THE 'HOLY OF HOLIES'
WINSTON CHURCHILL’S TOP SECRET
WHERE HE CONDUCTED
’S WAR OF SURVIVAL
Jerome M. O’Connor
American Society of Journalists and Authors
October 15, 1940, the United States of
BLASTED ANEW FROM AIR”
were most violent in all the five previous weeks of the aerial siege of
Britain’s capital...400 killed...
Station, St. Paul’s Cathedral hit.”
Frederick, MD POST)
That day the forward movement of democracy and civilization paused.
The Nazi invasion of the
was expected by spring 1941 at the latest.
America’s ambassador to
Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy, no supporter of
’s chances, was summoned to
Washington for urgent talks. The lights in
the White House burned brightly all night, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt
readied a seven-minute radio address to the American people.
It would announce a compulsory peacetime draft of 16 million men.
That day, fourteen months before Pearl Harbor,
readied for war.Tuesday
October 15, 1940,
At 5’6,” Prime Minister Winston Churchill possessed a
resolute bearing that denied his height.
Boarding his limousine for the brief trip from Number 10 Downing
Street, he had an especially vital task that day.
London’s port facilities were in ruins from almost daily air attacks, and needed
immediate repair. Nine hundred
fires raged out of control. The
heaviest air raid to date thundered overhead.
Five months earlier, May 10 1940, the day he became
Prime Minister, Germany
Low Countries. Two weeks later, 338,000
Tommies and other troops evacuated Dunkirk in defeat. Six British and three
French destroyers were sunk. All
of the army’s heavy equipment and vehicles remained on the beach.
Dunkirk, only the
lay between the Nazi hordes and victory. The battle of
began that first day in office, only to end in a humiliating French surrender
a mere six weeks later. Now, five
months on, Churchill knew well that Britain’s fate hovered over a vast chasm, with the near certainty of apocalyptic
destruction rained from above over the storied kingdom by the sea.
Perhaps Ambassador Kennedy was correct in saying that England’s prospects were “hopeless.”
As he entered the concrete compound near 5 pm, two
bodyguards following, a Romeo and Julieta cigar haze trailing, a Royal Marine
came to attention on a coconut and rubber floor mat.
Whistling, loud talk, and hall gatherings stopped.
The PM was acutely sensitive to any sound - except the sound of his own
voice. He entered the hastily
built Cabinet War Rooms, an enclave more resembling a basement - which it was
– than the stronghold there was no time to build.
Churchill’s war headquarters resided a mere ten feet below the
Ministry of Work’s ground floor. As
conspicuous as a jack-o-lantern in a snow bank, the squat 1906 government
building hid in plain sight. The
labyrinth of rooms on which Britain’s future depended, stood directly across from St. James Park, an easy
target for German paratroopers. It
was a casual two minute walk through a connecting tunnel from Downing Street
to the Cabinet War Rooms. The
previous night, a bomb hit Number 10, killing three people.
A single Royal Marine guarded the entry at #1 Storey’s Gate, but he
was concealed behind the double-door entrance.
Only a three foot exterior concrete blast wall hinted at something
unusual occurring inside. At
precisely 5pm Churchill went into the relatively spacious Cabinet Room, his
ministers smoking and whispering among themselves, prepared to discuss
red-flagged briefing papers in manila folders.
“Gentlemen, let us begin.”
Taking his seat at a wooden chair in front of a five by
ten foot Rand McNally world map, the King’s red wooden dispatch box on the
table before him, Churchill knew that of all the current and coming crises
England confronted, the circumstances at sea were especially appalling.
Anticipating action, on September 1, 1939, the day war started, eleven
U-boats were already at sea. Two
days later on the day war was declared, U30 sank the passenger liner Athenia,
signaling the start of unrestricted submarine warfare. By the end of the war’s first month, U-boats had
already sunk 63 merchant ships, losing only five in return, an exchange
Britain could not long sustain. When the
had 6,700 merchant steamers, the largest such fleet in the world, and more
than twice that of her nearest competitor, the United States. But, as an island empire,
Great Britain’s dependence on peacetime imports proved to be her greatest weakness in
wartime. Only one month after the
first minister’s meeting in the war rooms, coordinated wolf-packs sank
thirty-four merchant ships in only 48 hours. In
the early years of the war, 280,000 tons of Allied shipping went to the bottom
each month. In memoirs after the
war, Churchill wrote that, “…the
U-boats were the only fear I had in the entire war.”Returning for rest and overhaul to their five impregnable
bases along France’s Bay of Biscay, the wolf-packs were soon back at sea,
proving they were the hunters, and the thin convoy ribbons originating from
the United States and Canada were the hunted.
Churchill had to buy time before re-gaining mastery of the seas.
But there was neither money nor time.
’s only hope lay with the 32nd President of the
United States, his great and good friend, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
On February 9, 1941, transmitted by BBC short wave, Churchill addressed
these words directly to
America : “The other day
President Roosevelt gave his opponent… a letter of introduction to me.
And in it he wrote out a verse in his own handwriting from
Longfellow…here is the verse: ‘Sail on oh ship of state, sail on oh
strong and great. Humanity with all its fears, with all the hopes of future
years, is hanging breathless on thy fate.’ What is the answer that I shall
give in your name to this great man? Here
is the answer that I will give to President Roosevelt: Put your confidence in
us. Give us your faith and your blessing, and under
all will be well. We shall not
fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire.
Neither the sudden shock of battle nor the long drawn trials of
vigilance will wear us down. Give
us the TOOLS and we will FINISH the job.”
“Arsenal of Democracy”
Dismayed by the results of the 20th
Century’s first Great War, its outcome pointing directly to a second, even
bloodier conflict, FDR presided over a fractious electorate of 132 million.
He had won 38 of 48 states in the 1940 election, but only held a
slender 5% plurality. Still in
recovery from the Great Depression, American unemployment exceeded 14%.
Yet, FDR largely succeeded in reassuring the American people with
Sunday evening radio “fireside chats,” and an infectious upbeat outlook.
But, at the end of the day, how could he help
England when Congress had prohibited full rearmament by enacting a series of
neutrality acts punishing friend and foe equally?
And, lacking naval contracts, America’s shipyards echoed with emptiness. Congress
finally gave the Navy a trivial $250 million for new shipbuilding and systems
modernization of its mostly obsolete ships.
The American military had all but disarmed after 1918, with the US Army
fielding thousands more cavalry horses than fully armed mobile divisions.
If stressed, the
could muster 6 divisions; Germany
had a globe dominating ten percent (6.8 million) of its population already
fully trained and ready for war. The
military ranked 18th in the world; even tiny
had more men under arms than
had no munitions industry, and with
’s surrender came the potential of ending virtually any manufacture of arms
requiring rubber. Ninety percent
America’s rubber came from the Netherlands East Indies. Newspaper publishers savaged FDR almost daily.
Unsympathetic editorials in 85% of
America’s newspapers opposed
’s pleas for re-armament. Gallup
polls reported that the majority of Americans supported appeasement.
And the powerful isolationist’s lobby had a new champion in America’s hero, Charles Lindbergh. In
packed speeches, including the 18,000 seat Chicago Stadium, Lindbergh accused
administration of promoting a “defense
hysteria.” Sensing danger, Congress conceded by approving “cash
and carry” accords, grudgingly sending the Royal Navy 50 WW1 destroyers.
Churchill had been informed that rescue from
by sea was only a matter of months away – if
could survive that long.
ships, the war’s “ugly
ducklings,” eventually would number 2,751 vessels built on average in
only 42 days at 18
shipyards. The past failures and
likely future setbacks on land and at sea, tugged at Churchill’s thoughts
before that first meeting on October 15, 1940.
and he needed her now, or
would lose the war. It was that
Cabinet War Rooms, London
Although the current public entrance is not the original wartime entrance, CWR staffers returning over six decades later for a
nostalgic visit to the Cabinet War Rooms would not be disappointed.
The rooms are as complete in appearance and appointments as they were
then. The entire headquarters
staff seems to have departed for a celebratory pint on VJ Day,15 August 1945,
but never returned.The same places are set in the Cabinet Room, where
Churchill opened the first meeting in 1940.
Here, the wartime coalition government and separate Defense Committee
convened regularly. Meetings,
called the “Midnight follies,”
could begin at any time of the day or night.
A famously late-retiring Churchill might call an evening conference,
only to conclude it well after Midnight.
On average, 15 ministers and ministers without portfolio attended.
At various times they included Neville Chamberlain, Clement Attlee, Sir
Hastings Ismay, General Alan Brooke, Viscount Halifax, Anthony Eden, Lord
Beaverbrook, and others. Churchill
presided from a wooden chair at the top of a hollow square of tables covered
with blue cloth. The ministers
analyzed briefing papers, summaries, maps and charts.
An overhead brightly red painted interlace of steel beams glinted over
the proceedings. Today, as if
ready for a hastily called meeting, the table holds the same ink stained
blotters, with pencils and files askew. One
tagged file on the table reads OPERATION OVERLORD – TOP SECRET.
Hitler would have sacrificed millions more lives for that one file
detailing plans for the Allied invasion on June 6, 1940.The separate Map Room is even more complete.
A wall to ceiling map showing punctures from thousands of colored
push-pins, displays the perilous convoy routes from Hampton Roads to Halifax
and on to the British ports. On a
raised center console surrounded by desk positions strewn with notes and
manila files, seven different colored telephones, dubbed the “beauty
chorus” were linked worldwide. Their
insistent ringing sent watch officers and messengers scurrying to receive or
send messages over the telephones or through pneumatic tubes.
Fourteen telephone lines went to British forces, the U.S.
military, to embassies, and to the Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches in
Liverpool. Two lines connected to the
White House. Frequent calls
between Churchill and
originating from a separate broom- closet sized room, discussed the latest
discoveries from top secret ULTRA. Over
12,000 code-breakers at
Park, the “golden geese that never
cackled,” had already solved the primary means of secret German military
communication. They had
deciphered the myriad intricacies of the electro-mechanical Enigma machine.
Fifty decrypts a day in 1940, multiplied to 3,000 daily in 1943.
The war-winning accomplishment gave the Allies details of Hitler’s
schemes, even before his armies knew. Back in the narrow, windowless, single corridor, a notice
board with changeable cards reported on the weather outside, such as “fine,”
“rainy,” and “windy.”
With typical British stiff upper lip, the “windy” card referred not
to the movement of air, but to the presence of air raids above.
Nonetheless, the sound of bombs falling within yards of the building
was sufficient indication of conditions above.
Midway along the hall, a room with signs above the door states: THE
PRIME MINISTER, and SILENCE. This
was Churchill’s austere combination bedroom and office, called the “holy
of holies” by the ever dutiful staff.
Photos, personally selected by Lady Clementine, line the walls.
On one side of the room, his desk has a bound copy of “Dod’s
Parliamentary Companion,” awaiting his unlikely perusal.
From the two BBC desk microphones, Churchill made four speeches
rallying the world at war. At the
room’s opposite end, his single-sized bed with walnut headboard is routine
enough – his folded bedclothes are at the ready - but oversize wall maps
verify that this was the headquarters of a leader under siege. A seven by nine foot wall map in the bedroom was almost
always concealed by drapes; General Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of few to
view it. Here, in the innermost
sanctum of the Cabinet War Room’s secret spaces, the map shows the British
beaches where the Nazi’s were expected to land.
Red and blue circles, and dotted and straight lines, reveal how little
of the country was fully defended. For
all of Churchill’s boldness in thought and action, even he expected the
worst. A separate telephone room has - for the time and place -
state of the art switchboards. Six
operators were on duty day and night. In
another tiny room, a pool of four typists hunched over black Remington’s,
and duplicated correspondence on a mimeograph. Another small room contains a full kitchen, lacking only
cooks to prepare meals. A range,
double-doored oven, cooking utensils, containers of additives and ingredients,
electric oven-top grill, and the essential oversize metal tea kettle,
anticipate a hurried Midnight meal request. Overall, here is a museum that not only portrays a
valuable segment of the 20th Century’s most important event,
World War Two, but lives and breathes that same history in unsurpassed detail.
Even more, the bulldog tenacity of one of history’s transcendent
giants is on full display, starting from the day when Winston Churchill first
inspected the facility and said: “This
is the room from which I will conduct the war.”