The Churchill War Rooms is the fortified basement in Whitehall is where Winston Churchill, the Cabinet, and senior military figures coordinated Britain’s war effort. During the war, it was one of London’s most secret installations, and very few people knew of its existence, let alone were allowed entry. Today, however, the site is open to the public and has many fascinating exhibits about this turbulent time in Britain’s history.
The Churchill War Rooms is one of five branches of the Imperial War Museum and comprises the Cabinet War Rooms (although just one part of the museum, the entire complex was previously known as the Cabinet War Rooms and many people still refer to it as such), the underground complex that housed the British command centre during the Second World War, and the Churchill Museum, which features exhibits about the life of Winston Churchill.
Work converting the basement of the New Public Offices (which now houses HM Treasury) into the Cabinet War Rooms began in 1938 with work complete the following year just days before the outbreak of the Second World War.
What to see in the Churchill War Rooms
The Churchill Museum is fascinating, particularly if you have an interest in this period of British history. It features the actual Cabinet War Rooms where Winston Churchill and his top military aides plotted Britain’s war effort, the biographical Churchill Museum plus exhibits about the staff who worked in the Cabinet War Rooms.
The Cabinet War Rooms are a fascinating place to visit. Not only does a visit give you access to what was previously a top-secret military installation, but the rooms have largely been left as they were after the complex was abandoned in August 1945 providing a glimpse into another era.
This underground bunker includes the Cabinet Room, the Map Room, the Transatlantic Telephone Room, offices and Churchill’s bedroom.
The Churchill Museum is a biographical museum chronicling Winston Churchill’s 90-year life and his legacy. The museum starts with his childhood then follows his rise to power, his leadership during the Second World War and his fall in popularity following the war. This museum wouldn’t be complete without artefacts including paintings and, of course, one of his famous cigars.
The museum features a 15m (49ft)-long interactive table detailing Churchill’s influence on major historical events. There is also an interesting exhibit showcasing Winston Churchill’s relationship with the Middle East
The Undercover: Life in Churchill’s Bunker exhibit shows what life was like for the staff who worked in the Cabinet War Rooms during the Second World War. This exhibit highlights the stories of individual staff members.
Visiting the Churchill War Rooms
An audio guide is included with your admission charge, which gives you a deeper insight into many of the exhibits. The audio guide is available in English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Mandarin, Portuguese and Spanish. There is also a descriptive audio guide for visitors with a visual impairment.
The Churchill War Rooms complex is wheelchair accessible, although wheelchair-bound visitors should enter via the entrance on Birdcage Walk.
A cafe is located around halfway through the museum, and it is a good spot to take a break. The cafe specialises in classic British food, particularly what would have been popular during the 1940s, including pies, stews and cakes such as Bakewell tart and stout gingerbread.
To get the most from your visit it is recommended that you first read something about Churchill (Boris Johnson’s book about London has a brilliant chapter about Winston Churchill) or at least watch something relating to this period of British history. Simply watching Darkest Hour and the Crown before your visit will really bring the Cabinet War Rooms to life.
The Churchill War Rooms is a very popular attraction and can get busy 11am–4.30pm, so it is best to visit outside this period.
You may need to wait for 45–90 minutes or so to buy tickets and get in but if you have pre-booked tickets (or if you are an IWM member) you can skip the ticket queue and head for the shorter queue for visitors with pre-booked tickets.
Two hours is the minimum you need for a short visit, but if you have an interest in 20th-century history you could easily spend 4–5 hours in here.