Monday, August 22, 2011

FORUM: An Undergraduate Book Review - Churchill's Bunker by Richard Holmes. Reviewed by Rebekah Sherman.

Churchill's Bunker: The Cabinet War Rooms and the Culture of Secrecy in Wartime London. By Richard Holmes, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Reviewed by Rebekah Sherman
Ashland University

The Second World War is one of the most documented and researched periods in all of human history. Every facet of the conflict, from the technological marvels developed during the war to the titanic figures of the heads of state, has sparked interest from some quarter. In Churchill’s Bunker: The Cabinet War Rooms and the Culture of Secrecy in Wartime London, Richard Holmes focuses upon the origins and efforts of the British wartime government operating within the New Public Offices at Whitehall. Drawing upon the impressive record left behind by many of the residents of this London building, the author examines how Winston Churchill’s unique premiership was shaped by the necessities of ingenuity and secrecy imposed upon it by the war.

Additionally, the author proposes that the Central War Rooms, the classified operations base where Churchill and his staff operated in supposed safety from the air raids on London, represented a new kind of war command, born out of the new technologies of the day and the consequent need for secrecy. This book argues that the headquarters of the British leadership is valuable to the study of the development of a modern method of waging war, as “an ad hoc answer to…how best to create an effective high command for a democracy at war, and how to protect it.” [1] The author attempts to reveal how Churchill and his administration answered these questions through the gradual development of the command within the New Public Offices and its secret, subterranean Cabinet War Rooms.

To provide a more thorough understanding of the situations faced by the inhabitants of the Cabinet War Rooms, the narrative relies heavily upon the published memoirs and other remembrances of people who worked there during the war. This lends an anecdotal tone to the book, but also provides a clearer understanding of the level of secrecy required during the conflict. Data accumulated after the fact and especially at present-day, when many major WWII documents have been declassified, does not reveal the limitations within which the government worked. By distilling the accounts of figures such General Ismay and the remembrances of secretaries and administrative staff, many of whom had high security clearance, Holmes produces an explanation of the importance placed upon secrecy in wartime Britain, and the demands it made upon those with greater knowledge of events. The personal experiences of these men and women provide evidence for Holmes’s reconstruction of life in the basement rooms of the New Public Offices and the secrecy which needed to be considered when designing the structure of wartime command.

Though the book focuses upon the personal experiences of those working in Whitehall, the context of the war is provided throughout the narrative to give larger meaning to the actions recorded in the book. A condensed history of the war’s origins and events fulfills the author’s purpose of examining the development of the secret and centralized system of British war command from its forbears in the previous World War. He also notes the influence it had upon later institutions such as the American Joint Chiefs of Staff. Furthermore, the outline of the war’s events is necessary to lend relevance to the personal anecdotes examined. This is primarily a history of a British institution, and fulfills its role as such without straying into the realm of a general history.

Churchill’s Bunker provides the history of the officials working within the Cabinet War Rooms, but the author’s purpose is not to convey a complete history of Churchill’s experience with the war rooms. The narrative, however, does not fail to note repeatedly that the order of the CWR circled largely around the Prime Minister and what Holmes refers to as “Churchill’s court.” [2] The author strikes a good balance between providing enough detail about Churchill to illustrate the vital role he had in shaping the nature of the British government and as many of its operations as he could possibly affect, but avoids obscuring the narrative by focusing on extraneous events of Churchill’s life. Emphasis is given to the personal contributions of Churchill and others, and combined with the history of British institutions they inherited. This method of examining the development of the British command acknowledges the affect that individual action had upon the war effort, such as Churchill’s efforts to reform certain of the old hierarchies to fit the demands of war, and how these actions became a part of the inheritance of later administrations. [3] By making note of the institutions already in existence before the period, the author avoids giving the impression that the entire system of command was created ex nihilo.

The focus of the book remains historical rather than political; Churchill’s inter-war struggles against the Chamberlain government are noted as context to the development of defense policy and the subsequent restructuring of the military command later to inhabit the CWR. [4] The book focuses upon the efforts of civilian and military leaders within the command framework established by Churchill’s premiership rather than upon the political debates of the time. Its emphasis is upon illustrating the demands of directing the war from the London base, and this adds valuable background to how key figures such as Hollis or Ismay viewed the war. The actions of generals in the larger theatres of the war are always interpreted in the context of operations of the war rooms, and this provides insight into the day-to-day functions of the war while showing the debates among the hierarchy of command that influenced policy and strategy decision s of the war. [5]

The operation of the Cabinet War Rooms played a prominent role in the war, and by examining the many aspects of life within the bunker, Holmes reveals how the demands for immediate access to information and action were handled to produce an effective war effort. Tribute is paid throughout the narrative to those who spent years working for the war effort. The details of life in the CWR are combined expertly with the larger picture of the war and a good picture of the development of the structure of the war is reached. The anecdotal accounts of life in the war rooms creates an interesting historical picture, and though the war outside the underground bunker remains a distant fact to be examined only in light of those within the war rooms, the account of how this central command came to be and the men and women who contributed to the war’s administration will be useful to students of the war.

[1] Churchill’s Bunker, page 3
[2] Churchill’s Bunker, page 96
[3] Churchill’s Bunker, page 74-75
[4] Churchill’s Bunker, page 13
[5] Churchill’s Banker, page 129

No comments:

Post a Comment