During WW2 No. 5 (London) Region Control Room was located in a purpose built surface bunker in front of the Geological Museum and adjacent to the Natural History Museum at the junction of Exhibition Road and Cromwell Road, London, S.W.7. The bunker was ready for occupation by June 1939.
Prior to the outbreak of WW2, it was recognised that an integrated civil defence service (called Air Raid Precautions until 1941) would be required and that the Home Office, the responsible department, would need considerable augmentation. This resulted in the creation of the Ministry of Home Security, to be responsible for all civil defence matters. Fire and Police services remained under the control of the Home Office.
The country was divided into 12 civil defence regions, each under a Civil Regional Commissioner.
- Northern Region - HQ Newcastle
- North Eastern Region - HQ Leeds
- Borth Midland Region - HQ Nottingham
- Eastern Region - HQ Cambridge
- London Region - HQ London
- Southern Region - HQ Reading
- South Western Region - HQ Bristol
- Wales Region - HQ Cardiff
- Midland Region - HQ Birmingham
- North Western Region - HQ Manchester
- Scotland Region - HQ Edinburgh
- South Eastern Region - HQ Tunbridge Wells
This system had its origins in the English Civil War when Cromwell similarly divided the country and placed his famous Major Generals in control of each division. The Cold War administration follows on from this practice.
The region that controlled London was designated No. 5 Region and was responsible for what is now Greater London but then consisted of the 28 Metropolitan Boroughs in the London County Council (LCC) area together with the City of London plus the County Boroughs of Croydon, East and West Ham and the remaining urban a rural councils in Essex, Middlesex, Surrey and Kent out to the boundary of the Metropolitan Police District.
These authorities were collected into groups of between 5 and 11 and placed under the control of one of them (that selected authority therefore had two controls within it, one local and one group). The inner ring of LCC Boroughs were numbered No. 1 to No. 5 Groups, three north of the Thames and two south. The outer ring of County Councils were numbered No. 6 to No. 9 Groups. Two counties, Middlesex and Surrey were further sub-divided into 6A to 6D for Middlesex and 9A and 9B for Surrey.
Each council was run by an ARP/CD Controller (usually the Chief Executive) responsible for civil defence matters and control of incidents through the network of civil defence wardens who acted as incident control officers to co-ordinate rescue efforts. Fire, Ambulance and Heavy Rescue units were supplied by the LCC but under operational control of the Controller.
Uniquely, within London, the Police had no civil defence responsibility officially but many gallantry awards were made to police officers acting in a rescue capacity. In London the Fire Service reported to their own Regional Fire Authority for assistance.
As mentioned above, one council in each group was designated as Group HQ for that particular group and was responsible for running not only its own rescue efforts but to oversee and if necessary reinforce other members of the group if needed. This HQ also collated the group reports for upward transmission and maintained the Group War Diary (as did each council). Each Group HQ reported to the Regional HQ at Kensington which oversaw the region as a whole and provided inter Group reinforcement, maintained the Regional War Diary and reported to the ultimate authority, the Ministry of Home Security, responsible for Inter Regional inforcement and assistance and who had a complete and up to date picture of what was occurring in the entire country.
The No 5 (London) Regional Fire Control was located within Horseferry House, a large government building in Horseferry Road, Westminster (this was not its only location). The Ministry of Home Security War Room was located variously in the basement of the Home Office in Whitehall and later in the South Rotunda in Monck Street, a few yards from Horseferry House. A reserve war room was located in Cornwall House, a multi government department building in Waterloo Bridge Road.
After the war the London war room was sealed and remained so until 1976 when the land was required for an extension to the Natural History Museum. The external walls were found to be 6 feet thick which made demolition difficult and expensive. It was therefore decided to incorporate it into the new extension with more storeys being added on the roof and a further building added to the front of the bunker on the site of an old tennis court. The rear wall was clad in brick in line with the rest of the new extension and is no longer recognisable.
The original entrance to the bunker was from the basement of the Geological Museum where a tunnel sloped down into the control centre. This tunnel was removed during the new development and the area between the Geological Museum and the new extension is now a service road. The bunker is now accessed at either end by the original stairs that can now be accessed from the extension.
The bunker is now used by the Museum’s palaeontology department and two large rooms, running the length of the bunker are now stacked with movable shelving containing boxes of human bones excavated from sites around the country. It is unclear whether these rooms were originally this size. The position of wooden doors between the two rooms suggests that there might have been partition walls that have now been removed. These two rooms take up two thirds of the bunker. The remaining third is divided into four smaller rooms. Two of these are plant room for the whole museum. There are two original doors (one with steps up to it) into this room and a third bricked up doorway. There was no access to these rooms. As the bunker was known to have a kitchen and toilets during the war, these might have been located in one of these rooms. The other two rooms have more shelves and a long work table along one wall.
The following is a contemporary report on one girls work in the bunker written by Florrie Cowley, a Ministry of Home Security teleprinter operator.
“I remember the bunker consisting of one very large room, several large rooms and some smaller ones. In one of the large rooms there were 10 girls sitting at telephones, each one was a direct link with one of the nine London groups.
At 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. we had to teleprint a complete list of incidents in London and everything that was being used. Nothing was ever sent over the bridges (over the Thames), everyone stayed on their own side.
We had two speakers on the wall one linked to Stanmore and the other to South London. Suddenly there was a crackle and we were off. The voice would say “London East Purple” or some other area, then the other speaker started “London North Purple”, then we’d get “London West Red” and at the same time “London West Purple” and before we knew what was happening the speakers were both clearly giving out at the same time the area and colour. We had a red phone direct to Scotland Yard, this was a double check, they also had their own system. We repeated as received from the speakers and the warnings were sounded accordingly. Then the incidents were coming through, often before we had sent all the colours to the police or teleprinted the information to the Home Office. The incidents came in fast and furious, what they wanted, how many trapped etc.
Eventually the speaker would sound all clear in each area, the last incident was dealt with and all was quiet - that raid was over. The next would possibly come in a few hours but for the time peace and a feeling of how dreadfully tired we were.
No girl was allowed to leave the teleprinter room until her relief arrived. Consequently it was great to see one’s partner. We worked in threes for three shifts, 7 a.m. - 3 p.m., 3 p.m. - 11.p.m. and 11 p.m. - 7 a.m., fifteen days without a break then four days off. If a member of the next shift was delayed for any reason we had to work her shift as well. The supervisor, who came on at 9 a.m., would work out a rota, sometimes taking a turn himself, if a girl was going to be away for more than a day. Often we left home during a terrible raid with a tin hat on and a special pass so that the wardens would let us through.
One of our other jobs was to send messages in code on a special teleprinter, these were brought down by a man in uniform. What they were and where they came from we never knew but we knew they were sent to the fighting forces. The messages didn’t have a single vowel and were sent in blocks of five letters. We had to be very accurate, we dare not make a mistake with what to us was a jumble as it might have made the whole message read incorrectly.
After the European war was over, I was asked to transfer to the Ministry of Information as they thought I was one of their best teleprinter operators. The MOI occupied the University College Hospital training college. This work was also interesting as we sent Churchill’s speeches before he ever made them. We sent them in different languages to other countries. I found Polish rather weary with lots of ‘Z’s, my littler finger was nearly worn out!”