Travelling back in time

Revisiting the War

Travelling back in time

It has got to be the most fruitful three hours I had spent at any one location in London.
After several visits to this eternally surprising city where I had been there, done that, seen the usual must-see  sights, it was time to explore beyond the ordinary.

I am glad that my daughter suggested the Cabinet War Rooms and the Churchill Museum. It is a story of another era; a story of sirens and air raids, victories and defeats and the unforgettable role of the legendary Winston Churchill.    

Discovering secrets

For a history junkie like me, the fact that these authentically preserved underground warren of bomb-proof bunker rooms served as secret headquarters from where the entire World War II was strategised, monitored and controlled by British military chiefs, was enough to give goosebumps. 60 years ago, on that last day of 16 August 1945, when the war was officially over, someone switched off all the lights down in the rooms and walked out silently.

It remained mired in mustiness and memories till it was officially opened up, restored and thrown open to the public as late as 2003. In the 1930s, politics was heating up in the world arena and another great war was imminent. Military planners of several nations were gathering forces to prepare for the expected aerial bombardment of cities. That was when, in Britain, to safeguard and protect the war cabinet and service chiefs,  underground secret quarters were planned.

Reliving history

Many basement storage rooms under the Office of Works, ideal in terms of a central location, seemed to fit the bill.  And that is how the Cabinet War Rooms came to be — the British Government’s  secret underground shelter that was home right through the War years of 1939 – 1945 to a host of civil servants, military  personnel and  government ministers including the Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself. 

One climbs down the entrance staircase into the narrow corridor and the ambience of the War immediately springs alive with the sights and sounds of those heady crucial days — the constant tring tring of telephones, the blare of wailing sirens, excited voices interspersed with the famous Churchill speeches.

What a beehive of activity this underground den must have been, with Churchill puffing away at his fuming cigar, striding up and down those narrow musty corridors, barking orders, planning strategies and pulling up minions!  

Even as you enter the most important Cabinet Room, the sheer aura of those service chiefs who sat on those musty leather chairs though 115 meetings in all, is evident even now. Pads and pencils still neatly arraigned as if the top brass would walk in any moment, maps on the walls just as it was then.

The bright red box on his table which contained Churchill’s vital state papers and went everywhere with him is in stark contrast to the rest of the somber ambience. “This is the room from which I will lead the War,” he is to have famously declared shortly after he was appointed prime minister in May 1940. The scratched arms of the leather seat where Churchill sat are evidence of the tensions of those crucial meetings at critical moments of the war.  

What were vital communications like in those harrowing days? The transatlantic cable had not been laid yet and telephone links between UK and the USA were done through a heavily guarded radio and telephone links. The small Transatlantic Telephone Room, which served as the hotline room between President Roosevelt and Churchill is still as it was, humble and sparse save for a small light and a phone, with a dummy of Churchill speaking earnestly with his American counterpart. This high security room was disguised as a toilet!

Churchill’s lifestyle

Switchboard operators sat among the maze of wires and switches, taking and transferring calls. An interesting audiovisual exhibit in the lobby has video recordings of some of these women, now in their 80s and 90s, who recount what it was like manning the boards in those exciting days. In fact the audio guide that’s supplied ( mercifully free, with the rather stiff entrance fee) is a source of interesting trivia about residents recording their spine chilling moments under the most frightful bombing above.  

Further down the corridors, you see the very interesting Map Room which served as the round-the-clock central point for information about the war. Musty journals and ancient Remington typewriters sit next to a row of colour-coded telephones of red, white, black and green, nicknamed the ‘Beauty Chorus’ and rightly so, because these colourful lovelies must have been ringing stridently at various levels right through the day and night.

Huge war time maps still cover the walls, the charts punctuated by thousands of tiny holes made by pins that tracked the advances of naval convoys and air strategies throughout the war. In today’s hi-tech computer age, all of this seems extremely naive and simple.

On a more personal level, the Churchill suites and rooms, restored with authenticity, suggestive of a lack of luxury or sophistication even for those times, spartan though they are in their simplicity. A  series of rooms were converted as courtyard rooms for Churchill’s private office staff, always on call at all times of the day or night.

Perhaps the only concession to luxury in Churchill’s own private room was the wall to wall carpeting. Other memorabilia includes a large metal ashtray for his cigars and a microphones besides his humble bed for emergency BBC broadcasts.

His dear wife Clementine’s bedroom, with a faint feminine touch looks much as it did then, with chintz furnishings and the most basic furniture. Interestingly, the smallish kitchen still equipped with its blackened greasy pots and pans and 1930’s Aga and Jackson ovens saw his loyal master chefs turn out Churchill’s favourite dishes by the hour, even as bombing went on relentlessly.

The actual Churchill Museum in the adjoining wing is also an interesting experience as one gets to know much about this mercurial but brilliant man. In contrast to the war rooms, cutting edge technology is used here to showcase outstanding memorabilia, facts and figures that explore the complex nature of his life and political career.

At the core of the display is the 15 meter-long ‘Lifeline’, an interactive table chronicling his life and times. One now truly understands why this enigma of a man who wrote Britain’s destiny, was so admired, loved and reviled.  

The saga of the war over, it was time to grab a cheery cup of good old English tea and a slice of chocolate cake at the Switchroom Cafe. The aftertaste of nostalgia lingered on.

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