There’s a strange little trap door as you enter the Churchill War Rooms. Most visitors walk straight past – or even over – its dusty glass window. For those who stop to look, a set of wooden steps lead to darkness. Beyond that, who knows.
On the wall an unremarkable black and white photograph holds a tantalising clue for sub-London fanatics. The steps lead, it says, to the infamous ‘dock’, where, if you worked down here but weren’t lucky enough to be Mr Churchill or one of his closest advisors, you had to eat and sleep. Behind iron doors and anti-gas rubber seals, this was a secret wartime bunker underneath the secret wartime bunker.
The Churchill War Rooms below Whitehall, from where Sir Winston directed troops, oversaw manoeuvres and recorded rousing radio tub-thumpers, once ranked alongside Bletchley for confidentiality but Britain’s most vulnerable target was hidden in plain sight. “The Germans never found it,” says Steve Staley, Operations Manager at the museum. Perhaps it didn’t occur to the Nazis anyone would be stupid/brave enough to hide their emergency government under the everyday one.
Someone entering the Office of Public Information (now the Treasury) would be guided to the general offices on the left hand side. They wouldn’t notice a few bland-looking individuals discreetly turning right into a dark corridor. Even if they’d followed the right-turners down a smart but unremarkable staircase they probably wouldn’t think anything awry – until they saw the armed marine guard on duty.
Nowadays anyone can see the maze of map rooms, meeting areas, telephone exchanges and filing cabinets. Museum visitors witness the spartan luxury of bedrooms ‘enjoyed’ by Churchill, Mrs Churchill and the odd lucky troglodyte that got to live ‘upstairs’. But for the rank and file, a whole other world yawned in the bowels below all that.
Steve Staley and Museum Director Phil Reed have agreed to unlock the usually strictly-out-of-bounds sub-basement for Londonist to take a glimpse under the bunker. Stripped after VE Day and now filled with miles of lagging, piping, wires and cabling, the tunnels’ secret inhabitants can still, just about, be traced.
“They go for miles,” says Staley, ducking into the sub-basement. He and Reed spent many hours exploring them before most were blocked off – unsurprising given it’s rumoured they run under Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament, forming a labyrinth under most of Whitehall. “We’d just go and collect the keys and say ‘let’s go left this time, we haven’t been that way yet’.” He shines a torch down a long corridor choked with pipes and lagging, cables and wires. “It’s anybody’s guess as to how far they go. I came up in Trafalgar Square one day.”
One room is reputed to have been Churchill’s wine cellar, with a dome shaped like a cave.
“Nothing in there now,” says Phil Reed.
“Another day we found a room with some photographs of high-ranking German officials, cut out of newspapers,” says Staley. “They were covered in holes. Someone had used them as a dart board.”
We even found a rifle range,” says Reed. “A sixty-foot section of passageway with butts, a load of sand and hundreds of unused rounds.”
“There was an Enfield rifle in bits,” adds Staley.
“They used to just fire down the corridor with all the pipes and lights,” says Reed. “Stayed in use until the 1960s.”
“This,” Steve Staley points to a trickle of water running in a channelled culvert below a modern metal walkway, “we think is a tributary of the river Tyburn.”
During the war mechanical pumps worked day and night to combat flooding. Even today’s electric pumps have to be replaced once a year. Some of the floors have been raised to avoid the water. It does not look appetising. “I’ve tried it,” says Staley, clearly a man prepared to go beyond the call of duty. “It’s not sewage-sewage but it’s not water…”
We press on, ducking to avoid the miles of cabling and pipes. Corridors break away to either side. “The numbers on the walls usually refer to the rooms above,” calls Staley. “Much of the plan follows a similar pattern to the war rooms themselves”.
“As you go further in it gets taller,” says Phil Reed. “They could have only fitted single-height beds in some parts. Further in, you could squeeze two and three storey bunks. It could have taken hundreds of people. The area under King Charles Street was occupied by the navy.”
I ask if there are any old photos of the passages in use. Of course there aren’t. “Officially they didn’t exist. They were ‘Post Office’ tunnels,” says Reed, “dug by civilian engineers, sworn to secrecy.”
Some doors are locked, some bricked up, some gaping entries to other systems.
“Are there rats?”
Stepping over pipes half way up our thighs we find what were once dormitories. Small, brick rooms that would have held several bunk beds and a couple of chemical toilets. The many columns, holding up the ceiling, are held in place with a series of wedges to combat ground movement, from bombing above or natural earth shift below.
“There were usually about four bunks and a couple of chemical toilets in each”, says Steve Staley. The men were happy enough to use the chemical loos, but the women hated them and would make the long climb upstairs, past the constant teasing of bored squaddies on guard to spend a penny on the surface.
“The lights went on in 1938,” he says. Even the year before even the Phoney War began People were planning, tunnelling. “Those lights did not go out until 1945.”
Trying to sleep with the racket of the air supply system, the slurping of water pump, the stink of chemical toilet, the scurry of rats, the tickle of spiders and the constant awareness the Luftwaffe would like nothing better than to bomb you into next century, those lights must have been the final straw. How long did people sleep down here?
“Some people were on stints of seven days, some 24 hours on, 24 hours off, but there was no regular pattern – some were there longer,” replies Steve Staley.
“Don’t forget the smoke,” says Phil Reed. “Everyone smoked everywhere, even in bed.”
For some, it proved too much. They preferred to brave the bloodshed, blackouts and bombs on the surface and go home rather than sleep down here.
A filthy Belfast sink, still with its pipes, clings to a wall though its hand pump has long disappeared. The mini septic tank underneath had to be emptied by hand, along with those stinking chemical toilets.
“Here’s the food preparation area,” says Staley, pointing to a couple of wooden planks set into the wall. “And that’s the larder.” A dark wooden door in a corner hangs open. Mr Churchill’s meagre cooking facilities, a few feet above us, suddenly look like the kitchens at Claridges. Steve Staley shakes his head. “I’m in awe of the people who worked here.”