On the evening of 10th. March, with the sun setting over St. James’ Park behind us, we entered the sandbagged entrance to the bunker which houses the Cabinet War rooms off Horse Guards Road in Whitehall. Here, underground, was the nerve centre of the wartime government where Winston Churchill, his cabinet and senior military commanders planned their strategy and monitored the progress of the fight against the Nazi enemy.
Today, the rooms have been preserved and this site is managed by the Imperial War Museum. It includes not only the original underground war rooms, but also a museum dedicated to all aspects of Winston Churchill’s life. It is situated under what is now the Treasury Building. 70 Feltmakers and their guests assembled here and were welcomed with drinks at the start of an evening that was entertaining and informative and also importantly from which, £8000 has been raised for the Master’s selected charity. This is the Welsh Guards Afghanistan Appeal, which provides much needed immediate assistance for the families of soldiers of that regiment who have been wounded, or even killed in the current conflict in Afghanistan as well as, of course, rehabilitation for the injured soldiers, themselves.
In a large underground room, we were seated eight to a table, and after the Master had welcomed us she introduced
our main speaker, Anne Sebba, author of the recent biography ‘Jennie Churchill – Winston’s American Mother’. Jennie was the subject of her lecture and this was a very fitting venue for this topic. I believe that I was not the only member of her audience who sat down knowing almost nothing about Jennie Churchill and have to admit that I was half expecting a rather dry presentation, but in this I’m pleased to say I was completely wrong. Anne was a most lively and enthusiastic speaker with an extensive knowledge of her subject. She quickly made us realise what a complex and interesting person, Jennie had been, and Anne didn’t flinch from describing Jennie’s passionate nature, the men in her life, and the influence she had on the young Winston. Her talk was well illustrated with slides and the extent of her research was impressive.
After her presentation, we were divided into two groups, and while the museum staff prepared the room for dinner, one group was conducted by a knowledgeable guide on a tour of the war rooms in this underground bunker, and this included Winston’s bedroom. We were told that these rooms were protected by a very thick layer of concrete, but that in the later years of the war, even this would not have been sufficient to prevent the complex being destroyed by a direct hit from a V1 flying bomb. Luckily no such hit occurred, not that apparently it would have been such an issue for Winston, as he was in the habit of going outside and up on the roof to watch during air-raids.
The other group visited the Churchill Museum, which employs cutting edge technology and interactive media displays to excellent effect to inform the visitor about Winston’s life. this did not only cover the wartime period, although this period inevitably dominated the theme of the exhibits.
The two groups swapped places and later on we were ushered back into the main room to take our tables for an excellent and most welcome dinner.
After this, Major Ben Ramsey from the Welsh Guards spoke about their Afghanistan Appeal and illustrated the work that they do, using as case studies, two of the soldiers who had been casualties of this conflict. At the end of his short speech, the Master presented Major Ramsey with a cheque for the money raised for the appeal.
Finally, Anne Sebba returned to field questions from the audience on her earlier presentation. The Master’s daughter, Sarah, did sterling work delivering the microphone to each questioner at their table, in true TV show fashion. Somehow, I felt that most of the questions related somewhat to the more salacious side of Jennie’s life. Each of us left with a signed copy of Anne’s book, so we can explore Jennie’s life in much more depth.