She was a civil servant -- in fact, a secretary -- in August 1939, but Muriel Cooper knew before most of her fellow Londoners that war with Germany was imminent. But the young typist didn’t dare breathe a word of what she knew.
“We were told that, if we ever disclosed anything, we would be shot,” Cooper recalled being told upon accepting a job with a government intelligence division. Her job was to prepare super-sensitive reports for Britain’s two wartime prime ministers as well as King George VI.
“I had to put ‘Most Secret’ on every envelope I did,” Cooper, 91, told me during a visit to the Cabinet War Rooms, the underground bunker near St. James’s Park in which political and military leaders plotted the battles that would eventually free much of Europe from the tyranny of Adolf Hitler.
After years of neglect, the subterranean nerve center was restored and opened as a tourist attraction in 1984. It and the adjoining (Winston) Churchill Museum are among the places where visitors to the British capital can learn how the declaration of war 70 years ago this week -- and the unimaginable hardship that followed -- brought a tremble to even the stiffest upper lip.
Cooper had been employed by the Key Points Intelligence Service for just one week when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced on Sept. 3, 1939, that “this country is at war with Germany.” She was, in fact, at work when the announcement was made in King Charles Street, just outside her office.
“The immediate effect was fantastic,” she remembers. “Some of us rushed outside expecting to see German bombers overhead.”
That didn’t happen until August 1940. But once the Blitz began, bombs fell from the skies like the all-too-frequent English rain.
“From September 1940, you have London being bombed for 57 consecutive nights. And sometimes during the day as well,” said Terry Charman, a historian at the Imperial War Museum, a sister museum in a leafy neighborhood south of the Thames, a couple of miles away. “That bombing went on, with interruptions, until the 10th of May, 1941.”
Charman said the building used to house the Bethlem Royal Hospital, an insane asylum. He makes the irony crystal clear; the building locals called “Bedlam” now shares the horrors of two world wars.
The sprawling museum, with its compelling exhibit halls and free admission, lures locals and tourists. On the day I visited, the atrium was full of English schoolchildren in colorful uniforms.
Boys in red fleece jackets took turns looking through the scope of an 18-pound British artillery gun while, a few feet away, kids sporting maroon jackets gathered around a towering V2 rocket, one of the more than 1,000 V2s that the Nazis fired on Britain.
“They were silent,” a teacher told her students. “You didn’t hear them coming, but they were very destructive.” The rocket attacks late in the war killed more than 2,000 people.
On another floor, children and adults learned what London life was like during the war. One of the most memorable exhibits is known as the Blitz Experience.
A guide led a group of us into a room resembling an underground bomb shelter, where we sat on wooden benches and listened to a recording of what it was like in those musty, dim havens. A nearly hysterical woman bemoaned the incessant bombings as explosions rumbled overhead. In an effort to break the tension, the Londoners began an off-key, a cappella rendition of “Beer Barrel Polka.”
As they sang, “We’ve got the blues on the run,” the all-clear siren sounded, and we were led through a darkened cobblestone lane strewn with wreckage. A mound of bricks was all that remained of a house. Amid the debris were an overturned baby carriage and a stuffed animal. In the distance, the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral was silhouetted against the orange glow of flames.
German bombs did strike the cathedral -- one of London’s most-famous tourist attractions -- but the damage was minor compared with the fate of thousands of other buildings, including a nearby church that, like St. Paul’s, was designed in the late 1600s by Christopher Wren.
A rose garden has been planted where the pews of Christ Church Greyfriars stood until it took a direct hit on Dec. 29, 1940.
The bomb obliterated all but one wall of the great stone church. It still stands -- the stained glass missing from the large windows -- as one of London’s few visible reminders of the devastation unleashed by the Luftwaffe.
Cooper, the young secretary, made it through the war unscathed, although she said there were close calls. One evening, she escaped death by deciding to walk home from work.
"[Witnesses] told me that a man had been at the bus stop, the very bus stop I’d have got off if I had gone by bus. An oil bomb dropped, and he got the full blast of it,” she says. “That could have been me.”
Cooper also vividly remembers the morning she spotted an empty bathtub sitting in the street not far from her underground workplace.
She later learned that a senior naval officer had been bathing in the tub in his quarters when a bomb struck. The tub, with the officer still in it, fell to the street below. The water apparent- ly cushioned the blow; she says the man was unhurt.
Surprisingly, the nearby bunker in which Cooper typed while Churchill strategized wasn’t bombproof.
Cressida Finch, the exhibitions manager for the War Rooms, pointed out that even though the offices were reinforced with steel plates and concrete, they were just 10 feet below street level. Therefore, a direct hit by a V2 or other large bomb would have been devastating, she said.
A recently discovered letter from 1940 reveals that Churchill was surprised but undaunted when told of the bunker’s vulnerability.
“The thing that made it safe was that the Germans didn’t know it was here,” Finch said.
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Marking the history
of World War II
Both the Churchill Museum and the Imperial War Museum have recently opened new exhibits marking the 70th anniversary of the beginning of World War II.
Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms, King Charles Street near Westminster tube station, www.iwm.org.uk. Churchill Museum’s “Undercover: Life in Churchill’s Bunker” features the video reminiscences of several people, Muriel Cooper included, who lived in London during the war. Adult admission is about $21. Children under 16 are admitted free.
Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road (near Lambeth North tube station), www.iwm.org.uk. Historian Terry Charman has pulled together the “Outbreak 1939" exhibit, plus an accompanying book. Admission is free.