A number of the people who spent the years of the Second World War working secretly underground alongside Winston Churchill have returned to the Cabinet War Rooms
for the opening of a new exhibition. On the 70th anniversary of the day on which the Rooms were used for the first time, Joy Hunter, Barbara Sormani and Myra Collyer, each of whom worked in tense, cramped conditions throughout the War reunited for the opening of Undercover: Life in Churchills Bunker.
Undercover: Life in Churchills Bunker runs from 27 August 2009 to 27 August 2010 at the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms in central London. It draws on new personal accounts to build a picture of life beneath the London streets, where events of the War were shaped and world-changing decisions made. Stories, historic images, previously unseen personal objects and the voices of War Room veterans combine to create the tense but often humorous atmosphere in the series of rooms selected as the secret war headquarters for Churchill and his War Cabinet.
While the personality of Churchill looms large throughout, many uncelebrated characters are also brought to the fore, many of them secretaries or typists leading seemingly ordinary lives but involved in an extraordinary event. Shorthand typist and Assistant to the Draftsman, Myra Collyer, recalls: We hated war, all of us did, but it made us grow up, it was our university. Shorthand Typist and PA Joy Hunter: I was talking about going down those awful steps which, walking past them now, makes me feel quite faint. I dont know quite how we did it. The whole thing about working underground, its very strange, really, because not only do you never see daylight but you also never have fresh air. I wont say it was very pleasant. There were moments of
extreme claustrophobia but, again, when you were very busy you had to keep going. Nearly everybody smoked, so it was a very smoky atmosphere as well, and I suspect that that didnt really help our breathing. I dont think anyone became particularly ill with it
but it cant have been very healthy at all, all those people, not only Churchills cigar, but endless cigarettes.
Stenographer and Morse Slip Reader Barbara Sormani: I had a very lovely job before I went in, and I was very fond of fashion and theatre like most young people, and to be taken away from it all and to be put into a uniform, woolly stockings and flat shoes was dreadful. I wish now Id gone in with a different attitude
I didnt want to go. I just liked London, the life and the job I had and the clothes and everything about it. To be taken away from that was dreadful to my mind. I mean five years is a long time.
Among the key objects on display is the transcript of Churchills famous 9/11 speech that he delivered from the War Rooms on 11 September 1940 and in which he accuses Hitler of trying to terrorise this country. The transcript, which has never previously been displayed in public, contains several handwritten notes added to the original draft at Churchills request. Among the added notes is the following description of Hitler: 'This wicked man, the repository and embodiment of many forms of soul destroying hatred, this monstrous product of former wrongs and shame has now resolved to break our famous island race by a process of indiscriminate slaughter and destruction.
The speech, titled Every man to his post focuses on the recent heavy air raids on London, the prospect of a Nazi invasion of Britain, and the resilience of the British people, and the Londoner in particular, bred through thousands of years of history. In a particularly well-known passage, Churchill foresaw a hard-pressed Britain holding out until the US could join in the war: What he has done is to kindle a fire in British hearts, here and all over the world, which will glow long after the traces of the conflagration he has caused in London have been removed. He has lighted a fire which will burn with a steady and consuming flame until the last vestiges of Nazi tyranny have been burnt out of Europe, and until the Old World and the New can join hands to rebuild the temples of man's freedom and man's honour, upon foundations which will not soon or easily be overthrown.
Phil Reed, Director of the Churchill Museum & Cabinet War Rooms said Churchill made several famous speeches from within the War Rooms and this is the most stirring and most relevant to todays world. The transcript which we are showing is a clear illustration of Churchills instinct and skill for producing uplifting and memorable rallying calls.
Also on display for the first time is a letter making clear Winston Churchills verdict on the underground rooms selected as his wartime bunker. The letter - on loan from The National Archives - was written by Patrick Duff (Permanent Secretary at the Office of Works) to Sir Edward Bridges (Secretary to the Cabinet). It recounts a meeting between Duff and Churchill on 13 September 1940, during which the pair discussed the site from which Churchill and his War Cabinet were directing operations. Churchill was clearly angry at discovering that the site was not bombproof, claiming that Duff had sold him a pup and letting him think that this place is a real bomb-proof shelter. Duff confessed that he was indignant at being accused by Churchill of misrepresenting the safety of the site.
The exhibition begins with the days before the outbreak of war, when the Cabinet was looking for a site for the War rooms, and stretches forward to the 1980s, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher approved the plan to open the Rooms to the public. It examines the safety and security of the Rooms and their ability to withstand a bomb blast, showing how Churchill operated, how people worked with him, and revealing how everybody coped with a daily underground existence. It also explores the emotions experienced by those who worked here, once war was won and the bunker closed.