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The UK’s Secret WW2 Bunkers

Winston Churchill pictured.
Winston Churchill left, pictured next to a map of the Down Street underground station which played an important role during WW2 becoming a bomb shelter.

Secret bunkers are the ultimate Bond villain accessory. Dug into the side of a mountain or a Tracey Island-type hideaway, they’re the nerve centre of every conflict, real or imagined. The reality however, is less Hollywood and more Cricklewood – though no less fascinating.

In Britain there remain countless secret bunkers where the future of the nation once played out. No conflict added more to this suite of subterranean strongholds than World War Two. But when the guns fell silent and Britain slowly regrouped over endless cups of tea, these forceful fortifications were decommissioned, degraded and disregarded. Today, despite the passage of time, many of these secret bunkers remain intact, and some are still fit for a visit.

Article continues below.

Churchill's Auxiliary Units

BUNKER? WHAT BUNKER?

Amongst the chaos of World War Two was order, planning, strategy, secrets and, OK yes, underground hideouts dug into the ground. The most famous, and the one every kid who went to school in London and the Home Counties visits is the Cabinet War Rooms, the subterranean HQ where Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his wartime government convened to direct the course of the war. Interestingly it only went operational a week before Germany invaded Poland in September 1939.

Yet beyond the jewel in this particular crown there are plenty of other bunkers you’ve never heard of, and that’s just the way they wanted it…

London is awash with secrets, not least the government’s wartime HQ deep under the Ministry of Defence. Codenamed ‘Pindar’, it is said to be linked to Downing Street by a tunnel network known variously as QWHI, Post Office Scheme 2845 and the James Bond-style Q-Whitehall. The same network supposedly connecting Charing Cross tube station, the Treasury and the government’s air-raid shelters a stone’s throw from the Home Office on Marsham Street.

THE TUBE ISN’T JUST THE TUBE…

Talking of the tube, London Transport built deep-level air-raid shelters under Belsize Park, Camden Town, Chancery Lane, Claphams Common, North and South, Goodge Street and Stockwell stations. Many were used for their intended purpose while the Deutschlanders dropped their Doodlebugs but the use of others was altogether more vague.

The shelter under Chancery Lane, entered into by a set of unmarked doors on High Holborn, was named the ‘Inter-Services Research Bureau’ and to this day, no-one is entirely sure what went on down there. Even though the war ended, the intrigue didn’t. In 1949 the facility was handed over to the Post Office with the brief that it would, in the event of a nuclear war, be a secure communications centre and at one stage it was even used as the conduit for the hotline between the Kremlin and the White House.

Obviously, the British government weren’t stupid. London was always going to be Ground Zero in the event of a full-scale onslaught so there were various HQs built around, or more accurately, under, the city’s outskirts. The RAF’s No. 11 Group, the men wholly responsible for southern England’s air defences – and the place where the Battle of Britain was orchestrated – was located in what looks like an old mansion at an air base in Uxbridge. Another is found under a typical residential street in the north-west London suburb of Neasden. Accessed by what looks like an electricity sub-station entrance is The Paddock, a Cabinet War Rooms complex built, you know, just in case… There’s another one in Cricklewood codenamed ‘IP’ which stood, rather worryingly, for ‘insurance policy.’

THE BUNKERS YOU CAN SEE…

Even though many were glorified holes in the ground, the contribution of these bunkers to Britain’s war effort can’t be underestimated. There are many dotted around the country that can at least be seen, if not visited, including:

Ammo Case Valley, Monkton Farleigh, Wiltshire – A former ammunition depot that was collapsed by the MOD in the 1960s. It is now a thirty-feet deep, quarter-mile-long valley filled with rusted cordite canisters. It’s in a public wooded area here.

Anstruther ROTOR, near Troywood, Fife – Originally a WWII radar station, it was re-versioned as part of the ROTOR air defence radar project in the 1950s before its stint as a civil defence bunker and it remained in use until the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991. It is now a museum, here.

Hack Green Nuclear Bunker, Nantwich, Cheshire – First used during WWII as a decoy station to confuse German bombers looking for Crewe’s mainline rail station and over the years it had various pseudo-military uses, the last of which was as a nuclear bunker. Today it operates as a museum and houses the UK's largest collection of decommissioned nuclear weapons.

AND THE BUNKERS YOU CAN’T…

Benjamin Franklin once said, ‘by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail’ and never was that tired, middle-management cliché more relevant than a year into the war.

Fearing the very real possibility of a massive and unstoppable German invasion, the British Army built over 600 – some say close to 1,000 – camouflaged underground bunkers for small bands of intrepid fighters known as Auxiliary Units. Their sole job was to repel, should it manifest itself, a German advance on British soil.

In reality these gangs of men would be no match for the might of the marauding Nazis and at best might slow them down a bit. These bases – all built in densely wooded areas close to main arterial roads, rail lines and the infrastructure the Germans were tasked with eliminating – were meant to be destroyed as the war ended.

But, there’s plenty left if you know what you’re looking for…

The construction of what were only intended to be temporary hideouts wasn’t ever going to win any architectural awards but they served a very specific purpose and many were ingenious…one was built in the basement of an abandoned mansion, one in a badger’s set, one where the entrance was behind a hinged tree trunk and one where the only method of entry was by inserting a carefully-hidden marble into a hole which would fall into a tin can alerting the men inside.

Tony Law on the de Havilland Mosquito

They stayed hidden away for decades, like a time capsule of the past, until quite brilliantly in the 1990s, some of the veteran Auxiliaries decided to retrace their steps!

According to Tom Sykes, a researcher documenting the story of these underground bunkers, ‘it’s like the jewel in the crown if you can find one with the roof still on’ and today, historians, enthusiasts and the old soldiers – of whom only a few are still alive and the ones who remain are well into their 90s – are on the lookout for where they camped out waiting for the Germans to show up.

They didn’t of course, and many of the hideouts were left to rot. One was inadvertently discovered when it collapsed under the weight of a cow.

There probably won’t ever be a definitive list. No-one knows for sure how many were built in the first place and even if they did, there’s no way to know how many have survived. Most are on private land anyway and slowly being reclaimed by nature.

Sometimes when you’re walking in the woods with the dogs you’ll see an old piece of corrugated iron or what looks like a concrete cylinder sticking out of the ground. Before you shrug and blame lazy fly-tippers, you may just be looking at an actual, real-life secret underground World War II bunker!

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