The author of the Maggie Hope Mystery series
writes about KBO, cocktails, code-breaking, and red lipstick.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Cabinet War Rooms

The Cabinet War Rooms in London were created in 1938 from a storage basement not far from No. 10 Downing Street, as a safe place to wage what's now known as World War II. Ironically, they were built just after Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain delivered his now infamous "Peace in our time" speech.

The underground Cabinet War Rooms were the scene of hundreds of history-changing meetings of Winston Churchill's War Cabinet and Defense Committee. Churchill also had a radio room, from which he delivered several of his famous speeches. He also had a scrambled telephone room, which he used to make calls to world leaders, including President Roosevelt. While the Prime Minister had a small bedroom there for safety reasons, he preferred to work and sleep above ground at No 10 or his own Annexe, much to the consternation of his advisors and of his wife, Clementine Churchill.

The Rooms closed on August 16, 1945 and have been kept to this day as they looked in 1940, with the War Cabinet Room, the Map Room and Winston Churchill's Room still containing all their wartime contents. In 2005, the Churchill Museum opened in an adjoining space.

I first visited the Cabinet War Rooms in 2000 — and was immediately taken by the place with its history and atmosphere. Walking the subterranean corridors, seeing everything left just as it had been, it was easy to imagine life as it must have been during the War. Looking at the small typists' room and listening to a recording of the words of Churchill's secretary Elizabeth Nel, the idea of a novel set in the war rooms was inevitable.

Here's a short description of the War Rooms, taken from Mr. Churchill's Secretary (Bantam Dell/ Random House, 2010):

She looked up at the heavy black hands of the clock on the wall and sighed. There were no windows in the War Rooms, the warren of underground space used by the Prime Minister’s staff. The low ceiling was buttressed by the beams from one of Nelson’s ships of the line. Signs warned, Mind Your Head. The once magnolia-colored walls had faded to a dull yellow and the floors were covered in ugly brown linoleum. Overhead were braces of drainage pipes, where gurgles of sewage from the New Public Office could be heard. While the air was filtered by a special ventilation system, there were still lingering odors of unwashed bodies and too-often-worn clothes, chemical toilets and stale cigarette smoke.

The windowless typists’ office was lit by four green-glass pendant lamps and adorned with several gas masks, along with steel helmets and whistles for air raid drills. It was quiet in the small room, but outside, in the hall, the subterranean air was punctuated with the clatter of typewriters, conversations in low voices and the piercing ring of unanswered telephones.

The only evidence it was spring was the calendar on the wall. May 1940.


  1. Vivid.

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