Part 1. The Cabinet War Room and SUBTERFUGE

The experiences of World War 2

When in the 1930s Britain’s government started to plan for the seemingly inevitable war with Nazi Germany they assumed that, in the words of Stanley Baldwin speaking in 1932, “the bomber will always get through” with results that would echo those expected from a nuclear war 20 years later. In these years, various projections of the results of bombing were made based on air raids during World War 1 and the Spanish Civil War. For example, in March 1939 the Air Ministry forecast that the German air force could drop an average of 700 tons of bombs a day for the first fortnight of a war causing 50 casualties per ton of bombs. Most people assumed that Britain’s cities, especially London would be quickly devastated and made uninhabitable. But as well as the loss of buildings, including those used by government departments, the efficiency and effectiveness of the government machine would rapidly be degraded as civil servants found their routes to work blocked and their telephone lines destroyed. Under these conditions normal government would quickly be incapacitated. But government had to continue and it was actually assumed that that government, particularly central government, would have to exert more control in more areas than in peacetime, so the machinery of government, which really meant the people making the decisions and the ones putting them into effect at all levels had to be protected.

In Britain we call this “the machinery of government in war” but the Americans use the more descriptive phrase “continuity of government”. Although the institutions of local government – the county councils and so on would always have a role in civil defence, and in particular in looking after the ordinary people directly affected by air attack, machinery of government in war concentrates mainly on central government, although this would be extended from the 1950s to include an intermediate regional level of government. But in the 1930s the question was not what to call this response but, given circumstances unique in human history, of how best to plan for and prepare a machine of government that could function under air attack and so the civil service in Whitehall moved into action – albeit slowly.

In the 1930s the British government, which effectively means the executive decision makers found in Parliament, the Cabinet and the top levels of the civil service together with the administration – the thousands of civil servants who put the executives’ decisions into action, was even more concentrated in and around Whitehall in London than it is today so the destruction of Whitehall, especially if this included the deaths of the decision makers and civil servants working there, would completely disrupt or even destroy the executive branch of government as well as much of the administration. Even if these people were not directly affected, the bombing would destroy vital communications, so that they could not communicate with each other, and transport infrastructures so that they could not get to their offices.

The first significant consideration of the effects on government of air raids was made in 1936 by the Warren-Fisher Committee. They proposed evacuating government staff from the Whitehall area in the event of war and they drew up a list of criteria to guide their thoughts. They decided that –

  1. Suitable domestic and office accommodation should be immediately available.
  2. The sites should be relatively safe from air attack.
  3. Both staff and their departments should be concentrated to allow for easy contact.
  4. Communications facilities should be adequate.
  5. Minimal preparation should be required.
  6. Publicity should be kept to a minimum.

As the story of the Government’s plans to protect itself developed over the next 50 years it is interesting to see how these criteria continued to guide the minds of the planners.

The Warren-Fisher Committee proposed dividing the government staff working in and around Whitehall into 2 groups. On the outbreak of hostilities those not directly concerned with the conduct of the war would be evacuated to the north western and midland counties of England. A second, smaller group of some 12,000 so called “first line staff” required to run the war effort would initially move some 10 miles north to the outer north western suburbs of London, to places like Harrow, Wembley and Pinner. But if the air attacks drove the government from London completely this group would move onto towns in what the documents of the time called the “western counties”, but which were actually those counties between Birmingham and Bath. The Admiralty was allocated accommodation in Malvern and Bath and the War Office in Droitwich and Cheltenham. The bulk of the Air Ministry staff would evacuate to Worcester, Gloucester, Stroud, Tetbury and Bath, with smaller numbers going to Harrogate and Birmingham. These evacuations would not be for the benefit of the people involved. The aim was not to protect them as such but to preserve the people doing the vital work of maintaining the government. The plan was approved and in 1939 the Rae Committee started active planning for it, although most of the detailed work was done by civil servants at the Office of Works.

Communications will be a constant theme throughout this study, and at the same time as the Warren-Fisher Committee was at work the Post Office started to increase the telephone and telegraph capacity to the western counties area including installing many new lines routed via the new RAF central switching centre to be built at Leighton Buzzard. At some point, a significant alteration was made to the plan so that the complete staffs of the fighting services would go to towns in the western counties which would make sense as this would mean that they would be near to the essential staff if they had to leave the north west suburbs of London. This meant that by early 1938 the Air Ministry was allocated space for 1150 of its staff in 5 schools in Harrow, Northolt and Wealdstone and the remaining staff would move to Gloucester and Bath. If the essential staff then moved from London they would go to Gloucester. The Admiralty would initially send 3787 of its staff to Bath to take over various hotels, museums, schools and colleges, including the famous Pavilion and Assembly Rooms. Over the next 2 years plans would be completed in enormous detail. One of the leading civil servants involved was Eric de Norman of the Office of Works and his name will crop up frequently over the years in the story of the central government war headquarters .

The larger group not directly involved with war-fighting decisions would be evacuated to places like Morecombe and Blackpool in a plan which became known as the Yellow Move. Here they would set up offices in requisitioned hotels and public schools. These towns were chosen on the grounds that, as they were not centres of industry or communications they were unlikely to be selected as targets. At this stage, whilst the buildings were secretly earmarked they were not inspected internally nor were their owners informed. The Committee did however record the need to take physical possession of the buildings in good time which amongst other things would allow the furniture which was being acquired and stored to be moved in. The more important group would occupy local authority schools in the north west suburbs of London, whose usual occupants would have been evacuated to the country, but if they had to move on to the west under what would become known as the Black Move they would also have to use requisitioned hotels or similar large buildings.

In all cases the staff would be billeted on local householders who, like the government staff themselves would have little warning or choice. And in a decision which would be repeated throughout the later Cold War no provision was made for the families of the evacuated civil servants who would be left to their own devices. The planners did not think that concern for families would cause dissatisfaction among the evacuated staff, and considered that they would be in the same situation as the families of service personnel. Moreover it would be wrong to give civil servants’ families preferential treatment.

As well as the government departments other branches of the establishment would evacuate. Extensive plans were made to move the courts from London to places such as Oxford and Winchester and accommodation was earmarked there for Judges. However, whilst ordinary civil servants would be billeted on local people the Lord Chancellor decreed that “The High Office of His Majesty’s Judges justifies different treatment to the rest of the public service”. Judges would also not be expected to pay for their accommodation whereas the ordinary civil servants would have been. The Public Record Office had plans dating from as early as 1934 to requisition country house to store its treasures.

National organisations were also making plans. The clearing banks planned to decentralise their head office operations to their own premises in the London suburbs and the south east. The Bank of England set up a shadow factory at Overton in Hampshire to print bank notes. Many larger companies planned to move their operations from London on the outbreak of war.

The suburban war rooms

There are perhaps 2 main ways of protecting wartime rulers from air attack – move them away from the expected attack, as the Black and Yellow moves proposed, or put them inside protected or hardened bomb-proof accommodation. From now on the story increasingly moves to this second method. But bomb proof accommodation was very expensive and it would only ever be provided for a few – the leaders judged to be the most necessary to the war effort and those people whose jobs had to continue under any circumstances.

While the north-west suburbs scheme would see civil servants working from ad hoc accommodation, mainly in school buildings, sheltering when necessary in slit trenches dug in the school grounds, 5 heavily protected underground war rooms were planned to be built as reinforced basements under proposed new government buildings. These would be for the 3 fighting services and a central one for the war cabinet organisation made up of the War Cabinet, the Chiefs of Staff and their advisers The fifth would be for the Ministry of Home Security which in wartime would be hived off from the Home Office to be responsible for all aspects of air raid precautions, civil defence and the Regional Commissioners. The initial advice from the Committee of Imperial Defence was that these “special basements” as they were called should have roofs of reinforced concrete 3 ½ feet thick which would provide protection against semi-armour piercing bombs of up to 500lb. These war rooms would receive and analyse information for the decision makers and provide a protected meeting place for them which could continue to operate during air raids.

In practice only 3 of these projected war rooms were built –

  • The war cabinet war room which acquired the code name of Paddock was built in the grounds of the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill under a new office block. It had some 38 rooms on 2 levels (plus 23 on the ground floor) including a BBC studio. It was built some 40 feet below ground and was protected by up to 9 feet of reinforced concrete. The basement would only be used during air raids. For the remainder of the time the staff would use the office buildings above. The cost was expected to be around £250,000 or about £10 million in today’s money, although by today’s standards Paddock was very unsophisticated and if built today would cost considerably more. The staff would not sleep in Paddock. The senior members were to be housed in a nearby block of luxury flats called Neville Court and the ordinary staff would be billeted on local people.
  • The Admiralty bunker at the naval charts depot in Cricklewood which was sometimes known as IP after the “insurance party”. This small group would initially occupy it in case the main Admiralty building in Whitehall were damaged. If needed, it would direct all naval operations and communications.
  • The Air Ministry bunker known for anonymity as Station Z was built beneath the Stationery Office site in Harrow. Like the Admiralty bunker, this was manned throughout the war by a small nucleus staff called the insurance party ready to take over if the main Air Ministry buildings were destroyed.

These war rooms would only provide accommodation for a few. For example, the majority of the staff of 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office would work from Willesden County School some 2 miles from Paddock. Both Houses of Parliament would lodge at Willesden Technical School.

Inside Paddock (the colour scheme is post-war). Photo by Nick Catford.

The War Office (i.e. army) bunker would have been built under a new Post Office building in Hounslow. But this was cancelled and an unprotected war room was fitted out in the basement of Kneller Hall in Twickenham, the home of the Royal Military School of Music. The projected war room for Ministry of Home Security was also never built and one was fitted out in the basement of the Home Office building in Whitehall with a reserve on the other side of the Thames at Cornwall House.

The Munich Crisis in the autumn of 1938 saw some of the plans put into operation. And they were found wanting, proving perhaps the need to rehearse and publicise plans and not just to lock them away in filing cabinets. All the plans were secret so few knew about them and the crisis revealed, for example, that while the Office of Works planned to send several thousand civil servants to work in hotels in Blackpool Manchester city council also planned to evacuate 1 million of its citizens to the town, and in any event all the hotels would probably already have been occupied by self-evacuees. A subsequent review revealed that some private schools had planned to evacuate their pupils to other schools not knowing that the government intended to requisition all their buildings. There was also a considerable amount of confusion with implementing the plans which resulted, for example, in the Admiralty’s emergency staff going to Bath rather than to Dollis Hill.

The Munich Crisis also saw the appointment of Regional Commissioners to each of the 11 regions, which Britain had been divided into following the institution of the formal Precautionary Period in September. These men, and they were all men, were appointed by the Government from the ranks of the “great and good” rather than Government Ministers. Their main role was to co-ordinate the work of the local authorities and other bodies in preparing for and responding to air attacks. But they were also given a potentially more important role. If they lost contact with the central government (which effectively meant with the Ministry of Home Security War Room in Whitehall) they were empowered to take over the government of their region with, in effect, unlimited powers until communications (and by implication normal government) was restored. They were appointed under the Civil Defence Emergency Scheme Y which was drawn up by yet another committee, this one with the title of the Sub Committee for Passive Defence Purposes in War. Each Regional Commissioner had a protected war room and a staff of civil servants. The war rooms were located in strutted basements of large houses although London Region was given a specially constructed bunker in the grounds of the Geological Museum. This Scheme Y was designed to bring into immediate operation “…an emergency Regional Authority for the defence of the civil population against air attack which is not in existence under peace time conditions”. The scheme introduced the Preparatory Period, knowledge of which would be confined to official circles. This would be followed if appropriate by the Precautionary and then War Stages. Scheme Y also included a series of pre-planned radio announcements to warn the population and also incorporated the Emergency Civilian Evacuation Scheme.

The crisis revealed some basic flaws in the plans notably –

  • The actual move away from Whitehall would be disruptive and would have an adverse effect on the efficiency of the government staffs concerned.
  • The perceived need for secrecy prevented detailed planning and exercising the plans. (In practice, knowledge of the plans was confined to the planners themselves and a few senior people. In an attempt to preserve secrecy a D Notice was issued to the press in September 1938 requesting it, in the national interests, to “refrain from making any references to the selection of certain accommodation to be used for Government offices in the event of a national emergency”).
  • Provision would have to be made to continue essential government work until the evacuated departments were able to operate from their new locations.

Unfortunately, little attention was given to these problems at the time nor, it must be said, at most times during the next 50 years.

Lessons of the Munich Crisis

The initial plan was for the whole of the Whitehall machine to evacuate immediately war was declared but it was soon realised, as the Munich Crisis had revealed, that this would have a bad effect on civilian morale and severely disrupt the working of the top echelons of government at exactly the time when they would be most needed. There were also concerns that to evacuate before the outbreak of war would suggest active preparation was being made for war and send the wrong message to the potential enemy. Also, by this time the initial expectation that London would immediately be totally annihilated had lessened. So it was decided by the end of 1938 that the civil servants would stay at their desks in Whitehall until the level of destruction and dislocation made it impossible for them to continue. However, as a safety measure the fighting services would send small “insurance parties” to the north west London suburbs at the outbreak of war. But, it was then quickly realised that the idea of moving to the suburbs and then, possibly quite soon after, onto the western counties would be even more disruptive and in any case these suburbs could be bombed just as easily as Whitehall. So the suburbs scheme was abandoned despite all the planning. Some of the designated schools however continued to be earmarked as emergency accommodation in case a particular major government building was destroyed. Construction of the 3 suburban war rooms was continued although with no real idea of what to do with them on completion. The insurance parties would still be needed, but now they would go directly to the western counties rather than the suburbs although it seems that insurance parties for the Air Ministry and Admiralty were based in the suburbs for most of the war.

Under the original plan the civil servants would be expected to get to the London suburbs using their own resources. To move the much larger group of civil servants to the north western counties complex transport plans were worked out involving collecting the staff from pick up points and ferrying them to London main line railway stations. From there a regular stream of trains each carrying 500 people and some 5 tons of records would leave at hourly intervals to take them onto their destination towns. But, the decision to delay the evacuation until London became untenable meant that the city’s transport infrastructure would be badly disrupted by the time the order to evacuate was given which would make the highly planned movement out of London unworkable. It was therefore decided that the best that could really be done would be to improvise transport when needed.

The decision to make the Black Move immediately to the western counties rather than via the north west suburbs meant a readjustment of some of the plans. Now for example the Air Ministry were told that 850 of its staff would be evacuated to the Westonbirt School near Tetbury. Another 340 would go to the Kings School at Worcester, 900 to Harrogate Ladies College and 200 to the Bell Hotel at Worcester. Planning in London what would happen in these distant country towns was difficult and inevitably some problems occurred. For example, The Poor Law Institute in Worcester was earmarked for the Air Ministry which was promptly criticised because “these buildings have history” and “it is a place full of old and crippled people”.

These buildings would only provide the working accommodation. The staff involved would be forcefully billeted on the local population. Finding the billets was left to the local Town Clerks who were told in advance of the numbers they could expect. On the day, they would be assisted by billeting teams from the ministries affected. The civil servants and military personnel to be moved would be divided into parties usually with an advance party to open up the new offices and a rear guard which would close down the London ones after the main party had left. The planners thought that space in holiday and spa towns for billeting would not to be a problem as there would be lots of empty hotel and guest house accommodation. However, in reality most of this was quickly filled at the start of the war by self-evacuees and finding accommodation for newly arriving civil servants would have been very difficult in most towns.

By early 1939 the plans for the evacuations had grown far beyond what was originally envisaged. Some 35,000 were now designated for the Yellow Move with some 25,000 for the Black Move or the “Western Counties Evacuation Scheme” as it was sometimes called. The approximate numbers for each Black Move town was now –

Bath 4250 Birmingham 100
Bristol 600 Bromsgrove 750
Cheltenham 5750 Cirencester 610
Droitwich 1600 Gloucester 1250
Hereford 600 Kidderminster 400
Leominster 600 Malvern 3500
Stratford 600 Stroud 750
Tetbury 650 Warwick 750
Worcester 1250

The biggest contingents would come from the fighting services – the Air Ministry (RAF), the Admiralty (Royal Navy) and the War Office (Army) but most ministries, departments and even small government bodies had representative numbers destined for the new, and now much extended, Whitehall in the west. But even if the civil servants could have been moved and settled into their ad hoc offices and billets it would have taken weeks for them to establish their communications and pick up from where they left off, and surely such a disparate, spread out structure would have been of doubtful efficiency. And if the move was not now to take place at the outbreak of war it would have been made after several weeks when the country was still trying to put itself onto a war footing and bombing had already reduced the effectiveness of the Whitehall machine.

The decision to stay in Whitehall and work under air attack lead to the construction of temporary war rooms in most of the government departments in and around Whitehall. The files suggest that there was little planning about the use of these war rooms beyond the general idea that the core, time critical work of the departments concerned with the war effort would need to continue during air raids and the people involved and their communications would need to be protected to allow this to happen. These war rooms were usually built in basements of the main buildings of department concerned which were reinforced by sealing any windows, installing mechanical ventilation (the use of poison gas was expected) and strutting the ceilings. The reinforced basements were not expected to resist a direct hit. Instead, it was assumed that the bomb would explode when it hit the walls or floors of the building above. On this basis, the basements only needed to be proof against some blast and splinters, and to be capable of taking the debris load of the building above should it collapse. This level of protection was often classified as “special”, and was a sound idea at the start of the war. But as bombing techniques advanced it was realised that armour piercing or delayed action bombs would easily penetrate to the basements. As the war developed the levels of protection was increased by incorporating bomb proof concrete slabs into existing or new buildings but this was expensive and was limited to the 5 most important war rooms belonging to the 3 services, the Ministry of Home Security and the Cabinet War Room. The temporary war rooms were available by mid-1939 and the most important one was the Central War Room. As well as the war rooms most of the buildings were provided with refuge areas in which the remainder of the staff could take cover during an attack.

Plan of the original Central War Room

 The Cabinet War Room

The Central War Room was built in the basement of the Office of Works building in Whitehall which was variously known as the New Public Offices, Government Offices Great George Street and Government Offices Whitehall South Block. Today, this massive building is home to the Treasury and the headquarters of HM Revenue and Customs. Conversion started in mid 1938 and originally the War Room only had about a dozen rooms with no domestic facilities. It was ready in time for the peak of the crisis in September 1938, but its personnel were not trained nor were vital things like maps preparedThe temporary basement war rooms for the Admiralty, War Office and Air Ministry were also ready by this time. Construction of the suburban war rooms had not yet started and was expected to take some 2 years. Originally the service ministries and the Home Office anticipated carrying out active day-to-day war fighting and monitoring functions from this Central War Room but as the plans evolved these were removed to the services’ own war rooms with the Central War Room assuming a more strategic role.

With the outbreak of war it was quickly realised that the title Central War Room led to the assumption that its role was to provide co-ordination for the other 4 main war rooms and so its name was changed to the Cabinet War Room, which is often abbreviated to the CWR. The role of the CWR was given in a report in October 1939 as –

  1. To maintain an up to date general picture of the war in all parts of the world for the information of the War Cabinet and the Chiefs of Staff
  2. To provide a channel for communicating very important military news to His Majesty the King and members of the War Cabinet through the War Cabinet Office
  3. To provide a protected meeting place for the War Cabinet and Chiefs of Staff and the Chiefs of Staff organisation under air raid conditions.

It was also described as housing the “central nucleus” of government consisting of the Prime Minister and his private office, the War Cabinet Office, War Cabinet ministers, General Headquarters Home Forces and parts of the Air Ministry and Treasury. During the war its size, importance and role grew considerably and by 1941 it was 3 times bigger than it had originally been and sleeping space had been squeezed into to a sub-basement known as the Dock.

The CWR shared the basement with the Air Ministry war room which could provide protected working accommodation for 550 and refuge (i.e. air raid shelter) accommodation for another 700.

The Whitehall cable tunnel

Communications, which really meant telephone and telegraph networks, were considered vital in all this planning and when the temporary war rooms were built along Whitehall it was realised that the telephone and telegraph cables connecting them to each other and to the outside world were vulnerable to bombing. This led, in early 1939, to the decision to construct a tunnel 12 feet diameter and some 90 feet deep running for 900 feet under Whitehall to provide protection for the cables. In the original scheme the cables would enter the buildings through small pipes leading off the main tunnel. However, the main tunnel was completed with connecting tunnels usually 8 feet in diameter which would allow fully protected underground movement between the main war rooms. The tunnel, which was ready for partial use in March 1941, was extended to give access to the Cabinet War Room and later to the Admiralty citadel and the citadels at the Montagu House and Horseferry Road sites.

The wartime war rooms and the Whitehall cable tunnel

The development of the cable tunnel lead to several suggestions for new, purpose-built war rooms to be built alongside it. The most ambitious was for 2 1500 feet long tunnels, each 25 feet in diameter, to be built parallel with the cable tunnel and which would provide working and living accommodation for 3000 people on 2 levels. However, all the schemes were found to be too costly (the cost of one scheme was dismissed as “only to be computed by astronomers”), they would take too long to build and were quickly abandoned.

Special Houses for Special People

The Black Move scheme was planned in great detail, and while most of the staff would have worked in hotels in places like Bath, Cheltenham, Malvern and Droitwich and live with local people, several large country house around Worcester were taken over for special purposes. The original idea had been that the Prime Minister would be accommodated in Stratford on Avon, to be close to Parliament. But by early 1939 this had been changed. The plan was now to use Hindlip Hall some 25 miles away as the Cabinet War Room and the base for the Prime Minister’s staff and the Cabinet Office. The Hall’s owner, Lady Hindlip, was “persuaded” to allow this, although she wanted to retain some of the rooms for her own use. Nearby Spetchley Hall would be used by the Prime Minister (initially Chamberlain, later Churchill), his family and his Private Office staff as domestic and working accommodation. Although no arrangements would be made for the families of the ordinary civil servants accommodation was initially prepared at the hall for Mrs Chamberlain. Ministers would be accommodated at the Raven Hotel in Droitwich in accommodation described by de Norman who by mid-1939 was an Assistant Secretary at the Ministry of Works managing the evacuation plans as “luxurious”.

Maddresfield Court
(Angus McCulloch)

Maddresfield Court (codenamed Harbour) near Worcester was to be used by the Royal Family and their entourage although 3 other properties have been mentioned as alternatives – Newby Hall near Ripon, Pitchford Hall, Shrewsbury and Burwarton Hall in Shropshire. It appears that defence works and signalling equipment were installed at each house. A permanent army unit was set up known as the Morris Detachment (later renamed the Household Cavalry Detachment) to escort the Royal Family to whichever house was selected. The King and Queen together with the Princesses would go in an initial fast convoy with a slower one following with the baggage and stores. Another military unit, some 120 strong, known as Coates Mission which was set up mainly in response to the threat of invasion would guard the Royal Family once they arrived at their destination. A plan known as “rocking horse” also existed to take the Royal Family away to Canada if necessary. The Coates Mission was disbanded in November 1944 although, oddly, the Household Cavalry Detachment was retained until May 1945.

All these houses were well prepared and even detailed plans for sleeping accommodation were drawn up. By November 1939 they had all been formally leased or requisitioned. Additional telephone lines and furniture were installed, the working space in some was extended by erecting temporary huts in the gardens and care taken to maintain them. Later additional sewage and engineering equipment was installed. The staff would be billeted in nearby towns and bussed to the houses each day.

Co-incidentally, the owner of Maddresfield Court, Earl Beauchamp actually caused some concern in early 1939 when, in ignorance of the secret plans, he offered the hall as a wartime hospital. Shortly after, in a separate issue, Lord Middleton had to be quietly persuaded not to raise the issue of using stately homes in wartime in the House of Lords for fear of giving unwelcome publicity to the Black Move.

There is a suggestion in the files that by this time, mid-1939, permanent purpose built war rooms were being considered for the 3 services, the Home Office and the Cabinet in the western counties and land had been acquired, although nothing seems to have actually been done.

Parliament, which had been destined for the Technical College in Neasden under the suburbs scheme, was allocated the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford for the Black Move.

The BBC also planned to evacuate as part of the move and purchased a large house known as Wood Norton Hall to the west of Evesham. A third-party was however used to purchase the hall to hide the BBC’s interest. By early 1939 the BBC were proposing to move between 350 and 500 staff to Wood Norton and to build studios and huts to provide additional office space in the grounds. Later, during the Cold War a massive bunker was built on the site to provide protected accommodation for the Wartime Broadcasting Service.

Unless conditions deteriorated badly, the Prime Minister might be expected to continue to use his country retreat at Chequers and consequently the Ministry of Works built an air raid shelter there. But in April 1940 this was described as a “bomb proof chamber inside the house fortified by piles of decaying sandbags against the brickwork outside”. A better shelter was soon built outside. Other defence works and camouflage schemes were also made at Chequers.

Early moves

On the outbreak of war the Cabinet decided to wait to see how things developed before ordering any evacuation of the machinery of central government from Whitehall. But, as a precaution, the Ministry of Works requisitioned all the buildings required for the Black and Yellow schemes which included over 200 hotels and 25 schools. They were emptied of their normal occupants which certainly in the case of the hotels caused a lot of ill feeling. The Yellow Move was implemented in stages with some 8,900 people moving in the first few weeks mainly to Harrogate and Bath. This operation continued for many months. Decisions were however often made on an apparently ad hoc basis which lead the civil service’s union to complain that there was “…throughout the civil service in London a feeling of uncertainty and tension…” about possible evacuation.

It was realised that the billeting plans would be seriously disrupted by self-evacuees and a general lack of accommodation, although it was assumed that any “unauthorised evacuees” would simply be evicted as necessary. The possible shortage of billets led to suggestions that some civil servants would have to resort to “extemporised sleeping arrangements” including “hard lying” which meant sleeping on the floor, or possibly sharing double beds. Although furniture, etc had been acquired for the ad hoc offices no supplies of bedding had been acquired for the billets. The Ministry of Works however was planning to buy 10,000 beds.

The Office of Works now raised the problem that under the Compensation (Defence) Act 1939 they would have to pay fair rents on all the accommodation they had requisitioned and this looked expensive. Consequently, plans were made to purchase land in towns such as Harrogate and Cheltenham to build temporary offices, something which had actually originally been suggested in 1937. There was also some land already available in the western counties which the Office of Works had purchased as part of a vague pre-war plan to move service departments out of London. By early 1940 standardised huts known as temporary office buildings (or TOBs) were being built in Gloucester, Malvern and Colwyn Bay to take 11,800 people. As the TOBs became available many of the requisitioned hotels and schools were returned to their original owners although the owners of places like Cheltenham Ladies College and Leamington Technical College were told they might be taken back into government control at 48 hours notice. Many of these office blocks continued to be used by civil servants long after the war ended and, for example, the sites used in Cheltenham would eventually be used for the GCHQ.

A report by the Civil Defence Committee made a few weeks after the outbreak of the war said that many ministries were concerned about the practicality of moving from London and there were increasing concerns about the lack of billeting accommodation in the reception towns. More importantly, the moves so far had shown that any major movement of the government machine would have a major impact on operational efficiency to such an extent that the Black Move “…might entirely destroy the efficiency of government”. The Committee concluded that the Black Move should only be implemented if air attack made the continuation of government for Whitehall impossible.

The question of what to do with Parliament now occupied the planners. Under the Black Move it would relocate to Stratford on Avon. But now constitutional concerns began to be expressed concerning, for example, how Parliament should be prorogued and a Parliamentary session ended. This could constitutionally only be done by the King, and the existing Parliament had been specifically called to assemble in Westminster so if it moved from there would it still be constitutionally legitimate? Constitutional precedents dating back to the Civil War were considered and a proclamation prepared to announce that under “Our Royal Pleasure” each House should meet at some other place. Both Houses would then resolve that it would meet at a certain date at Stratford, although Stratford could not actually be mentioned due to the need for secrecy

As the war continued government departments grew in size and were joined by new ones and administrators from allied governments and armed forces and they all needed office accommodation. As a result, increasing use was made of places outside London and much of the accommodation earmarked for the Black Move was pressed into service. For example, 5000 people from the Ministry of Supply were accommodated in Warwick and Liverpool, 3000 from the Ministry of Food in Cheltenham and Colwyn Bay and 1100 from the Ministry of Economic Warfare in Cheltenham and Cambridge. A large part of the rapidly expanding MI5 moved to Blenheim Palace in the autumn of 1940 although this was too small and huts were erected in the grounds. Its address there was Box 500, Oxford and we will meet this number again in the later history of the machinery of government in war. But the nucleus of government stayed in Whitehall largely unaffected even by the Blitz.

In the spring of 1940, just as the phoney war was ending and Germany began to invade Scandinavia and then Holland, Belgium and France the plans were reconsidered. A Blue Move was introduced to move some personnel of the larger departments from London to resorts on the south coast which had not been included in the earlier plans, and the transport arrangements were modified. Now the assumption was that if a wholesale move from London was needed transport would have to be from stations on the outskirts of London, with the civil servants being collected by buses from pick-up points. As well as the division into various advanced and retard parties for each Ministry, etc, a Higher Control Party was now introduced made up of the Prime Minister, the War Cabinet, Heads of Departments and the Chiefs of Staff who would only leave London on the specific orders of the War Cabinet and then by using the quickest available transport. At this time there were still some 63,000 civil servants in London with only unoccupied space outside London for some 28,000 of them.

What to do with Paddock?

By the middle of 1940 the whole idea of moving the decision making part of government (i.e. the Black Move) was being challenged. The Civil Defence Committee noted that the Government would not leave London except in the case of extreme necessity. It was also now known that the decision of the French government to leave Paris in the face of the German blitzkrieg for Tour and then for Bordeaux had had a catastrophic effect on the French public’s morale and had caused a complete dislocation of government business. By mid-1940 the Black Move was all but abandoned as being unnecessary and the various properties taken over were released to be used by the ever growing civil service, armed forces and allied forces.However, such was the confusion, largely caused by secrecy, that it continued to be referred to for many months as if it were still a live plan. At the same time, the 3 suburban war rooms were completed although by now there was no apparent need for them except to be kept as reserves in case the central London war rooms were destroyed. Paddock, which was being fitted out in June 1940, was a particular problem. With the plan now to move directly to the western counties it had no role beyond a vague plan to use it if the main CWR were put out of action but the rest of Whitehall was still functioning. Suggestions were also made that it could be used to reduce the crowding in the CWR or that it should be manned by a skeleton staff as a safeguard against some unforeseen emergency.

In September 1940 it was discussed by the War Cabinet when Churchill stated that “I have not at any time contemplated the wholesale movement from London of black or yellow civil servants. Anything of this kind is so detrimental that it could only be forced upon us by central London becoming practically uninhabitable”. But he added “The movement of the high central control from the Whitehall area to Paddock or other citadels stands on a different footing. We must make sure that the centre of government functions harmoniously and vigorously. This would not be possible under conditions of almost constant air raids. A movement to Paddock by echelons of the War Cabinet, War Cabinet Secretariat, Chiefs of Staff Committee and Home Forces GHQ must now be planned for and may even begin in some minor respects…” So he decided that Paddock should be prepared to receive the War Cabinet, or as Churchill actually demanded “Pray concert forthwith all necessary measures for moving not more than 2-300 principal persons and their immediate assistants to the new headquarters and show how it should be done step-by-step”. The civil service promptly responded by dusting off the plans for Paddock and updating them. The numbers of people in the war cabinet organisation, including those based at the CWR, had by this time expanded considerably and there was no possibility of fitting them all into Paddock. Rooms were allocated to War Cabinet Ministers (displacing various representatives of the fighting services who had originally been pencilled in for them) and the war cabinet organisation was divided into 2 echelons. The first, basically the War Cabinet, the Chiefs of Staff, the Map Room and the Joint Planning Staff would be found space underground. Their support staff would be housed in the above ground offices and would have to use trenches in the event of an air raid. The remainder of the war cabinet organisation would stay in Whitehall. At the same time the Admiralty and Air Ministry citadels were dusted off and the western suburbs scheme was partially re-instated to provide emergency general accommodation.

In the autumn of 1940 the Battle of Britain gave way to the blitz which led to an unexpected revival of the north west suburbs scheme. This had been effectively abandoned, but now it was revised. The concern now was not so much that Whitehall would be quickly destroyed but that bombing would take out individual ministries and so the plans to take over schools were re-considered and the allocations revised with up to 16,000 office spaces to be available at 48 hours notice.

In October the War Cabinet met in Paddock. But this interest was not to last and in the following month Churchill wrote in red ink on a memo asking him for instructions about domestic accommodation for the site that “Paddock is a piece of useless folly. It can be put to any use Departments think fit. It is no good for HMG”. The civil service again went into action to reverse its earlier plans. By November 1940 de Norman was told that all the reserved flats in Nevilles Court could be used for other purposes except those reserved for the Prime Minister and Lord Beaverbrook. In January 1941 the permanent guard of over 60 soldiers was discontinued at Paddock and Neville’s Court, and by February Paddock had been given to the Post Office on the basis that it would be handed back at 24 hours notice. The Cabinet Office retained a few rooms on a care and maintenance basis but Paddock was no longer held in immediate readiness.

But while Paddock was being downgraded the Chiefs of Staff were deciding that the threat of invasion had increased and all citadels should be brought to readiness.

Paddock was again reconsidered in March 1941 but more as a reserve accommodation for War Cabinet Ministers than for its original purpose although the War Cabinet again tested the accommodation by holding a Cabinet Meeting there. Paddock was to be kept as a reserve for several more months. In December the plans to move the higher staff were again revised but no one seemed too sure how exactly it fitted into the plans to preserve the machinery of government.

The reserved stately homes in the western counties, with the exception of Hindlip Hall were also released for other purposes. There were however concerns about use of these houses, particularly Spetchley Hall which contained many valuable works of art. This lead to the suggestion that it could be used as a rest house for ministers and Members of Parliament. It might more usefully have served as a rest house for Londoners who had survived the Blitz or Battle of Britain fighter pilots but this was not suggested. Hindlip Hall was however released, and by early 1941 was being used by the RAF although interestingly they found that the water supply was unfit for drinking.

The situation in the spring of 1941 was therefore confused, although by this time it was apparent that the German air force was not strong enough to bomb the government machine from Whitehall and the threat of invasion had diminished, although it was to formally exist until the German invasion of Russia in June 1941.

Letter in which Churchill dismisses Padock (National Archives / Steve Fox)

The north west suburbs scheme, although recently revised did not exist in practice and many of the designated schools were again being used for their proper purpose. The new super-citadels like the Rotundas were being built but would not be ready for several months. The Black Move was in dormant chaos and no one seemed to know whether or not it still existed. Its reserved buildings including the western counties stately homes had been given up and had been returned to their original owners or were being used by personnel of the ever expanding war machine. By this time some 16,550 Black Move staff had been evacuated and 40,700 under the Grey Move, as the Yellow Move had been renamed. But the planners had definitely decided that any battle would be conducted from Whitehall unless the government were bombed out or communications were destroyed. In April, the Sub Committee on the Evacuation of Government Departments said that all special arrangements relating to the Black Move could be relaxed although to avoid publicity this was not full communicated around Whitehall. This lead to some instances of departments continuing to prepare for it and in April the Ministry of Works were still discussing the move with the War Office and in particular the place of Cheltenham in the scheme. It was suggested that places like Cheltenham Ladies College which had been released on the condition it was available at 48 hours notice could be pressed into service although the plans for billeting, feeding, etc had not been maintained and staff lists were out of date. The temporary office buildings in Cheltenham at the Benhall Farm and Oakley Farm sites were nearing completion. (After the war these would become the home of the GCHQ). There were still some concerns about an invasion and a note about invasion preparations in September mentioned that Regional Commissioners were authorised to assume certain powers on behalf of the government if necessary. A formal notice cancelling the Black Move was finally issued on 26 May 1942.

New War Rooms

In October 1940 the Cabinet formally decided that the government machine would stay in London unless it was completely bombed out. This meant that safer accommodation would be needed for the people running the war. As many staff as possible would be housed in new heavily protected citadels where they could continue to work during air raids while others would work in “steel framed buildings”. These buildings were favoured as being more resistant to the blast effect of bombs than solid stone or brick built buildings and because of their lighter construction the debris load on the basement air raid shelters would be less. In practice, as the Cabinet Secretary wrote in November “… a new system of reserve war rooms is being built up which really replaces the north-west suburbs scheme”. He was referring to several heavily protected buildings which were being built in and around Whitehall. These were –

  • The extended Cabinet War Room which also housed the GHQ Home Forces was being strengthened with a “slab” of concrete 3 feet thick reinforced with steel rails (the protected area also housed the Air Ministry war room) which was to be completed by spring 1941. This reinforcement would later be extended to cover three-quarters of the building. The slab was actually designed by Admiralty engineers evacuated to the Grand Pump Room Hotel in Bath. In late 1942 doubts were raised about the ability of the slab to resist more than a 500 pound bomb as in the words of Sir Edward Bridges, the Cabinet Secretary throughout the war “the safety of the Cabinet War Room and its illustrious inhabitants is a matter of importance” but de Norman obviously rather annoyed at hints that he had not done a proper job said little could practically be done to improve the level of protection.
  • The Admiralty Citadel which had been approved in November 1940 and would be built as a private venture by the Admiralty rather than by the Office of Works. It would be used for the main Admiralty war room and also to house the Board, the War Registry and Operations and accommodate some 820 people. The aim was to have it ready by the end of 1942 although the initial work was held up by finding “an enormous high pressure gas pipe”. The Admiralty continued to maintain an insurance party at the Cricklewood bunker because of concerns that although the Citadel was bomb proof its air conditioning plant had been installed on the roof where it could be easily destroyed by a bomb. The roof slab was 10 feet thick with a further 5 feet thick ground floor ceiling. The walls, to protect against bombs falling at an angle rather than vertically, were 8 feet 8 inches thick below ground and 5 feet 9 inches above.
  • The Horseferry Road site which before the war had housed 2 large, partly underground gas holders. These were now each being filled with a 3 level mainly underground bunker with a concrete roof 7 feet and possibly up to 12 feet thick and walls up to 8 feet thick which became known as the Rotundas. A 3 storey (later increased to 5) steel framed building was also built on the site with a 7 feet thick roof and 3 feet thick walls. This site would mainly be used by the Air Ministry although the Ministry of Home Security’s war room was relocated to the North Rotunda. The Rotundas were designed so that they could be incorporated as the basements of new government offices at a later time.

    The circular Rotundas stand out in this post war aerial photograph of Westminster (Bob Jenner)

  • The Montagu House citadel (also called the Montagu House Annex and the Whitehall Gardens citadel) was built on a site between Whitehall and the Thames. Plans to construct a major building for the civil service (probably for the Air Ministry) on the site had been discussed since at least 1932. There had been various ideas to include space for war rooms and refuges in the basement and at one time there was a suggestion that the whole building should be made bomb proof with a roof on top of the 8 storey structure made of reinforced concrete 12 feet thick. Work had started on the building but was suspended in 1940 leaving a very large hole prepared for the foundations. Construction of the heavily protected telephone exchange for the top people in Whitehall known as Federal had been started in part of the site after the Czechoslovakian crisis in 1938 but the remaining hole could not be left otherwise it might collapse and consequently it formed an ideal place to build a new citadel. The roof of the citadel was 10 feet thick and the walls were 8 feet 8 inches thick above ground and 4 feet 4 inches below. As soon as it was ready it was occupied by the War Office War Group. After the war the original building was completed in 2 stages and is now usually know as MoD Main Building.
  • Cornwall House which is in Stamford Street close to the southern end of Waterloo Bridge was heavily reinforced and initially used as the reserve war room for the Ministry of Home Security.
  • The Faraday Building near St Pauls was occupied by the Post Office but Lord Beaverbrook the Minister of Aircraft Production, who had been given the role of supervising protected accommodation, had in the uncivil service like words of Bridges “…had the 2 bottom floors of this building raped from the Post Office and fitted up as alternate headquarters for the Government including flats for ministers”. The building had not been specifically reinforced and was not thought capable of resisting a 500lb semi-armour piercing bomb.
  • Beaverbrook had also planned the heavily strengthened Curzon Street House in Mayfair as a second reserve bolt hole for the Cabinet but it was usually described in official documents as a general reserve. The building was strengthened with a reinforced concrete slab and walls up to 7 feet thick designed to be proof against a direct hit from a 500 pound bomb.

Although the original air raid shelter at Buckingham Palace had been reinforced by this time it was still considered to be vulnerable and the palace was an obvious target. This lead in 1941 to a suggestion that a flat could be fitted out in the disused Down Street underground station previously allocated to the Prime Minister. However de Norman thought this would be too far from the Palace and instead 2 flats were provided in Curzon Street House for the King and Queen, one on the fourth floor and the other below the slab. The concrete slab had been added to be proof against a 500 pound bomb. The flats also had accommodation for 7 servants. By the end of the year a new refuge had been provided at Buckingham Palace and Curzon Street House was held in reserve.

With the exception of the Admiralty Citadel and Cornwall House all of these buildings were ready for occupation by mid to late 1941.The Admiralty citadel was ready by November. There was however a difference of agreement over the use of these citadels. Lord Beaverbrook who was in charge of protected accommodation wanted them kept empty as a general reserve but others wanted them to be allocated to and used by specific departments arguing that they were needed now and that in any case the departments had their own special requirements particularly in regard to communications which had to be specially and permanently installed. There was a lot of squabbling among the ministries about who should have which citadel although the tentative allocation was as follows –

New Public Offices: CWR and GHQ Home Forces
Admiralty citadel: Admiralty
Horseferry Road site: Air Ministry War Room and War Group
Montagu House citadel: War Office War group
Cornwall House: Home Security War Room (soon to move to Horseferry Road site)
Farraday Buildings: Reserve living accommodation for ministers
Curzon Street House: General reserve

As well as plans to deal with air attack ground defence plans were prepared for the Whitehall area in case the Germans tried to decapitate the Government with a sudden attack by paratroops.

The first section of MoD Main Building under construction. The Whitehall Gardens 1 citadel is under the construction area with the Federal exchange behind the tree bottom right. (Bob Jenner)

Preparations for Crossbow

As far as the “machinery of government in war” was concerned by the end of 1941 the confusion of two years earlier had been resolved and government had settled down. But this was not to last. In late 1943 intelligence started to arrive concerning the “long range German rocket development” which would soon become the V1 and V2 weapons. Thomas Padmore, a Treasury civil servant who, like de Norman, will feature prominently in the story of the central government war headquarters was asked to bring the matter to the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Soon the inevitable committee was set up with the catchy title of the “Sub Committee on the Maintenance of the Machinery of Government under Rocket Bombardment” under Sir Samuel Findlater-Stewart an experienced civil servant who had spent most of his career in the India Office. Little was known about these weapons at this time although the military thought one might have a 10 ton warhead (although it turned out to be only 1 ton) and the scale of destruction under what became code named as “Crossbow conditions” might be of the same magnitude as would be envisaged for a nuclear war a decade later. There was no question that the machinery of government would have to be kept going under the bombardment. The committee quickly dismissed the idea of a return to the Black Move seeing it as impractical given that there were now many more civil servants, the accommodation originally requisitioned had been given up and was often occupied by the military, there would not be enough billets, communications would be difficult as the telephones and switchboards specially installed for the Black Move had been removed and it was thought that many of the temporarily recruited staff would leave if threatened with forcible evacuation. A revival of the north west suburbs scheme was also dismissed for the same reasons.

Findlater-Stewart’s Committee thought, correctly as it turned out, that the missiles would be inaccurate and would not result in a small area like Whitehall being devastated. Rather it was thought that a steady bombardment would lead to a gradual destruction of transport and communications to the point where the civil defence and restoration services could not cope and this would effectively stop the civil servants from working. They decided that the government would not leave London under any circumstances. Instead, when the bombardment started the most vital nucleus staffs would move into the citadels where they could continue with their vital work day and night. The less vital staffs would use the steel framed buildings. Earlier in the war de Norman had managed to build up a reserve of these buildings sufficient to take up to 10% of the London based civil servants but by the autumn of 1944 this had fallen to only 4% which would be insufficient to cope with the expected steady destruction of buildings under rocket attack. The less fortunate civil servants would make do with whatever was left or simply be told to stay at home. But by April 1944 the expected attack was predicted to be much less severe than previously thought and it was decided that when the attacks started there would not be an immediate implementation of the new plan. Instead business would continue as normal unless the damage became severe.

In mid-1944 the committee were suggesting that for an initial period of 2-3 weeks the protected nucleus need only consist of about 18,000 but if the bombardment lasted for months this figure would increase to some 50,000. There was however only protected accommodation for 12,500. Detailed plans were not made to cope if the bombardment continued beyond the first 2 -3 weeks. And, as usual knowledge of the plans was confined to senior staff.

Citadel space was at a premium and many vested interests clamoured for it. This led to several changes of plans and movements of significant numbers of staff. This however was nothing new and the movement of the Air Ministry War Group well illustrates this. At the outbreak of the war the Group moved to unprotected accommodation at the Building Research Station at Garston as part of the north west suburbs scheme. When the citadel at Harrow was complete it moved there and later when the New Public Office’s slab was enlarged to cover the Air Ministry war room it was relocated there. Subsequently it moved to the South Rotunda when this was completed. The Harrow citadel was taken over by Transport Command.

The Admiralty once again decided to follow its own path arguing that it was a special case because unlike the other services whose London headquarters only made plans for other lower headquarters to implement and monitor it controlled all its fleet operations from the Admiralty building itself. Initially, it decided to completely decentralise and planned to send its operational staff in London to its old Black Move towns like Malvern (where a training establishment called HMS Duke was using some of the earmarked property) and Bath while its non-operational staff would be laid off. The Cricklewood citadel would not be used for an insurance party and would be used generally for any Admiralty staff staying in London. This unilateral proposal drew complaints from the planners and other departments and Findlater-Stewart found the Admiralty plan “…impossible to reconcile with approved Government policy”. The Admiralty, albeit reluctantly, modified its plan.


Concerns about the strength of the Cabinet War Room lead to Bridges questioning the need for better protected sleeping quarters for the Prime Minister. The resulted in Churchill asking “What is the condition of the Barn and Paddock?” Neither Bridges nor de Norman were aware of the Barn and finally found out from No10 that it was the codename for the headquarters of the Railway Executive Committee in the disused Down Street tube station near Hyde Park which had also been fitted out to take the Prime Minister (then Chamberlain), his wife, a private secretary, a detective and a shorthand writer and which Churchill had actually been using.

Churchill agreed to give up the Barn in favour of accommodation in the North Rotunda. The planners then suggested allocating 15 rooms there in possibly the best protected accommodation in London for the Prime Minister, his personal staff and the Chiefs of Staff but Churchill demanded that accommodation was included for his wife so the entire lower floor of the Rotunda which was to become known as ANSON was given over for the personal use of Churchill and a handful of senior people. It had rooms for –

    • Churchill’s office, bedroom, dinning room and bathroom.
    • Bedroom for Mrs Churchill
    • 2 private secretaries
    • 5 stenographers
    • 3 detectives
    • A personal staff of a butler, cook and maid.
    • War Cabinet meetings
    • Chiefs of Staff Committee
    • Map Room

This decision to use ANSON was later described as a knee jerk reaction to concern over the level of protection offered by the CWR but in early 1944 in response to crossbow additional plans were drawn up to use it as protected sleeping accommodation for war cabinet ministers with a conference room, map room and a committee room for the Chiefs of Staff and BBC broadcasting facilities The staff who would work in ANSON would return to the CWR (if necessary using the extended cable tunnel) for meals and sleeping. The furniture for ANSON mainly came from Paddock.

Deep tube shelters

In looking for citadel accommodation the planners’ eyes quickly fell on the deep tube shelters. Eight of these had been completed by 1942 built between 65 and 120 feet underground alongside existing underground railway stations. Each consisted of 2 parallel 2-deck interlinked tunnels and could take 8000 shelterers. But there was concern amongst the planners that these shelters had been specifically built for public use and had been well publicised although the Goodge Street shelter was already used by the Americans and the Supreme Allied Commander (COSSAC). After some debate at the highest levels in early 1944 it was decided that all the other deep tube shelters would be reserved for government use. Beds were partly removed from most and the shelters at Chancery Lane and Clapham Common were fully fitted out to serve as reserve citadels for up to 600 people each.

The Ministry of Home Security War Room

By this time the Home Security War Room had moved into the Rotundas and the reserve established at Cornwall House had been given up. This lead to the rather odd decision to set up a new reserve in the reserve regional war room at Edgbaston in Birmingham.

The main task of the Home Security War Room was to monitor the problems caused by air raids and to co-ordinate the response at the national level. It was divided into 2 main parts – operations and intelligence – and the designations of its various rooms in the Rotunda illustrate its role –

    • Teleprinter room
    • Distribution room (equivalent to the communications centres in other headquarters)
    • Duplicating and delivery room
    • Watch room
    • Fire control room
    • Record section
    • Key points intelligence branch
    • Library
    • Casualty bureau
    • Staff intelligence room
    • Liaison officers’ room

Stand down

The first V1 flying bombs landed in London in June 1944 and their impact was not as bad as had been feared. The plans were however maintained against the larger “Big Ben” as the V2 missile had been code named and concerns grew rapidly in August so much so that the planners in the Rocket Consequences Committee began to actively consider reducing the civil service in London to the bare nucleus needed to keep it functioning when the attacks started and evacuating the remainder although the central government machine would not be evacuated. Letters were issued to the Establishment Officers in charge of personnel matters in all the departments instructing them to start planning for a complete evacuation of their department’s staffs except for those headquarters staff whose work meant they had to stay and carry on. Instructions were also given to prepare all available citadel and protected accommodation and yet again Paddock was earmarked as a general reserve of accommodation. But when the V2s started to fall in September the amount of damage they caused was considerably less than had been predicted and less than a month after the new measures had started to be implemented they were cancelled. By the end of 1944 civil defence measures were being run down and in April 1945 they were completely stood down. The peace so long in coming would however soon be replaced by the Cold War which would occupy the minds of government for the next 40 years.

Planning starts for World War 3

The hard won peace would soon be overtaken by the Cold War and in 1948 protection against air attack came back onto the official agenda with the passing of the Civil Defence Act. At this time and perhaps for the next decade the planners thinking about World War 3 assumed that air attacks would be on a scale seen during World War 2 with, by the early 1950s, the added problem of a few atomic bombs. By 1955, plans were being made on the assumption that as well as 40 A- bombs targeted at military sites a further 132 would be aimed at seats of government, industry and population with London receiving 35 bombs. The planners predicted that these bombs would kill 1,680,000 people and injure another 957,000. They would wreck two-fifths of the country’s houses and half of the manufacturing industry would be destroyed or damaged. The loss of life, casualties and damage would be horrendous but based on experiences from the Blitz and the air raids on German cities like Hamburg and Dresden the attacks were not expected to result in the breakdown of society or the system of government. Consequently, civil defence measures were only needed to help the survivors in the immediate “life saving” period to cope with the immediate and localised effects on the attack.

The new civil defence measures were firmly based on the practices developed in the last war. The country would again be divided into regions each under a Regional Commissioner. His task would be to co-ordinate the civil defence response in his region although following earlier practice he would also have authority to act as the central government with complete power over his region should it be cut off from central government in London.

The Regional War Rooms and NAVE 

During World War 2 the Regional Commissioners had operated from ad hoc war rooms but these would be inadequate for the next war and so the Civil Defence Joint Planning Staff which was formulating a new civil defence structure for Britain recommended in 1949 the provision of “protected control rooms with signal communications at local authority, zone, region and central government level”. This lead to the setting up of the Working Party on Civil Defence War Rooms. They proposed building what became known as Regional War Rooms in the same regional towns as their predecessors but they would be “outside the central key area of the regional town…where adequate communications can be provided with civil and military headquarters in the region and with the Central War Room in London”. Building the War Rooms did not start until 1952. The London ones were all built by 1953 but the others took longer and it was not until 1956 that the last, at Shirley in Birmingham, was completed.

The war rooms were built at –

1. Newcastle (Kenton Bar)
2. Leeds
3. Nottingham
4. Cambridge
5. The war room for the London Region was nominally at Paddock although no work appears to have been done to modernise it. London would however have 4 sub-regional war rooms at Mill Hill, Wanstead, Chislehurst and Cheam
6. Reading
7. Bristol
8. Cardif (Coryton)
9. Birmingham (Shirley)
10. Scotland would have 2 sub-regional war rooms at Kirknewton and East Kilbride
11. Tunbridge Wells
12. Belfast

With the exception of the one at Newcastle these war rooms were purpose built blockhouses with walls and roofs made from concrete 5 feet thick. They would house the Commissioner and his battle staff such as representatives from the fire service and armed forces who would need to keep working throughout the air raids. These war rooms could accommodate only about 50 people. The rest of the Regional Commissioner’s staff of around 300 who would look after the longer term response would work from adjoining offices and many of the war rooms were built on sites already occupied by temporary office buildings dating from the last war which would be pressed into service if needed.

In a repeat of the practice developed during World War 2 the Regional Commissioners based in their war rooms would report to and receive instructions from a central war room in London. This had been the Ministry of Home Security War Room based in the final years of the war in the newly built North Rotunda but became known in the late 1940s as the Home Security War Room before gaining the title of the Central Government War Room.

The Home Security War Room in the North Rotunda dated from the last war. It is frequently mentioned in files and documents from the early 1950s although it does not appear to have been a permanent facility and little is known about it. It seems that the rooms allocated to it were mainly in the middle level of the North Rotunda where they were recorded on contemporary plans as “special reserve for the Home Office”. These rooms were little used although the war room was retained and some rooms were used as a training school for the National Warning and Monitoring Organisation. In February 1953 by which time the facility had acquired the code name of NAVE and the designation of the Central Government War Room or CGWR The Times reported that as well as the new Regional War Rooms which were being built in the civil defence regions to provide the Regional Commissioners with a protected core from which to conduct civil defence operations a Central War Room would be established. The Times added that “information from all departments with civil defence responsibilities would be collected and collated” in this Central War Room. An official report at the time said “It is proposed that the Government will establish an operations and intelligence centre in which information affecting all departments with civil defence responsibilities would be collated and from which advice and information would be distributed and instructions on such matters as inter-regional reinforcement issued”.

The CGWR belonged to the era of conventional warfare in which central control could be exercised from London but with the advent of the hydrogen bomb from the mid-1950s the planners assumed that war would now mean the nation would be reduced almost immediately to “a struggle for survival” which would have to be fought at the local and regional level. A central government would not be able to give day-to-day assistance to the regions and so as the plans for the new Central Government War Headquarters developed the CGWR seems to have been simply forgotten. NAVE continued to be used for infrequent exercises at least until 1962 and until the late 1990s perhaps because of the lack of information about it and the complementary lack of information about the Central Government War Headquarters it was thought by some researchers to be the new Cabinet War Room.


The new plans to deal with a possible Russian attack naturally included thinking about the high level direction of a future war and this lead to the setting up of the “Working Party on the Staffing and Accommodation Plan for the War Cabinet Secretariat” which reported in February 1949. It proposed establishing at the start of a war a combined Cabinet Office and Ministry of Defence secretariat with 974 staff and an essential nucleus of 274. As in World War 2 the expectation was that the war would develop over months and the figure of 974 would be reached only after some 3 months. They would work above ground in the New Public Offices in Whitehall but as insurance against occasional attacks as much accommodation both working and domestic would be reserved in the old Cabinet War Room (at this time used mainly for storing historical records) although the report noted correctly that there were rumours that the safety of the CWR even under the slab was not all it might be. After consultations with Thomas Padmore at the Treasury and the now knighted Sir Eric de Norman at the Ministry of Works who we met during the last war the Working Party suggested adapting the empty South Rotunda as wartime protected accommodation for the Cabinet Office. This was accepted and planning started. The Rotunda would not be prepared in advance and only used as emergency accommodation during air raids. In lulls between raids the staff would return to the New Public Offices as long as the building was still standing by walking along the cable tunnel. The Cabinet Office had actually asked for the North Rotunda but its middle and upper floors was fitted out as the Home Security War Room.

By mid-1950 active planning was under way to prepare the South Rotunda to take a central nucleus of between 500 and 600 people. The preparations would be made in 2 stages. Firstly, a very short-term plan for the key players with minimum alteration and accommodation and secondly a longer-term plan to take everyone needed although it was now thought that it could only provide both working and living accommodation for around 300. By autumn 1951 the first stage work was complete and the facility which had been given the code name SCOUT was included in the Cabinet Office War Book as the Cabinet Office War Room although the planners continued to debate the exact numbers required for the permanent nucleus and whether this would be in SCOUT or a new facility which was being planned called PIRATE.

SCOUT was centred in the middle level of the South Rotunda. It had space allocated for a conference room, map room, Cabinet meeting room and a Chiefs of Staff meeting room. The Prime Minister was allocated a room and others were set aside for various private secretaries, clerks, etc. The importance of the Prime Minister being able to speak to the people was not forgotten and the BBC had a small studio and control room there. The accommodation provided was no where near as extensive as finally established in the old Cabinet War Room by the time this stopped being used in 1945. Some sleeping accommodation was found on the middle floor but more was allocated by taking over rooms allocated to the Ministry of Defence in the lower floor. Most of the lower floor was allocated to the large GPO PBX and its associated equipment together with generators and air conditioning plant for the Rotundas as a whole.

The final planned nucleus of 342 would include the Prime Minister and 4 other Ministers with the Cabinet Secretary and a secretariat in support. The Chiefs of Staff would have their own secretariat. There would be teams from the Joint Intelligence Bureau, the Forward Planning Directorate, and a statistical section. The BBC would provide a small ministerial broadcasts section. Rather oddly there would be a section from the Ministry of War Production but no other departments or ministries were directly represented. These would be supported by a typing section of 37 and 19 telephone staff. The telephone staff would probably have been pooled with those working the switchboard for NAVE. It appears that the rooms were prepared and fitted with furniture and then locked up and left. Although they were ready for immediate use there is no mention of SCOUT ever being used for exercises or really being in the planners minds particularly once planning for the much larger central government war headquarters started in earnest.

What shall we tell the Prime Minister? (National Archives)

In the meantime 2 minor problems occupied the Cabinet Office planners responsible for SCOUT. The first was whether or not to tell recently re-elected Prime Minister Churchill that he would be expected to run World War 3 from SCOUT rather than the old Cabinet War Room. The second was a particularly British problem – who had the keys. This really meant who controlled access from the basement of the New Public Offices (site of the Cabinet War Room and Air Ministry War Room) into the Whitehall tunnel and from there to the Rotundas. In April 1953 the Cabinet Office suggested to the Air Ministry who had the keys that it should hand them over but they replied that until they moved their war room to the new Whitehall Gardens citadel they should keep them. The matter was not pushed and it was not until December 1954 that the Air Ministry relinquished the keys.

In September a nationwide exercise called Dutch Treat was held with the primary intention of testing the passing of fall-out information around the country and it was to mark a change from the era of SCOUT and NAVE to the fully functioning Central Government War Headquarters. The opportunity was taken to “exercise the CGWR” in what was called the “old Home Security War room”. Interestingly, SCOUT was not used perhaps because it was considered too secret to be revealed or possibly because the exercise planners did not know of its existence, or perhaps simply because it had been forgotten. During the exercise a group of “officials” as senior civil servants were often referred to role played the central government decision makers during the attack phase ie when the bombs were still falling. The main function of central government at that time was seen to be just monitoring the developing situation across the country and to give encouragement to the survivors via radio broadcasts. The planners and officials thought that it would probably not be practical for the CGWR to make strategic decisions above eg inter-regional movements of civil defence resources although it should plan for future action when movement of people would be practical.Their ideas were already being reflected in the building of the central government war headquarters.

Early ideas from the Playfair Committee 

While SCOUT was being prepared specifically for the War Cabinet and its staff the Cabinet Defence (Transition) Committee considered the location of rest of the seat of government and the evacuation of government departments from London. From the earliest days of the Cold War the Chiefs of Staff had expressed concern about a bolt-from-the-blue “Pearl Harbour” type attack taking out Whitehall and the seat of government (meaning the War Cabinet and the most senior decision makers and their support staff) possibly with just one A-bomb. The Committee now decided that in the short term any movement of the government could not be considered in isolation from the proposed plan to evacuate the so-called priority classes (mainly children) from London and as this meant that the majority of people would be expected to “stay put” there could be no question of Parliament and the seat of government leaving. With this in mind the Committee thought that any opportunity to improve the deep shelter accommodation for the nucleus of government should be taken. In the longer term it was assumed that the Russians would have a stock of atomic bombs which would require different plans but consideration of these could be deferred.

In June 1949 de Norman and Padmore met to discuss the evacuation and a central government nucleus which lead to de Norman suggesting a virtual repeat of a Yellow-type move for the bulk of London based civil servants. The rest would stay in London with the ones running the less-essential parts of the government machine using the steel framed buildings and the vital central government nucleus working from protected accommodation. De Norman was also anxious to warn of the problems which emerged at the start of the last war and in particular to keep the discussions in the hands of only a few officials. He warned that planning 10 years earlier for the central nucleus had found that a large number of organisations had to be considered such as Parliament, Royalty, the Diplomatic Corps and the major industrial and business concerns. He also pointed out the fundamental practical question of whether or not the nucleus staff should live in the protected accommodation or sleep elsewhere with the possibility of them not being able to reach their offices following the air raids. The Cabinet Defence (Transition) Committee agreed that the non-essential staffs should be evacuated from London, perhaps before hostilities started as part of a general movement away from London but that the seat of government should remain there as long as possible for reasons of morale although, and significantly for this history, they agreed that alternative accommodation should be prepared in or close to the London area.

The Cabinet Defence (Transition) Committee decided that these ideas should be developed and so in 1950 it set up the Committee on Distribution of Government Staffs in War (known after its Chairman as the Playfair Committee) and asked it to prepare an outline plan for the distribution of government staffs in war . The Playfair report, submitted in April 1951, recommended that all the Government staff in Whitehall should be divided into 4 categories –

Category A – This would consist of the 25,000 staff least essential to the war effort who would be evacuated from London before the outbreak of war to make room for expanding departments (this idea actually dated from 1948 and was based on wartime experience).

Category B – Would consist of a further 20,000 to be evacuated later if necessary

Category C – Was made up of about 75,000 people who would stay in London for as long as they could get to and work in their offices, taking cover in air raid shelters as necessary.

Category D – Consisted of an essential nucleus of 17,500 government staff that would stay in London as long as the seat of government was there. An additional 3,000 key staff of non-governmental essential organisations would also have to be included although this figure could easily reach 10,000.

The report was generally accepted and Playfair’s committee set up a sub-committee called the “Committee on the Location of the Seat of Government in War” under the chairmanship of de Norman specifically to consider the accommodation that might be needed. It proposed that A and B Category staff would be evacuated to provincial towns and cities like Cheltenham and Bletchley Park where they would double up in existing temporary office buildings mostly put up during the war. Category C staff, if evacuation could be delayed could move into new office accommodation which would be specially built for them in the early weeks or months of the war but if not they would have to use requisitioned premises, particularly hotels in south and south east coast towns. The committee found that around 5000 Category D staff could be accommodated in existing citadels or deep tunnels dating from the war and a further 8,100 in strutted strengthened offices.

The available London Citadels in 1951 were –

Location Floors Sq ft Capacity Proposed allocation
Monck Street 2 12006 200 MI5, MI6
North Rotunda 3 34298 570 Home Office, CGWR, Scottish Office
South Rotunda 3 25662 420 Cabinet Office, MoD
Whitehall Gardens 2 32764 550 War Office
Admiralty Citadel 2 35819 600 Admiralty
New Public Offices 2 82755 1380 Air Ministry
Curzon Street House 3 13342 220 Ministry of Transport
Dollis Hill (Paddock) 2 9441 150 London Region War Room
Cricklewood 2 17467 290
Harrow 2 15130 250
Geological Museum 1 2787 45

Rather surprisingly, although de Norman had mentioned them to the Committee there was to be no role for the 7 available deep tube shelters. The eighth, Chancery Lane was already allocated to the Post Office to be developed into a secret trunk telephone exchange. It was also thought likely that the Americans would remember their use of the Goodge Street tunnels and ask for them again. On the normal space allocation of 60 sq feet for working and living accommodation the remaining 6 shelters could have taken 8400 and virtually solved the problem. Later, in 1951 the Civil Defence Joint Planning Staff decided that they should be reserved in war for the general public although they were never refitted and were generally left vacant or used for storage.

New citadels 

At By this time, as well as the existing citadels there were also 4 significant new citadels or tunnels under development. During the war a major bunker with a 10 foot thick roof had been built on the Montagu Gardens site and by now the first part of the long-planned new building with a specially strengthened frame was being built on the site and would eventually become MoD Main Building. In May 1949 de Norman told Bridges that the second part would be equally strong and include citadel protection in the basement to take 950 mainly Air Ministry staff. This would become known as the Whitehall Gardens II citadel.

Unlike during World War 2 the planners now thought it would be necessary to provide protected working accommodation for at least a core of both Houses of Parliament. A site was already earmarked for a new office block in Abingdon Street close to the Palace of Westminster and a proposal was made to bore a single level tunnel 36 feet in diameter to provide a Common’s Chamber for some 187 members and a Lord’s Chamber for 50. It was hoped that this could be constructed covertly under the cover of the various GPO tunnelling schemes which were planned or under way. The third site was to be a protected deep level basement under a new building planned for the Colonial Office off Broad Sanctuary near Parliament Square. This building and its citadel would have a troubled history. The citadel was built around 1951/1953 but plans for the building were abandoned in 1952 and although they were reinstated some years later to become the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre the citadel was never finished and never appeared in the final “order of battle” of the London citadels.

By far the most ambitious scheme was codenamed PIRATE and appears to have arisen from some discussions in 1950. PIRATE would provide accommodation for the War Cabinet organisation in 3 parallel tunnels with lateral communicating tunnels running under Horse Guards Parade. Accommodation would be on 2 floors, 23 and 16 feet wide respectively and 8 feet high. It would be designed to accommodate 800 – 1000 people at 60 – 70 square feet per person and would include a meeting room for the Cabinet, Cabinet Committees and the Chiefs of Staff, a Map Room and offices and sleeping accommodation for the War Cabinet Ministers, their personal staffs, the War Cabinet Secretariat and the Ministry of Defence. To avoid disturbing Horse Guards Parade and to preserve secrecy it would be built via a tunnel from the Montagu House site. The initial thought was that PIRATE would cost £1.6m (equivalent to £42m in today’s money) but it would never be built although it is possible that its communications tunnel planned for the Post Office was built under the Admiralty end of Horse Guards Parade. Additionally, there was an idea to extend the Whitehall cable tunnel from the Admiralty citadel to government offices in Carlton House Terrace where it was planned to build a new home for the Foreign Office and provide it with additional Grade A shelter accommodation. To hide their cost the work on the tunnel projects (Pirate, Abingdon Street and Carlton House Terrace) would have been done by the Post Office which would be reimbursed by the by the Ministry of Works.

The projected citadels in 1951 were –

Location Possible completion date Capacity Allocation
Whitehall Gardens II Dec 1952 950 Air Ministry
PIRATE Dec 1952 1000 Cabinet Office, MoD
Abingdon Street Dec 1952? 240 Parliament
Carlton House Terrace ? 230 Foreign Office?

The origins of the Central Government War Headquarters 

The central idea at this time was that the nucleus would stay in London essentially for morale purposes and in March 1951 Norman Brook, the Cabinet Secretary sent a note to Prime Minister Atlee saying that the Government could not leave London for this reason and bomb proof accommodation must therefore be provided for “the central machinery of government”. But he seems to have had a quick change of mind as in the following month he reported to the Prime Minister that “London might…become completely isolated and out of touch with the rest of the country; and in that event there would be no object in keeping the central machinery of government underground in London. We are therefore beginning also to consider the possibility of providing some alternative seat of government in another part of the country and equipping it in advance with the necessary accommodation and communications”. The details were however too secret to commit to paper and Norman Brook planned to tell the Prime Minister about it in person. This was a scheme known as SUBTERFUGE and was in fact already being considered in great secrecy by a committee.

SUBTERFUGE was in fact a code name for Spring Quarry near Corsham to the east of Bath and would over the next 10 years be secretly converted into a vast and complex Central Government War Headquarters, the main relocation site for the nucleus of central government in the event of nuclear war. The code name covered both the site’s function and its location.

SUBTERFUGE’s location between Bath and Chippenham


The rural location of the CGWHQ site (marked with the black dot) between the hamlets of Hudswell and Moor Green is well illustrated on this 1950s map. The Box railway tunnel which borders the northern side of the site can be clearly seen.

For security purposes the code name was changed frequently and was itself classified but some years ago when the matter was still secret Duncan Campbell, the investigative journalist and author of the seminal book on British civil defence War Plan UK found one code name – BURLINGTON, and this name has unfortunately stuck particularly among the less well informed. But this name was only used for 2 years. The full list of code names for the war headquarters or the CGWHQ as it was often termed throughout its operational life is –

1951 – 1959 SUBTERFUGE
1959 – 1961 STOCKWELL
1961 – 1963 BURLINGTON
1963 – 1970 TURNSTILE
1970 – 1987 CHANTICLEER
1987 – 1992 PERIPHERAL                                                                                        1992 – 2004 EYEGLASS

In official documents the code name was usually written in capitals. If a general descriptive word was needed it was usually “the site”. The CGWHQ was never referred to as a bunker.

WWII Ministry of Aircraft Production factory in Spring Quarry site.

There are many mines or quarries in the Corsham area and several were taken over by the military before or during World War 2 mainly to store ammunition but the northern part of Spring Quarry was converted at great expense into a factory producing mainly aircraft engines and employing several thousand people. This chapter in the story of Spring Quarry is fully described by N J McCamley in his book “Secret Underground Cities”. Many of the stores continued to be used after the war and the factory site was taken over by the Admiralty for storage although it was still designated for use as an emergency factory in the event of another war.

Norman Brook’s report to the Prime Minister added that accommodation for Royalty would be dealt with separately but said “The situation at Buckingham Palace should be satisfactory but we shall have to consider what additional arrangements would be needed for the protection of Princess Elizabeth and other members of the Royal Family”. This may have meant that in the event of war the Sovereign and the Heir Apparent would have been in separate places which would have been a wise precaution to ensure continuation of the monarchy.

Copy of the minute introducing the code name TURNSTILE (National Archives / Steve Fox)

In mid-1951 Playfair called together a small, select group including de Norman to consider an alternative location for the nucleus should London become uninhabitable. They met in July and were told, probably by de Norman that “There was accommodation for about 27,000 in 3 of the larger chambers at SUBTERFUGE. The Admiralty and Ministry of Supply also had claim to this accommodation and ammunition was stored near the 3 that were most suitable”. De Norman was actually referring to 3 adjoining quarries here of which Spring Quarry being the largest. The meeting felt that they should seek authority to work out on broad lines a scheme for using SUBTERFUGE for the essential nucleus whenever it was needed for D staffs although until then it could be used for its existing purposes. De Norman visited the SUBTERFUGE site and thought the scheme to be practical but it then took a year for a survey and report to be completed by which time Norman Brook was saying that the previous assumption that the nucleus could carry on in London for at least the first 3 months of a war looked doubtful and he was thinking that preparation of SUBTERFUGE especially its communications should be started immediately although knowledge of the scheme should be kept to a very small number of senior people.

In December 1951 Norman Brook reported to the new Prime Minister Churchill. He told him that the assumption was now that the government would stay in London for as long as it was physically possible to do so and the plan was still to house “the most important members of the central nucleus in heavily protected accommodation in citadels and deep tunnels and the remainder in strong shelters in steel-framed buildings”. These basement shelters would be reinforced with steel strutting in peacetime and in war a 2 feet thick layer of earth or sand would be spread over the ground floor to provide a crude protection against radiation. But he again hinted of “alternative accommodation elsewhere” about which he preferred to brief the Prime Minister orally. Intriguingly, it seems that part of the protected accommodation would be available for the Sovereign but as usual all references to her have been removed from the documents in the National Archives and this is only an inference. Later that month a very high powered group consisting of the Prime Minister, several Cabinet Ministers, the Chiefs of Staff, the Cabinet Secretary and de Norman discussed the plans for accommodating the central nucleus in war. They concluded that no new work should start on any citadel or tunnel accommodation, including PIRATE, and the essential nucleus should be reduced in size from the planned 17,500 people to the 5,880 who could be accommodated in the existing accommodation together with the Whitehall Gardens II and Colonial Office sites. The Distribution of Government Staffs in Wartime committee was subsequently asked to consider the numbers required for the nucleus. However, more significantly and possibly contrary to the Prime Minister’s wishes, de Norman was asked to prepare a report on a revised version of PIRATE and another on SUBTERFUGE.

In May 1952 the Playfair Committee on the Distribution of Government Staffs in Wartime submitted an alternative proposal for the nucleus. They said that departments had reviewed their needs but this only allowed for the reduction in the nucleus Category D staff from 17,500 to 7,800 and at that time there were only 4,700 places available with the desired level of protection. They thought that a nucleus which would include support staffs would have to number at least 13,000 and recommended that more protected accommodation should be built in London including PIRATE. The committee also mentioned the possibility of providing alternative accommodation for the nucleus outside London and SUBTERFUGE was increasingly seen as potentially vital. Its actual role was however still under consideration and knowledge of it was kept to a very small circle. However,  the Committee recommended in August 1952 that work on an immediate plan should be started to prepare it as alternative accommodation for the nucleus should London become untenable.

In September 1952 Playfair’s committee issued a revised report. It said that the bulk of the civil service should continue to work in London as long as it could and then be evacuated if bombed out, but the nucleus should remain in London. As already mentioned, the Prime Minister had instructed that the nucleus should be reduced to a size that would fit into the existing accommodation. At the time there were 4715 places available but departments’ minimum demands for places came to 7,800. The report recommended that work should begin on PIRATE, the Colonial Office and Whitehall Gardens citadels and strengthening basements as soon as possible. This would result in 12,500 protected places being available by the end of 1955. The report then continued “In case London proves untenable there must be some protected alternative for the Government and its essential nucleus of staff. Fortunately, the bare bones of one exist in SUBTERFUGE…” and they recommended that work was started on it immediately. This statement was based on the report which had been made on SUBTERFUGE by the Ministry of Works mentioned earlier.

One of the many murals painted by Olga Lehman in 1943 in the operative’s canteen of the wartime Spring Quarry factory, later to become Area 2 of the CGWHQ (Dom Jackson)

Another  of the murals painted by Olga Lehman in 1943 in the operative’s canteen of the wartime Spring Quarry factory, later to become Area 2 of the CGWHQ (Dom Jackson)

This report had considered five quarries in the Corsham area of which Spring Quarry was the “obvious first choice”. The quarry was being used by the Ministry of Supply and the Admiralty for storage and was still held on its wartime requisition for the Ministry of Supply. It had the largest developed floor area as well as adequate mains services and means of access.  But, the local electricity supply was considered vulnerable and underground generators would be needed. Similarly, the water supply was vulnerable and whilst water was supplied from a large reservoir in Corsham, there was no underground storage, although there was an underground spring which could be used and a 100,000 gallon reservoir was suggested. At this time, showing that the planners still thought of World War 3 in terms of World War 2 the plan for Spring Quarry was that on the outbreak of war it would be cleared of all the stores held there and then be turned over to the production of aircraft engines.

The report was based on accommodating an arbitrary figure of 12,000 and suggested that SUBTERFUGE could be developed in 2 stages –

  1. An austerity scheme which could be carried out with the minimum of work and expenditure to prepare the eastern end of Spring Quarry as offices and which would take about 6 months. This would occupy some 925,000 sq ft (exclusive of roadways and pillars) and would allow 75 sq ft per head of office space which compared well with the standard figure used in the protected accommodation in London. In war, the staff could live in the existing surface hostels and houses, although their existing occupants would have to be rehoused. As this might be difficult crash plans should include providing sleeping accommodation underground at a basic level for say 6,000.
  2. A longer term plan to provide underground living and working accommodation using 2 or 3 quarries which would take about 2 years to complete. This would spread the risk of a knock out blow from a chance bomb and avoid the need to use any surface accommodation. This would require 1,790,000 sq ft. (at the time the Ministry of Supply storage area occupied 1,476,000 sq ft and the Admiralty ones 772,000). Office spaces would be partitioned but not to the ceiling height to allow for air circulation and save money. Staff would sleep in tiered bunks. This scheme would need the whole of the developed area of Spring Quarry as well as Monk’s Park, Westwood and Hayeswood quarries which were up to 9 miles from Spring Quarry. As the report’s conclusions added “There should be no illusion about the standards of working and living conditions which we propose; they will be hard and uncomfortable in the first instance and will never be easy even if our long-term plan is carried out”.

‘The first view’ of SUBTERFUGE taken from West Wells Road which runs over the underground site. The heavily protected headworks of Passenger Lift 1are behind the World War 2 entrance lodge. The truncated Five Ways “Backbone” tower is to the right of the mound. (Steve Fox)

However the senior civil servants were still lobbying for PIRATE and there was at least one suggestion that it could go ahead by fudging its approval and budget. SUBTERFUGE was discussed by the inner group again in November 1952 although the Note for the Record refers to it as “a place outside London to which the essential nucleus of central government could be moved…” It was decided that although it would take some 3 months to clear the Ministry of Supply’s stores from the site any physical preparation such as conversion to office accommodation could be left to be done during “the period of alarm”. However, some general work such as heating, lighting and drainage should be carried out as and when possible. But it was stressed that the scheme must remain known only to the minimum number as there should be no general idea that the government contemplated leaving London. In any event, SUBTERFUGE was not to be seen as an alternative to the protected accommodation in London including PIRATE. By February 1954 the Ministry of Works were seeking Treasury approval for initial spending although they had not received Treasury or Ministerial authority for the whole scheme which was “…known as SUBTERFUGE about which we have been forbidden to say anything on paper if we can possibly avoid it”. They received initial authority to spend £100,000 on reservoirs, an emergency water pipeline, improved approaches, mains drainage, the ring (blast) wall, lavatories, and canteen equipment. There is however a suggestion in one file that some initial work was carried out at Spring Quarry as early as late 1952.

The Padmore Working Party

In early 1953 a Home Defence Committee made up of the Chiefs of Staff and some very senior civil servants was set up under the chairmanship of Norman Brook, the Cabinet Secretary, “to ensure the consistency in war planning by military and civil agencies of government which is directed towards the defence of the United Kingdom in a future war”. They then set up the Hall Committee to consider the effects of an attack on Britain using 200 atomic bombs. This in turn led to the setting up of the Working Party on the Machinery of Government in War under the Chairmanship of the now Sir Thomas Padmore which first met on 1 October 1953. The committee included the soon to retire Sir Eric de Norman who was able to give the Working Party the benefit of his nearly 20 years of experience. The task of the Working Party was to consider the machinery of government in the initial stage of an atomic war based on the conditions predicted by the Hall report (which, amongst other things, had seen the need for a strong government, possibly outside London). Padmore’s new committee replaced the Committee on Distribution of Government Staffs which still existed on paper although it had only met 3 times in 1952 and not after. It was finally dissolved in 1955 as part of an exercise to clean up committees.

Sir Thomas Padmore

Padmore posed the question of what would happen to the “central government machine” on the assumption that it stayed in London under atomic attack. Could it continue and if so what would be its role? Should a shadow government be created outside London? The consensus was that, as before, for morale reasons the nucleus should stay in London in the citadels where, if the attack made them inaccessible by road they could be supplied from the Thames or even by helicopter. But such a small nucleus could only handle the most essential government business concerned with the prosecution of the war. Everything else such as education would be controlled from SUBTERFUGE where a “second eleven” of up to 12,000 ministers and officials (C staff) who would establish themselves before the war started and who could take over from Whitehall if necessary.

The access ramp through from the PNCC communications centre and Tunnel Quarry into the ‘M62 Lobby’ of the 1980s QOC (formally Area 2). The usual entrance to the CGWHQ in the later years for the maintenance staff. (Bennett/MOD/EH)

The Padmore Working Party still worked on a figure of 12,000 for the nucleus but there were still only 5,360 citadel places in London and these included the Colonial Office citadel which was nearing completion, the Whitehall Gardens II citadel which was under construction and the still unapproved PIRATE which would take some 3 1/2 years to complete if instructions to proceed were given. Even if all the projected basement schemes were included and approved immediately there would still only be 7,670 places by 1958. This would exclude the basement of the Great George Street building which did not have a steel frame and was thought unlikely to survive an atomic explosion.

SUBTERFUGE was high amongst the Working Party’s thoughts. De Norman presented the earlier report on SUBTERFUGE adding that the work on it could be done covertly under the cover of the known storage purposes. The early idea of keeping SUBTERFUGE partially empty ready to take the nucleus if it left London seems to have been over ruled in favour of filling SUBTERFUGE at the outset. If the nucleus had to move from London a similar number of SUBTERFUGE’s existing occupants would simply have to go elsewhere.

The Working Party made its first report in November 1953 and suggested that “The nucleus government must include the minimum number of ministers (including the war cabinet) and officials necessary to control the higher strategy of the war, foreign and commonwealth relations and the major issues of home defence. Everybody else must go”. It went on to say that previous estimates suggested a minimum number in the nucleus of 12,000. This number could not be housed in the London citadels so consideration should be given to housing a second group of officials and ministers, the next most intimately concerned with the conduct of the war, in one protected place and the only suitable place was SUBTERFUGE. SUBTERFUGE would also take some extra-governmental bodies such as the Bank of England and TUC. The group in SUBTERFUGE would support the War Cabinet in London and act as the central government for all matters not handled in London. It would also take over if the London nucleus was put out of action. The Working Party recommended that a third echelon of some 30,000 staff should be evacuated to the to the Midlands. This would have been basically a repeat of the wartime Black Move plan and early documents included the phrase Black Move until it was pointed out that people seeing this and knowing the previous wartime plans would deduce what it was about. This lead to the adoption of a new phrase – the “Sterling Area” to describe the wartime western counties although nothing came of the initial idea.

Parliament would be needed, at least at the start of the war, although it should not meet in London but possibly somewhere near SUBTERFUGE, or perhaps like the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford, earmarked for the purpose in World War 2. If it was decided that Parliament should stay in London the Working Party recommended building a Grade A basement under the proposed Abingdon Street building rather than using a tunnel scheme.

But by the mid-1950s the advent of the hydrogen bomb and the assumption that the Soviet Union would acquire them, and be able to use them against Britain, had radically changed expectations of what nuclear war would be like. Until this time, it was assumed that World War 3 would follow the pattern of World War 2. The war would last for months if not years with frequent air raids. These would mostly be with high explosive bombs but increasingly with atomic bombs of the size dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In this time of so called “broken backed warfare” the damage and casualties would be high but the country would continue to exist as a coherent nation state and could continue to supply its armed forces overseas. However, it was now assumed that the next war would start, after a short precautionary warning period, with an exchange of H-Bombs. This would happen in the first hours of the war and effectively end it on the basis that the attacks would mean that there would be nothing left to fight with or to fight for on either side. The war would simply stop. The results of the attack would be catastrophic and mean that Britain would cease to exist as a functioning nation state. These idea were incorporated into the strategy and exercises and, for example, the home defence exercise Fallex62 held in 1962 envisaged an attack on Britain’s airfields, missile sites and main population centres in waves over 17 hours in which H bombs with the equivalent power of 200 million tons (or 200 megatons) would explode over Britain.

In early 1954 the Home Defence Committee asked Padmore to reconsider his report in the light of the greater damage hydrogen bombs would cause. The working party now suggested reversing the morale argument for the nucleus staying in London, suggesting now that the public would be more adversely affected if the government machine were destroyed in London than if it evacuated itself. It also recommended reversing the order for evacuation. Under their earlier recommendations the least important civil servants would have left London first with the nucleus the last to move. Now they suggested that the nucleus should go first and priority should be given to its protection and preservation. It was clear that the H-bomb would make any use of the London citadels impractical but in a move typical of civil service planning further consideration of them was deferred pending more information.

Inside the CGWHQ. Roadway near Area 8. (Steve Fox)

SUBTERFUGE was thought to be safe from an atomic bomb but now the RAF said that it would be destroyed if attacked with H-bombs yielding 5 to10 megatons and they also had concerns about the possible effect on SUBTERFUGE of an explosion in the nearby underground ammunition depots. This lead the Ministry of Works to look for alternative underground sites but none were found that were fully satisfactory. The Billingham Anhydrite Mine, which was some 900 feet deep, was considered the best alternative although the only access was by way of shafts rather than slope tunnels or addits which was considered to be a major disadvantage. The Drakelow Underground Factory near Kidderminster was considered but thought to offer inadequate protection. Similarly, the Manod Slate Quarry in Wales, used during the last war to store art treasures, was dismissed as too small. A subsequent search found the Meadowbank Salt Mine in Winsford, Cheshire and the Cocklakes Gypsum Mine, near Carlisle but again neither was thought to be better than SUBTERFUGE.

London is abandoned

After considering the Working Party’s ideas the Home Defence Committee thought that, for political reasons, a nucleus of government had to stay in London. However, the rest of the government machine should be dispersed, together with the maximum amount of devolution of government powers and functions, to the regions so that if London were destroyed there would still be a government. However, and very bravely, Padmore stood up to the Cabinet Secretary and argued strongly for moving the nucleus from London and asked for guidance from the Cabinet. He was now proposing that the London Citadels be maintained to allow a government to stay in London if it wanted to but as a precaution he now suggested that 2 underground headquarters should be prepared in the country away from London.

In October 1954 Padmore’s working party felt able to submit a rewritten report to the Home Defence Committee reflecting the scale of damage and dislocation expected from a war involving H-bombs and the increased vulnerability of the London Citadels. The main recommendations were –

  • It would be impossible to maintain a government machine in anyway comparable with peace time practice so it should be reduced to the absolute minimum number. This would involve abandoning large parts of what are normally considered to be essential functions of government and devolving as much as possible of the rest to regional centres to be based on joint/civil military headquarters to which some ministers and officials might be sent in advance.
  • The London citadels were vulnerable. If central London were attacked they would be destroyed or their occupants entombed. There was also a risk of flooding from the Thames as most were below river level and their communications were vulnerable.
  • Although the central London citadels should not be used consideration could be given to using for a small nucleus the 3 small peripheral World War 2 citadels which were less likely to be destroyed.
  • The working party believed it was impractical to rely on the citadels but to avoid the need to commit to one course an alternate centre outside London should be prepared which could take over if the government of the day decided to move or was knocked out.
  • The main part of the nucleus and their support staffs would move at the same time as the regions were reinforced to provide cover. Any remaining nucleus in London could quickly leave in cars and coaches.
  • There was no intention of a mass move of government staff from London. The unevacuated majority of the London based civil service would be expected to work as long as possible and then be ready to respond if some call came in the recovery period.
  • Parliament would disperse before the attack to meet later at a pre-determined place. (Later this idea was changed to one where arrangements for reassembly would be on an ad hoc basis determined at the time).
  • The committee did not make any suggestions about a safe place for the Sovereign.
  • Two underground headquarters would be prepared in the country. One would be SUBTERFUGE.
  • Plans for the nucleus would only be on paper. No actual preparations would be made (it was still thought at this time that there would be at least 6 months notice of a war allowing sufficient time for physical preparations to be made).

In January 1955 the Prime Minister asked a small group of cabinet ministers including the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Home Secretary to consider the plan in detail. But the planners continued their discussions. Concerns were voiced that Bath and Bristol, which were both relatively close to Corsham, might be Russian targets and an attack on them might accidentally take out SUBTERFUGE but it was thought, or rather assumed, that it could survive a 10 megaton blast over half a mile away. Strath and Padmore discussed the possibility of building a purpose built second headquarters underground or on the surface. Other suggestions were considered including a “cut and cover” purpose built headquarters which would be proof against fall out, or a tunnelled one similar to the site at Drakelow which had been dismissed a few months earlier. The working assumption was that any headquarters should be somewhere in the “west” rather in the same way that the 1938 Black Move would have been based on the “western counties”. But tunnelling was dismissed on cost grounds and the Home Defence Committee’s suggestion that the second headquarters should be at Drakelow was adopted, although the plan would be that it would be kept empty at the start of war so that it, rather than SUBTERFUGE, could receive the seat of government if it left London.

The site at Drakelow near Kidderminster, originally dug out during the last war to be used as a factory, consisted of a grid of tunnels 14 to 20 feet high, with parallel corridors 16 feet wide which are intersected at right angles by bays 19 feet wide. The existing cooking, heating, lighting, ventilation, water and drainage systems were considered adequate and it was thought that it could provide working and domestic accommodation under a cover of hunter sandstone up to 130 feet deep.

The Impact of the H-Bomb

The hydrogen bomb was by now increasingly entering the equation and in late 1954 a “committee of officials” under the chairmanship of William Strath was set up to consider the consequences of radioactive fall out which up to then had been largely overlooked, masked, as it was, by the more immediate and devastating results of blast and fire.

The Strath Committee produced its report in March 1955 based on the results of 10 hydrogen bombs each of 10 megatons exploding over British cities. Its findings had a huge impact on all areas of home defence. The report said that the immediate effects would be on a biblical scale with 16 million dead or seriously injured. The destruction would affect half the country and, for example, 40% of industry would be wrecked. But radioactive fall out would have longer term effects. It would blanket the country pinning millions of people to their houses, movement would be impossible for days if not weeks, communications would have been severely disrupted by blast effects and repairs would be impossible, food could not be moved, casualties could not be treated. Normal life including government would be impossible and would cease. The war, at least in Europe would be over in days as both sides were reduced to concentrating simply on the “struggle for survival” as it was described, and the UK would be unable to operate as a supply or reinforcement base for future military operations.

Avoiding a war by developing the deterrent became paramount and it was soon decided that everything in home and civil defence that was not supporting the developing nuclear deterrent would be put in abeyance. This would not however apply to protecting and preserving central government.

General view Area 11 in the east of the CGWHQ. (Dom Jackson)

The main difference between a war involving A-bombs and one involving H-bombs was that the attack would now lead to total disruption of all forms of communication, government, society and the economy. If Britain were attacked with even a few H-bombs normal life would cease. There could no longer be a pretence that something resembling pre-war life would continue. All that a government could do would be to help the survivors through the struggle for survival. What government organisation and leadership that could be set up would have to begin at a low level, in the towns and the counties. The Regional Commissioners would try to keep their regions functioning and the survivors alive. The central government, if it survived, would be able to do little, mainly due to the loss of national communications, except to issue broad strategy based on very limited information of what was happening in the country and to liaise with overseas governments.

Padmore rewrote his report again to take note of the Strath conclusions. There would still be the 2 underground sites. One, probably SUBTERFUGE would be a reserve to which a small group of ministers capable of taking over the struggle for survival would go in advance of the attack. The other site at Drakelow, now code named MACADAM, would be prepared to receive a small nucleus of around a 1000 which was often referred to in the files as “the second eleven”. And as London was almost certain to be attacked and the citadels would be inadequate the nucleus must move, albeit at the last moment, and go to SUBTERFUGE which will have been made ready and join the group already there. The question was now not whether to stay in London but when to leave. The committee thought that if the core of the government were seen to be fleeing London then the public’s morale would be badly hit and many would chose to follow the government’s example with consequent loss of workers and transport chaos. But if it stayed too long it might not be able to reach the CGWHQ and would not have time when it got there to establish itself before it was needed. It also seems possible that the Committee’s pre-Strath ideas rather assumed that the effects of the nuclear attack would not be permanent and that the country would get back to near normality relatively quickly but the Strath report showed this would be unlikely and the emergency machinery of government might have to last indefinitely.

Under the original plans, the support staff would not join the nucleus underground but would be accommodated in surplus buildings left over from the war time days when thousands of workers in the underground factory and stores were housed there. This idea was now dropped in favour of accommodating the support staff in the protected underground accommodation at SUBTERFUGE. The nucleus would now not be concerned with fighting a lengthy world war. Its role would be restricted to being “a streamlined machine restricted to the discharge of such functions as would be essential to national survival and recovery”. The central government would only take the most important, strategic decisions.

The bulk of the government machine, the old Category A, B and C staffs were now left out of the plans for the machinery of government in war. Government was now about survival and not organising the daily life of the country or even fighting the war so only those people involved with the post-attack struggle for survival would be needed. In the following years the fate of these superfluous post-attack civil servants was considered on several occasions but the usual idea was that they could be left to fend for themselves, although the reports and memos from the time do not express it as starkly as this.

Padmore still did not give any significant consideration about the situation of the Sovereign but the committee suggested that protected accommodation might be provided at one of the royal residences with Balmoral being the most suitable. They did not think it was necessary for the Queen to be close to the CGWHQ.

The regional dimension

In the run up to World War 2 extensive preparations were made to cope with extensive air attacks. The country was divided into regions each with a Regional Commissioner based at a protected headquarters. The Regional Commissioner’s main role was to co-ordinate the air raid precautions activities (as civil defence was then called) and they performed this role well when the time came. The Regional Commissioners however had a second and largely unpublicised role. If the Regional Commissioner lost contact with the Home Security War Room in London which would also mean that the central government had lost contact with the regions he (and they were all men) would legitimately assume the full powers and functions of the central government until contact was restored. In reality, this would have meant that London been attacked to such an extent that the Government could no longer function or perhaps the Government had left under the Black Move and had not become fully effective in its new accommodation. This potential role was later extended to cover a collapse of central government following an invasion.

In the late 1940s, when civil defence was re-introduced, the regional organisation was re-established and it was soon decided to give each of the Regional Commissioners a purpose-built protected headquarters which came to be known as a Regional War Room. This headquarters would monitor air raids, at this time conventional rather than nuclear and co-ordinate the response. The headquarters would only house the operational staff but the Regional Commissioner would have several hundred staff from government departments to assist him with the post-attack care of the region and its survivors. These staff would work in nearby office buildings and, if necessary, would be billeted on local people. Again, if necessary, the Regional Commissioner could assume full government powers if cut off from London although this was only thought to be a temporary expedient as communications and with it central government control would soon be re-established.

As well as considering the position of central government Padmore also considered the need for a regional organisation. The committee thought that in the post-attack chaos, and given the expected inability of the central nucleus to provide any meaningful assistance to the regions, there would now be an even greater need for strong regionally based government and this would need support from the military to assist it generally but in particular to maintain law and order. This lead to the idea of combining the civil Regional Commissioner’s staff with the army’s district headquarters which would together operate from a joint civil/military headquarters accommodated in a heavily protected site somewhere in the region. Staff numbers would initially be limited to 300 – 400 but this would rapidly expand from local recruitment as conditions improved. The planners wanted the Regional Commissioners to be given new purpose-built headquarters but although plans were drawn up there was never any money for them. The planners were then instructed to find suitable sites which could be modified quickly and cheaply but although the sites were found it seems as if little or nothing was actually done to prepare them and the regional organisation was generally treated as the poor relation of the CGHWQ although in reality the one could not function without the other. The CGWHQ needed the regions to provide it with information and implement its instructions and the regions would need central direction and assistance from the CGWHQ.

By the early 1960s the joint civil/military headquarters concept had evolved. The original role centred on responding to the immediate effects of nuclear attack, but as the momentous impact of the hydrogen bomb was increasingly recognised the role of the region moved more to the longer term strategic one of directing the survival and later recovery phases. The job of looking after the survivors, as far as this might be possible, was left to the lower levels of the civil defence control chain. To show this new emphasis the headquarters were redesignated as the Regional Seats of Government or RSGs. By the early 1960s plans existed for RSGs for all the regions. Some used dedicated accommodation such as the tunnels under Dover Castle and the former RAF radar site at Bolt Head in Devon. Others however would have to use hastily adapted accommodation in army barracks. Plans were also made to staff the headquarters with civil servants and lower level controls were planned and sometimes developed as a bridge between the RSGs and the local authorities who would still bear the brunt of the civil defence effort. Overall however the preparations at this level were incomplete and the RSGs and to a greater extent the lower controls were always the poor relation of the CGWHQ.

… Continue to Part 2. Burlington and the CGWHQ

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