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on 11 July 2009
This is must for all historians, London tourists interested by this super piece of our history as well as scholars of Churchill. I use some of Richard Holmes work as reference for my lectures and workshops on effective leadership recommending his books to my delegates and I have used the London 'bunker' as a venue for a management learning event. That was an incredible experience and Richard Holmes has tapped in to the life and rhythm of the location during those crucial years. A really superb account and another excellent piece of work from this great historian.
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on 29 July 2009
Having taken pupils around the "Bunker" on numerous occasions this book offers a further insight to that period of history that has only fairly recently been public. The War Rooms, and indeed the Tunnels of Dover Castle, help visualise the enormous spread of a World War and our 'darkest Hour'. There is also a sentiment of nostalgia and a 'toe dip' into a National pride that today we only see on the big occasion - often sport. The Nostalgia is a by-product of the book knowing my parents lived through this and, as I age, the fact it was only 10 years before I was born.
Richard Holmes is always readable and, as with all his books, a historians friend, bringing an era shape, form and as it is reality.
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VINE VOICEon 26 July 2009
If you are interested in the last war, Winston Churchill and the history of this country and how we remained British and free, then please read this book, and get your children to read it, as they are sadly lacking in the recent history of this once great country of ours,and its great leaders. I lived through it all as a small child, and only now realise just what went on..and how very very lucky we were.
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VINE VOICEon 8 August 2010
Richard Holmes has written an excellent book about Churchill's secret headquarters in the very heart of London. The bunker was only opened to the public towards the end of the last century and its most notable characteristic was its compact nature. Unlike his arch enemy Hitler, Churchill did not take major strategic decisions away from the capital city but did so fully aware of the danger that flew overhead, not least because he would walk round St James's Park at night when the bombs were falling. On one occasion a fragment from an anti-aircraft shell hit a policemen who was standing close to him.

The Cabinet War Rooms were completed just before the outbreak of war but were not bomb proof. A direct hit could have removed Britain's high command at one fell swoop. The idea of bringing the political and military command together arose from the experience of the Lloyd George War Cabinet in the First World War and the recognition of the likely importance of bombing in the conflict with Germany. The Phoney War (sometimes known as the bore war) provided time to draw up contingency plans in the event of invasion. In London, as in other large cities, children were evacuated but often returned of their own volition. Cabinet government continued under Chamberlain who did not resign until May 1940 when the government's majority in the House of Commons was halved on a debate over the disastrous campaign in Norway. "It is one of the ironies of history that Churchill, who bore considerable responsibility for the Norwegian campaign, should have benefited from profound discontent with its failure."

The initial history of the Second World War was written by Churchill himself and for all his greatness he had a massive ego. Indeed, Chamberlain suspected that Churchill's many memos which followed his appointment as First Lord of the Admiralty on the outbreak of war were designed to fill the pages of such a book. Holmes clarifies Churchill's version of history by making it clear that Chamberlain's fall from power was brought about by a section of the political elite not by popular demand. Chamberlain still commanded popular support amongst the electorate but was considered uninspiring by his political colleagues.

Shortly after becoming Reich-President Hitler had the Wehrmacht take a personal loyalty oath to serve him instead of serving the German constitutional authority. This enabled him to give full range to his mistaken self-belief that he was a competent military strategist. On many occasions he over-ruled his military advisers. Churchill shared similar traits but the merging of British history into Churchill's own career was restrained by the determination of his military advisers not to be bullied by an amateur strategist. As Holmes observes "Had Churchill enjoyed untrammelled authority over the chiefs (of staff) the result would almost certainly have been disastrous, with armies and ships endangered for the sake of action rather than in measured pursuit of strategic goals." The fact that the main actors worked and lived in such close proximity to each other prevented disagreements from becoming grudges. Relations were also helped by the administrative machine under Pug Ismay and Edward Bridges.

Churchill appointed a number of supporters to important posts, including Frederick Lindemann, Brendan Bracken and Desmond Morton. Lindemann was trusted by Churchill but despised by those who resented his arrogance. He was an advocate of bombing German cities to break the spirit of the civilian population and under-estimated the capacity of German scientists to development rocketry. Bracken had the gift of the gab, managing to persuade the headmaster of Sedburgh that he was fifteen not nineteen and left, after one term, having transformed himself from a lower class Irishman into a public school old boy. Morton, who survived a bullet in the heart in 1917, was considered to be very influential with Churchill, for whom secret intelligence was regarded with relish.

Organisations cannot operate without good support staff. In addition to their regular duties many served as ARP wardens. One, Joan Bright, was bombed out of her flat in London, moved to a hotel only to be woken by a direct hit on a church opposite. Another, Olive Christopher, received a call to tell her that her home in Croydon had been firebombed and, owing to a cancelled date, missed being killed when a direct hit on the Cafe de Paris killed eighty people. One feature of the bunker was the employment of females as personal assistants which changed some attitudes towards their role in society generally.

The quality of Holmes's book lies not only in the reconstruction of the physical and emotional aspects of the Bunker but in the way he places it into historical context. It's an invaluable contribution to an understanding of the times and should stimulate sufficient interest to visit the bunker itself. In 1945 Churchill emerged from directing the war from the bunker while Adolph Hitler retreated to his bunker and ended the thousand year Reich with a bullet. Five stars.
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on 10 July 2011
Why another book on the Greatest Briton of all time during the Second World War? First, it is Imperial War Museum's attempt to attract visitors to the memorable Cabinet War Rooms (CWR), better known as the "Bunker" or the "Hole", in Whitehall, centred on the Map Room, the site where for almost five years, from September 1940, from the shame of virtual defeat after Dunkirk and the destruction of the Blitz, to the long awaited victory, Winston Churchill and others, took the most important decisions. Secondly, it is penned by the very popular military historian of Cranfield University, and television presenter, the recently (since April 2011) much missed Brig (TA) Richard Holmes, CBE.

Using secondary sources readers will keep up with the latest theories and nuances about the great man over the last twenty years (Best 2001 Churchill: A Study in Greatness, Jenkins 2002Churchill: A Biography, and the Alanbrooke War DiariesAlanbrooke War Diaries 1939-1945: Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke) since the classic multi-volume work by Martin Gilbert, including the revisionist ideas of Charmley and Self that, despite appeasement, Chamberlain was preparing for War, and Churchill had not entered the Cabinet because he was unable to work well with others, and between 1939-40 he was creating more difficulties and conflict than was good. After becoming PM, Churchill's Cabinet resembled more of a Renaissance court, with his personal friends (Brendan Bracken, John Colville, Desmond Morton, and Prof Lindemann), as well as the permanent advisors: civil servants (Sir Edward Bridges), and the military (Gens Brooke, and Hollis) who had to try to pour oil to quell lively, stormy relationships, and to balance the possible with the countless crackpot plans, in order to prevent the few crazy exploits, like the Greek and Cretan debacles in 1941, being launched against better and experienced judgements. His character and leadership is occasionally compared with Hitler (both he and Adolf subscribing to the triumph of the will) and Stalin, and his "Bohemian" way of running the War, according to the author, would have received poor marks in a managerial handbook, which in terms of successes obtained against the odds demonstrates the incompleteness and deficiency of management theory. In brief, Holmes has balanced Churchill's highs with the lows: a tower of strength in the dark days - he claimed he merely gave the roar to the British people's lion heart, a sentimentalist cry-baby when watching Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in That Hamilton Woman (1941) (incorrectly noted by the historian as Lady Hamilton which in fact was a 1926 operetta by the German composer Eduard Künneke), or appearing as a beaming "small boy showing his new toy" whether the CWR, the SOE or the "Funnies" soon to be set aside and distracted by other projects.

The War brought in a "flotilla of efficient , intelligent, poised and fashionably dressed young" civilian women, as well as a few in blue-grey WAAF uniform at the centre of government, called upon to carry out clerical and administrative duties 24 hours a day; the latter in particular under Squadron Officer Joan Williams operating in the Cypher Office since 1943, around Whitehall, and occasionally following their political masters overseas at international conferences. Though Holmes had access to a handful of memoirs by Elizabeth Nel (2007) Winston Churchill by His Personal Secretary: Recollections of the Great Man by a Woman Who Worked for Him- Churchill's personal secretary, and Joan Bright Astley (1971, republished 2007The Inner Circle: A View of War at the Top)- believed to be Ian Fleming's real Miss Moneypenny, he continues in an official ministerial top-bottom approach, not giving necessary background biographical details about these less known "girls", or what happened to them after 1945-46, and so one has to continue to assume perhaps erroneously that they were all upper-middle class, and hired from the traditional close-knit familiar community. Their importance and their story included here is less in the manner of how they were treated by individual males in uncomfortable surroundings, but in the confidant impression they left to administrators that they did not feel inferior in the workplace. The more knowledgeable and charming succeeded in ignoring Churchill's thoughtless indiscretions, becoming in time good listeners and confidantes of the great and the good, and laying down excellent benchmark qualities for post-war "blue-stocking" aspirants, such as Evelyn Sharp, Richard Crossman's Permanent Secretary during 1964-66, when applying as university entries to higher levels of the civil service. When travelling abroad they were well praised even by their uniformed, and more sophisticated US sisters, for their ingenious abilities to present themselves as uniquely elegant with little. The soil they lived on became fertile for the next generation because this collection of "girls" were good and young; they were prepared to sacrifice private pleasantries during the emergency, excited to work and learn with the best brains around.

The book is also about the building itself, and no matter how much material is published, Richard Holmes has already shown in his War Walks that when describing an environment nothing is better than visiting and revisiting the place oneself to understand fully what the protagonists saw and felt. He has been over fifty times, and fortunate to have met various men and women who worked in and around the cold, damp, and smoke filled War Rooms of seventy summers ago, and yet the book's major strength and interest naturally focuses on the Greatest Briton, as so much material exists.

The book can be read as an accompanying guide to a visit to the Cabinet War Rooms; a general introduction for tired A Level and first year university students to Churchill in Wartime; maybe even the start of a real love affair with old Winnie, working closely with the Imperial War Museum, and in particular in the War Rooms. For me,the book has a personal memory. It will remind me of the last time I heard him speak, after which he was kind enough to speak to me for a few minutes. For the less fortunate today, who never met him and rely on his BBC and UKTV documentaries, this book might be the easiest and most practical volume to understand this very serious, but really pleasantly witty historian. Some critics, who incidentally may neither be authors nor historians, may dismiss this work as a quick fix for the tourists and not up to the standard of Holmes past achievements. True in part, he could have said more about the architect, the surveyor, the foreman and his labourers doing up the CWR; he might have said something more about what the Rooms had been used for over time, but for various reasons he did not, and unfortunately unless one can arrange a seance he no longer can explain for himself. As sadly he is no more in this world (and perhaps now lecturing to and laughing with the angels) for him Churchill's "Hole" became his Last Chance Saloon. His work now can be passed on to a team of researchers of the IWM. Good, bad or indifferent, this historian and his present final volume, to quote from Gracie Fields' famous music hall song of the period is "dead, but he won't lie down". I salute you, Brig Richard,your Churchill's "Hole" and your Last Chance Saloon.
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on 5 August 2009
Concise and informative - takes you through the development and day to day operations of the place. Set firmly in the overall context of the conduct of the war. An interesting read.
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on 26 February 2016
Very interesting read. Amazing that this place wasn't truly bomb proof. Typical of this country, try and do every darn thing on the cheap. No wonder he used to go up on the roof to watch the bombing!
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on 27 May 2013
Richard Holmes is excellent as always and the book provides an excellent precursor to a visit to the War Rooms or an insight into how it all worked even if you are not going - superb.
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Churchill's Bunker is something of a disappointment: it is lively in places, but slow - even staid - at the beginning. It is about the Cabinet War Rooms where the British High Command plotted WWII. Rather than read the book, I can tell you it is certainly better to visit the Rooms, now a part of the Imperial War Museum, instead. But if you cannot do that easily, then perhaps this book gives you some idea of what to look forward to, and even if you don't enjoy the book, the Rooms themselves deserve a visit by ever lover of history.

The book opens with the genesis of the War Rooms prior to WWII, and moves into the occupation and occupants in about 1940. It covers the movements of the staff overseas for various conferences - and really it's a book on Churchill for this period - but the best bit is the chapter on life underground for the ordinary inhabitants, and here the book shines. There is a coda about the development of the rooms as museum in the 1980's.

More discussion of the "secret" nature of the Rooms would have been interesting, as would some greater evaluation of the risk that occupancy of the complex posed: apparently the Rooms were by no means bomb-proof, and the Rooms were in the heart of Whitehall, which one would think would have been a prime Luftwaffe target.

Holmes usually writes better than this, but there is still enough good here to make reading worthwhile.
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on 30 July 2014
Excellent - thanks
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