Book Review: Secrets of Churchill’s War Rooms
by Jonathan Asbury
University of Chicago Press, 2017
The collaboration between the University of Chicago Press and Britain’s Imperial War Museum continues with Secrets of Churchill’s War Rooms, an oversized and beautifully-produced volume designed to give readers an intimate tour of the Churchill War Room exhibit in London, where ticket-holders can descend into corridor-warrens underneath the city pavement and walk around in the subterranean chambers that were fitted out and eventually reinforced in order to house key government operatives and their small army of assistants, secretaries, telegraph operators, and typists during the war, when bombs were falling on the city and the populace in general was regularly running for cover.
Jonathan Asbury, who wrote the official guidebook to the Churchill War Rooms, here provides an amplified version of the handbook visitors might buy on the premises, complete with the slightly breathless title (there are no secrets in these pages, although there are dodges aplenty). In nearly 300 pages and over 200 photos, readers who’ll never visit the exhibit in person get up-close views of the grubby labyrinth where Churchill and his staff withdrew in the war’s darkest days in order to study maps and plot strategy.
Paging through the book gradually accumulates a powerful sense of cramped desperation that’s only heightened when you remind yourself that when those rooms were in use, they wouldn’t have looked so clean and polished; they would have grimy and rat-infested, and they would have reeked of stale sweat and the pungent tang of the chemical toilets in every corridor. In his accompanying narration, Asbury mixes historical overview with quotes from many of the men and women who lived through the use of these underground chambers – and those recollections are where the book’s (and the exhibit’s, most likely) quota of sentimentalizing tall tales get imported. For instance, when we see the crude bunk beds used by the two men in Churchill’s Special Branch protection team, we’re told:
After the war, Walter Thompson revealed that Churchill was determined to go down fighting. Thompson was ordered to keep a .45 Colt pistol fully loaded for the Prime Minister’s use. ‘He intended to use every bullet but one on the enemy,’ wrote the detective. ‘The last one he saved for himself.’
As Asbury points out over and over again in the course of the book, Churchill virtually never slept down in the fortified War Rooms, preferring to sleep upstairs in the Annexe or, more often, out of London entirely.
Sometimes far out of London: Asbury reminds us that far holing himself up in the catacombs, Churchill made many overseas trips to meet with foreign leaders – although the focus still stays, rather charmingly, with the embattled teammates making the war effort work down in the basements:
These conferences were a mixed blessing for the staff of the War Rooms and the No. 10 Annexe. Apart from all the preparatory work, there was the headache of deciding who should go, who should stay behind and how to ensure that this division of resources didn’t impact on the effective direction of the war. At first it was deemed impossible for civilian women to be involved – due to the restrictions on females boarding Royal Navy ships and the discomfort of high altitude military air travel. This meant that the many secretaries and personal assistants at work in London were excluded from the travelling party – much to their frustration. It was only from May 1943 onwards that the rules were changed, which meant that a select few were able to leave the austerity of Britain behind and sample the delights of Washington, Quebec, Cairo, Teheran and Tunis before the year was out.
Seeing the chairs and tables, the threadbare little rugs, the water basins and drab kitchenware, the microphones through which the Prime Minister addressed the nation, actually ends up doing exactly what the curators of the War Rooms no doubt intended: the sight of it all makes the realization of Blitz-era London very much more immediate and very personal. A great deal of work and unassuming heroism played out in these poorly-lit rooms during the war years, and Secrets of Churchill’s War Rooms brings it all before the reader again.