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Alerts and Alarms

Winston Churchill, a voice in the wilderness, railed against the reluctance of Chamberlain, France and the League of Nations to act against Hitler before it was too late. His words went unheeded, however, because he was considered by many to be, a genius without judgement,[*] and was scorned and maligned as a war monger.

Despite the catcalls and criticism, Churchill, in a great speech to the House of Commons on 12 November, 1937, reproached the Government for its failure to face up to the Nazi menace."So they go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful to be impotent. So we go on preparing more months and years - precious, perhaps, vital, to the greatness of Britain, for the locusts to eat."

By May 1940, Britain faced the greatest crisis in its long history. The Nazi hordes had blitzkrieged their way across France, Belgium and Holland and the triumphant German Wehrmacht was poised to launch an assault across the English Channel. All the while the bulk of Britain's army was stranded at Dunkirk, sandwiched between the ocean and Hitler's legions lurking not far away.

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who had banked on buying Hitler off with Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland, had proudly produced a piece of paper and pronounced to cheering throngs at 10 Downing Street, "Peace in our time." He later regretted using this phrase. He had neglected to ensure that Britain's military might matched Germany's, this covenant without swords was mere words and really resulted in dignified conciliation becoming humiliating concessions.

Tragically, failing to find the peace he had so earnestly pursued, he floundered in the midst of the mayhem that now raged around him. His only policy in the forthcoming Stahlbad [steel bath] - War, was "to hope for the best."

Neville Chamberlain's WWII Cabinet

10 Downing Street
House of History
photo by
G. Wilson

Finally, yielding to rabid, outraged cries for his resignation from political foes and friends alike, a chastened Chamberlain called a meeting at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, 9 May, 1940 to choose his successor. The candidates were: Lord Halifax, Foreign Secretary and Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty.[**] Later Chamberlain called on the King to recommended he appoint Winston Churchill.

Winston's leadership was on the line. The weight of the war rested squarely on Churchill's shoulders. The House honoured Chamberlain when he entered with with wild cheers and thundering applause. Winston would have to prove himself; he was greeted by silence.

On that memorable occasion, the nation needed inspiration and got it."I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.You ask what is our policy? It is to wage war by land, sea and air with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us. You ask what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, for without victory, there is no survival. Come let us go forward together with our united strength."

Memorable phrases flowed . Following the fall of France, he spoke again. "We shall go on to the end .... We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.... Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, this was their finest hour." This was followed when he visited Ottawa with the "Some chicken, some neck." speech which included the statement that the world sought peace, but would "withold no sacrifice ... grudge no toil ... fear no foe."

Winston and His War Cabinet

Churchill's first war cabinet included Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax. Tensions between those holding opposing views within the war cabinet were extremely high. Despite later denials that there had ever been any consideration whatsoever of compromise with Herr Hitler, Lord Halifax favoured a policy of conciliation, that some thought would lead to capitulation. Talk of "an honourable peace" with Hitler was in the air. Winston was diametrically opposed to any thought of parley with that person. If the country had to go down, it should go down fighting.

Churchill, whose powers were to become absolute, had to tread warily at the time, for his position was not firm and he was careful not to confront Halifax directly. Halifax had support from Chamberlain who was still a force to be reckoned with within the governing Conservative party.Churchill's warnings while in the wilderness had been so prophetic, that no one could challenge his leadership. Winston opposed compromise with all his reason and rhetoric and he won the day.

King George VI did not want Churchill to succeed Neville Chamberlain. He, the Queen and a good many others, feared Churchill was too chancy. They favoured Lord Halifax, the foreign minister, who clearly did not want the job. When King George turned to Chamberlain for advice, Chamberlain told him that Churchill should be invited to kiss hands, Reluctantly, the King agreed and summoned Churchill to Buckingham Palace, coyly commenting to Churchill when he arrived, "Do you know why I have sent for you? Churchill went along and replied, "Sir, I have no idea."

Subsequently, when Churchill formed his War Cabinet and gave the King the names of individuals he wanted in it. It included the Canadian (2nd right rear) Max Aiken, Lord Beaverbrook, as his Minister of Aircraft Production. The King wondered at the wisdom of appointing Beaverbrook and sent Churchill the following letter.

Dear Prime Minister, "I would like to warn you of the repercussions, which I am sure will occur, especially in Canada, at the inclusion of the name of Lord Beaverbrook for aircraft production in the Air Ministry. You are no doubt aware that the Canadians do not appreciate him and I feel that as the Air Training Scheme for pilots and aircraft is in Canada, I must tell you this fact. I wonder if you would reconsider your intention of selecting Lord Beaverbrook for this post."

Churchill replied that considering the difficult task he had been asked to undertake, he hoped he would be given the men to assist him in whom he had complete confidence. The king appointed Beaverbrook. Churchill's confidence was not misplaced. The Beaver, despite "fighting everybody and resigning each day," ensured that when the planes were needed, they were there. He became a very close personal friend of Churchill, much to Clemintine's disfavour.

Government Offices

A concrete 'apron wall' erected along the western wall in 1940 to prevent possible blast damage to the Cabinet War Room.

To ensure accommodation that would provide safety for the cabinet if war came, a decision was made in 1938 for the prime minister, the cabinet members and the Chiefs of Staff to hunker in the bunker called the Central War Room. The site chosen, the steel-framed Public Offices block on Clive Steps on King Charles Street, was considered the strongest in Whitehall and its basement rooms were reinforced and renovated for that purpose.

Entrance to King Charles Street
photo by
G. Wilson

Entrance to King Charles Street
photo by
G. Wilson

King Charles Street
[The statue is of
Sir Robert Clive
and was erected in 1912. He suffered from a bi-polar condition and committed suicide but cutting his throat with a penknife.]
photo by
G. Wilson

In that cramped, windowless subterranean cellar some 3 metres (10 feet) below ground in the Government Offices, the Cabinet War Rooms were established in the summer of 1938 as the threat of war worsened. The War Cabinet met here only once while Neville Chamberlain was Prime Minister. One evening in May shortly after becoming Prime Minister, Churchill visited the underground site and promptly declared,"This is the room from which I will direct the war." Churchill's War Cabinet held over one hundred meetings in this room between May 1940 and May 1945.

Despite his inclination to climb to the roof "to see what was happening," Churchill was safely ensconsed far below ground in a bomb-proof headquarters. Accommodations were prepared for him and Clemmie some 70 feet underground, beneath the buildings at Storey's Gate. The site has since become a museum to house his artifacts.

At one end of a long hall was the Cabinet Room arranged as it was during the War Cabinet meeting held at 5 pm on 15 October 1940. All the clocks were set for the same time.

The Cabinet Room (no photos were permitted in these rooms.)

Churchill sat in the large wooden chair on the far side of this room in front of the map of the world. Beside his chair was a fire bucket in which he deposited his cigar ends. The Chiefs of Staff sat facing Churchill on the inside of the hollow square formed by the baize-covered tables. The walls were a yellow brick with the ceiling criss-crossed with red girders providing reinforcement and and for ventilation. Above the door to the left were two small electric bulbs painted red and green. These were used to inform those assembled whether or not an air raid was in progress.

Down the hall was the Map Room manned day and night throughout the war to which Churchill was a frequent visitor. It was the heart of Allied and Axis operations meticulously monitored with coloured wool used to mark the German advance and Soviet counter-attacks. Here too the fate of every convoy was watched, a stream of coloured pins pointing out the progress or lack thereof of fleets bringing men and materiel from Canada and the United States. Sound effects added a touch of raucous realism to the rooms with air-raid sirens and the rumble of bombs bursting in the background.

Winston's Bedroom and Office

Special Telephone Winston Used to Talk With President Roosevelt

During the war transatlantic calls were sent by radio-telephony. Devices known as scramblers were used to transform conversations into a meaningless noise until they were unscrambled at the other end. A really secure link was available only in 1943 when Bell Telephone Laboratories in the US developed an advanced scrambler which filled an adjacent room.

A Heinkel He 111 bomber over London on 7 September 1940.

Churchill Inspecting Bomb Damage to New Public Offices

On 30 September 1940 a German bomb blasted a crater at the north-western corner of the New Public Offices not far from the public entrance to the Cabinet War rooms. When Germany surrendered there was no further need for the underground rooms and they were gradually vacated and closed. They remained so until 1981 when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decided the historic site should be seen by the public and after renovation they were opened for public viewing in 1984.

Churchill Surveying the ruins what had been the floor of the
House of Commons

On the night of May 10, 1941, one year to the day of Churchill becoming Prime Minister, German raiders destroyed the House of Commons. It brought grief to all, but no one could have felt it more than Winston Churchill, child of the House of Commons. He stands amidst the wreckage on the floor of the House, pensively looking towords the Ministerial benches from which he delivered so many of his great orations. Here in the wreck of this hallowed place, he doubtless recalled the dramatic scenes and momentous occasions he had witnessed and participated in since being elected as Conservative Member for Oldham in 1900. No doubt he also feared for the future of his beloved country.

An interesting anecdote pertaining to the rubble resulting from the bombing of the House of Commons concerns Canada. When our then Prime Minister Mackenzie King, learned of the destruction of this historic place, he immediately cabled our High Commissioner, Lester B. Pearson and instructed him to collect some of the ruins and ship them to him. On his beloved estate, Kingsmere, King used ruins from a variety of historically important places to construct his masterpiece on a hill above his lake which he named Abbey Ruins. It contains pieces of what was Britain's House of Commons, as well as rubble from the the first, burned Canadian Parliament Buildings, the front of a bank, a carved stone hand, stones from the printing press that belonged to his grandfather, the Little Rebel, William Lyon Mackenzie, as well any other lump of masonry that caught his fancy.

Winston Churchill

A Worried Winston & Clementine

The Winner - Sir Winston!

The Arms of Sir Winston Churchill
Knight of the Garter


In a space in the War Rooms that was once used only for storage, an entire museum - the first ever - has been opened that is devoted just to Churchill. The Churchill Museum is located at the back of the Cabinet War Rooms under a building that now houses the country's Treasury. The museum is divided into five chapters of Churchill's life and presented under different titles.

Young Churchill (1874-1900)
Politician and Statesman (1900-1929)
Wilderness Years (1929-1939)
War Leader (1940-1945)
Cold War Statesman (1945-1965).

The museum displays offer a roadmap of Churchill's life that with the help of historical artefacts and modern-day technology take visitors on a fascinating journey back in time.

One intriguing exhibit is a door. While organizers were searching through piles of rubbish, the original door to No. 10 Downing Street was discovered. The door to Downing Street, the official residence of Britain's prime ministers, hung on the hinges when Churchill occupied that house. The original (wooden) door was removed from No. 10 and replaced with a bomb-proof steel door at the height of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) terrorist campaign in London.

[*]At this time, Churchill, almost alone among Britains whose public voice counted for anything, vehemently supported Edward VIII in his bid to marry the American divorcee, Wallace Simpson. Churchill alienated other Members of Parliament by "going on a rampage"in the Smoking Room of the House of Commons, declaring he would not permit the King to be "strangled in the dark." When he made an appeal on the king's behalf in the House of Commons, he was brutally howled down and left muttering that he was finished. His foolish support of this vacant king and his strident opposition to dominion status for India, as well as his vociferous espousal other lost causes, weakened his voice when he spoke in opposition to more important issues like Munich. Chamberlain said arguing with him was like arguing with a brass band.[The Dark Valley by Piers Brendon]

[**]The Admiralty was abolished as a separate department in defence reforms in 1964 and made part of the Ministry of Defence. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the abolishment took place in 1964, the same year Winston died, for undoubtedly, that one-time 1st Lord of the Admiratly would have vehemently opposed any thought of abolishing the august Admiratly, where he spent some grand times making a name for himself in both WW I and WW II.

Winston Returns to Admiratiy House

Admiralty Entrance
photo by
G. Wilson

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