We began at “Cleopatra’s Needle” on the north bank of the Thames, an Egyptian obelisk flanked by statuary sphinxes presented to Britain in 1819, which was damaged by German bombs in the First World War, those bombs being delivered unto London via Zeppelins.
But most of the tour after that centred on the war I knew, through my father’s stories and my own reading and studies. To understand London today, you need to understand what London endured during the Second World War.
We moved along the Thames, hearing the story of London Bridge, sometimes called The Ladies Bridge because it was built mostly by women during the war. We also heard many tales from the Blitz, the German bombardment of England in 1940-41, including when dock workers from the east end of London, after a 1940 German bombing set their docks ablaze, marched upon the Savoy Hotel, demanding refuge in the hotel’s basement (which they got). The Savoy also was the base for foreign journalists, such as the American Edwin R. Murrow, who reported on the war, often with details their British counterparts could not share for security reasons.
The Royal Air Force (and its allied forces such as Canada’s RCAF) played the key role in preventing the German Nazi forces from occupying England: most of Europe had been either taken over, or agreed be allied to, Hitler. Following the fall of France in June 1940, the Germans determined that a land assault on England would not succeed until the RAF was destroyed, and its cities weakened, including the government in Westminster, London. And so was born the Blitz of London and the air Battle of Britain.
Air bases were targeted, including the one at Bournemouth where by father was hit by shrapnel; more than 40,000 civilians died in these bombings, almost half in London, where more than a million houses were destroyed or damaged. This mid-century destruction certainly contributes to the feeling now in London that it’s a modern city, given how much has been rebuilt there since in the 1940s.
Despite this devastation, the Allied forces air crews were able to force back the Luftwaffe: as Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, in a war-time speech, “never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so few.”
Our tour concluded at the Churchill War Rooms, where we queued for entrance. Now run under the umbrella of the Imperial War Museums, this is, in fact, two museums in one. There are the Cabinet War Rooms from the Second World War, which was the underground secret headquarters of the war effort housed beneath the new Public Offices, a government administrative building. The second is a museum about the life and times of that cabinet’s leader, Winston Churchill.
At the end of the Second World War, the underground headquarters were abandoned, and nothing removed. Sometimes private tours would be given; by the 1970s, concerns arose that the maps and other artifacts were beginning to disintegrate and initial thoughts were to recreate the war rooms in a controlled-environment proper museum setting.
However, eventually the decision was made to bring the environment controls and restoration efforts to the original site, rather than the other way around. The Rooms opened to the public in 1984.
In 2003, a suite of rooms, used as accommodation by Churchill, his wife and close associates, were restored and added to the museum.
Several friends who had visited the War Rooms had gone on about how fascinating they are, and they were right. It would not have been nearly as powerful set up as a display within a modern museum building: entrance numbers are limited because the corridors are narrow, although many walls have been removed and replaced with Plexiglas so visitors can see the rooms within.
The Churchill section, opened in 2005, is fascinating and was another time when we wished we had allocated more time to visit. You enter into a display about Churchill’s life during his Second World War prime ministerial days, and then go back and forward in time, to his early life, and then to his life following the war. Some areas – such as the one about Churchill’s love of painting – are standard museum artifacts-in-glass-cases presentation, but the modern digital-interactive museum designers went to the top of their game in other parts, notably with a huge “interactive table” (15 metres long) that invites visitors to call up reams of digitized material from the Churchill Archives Centre.
When we were finally kicked out at 6 p.m. closing, we stumbled up the stairs into the grey early evening. Around the corner was Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament: the very heart of Westminster. They still stand, thanks to the tenacity of leaders such as Winston Churchill, but also to that same resolve found in the young secretaries who laboured in the War Rooms, sworn to secrecy about their work; to the citizens who stoically carried despite the blitz; and to those in the allied air forces, including one young ground crewman from St. Marys, Ontario, who put their lives on the line.
Main photo: the Map Room at the Churchill War Rooms. Photo: Kelley Teahen