d sit up, looking like a pink cherub, and read the latest reports. If the news was good, he bounced up and down with joy like a small boy. If it was bad, he would slowly slide down the bed, pulling up the sheet until his face was hardly visible, as though to keep out the bad news.”
The nine rooms that will open April 8 are being restored with original furnishings and period pieces from private donors. Old photos guided curators as they attempted to re-create what the areas looked like.
The dining-room table and sideboard are the Churchills’ originals. Two matching 62-year-old stoves to be installed in the kitchen came from individuals who responded to a radio, TV and newspaper appeals.
“It was astonishing just how many people rang, wrote and e-mailed who still had period stoves,” Reed said.
Backers of the new Churchill museum are attempting to raise money in the United States as well as Britain. Reed is hopeful that the opening of the nine rooms will spur donations from visitors impressed by the memories of the people who worked here, convinced that peace would one day return to the bombed-out streets above.
“I think that what people experience when they come here is a sense of stepping back in time, and what they feel is a sense of living in dangerous times,” he said.
“If one had to find a relevance to today, it is clearly that.”
Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or firstname.lastname@example.org