The Churchill War Rooms

BY PETER MATHEWS

CHURCHILL’S COMMAND CENTRE was the hub of the Britain’s secret intelligence network in the Second World War as it played a central part in its direction.

The headquarters of MI6 were to be found (if you were in the know) at 55, Broadway opposite St James Park Underground Station just across the park. Churchill founded The SOE (Special Operations Executive) in 1940 in St Ermin’s Hotel, just around the corner from Broadway, with orders to ‘set Europe ablaze’ and create the resistance movement which its agents did.

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St Ermines Hotel © historyinanhour.com

The Battle of the Atlantic was being directed, with the help of Bletchley Park; in the depths of the ivy clad Citadel next to the Admiralty within sight of Winston’s headquarters. The command centre kept in constant touch with the “Park” as it was producing the ULTRA intelligence evaluations from wireless intercepts they decoded of Hitler’s orders to the Wehrmacht . The intelligence reports were delivered by a constant stream of Dispatch Riders arriving at the back door of the bunker in Great George Street. The Top Secret documents were then scrutinised by Churchill in the war rooms and circulated to his chosen advisors, sometimes with the now famous ACTION THIS DAY note on them.

The intelligence secrets that Churchill reviewed in his war rooms with the help of his small tight-knit team of senior naval and military officers played a crucial part in formulating the strategy of naval and military operations in every theatre of war around the globe. The decisions they made about the huge and complex movements of British forces and their military equipment had to be relayed rapidly and accurately to the commanders in the field. As the war began each of the armed services handled their own coding and communications but it soon became obvious that communications within the war rooms had to be more centrally organised. The Royal Air Force set up the Cabinet Office Cypher Office; a small detachment of WAAFs (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) officers were assigned the arduous task of coordinating, coding, transmitting, receiving and distributing all signals communications within the command centre.

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Lady Llewellyn Image © The Telegraph

Squadron Officer Joan Williams (latter Lady Llewellyn) was put in charge of the Cypher Office for which she was later awarded and OBE; it grew rapidly under her supervision to many more times its original size. A battery of machine coding Typex machines (the equivalent of the German coding Enigma machine) were installed within weeks of the decision. A team of eight WAAF officers administered the operation of the constantly busy communications unit whose conditions in the sub-basement of what is now the Treasury Building were gloomy and almost airless. Visitors to the Churchill War Rooms today may be able to imagine the cramped living conditions but not the pressure under which they all worked. Those of us that have been concerned with coding and decoding messages will know the demands that such work needs and the close attention required where errors in a digit or letter could render a message unintelligible. Squadron Officer Williams work would not only entail the close attention to the coding or decoding of documentation but also the priority of its distribution, she was also responsible for seeing the right people saw the right documents. Priorities in circulation were laid down by General Sir Leslie Hollis to whom she reported; on more than one occasion she was reprimand her for an error in the circulation of documention. Her team had sent a document to staff on the normal ‘Secret’ list, when it should only have gone to the much more restricted ‘All Most Secret and Personal for Chiefs of Staff’ list.

Working in the War Rooms was demanding, often in ill lit and confined spaces but in spite of the difficulties morale was always high because war room staff found Churchill’s leadership so inspirational. The War Rooms had been manned for 24 hours every single day since 3rd September 1939 but on the 15th August 1945 Japan surrendered and a global war ended and the Map Room as the heart of the command centre ceased to function. A graphic picture of the conduct of the war was left for to-day’s visitors but the Cipher Office in the Cabinet Office still continued its operations for just over a year; still run by the WAAFS. Finally civil servants took over its function and the Cabinet Office Cipher Office was subsumed into other government security facilities leaving the war rooms vacant.

For some years after that there was an informal arrangement to show a limited number of people around the rooms but there was a growing public interest in viewing the historic command centre. Margaret Thatcher formally opened the Churchill War Rooms in 1984 and run by the Imperial War Museums; today the Churchill War Rooms are visited by almost half a million people a year. They are able to see the secret establishment from which the Second World War was directed laid out much as they were during the war; the site compares in importance with Bletchley Park as a part of Britain’s secret intelligence story. A visit to the War Rooms is enhanced by the feeling of Churchill’s presence, the arms of his chair in the Cabinet Room where he led discussions on the war’s progress with his Chiefs of Staff and advisors still show the deep groves. They were worn by him showing the strain of those meetings and making the momentous decisions while he was making history.

Feature image © IWM (HU 73355)

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