The Haunted Down Street Bunker
by Michael Newland
Alert Underground passengers, travelling between Green Park and Hyde Park Corner on London's Piccadilly Line, will catch a glimpse of dimly lit openings in the tunnel wall. Not one in a thousand will realise that they are looking into the netherworld of one of the most secret places of Britain's Second World War, one of those places - like the First World War battlefield at Verdun - so painfully haunted by history, so infinitely sad, that visiting it leaves anyone with a sense of the past disoriented for hours.
Just off Piccadilly in diminutive Down Street, around the turn of this century, an underground station was built to serve the residents of Mayfair. At that time, Mayfair was a thriving residential area for some of the wealthiest people in the country. The song 'A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square' leapt into the head of a songwriter as he watched two lovers making a painful farewell on the doorstep of one its great Georgian houses. It was only during the post-war period that so much of the property in the area was turned into offices.
During the early 1920s., it was decided to close Down Street, to speed up travel on the Piccadilly Line. The two adjacent stations were so close that poor little Down Street was squeezed out of existence.
With growing apprehension about renewed hostilities in Europe, between the two wars, all manner of government bodies began to plan for how they would function during a new type of conflict - one in which bombing of cities was expected to be a central strategy of the combatants. During the Great War, Zeppelin raids on British cities caused surprising damage and loss of life. Nearly 1500 people died nationally during the raids, and George V often sheltered from the bombing in train tunnels, upsetting the rail schedules. My aunt used often to relate how she watched a Zeppelin fly over London in flames.
At the outbreak of another war, many government functions could be dispersed into safer areas than London, but the most senior levels would need to stay in the city. At one stage it was planned to supplement the police by 120,000, and to form a human ring around London, which would drive back to their jobs those attempting to escape bomb casualty levels expected, in 1938, to reach 70,000 a week nationally. The figure was calculated from the casualty rate per ton of bombs which applied during the Zeppelin raids. In the event, deaths and injuries during WWII reached only a fraction of that level.
Control of transport needed a safe place in the capital, and the now disused Down Street was picked to be the subterranean headquarters of the Railway Executive, and converted into a bunker, at the cost of £30,000. Walk along Down Street and you will see the typical tiled architecture of an early underground station, and a door let into the bricked-up entrance.
London Underground now takes small parties to visit Down Street every week. You have to book months ahead.
(LU inform us that visits to Down Street have been discontinued for safety and security reasons - December 2002)
Everyone is given a torch at Green Park, before walking down Piccadilly to Down Street. "You'll need it" say staff. At the end of a narrow corridor, through a massive bombproof wall, a spiral staircase leads downwards. The remains of a tiny lift run down the middle of the stair. Churchill's secretary Sir John Colville related how Ernest Bevin had trouble with the lift doors in 1940, after becoming inebriated while sheltering from The Blitz with the Prime Minister. The main lifts at Down Street had been removed when the station was bunkerised, and the shaft blocked, to prevent a bomb dropping down it. This was a far from excessive precaution. At one station, Holborn I recall, a bomb bounced down the escalator killing many shelterers.
So many German aircraft flew over Britain that year that my aunt - now veteran of yet another war - wrote a letter to Australia, during the autumn, in which she said that the flow overhead was popularly called 'The Dornier Bus Route'!
Half way down the shaft, a gas tight door leads off into a desolate warren of tiny bathrooms, and a storeroom which was used for gas masks. The baths are surprisingly clean and new in appearance. There is no lighting, and the floor is puddled with stagnant and smelly water. Almost everything is black with sooty dust.
At the bottom of the stair you cross the main lift shaft, passing what are obviously the original lift entrances, and enter what was once the main passenger tunnel. The air hisses into ventilation ducts, as the trains suck it to and fro. How much of the life of elite Mayfair must have passed along that tunnel, in the days before the First War, when the over-confident dynasty immortalised by Galsworthy, Forsyte Saga, and Upstairs Downstairs, seemed set to run forever! A chopped-out line in the ceiling shows where now demolished partitions divided off offices, and typing pool. Here met the Cabinet in 1940. A narrow corridor ran alongside - wide enough, we are told, for that most essential of war weapons, the tea trolley.
Further down more stairs are a maze of tiny corridors and cubicles, which fill most of the original platforms. A sign reads 'To the Committee Room', and points up the stairs. A gas door bangs in the wind, whenever a train passes. You can see them pass through locked grilles opening onto the line.
Large parts of the labyrinth have been daubed - inexplicably - with battleship grey paint. Perhaps one of those make-work symptoms of post-war overmanning, when managers were forced to make their staff 'look busy', like clothes shop salesmen. The paint suddenly stops as one proceeds. "This must be where the man with the grey paint was wrestled to the floor and dragged away" say the staff. Some of the cubicles were bedrooms. The 'first-class' ones are papered with the remains of stubbly wallpaper. Only the senior ranks enjoyed wallpaper! Churchill and his family slept here sometimes in 1940, after a fuss about his safety in Parliament. Everywhere there are air grilles for the fan-fed ventilation system.
An electrical switchboard room, which controlled emergency generators, leads onto long narrow spaces, which were once dining rooms and kitchens. The kitchen equipment has gone. It was taken originally from a Pullman train, since its narrowness allowed it to fit the space. There are marks on the wall where saucepans hit against them, night and day, for five years. The trogalydytes who lived down here got three square meals a day in return for surrendering their ration books. Churchill dined here, and well too, by accounts. By all accounts, the bunker was a pretty comfortable sort of place, if the train noise once a minute did not drive you mad like the Chinese Water Torture.
Just around the corner, in the bomb proof sub-basements of the Dorchester Hotel, many of the great and good lived in similar safety and comfort, but without the racket. The levels of comfort, in fact, soon became something of a public scandal, as the lower ranks of Londoners struggled and suffered elsewhere.
Another narrow space contains the remains of the telephone switchboard and relay frames. A bundle of cables leads outwards, once connected to Downing Street, the War and Supply Ministries, and so on. Here a Miss Somebody - one of those faithful and essential Miss Moneypenny civil service spinsters, you imagine - the backbone of wartime administration - presided over the jack field for the entire duration. Who knows what secret messages once filled her mahogany message cubby holes? Can no one find a photograph of this unsung heroine, and put it on the wall behind her spot?
The desolation of the place - flotsam and jetsam of history as Sam Johnson called artifacts of the past - has a far more powerful effect than if it were titillated as a museum piece. Those who stayed and worked there in 1940, great and small, and at the centre of direction of events, did not have the benefit of hindsight. Britain was enjoying the last moment in which it could validly claim to be a power in the world able to resist all comers alone. Such is the intensity of association of the blackened scraps of cable and brick at Down Street.
The reality, from then on, was the downhill trudge to the snapping of British confidence at Suez. Clive Ponting's biography of Churchill's later years describes his depression, during his last months, that everything in which he really believed - Empire, Britain as a great power - had all passed away with the war over which he had presided.
A few feet at the end of the platforms are unbuilt on. The remnants of switches are on the wall. These operated signals which stopped the trains. The top brass could climb onto a Tube direct from their bunker. One of the Underground staff holds a red torch out over the line. A train stops and we pile in through the driver's cab.
So back to Green Park in a daze.