Blogs > HNN > Marc-William Palen, Review of Richard Holmes's "Churchill's Bunker: The Cabinet War Rooms and the Culture of Secrecy in Wartime London" (Yale, 2009)

Aug 22, 2010 10:29 pm

Marc-William Palen, Review of Richard Holmes's "Churchill's Bunker: The Cabinet War Rooms and the Culture of Secrecy in Wartime London" (Yale, 2009)

[Marc-William Palen is an advanced doctoral student specializing in U.S. foreign relations at the University of Texas-Austin]

Have you ever found yourself contemplating how different the Second World War may have turned out if Churchill had been claustrophobic? Well, neither had I until I began reading Richard Holmes’s Churchill’s Bunker. Holmes, Emeritus Professor of Military and Security Studies at Cranfield University and the Defense Academy, is no neophyte when it comes to Churchill studies or military history. Author of more than twenty books, he developed the BBC series “In the Footsteps of Churchill,” is a retired officer in the British Territorial Army, and was the general editor of the Oxford Companion to Military History.

Utilizing a variety of printed and previously unseen primary sources, Holmes offers a fresh look at Churchill and the Western Front from the perspective of the basement of the Cabinet War Rooms in London. It is a work that views the war—literally—from the bottom up, as it reexamines Britain’s wartime decision-makers and explores the subterranean confines of their London headquarters. Churchill, upon first seeing the storage basement located close to the Houses of Parliament as the western conflict broke out, stated, “this is the room from which I will direct the war.”

The War Rooms were also where Churchill thereafter descended “to growl out the words of so many of those broadcasts which helped keep Britain’s hopes alive, and, from late 1941, to make his crucial transatlantic telephone calls.” Holmes thus digs into the history of the Second World War from amid the cramped quarters of the underground Cabinet War Rooms, a location kept hidden for so long and a story surprisingly overlooked even amid the overwhelming deluge of Churchill scholarship.

This short history is a little over two hundred pages, with about twenty of pictures of life inside the bunker. The bunker itself does not effectively enter the literary landscape until page fifty- five, as Holmes begins first with a summary of Britain’s early twentieth-century military high and low points and the origins of Britain’s modern military bureaucracy. The book thus illuminates much more than the dim world beneath the bunker’s flickering fluorescent lights. Churchill and his staff in fact only rarely descend beneath the protective cement of “The Hole,” even amid the seemingly omnipresent threat of falling German bombs. Although Churchill worked his people “very hard indeed,” Holmes also discusses their frequent forays above ground, of weekend tennis and “that sadistic but apparently genteel game, croquet,” of film viewings (always chosen by Churchill himself) and lavish food and plentiful drink amply provided at Churchill’s country residence in the Chilterns.

Such excursions kept relations between Churchill and his inner circle generally sufferable, though by no means always amicable. Churchill’s incessant interference in the affairs of his subordinates was “often resented.” While a clear admirer of Churchill, Holmes readily recognizes, too, that “had Churchill enjoyed untrammeled authority over the chiefs, the result would have almost certainly been disastrous, with armies and ships endangered for the sake of action rather than in measured pursuit of strategic goals.” Luckily, there was instead “fruitful compromise, a synthesis between daring and caution, soaring amateurism and hardened professionalism, optimism and pessimism.” Here, as well, Holmes shows off his intimate familiarity with the main cast of characters in Churchill’s wartime play.

Holmes also provides a fascinating study of the “culture of secrecy” surrounding Churchill’s inner circle and the hectic world of their predominantly female secretaries. Wartime information was funneled through the “beauty chorus,” the lines of colored telephones linking Britain’s various key organizations; “the telephones had flashing lights rather than bells and three were fitted with scramblers so that, if the wires were tapped, conversations would be incomprehensible.” With maps lining its walls, “here indeed,” Holmes notes, “was the world at war.” The secretariat itself was composed of “a flotilla of efficient, intelligent, poised and fashionably dressed young women” like Ilene Adams and Wendy Wallace. While Holmes emphasizes the importance of the female staff, the attitudes of their male superiors toward them “would, no doubt, horrify later feminists”; “there goes a fine filly” and “may I say what very fine legs you have,” though considered harmless flirtation, exemplify the gendered bias of the era that was magnified within the bunker’s confines. But Holmes also explains the singular access to secret military information that these women enjoyed, especially Joan Bright, senior administrator of the British delegations to allied conferences, archivist to the commanders-in-chief and chiefs of staff, one who possessed the “reputation for being at the heart of the ‘Inner Circle.’” Historians of women and foreign policy in particular will glean much from this section.

Churchill’s Bunker was published on the seventieth anniversary of the bunker becoming operational and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the opening of the Cabinet War Rooms to the general public, as noted by the Director-General of the Imperial War Museum, Diane Lees, in the introduction. I would recommend reading this book before visiting either site. From European grand strategy to digressions on the bunker’s mundane menu of cold soup, bacon, and biscuits, Holmes tenderizes the tough meat of military history, making it intellectually palatable to a general, as well as a more narrowly academic, audience. Anglo-American members of the so-called Cult of Churchill will find the fare particularly tasty.

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