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In the war room with Winston Churchill: Peter Mansbridge

01/21/2015 09:00 EST | Updated 03/23/2015 05:59 EDT
In a little strip of parkland overlooking the British Parliament in London, there's one corner that's home to a wonderful statue of the man so many call the greatest Briton of all.

Winston Churchill, cane in hand, presides over the building he starred in for decades in different positions for different parties.

Whether on the attack or on the defensive, his wit and his humour were never far away. But of course it was as prime minister for those five years, from 1940 to 1945, that he is remembered most.

For good reason. He inspired his people to fight on when it seemed the “little island” was all that was left for the Nazis to conquer. And then he led them to the victory that so many, including some in his own country, had felt was impossible in those days before Neville Chamberlain was toppled from the PM’s job.

At the time, MPs had rushed to Churchill, convinced he was the only one for the job. They were right.

There will be a lot of talk about Sir Winston in the next little while, because this weekend will mark 50 years since the great man’s passing. Expect newspaper and magazine articles, special television shows and some of the more famous Churchill biographies moved forward again in your favourite bookstore. 

The CBC will be no exception, as One on One this weekend will feature my conversation with Churchill's granddaughter, Celia Sandys. She was quite close to her “grandpapa,” as she calls him, spending most of his final years travelling with him.

Frozen in time

We talked in the Churchill War Rooms, labelled as such because he spent a lot of the war years in them.

They’re only a stone’s throw from that statue — but don’t look for them above ground. They’re in a bunker about 10 metres below the Treasury building, and they’re frozen in time. 

They were sealed for years, left exactly as they were once the war ended. Right down to the pins in the huge wall maps plotting where the various armies were moving. Right down to the half-smoked cigar he left in an ashtray.

The rooms are tiny, but somehow it feels right – you can sense the tension that must have existed in the conversations that would have happened there.

Having Ms. Sandys at your side helps get past the normal tourist rules. We were allowed in before hours, permitted to go behind the glass to breathe the air right next to where Churchill sat, see close up the notes and logs that were written by the day — by the hour, probably — through those critical years. 

See, but not touch. That was a definite no-no.

Vivid details

There was a moment when Ms. Sandys looked at me and directed my attention to her grandfather's chair in the makeshift cabinet room.

"Look closely at the armrests," she said. 

I did and saw a small, roughly hewn groove on the top of each one. "His fingernails did that." His fingernails.

That sent a shiver through my body. And more importantly, it put everything about the bunker in vivid perspective. Those fingernail groove helped me visualize the tension he faced.

I so wanted to run my finger through those grooves. But hey, no touching.

We were in the Churchill War Rooms for almost three hours. Moments I'll always remember.

Any time I’m in London, I find time to visit that statue just a block and half away from the bunker entrance. I look up wondering what Sir Winston would think about the global crises of modern times.

And then someone else comes by, wanting to spend time in the same space.

In tribute, many of them light up a cigar.

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