By Joe Alexander
Brad Pitt stood back and offered Angelina Jolie the chair on which Winston Churchill sat and ran World War II from a bunker buried deep under London, in order to escape Hitler’s bombs. “This is the room from which I will direct the war,” said Churchill in 1940.
Jolie settled into the wooden chair’s red leather seat and noticed that the ends of both arms were deeply gouged. As she ran her delicate fingers over them, she asked Phil Reed, The Director of the Churchill War Rooms, why they were damaged. He said, “The Prime Minister scratched the right one with his nails and the left one was scraped by the nervous pounding of his pinky ring over the ten months the Nazis attacked London and ran unchecked over Europe.”
President Bill Clinton and Elton John have also made the pilgrimage to this historic site, which is honoring the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s death in 1965. The Cabinet Room originally belonged to Neville Chamberlain, but was only used once during his tenure as Prime Minister in 1939. Churchill, who famously told the House of Commons during a speech he gave at the start of the war, “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender,” conducted 115 Cabinet meetings here while he was Prime Minister.
The War Rooms and its adjacent museum are a testament to the life of Sir Winston Churchill and honor his life as a soldier, Prime Minster, and husband. The site is composed of the Cabinet War Rooms and the Churchill Museum, and is one of the five branches of the Imperial War Museum. The Churchill Museum, which explores the life of Sir Winston Churchill, recounts an example of his wit when he said, “I am prepared to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”
Information about his achievements is delivered through state-of-the-art, interactive exhibits, and there are displays of everything from his bedroom (complete with pajamas) and medals to hundreds of love letters to his wife Clementine, of whom he said, “My most brilliant achievement was my ability to be able to persuade my wife to marry me.”
The two most important of the Cabinet War Rooms were The Map Room and The Cabinet Room. The Map Room was used by the British Army, who was responsible for producing a daily intelligence summary for the military Chiefs of Staff, the Prime Minister and King George VI. Other rooms include objects from Churchill’s early childhood, and the Transatlantic Telephone Room, which was hidden behind a door marked “Broom Closet.”
The Churchill War Rooms weren’t always open to the public, and whether they should or shouldn’t be was a debate for 36 years. In March 1948, the question of public access to the War Rooms was raised in Parliament by Prime Minister Charles Kay, who said, “It would not be practicable to throw them open for inspection by the general public because of the confidential work done there.”
In 1974, the Imperial War Museum approached the British Government, who asked them to take over the site, and the rooms were finally opened ten years later. The Museum was renamed The Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms in 2005, and then shortened to Churchill War Rooms in 2010. With over 300,000 visitors a year, it is the 36th most visited museum in the United Kingdom.
Last year, Angie and Brad paid $1,100 for the private tour that allows access to the closed off war rooms, with the ability to sit in Churchill’s chair. The Jolie-Pitts also made a sizable additional donation for the preservation of the museum—allowing for visitors from around the world to continue experiencing the life and work of the man who famously said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
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