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History of the Cabinet War Rooms

sandbag pillbox
A sandbag pillbox being constructed outside the New Public Offices, spring 1940 (H1584)

Constructing the Rooms

Work began in June 1938 on adapting these humble storage areas, ten feet below ground, to house the central core of government and a unique military information centre. The events of the Munich crisis in the early autumn speeded up the process.

Seen by most planners as temporary, the rooms were constructed under the watchful eye of Major-General Sir Hastings Ismay, assisted by Major Sir Leslie Hollis, and became fully operational on 27 August 1939, exactly a week before the German invasion of Poland and Britain's declaration of war. This 'temporary' measure was to serve as the central shelter for government and the military strategists for the next six years.

VJ Day celebrations in London
VJ Day celebrations in London, 1945 (Keystone)
With the surrender of the Japanese forces in August 1945, the rooms were no longer needed, and on 16 August 1945 the lights in the Central Map Room were switched off and the door was locked. The complex was left intact and undisturbed until an announcement by Parliament in 1948 ensured its preservation as a historic site.

Access to the rooms was possible, though highly restricted, and few were even aware of the complex’s existence. It was only in 1981, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decided that the site should be made more easily accessible, that its history became more widely known.

Over the following three years, the Imperial War Museum and the Department of the Environment arranged for the careful preservation and restoration of the complex, making the necessary adaptations in order to give visitors an intimate view of the rooms and the lives of those who worked in them.

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