History and Tour

Number 10 at War

As tension mounted in Europe in the 1930s, Number 10 became the focus of international attention.

In 1938 Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain posed outside the front door bearing the famous ‘Peace in our Time’ document which declared that any future disputes between Britain and Germany would be settled peacefully.

Almost exactly one year later, on 3 September 1939, Chamberlain broadcast from the Cabinet Room, announcing that the country was now at war with Germany.

Defending Downing Street

Bomb damage at Number 10When Winston Churchill replaced Chamberlain as Prime Minister, he and his wife moved into Downing Street’s second-floor flat, where Churchill did much of his work.

He often dictated speeches, memos and letters to his secretary while lying propped up in bed in the morning or late in the evening, cigar in hand.

By October 1940, the intense bombing period known as the Blitz began. On 14 October, a huge bomb fell on Treasury Green near Downing Street, damaging the Number 10 kitchen and state rooms and killing three civil servants doing Home Guard duty.

Churchill was dining in the Garden Rooms when the air raid began. He recalled:

“We were dining in the garden-room of Number 10 when the usual night raid began. The steel shutters had been closed. Several loud explosions occurred around us at no great distance, and presently a bomb fell, perhaps a hundred yards away, on the Horse Guards Parade, making a great deal of noise.

“Suddenly I had a provincial impulse. The kitchen in Number 10 Downing Street is lofty and spacious, and looks out through a large plate-glass window about 25 feet high. The butler and parlourmaid continued to serve the dinner with complete detachment, but I became acutely aware of this big window. I got up abruptly, went into the kitchen, told the butler to put the dinner on the hot plate in the dining-room, and ordered the cook and the other servants into the shelter, such as it was.

“I had been seated again at the table only about three minutes when a really loud crash, close at hand, and a violent shock showed that the house had been struck. My detective came into the room and said much damage had been done. The kitchen, the pantry and the offices on the Treasury were shattered.”

(Their Finest Hour, 1949)

Keeping Downing Street, the Prime Minister and the War Cabinet safe became a top priority.

Steel reinforcement was added to the Garden Rooms and heavy metal shutters were fixed over windows as protection from bombing raids. The Garden Rooms provided a small dining room, bedroom and a meeting area which were used by Churchill throughout the war. In reality, though, the steel reinforcement would not have protected him against a direct hit.

Downing Street in dust sheets

The Cabinet War Rooms, to which Churchill was evacuatedIn October 1939 the Cabinet had moved out of Number 10 and into secret underground war rooms built in the basement of the Office of Works opposite the Foreign Office.

Following near-misses by bombs, in 1940 Churchill and his wife moved out of Downing Street and into the Number 10 Annex above the war rooms. Furniture and valuables were removed from Number 10; only the Garden Rooms, Cabinet Room and Private Secretaries’ office remained in use.

But Churchill disliked living in the Annex. Despite its being almost empty, Churchill continued to use Number 10 Downing Street for working and eating.

A reinforced shelter was constructed under the house for up to six people, for use by those working in the house. Even George VI sought shelter there when he dined with Churchill in the Garden Rooms.

Although bombs caused further damage to Number 10, there were no direct hits to the house, allowing Churchill to continue to work and dine there right up until the end of the war.

Victory

As soon as war was over, Churchill and his wife moved back to Number 10. And it was the triumphant setting for his VE Day broadcast, delivered from the Cabinet Room at 3pm on 8 May 1945.

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