Ahead of the Liberation, the Blitz killed thousands and drove millions of Londoners to leave the city, but ministers and the various departments of state stayed put, despite being located within the relatively small area of Westminster and Whitehall.
A near miss at No.10 Downing Street meant that Churchill was forced to move to a ground-floor flat in the New Public Office building (NPO), known as the “No. 10 Annexe”. In the basement of NPO were the Cabinet War Rooms (now the Churchill War Rooms), an underground complex that formed the nerve centre of Britain’s wartime strategy and policy-making, crucial during the planning of the Liberation in London.
The initial military planning for Operation Overlord took place at Norfolk House in St James’s Square, but when Eisenhower became Supreme Allied Commander he established his personal headquarters in Grosvenor Square and transferred many of the Norfolk House personnel. Norfolk House continued as a planning centre for Overlord’s naval commander Admiral Ramsay and the RAF commander Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory. In the run-up to D-Day, SHAEF headquarters was moved to a US Air Base in Bushy Park in the southwest of London.
London was also the temporary home to several governments-in-exile: the Poles at 39 Buckingham Palace Road; the Free French at 4 Carlton Gardens; the Norwegians at Kingston House North, Princes Gate; the Dutch at Stratton House in Piccadilly; and the Belgians at 105 Eaton Square.
Established during World War I, the Imperial War Museum (IWM) contains a vast collection of objects and documents that show how war has impacted those living in Britain and the Commonwealth. It covers the period from 1914 to the present day, with one of its five floors entirely dedicated to World War II with a separate section on the Holocaust. There is plenty of military hardware on display, but the emphasis is as much on the experiences of civilians and what they had to endure. The IWM also administers the Churchill War Rooms and HMS Belfast, and two other museums.
Built as a bunker in expectation of aerial bombardment, the Cabinet War Rooms were completed shortly before war was declared. As the main command headquarters of the war, space was at a premium and extra rooms were constantly added: Churchill was given a combined bedroom and office, with his hot-line to the US President disguised as a toilet. The War Cabinet met there 115 times, usually when air raids seemed imminent. The most significant space was the Map Room, a military information hub functioning around the clock, which produced daily intelligence summaries for the King, Churchill and the chiefs of staff. A museum since 1984, the rooms provide a unique insight into the pressurized lives of those who worked there. A separate section dedicated to the life and career of Churchill was added in 2003.
The light cruiser HMS Belfast was built for the Royal Navy at Belfast in 1938. Belfast’s role on D-Day was as the flagship of Bombardment Force E, opening fire on the German gun battery of La Marefontaine in support of troops landing at Gold and Juno beaches. She remained in action in Normandy for over a month. Decommissioned in the 1960s, HMS Belfast is now a museum moored on the Thames and one of only a handful of surviving Royal Navy ships that served in World War II. Visitors can access all nine decks and visit a variety of rooms including the bridge, the operations room, the galley and the huge boiler rooms.
Beginning at Trafalgar Square, Whitehall is the street that becomes Parliament Street, which leads to the Houses of Parliament. With its adjacent side roads, Whitehall has long been the location of government offices and departments; some of these were relocated in the war, but most remained. Heading down from Trafalgar Square takes you past several key buildings, including the Admiralty, the War Office (now a hotel), the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Downing Street, with the prime minister’s residence at No.10, is halfway along Whitehall, a short distance from the Cabinet War Rooms in one direction and Parliament in the other.
Whitehall also contains a large number of World War II statues and memorials. In Parliament Square, Winston Churchill defiantly faces Parliament, while both Montgomery and Alan Brooke stand outside the MOD. There are memorials to the Women of World War II in Whitehall, and the Royal Tank Regiment in Whitehall Court. Those to the RAF and the Royal Navy Air Service and Fleet Air Arm are both behind the MOD on the Embankment.
Grosvenor Square in Mayfair is about a half-hour walk from Whitehall. During World War II so many official US buildings were located here that the square was nicknamed “Eisenhower Platz”. General Eisenhower’s headquarters were at No.20, the US Navy was next door at No.18, the Embassy at No.1, the US Lend-Lease Mission at No.3, and the Office of Strategic Studies (OSS) – a US intelligence agency – at No.70. A statue of President Roosevelt was erected on the northeast corner of the square in 1948; it was joined by one of a uniformed Eisenhower in 1989.
Top image: Tower Bridge, Thames river and HMS Belfast in London © William Perugini/Shutterstock