London was hit hard during the Second World War. As home to Britain’s government, it was a primary target of the Germans, who were looking to weaken the resistance of those forces fighting against them and the other Axis powers. As such, the need arose for a place to keep the country’s prime minister safe, leading to the renovation of one of London’s tube stations.
Down Street Tube Station first opened in 1907 and served the Piccadilly line. However, its location at the heart of west London’s affluent Mayfair district meant it was rarely used, as it was just a short walk to the more popular Green Park (then Dover Street) and Hyde Park Corner stations. It was also deeper than other stations in London, meaning those accessing its trains had to walk down long passageways.
Its lack of use led to its closure in 1932.
What made Down Street unviable as a tube station made it perfect for an underground bunker. After the war was declared in 1939, the station was converted into the new headquarters of the Railway Executive Committee, which acted as the intermediary between the country’s rail companies and the War Office. It later played a key role in the movement of troops and equipment during major points of the conflict.
The conversion took only a matter of days. The platform was reinforced with brick, and those areas that were enclosed were divided up into offices, dining rooms, dormitories, meeting rooms and bathrooms.
The use of tube stations for purposes outside of transportation was a common occurrence during WWII. During The Blitz bombings in 1940-41, many stations were used by the public as air-raid shelters. As well, staff offices for those working for the government and London Underground were moved below ground for added protection.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sheltered in the converted bunker from November to December 1940, during the height of the German bombing campaign over London. He was prompted to use the space by Ralph Wedgwood, chairman of the Down Street facility, as the War Rooms, while underground, were not bombproof.
During the war, approximately 40 staff worked shifts of up to 12 hours in Down Street Tube Station, only surfacing every 10 to 14 days. They worked in the kitchen and mess rooms, preparing 27,000 meals annually. It’s said Churchill affectionately called the bunker “The Barn,” likely due to the fact he was given access to cigars, caviar, vintage champagne, and brandy, despite wartime rationing.
Among the topics discussed in the bunker included the D-Day invasion and the evacuation of troops at Dunkirk. To ensure the affairs of Down Street Tube Station stayed a secret, executives would enter and exit at different access points. They arrived at street level and entered through the original building, and when it was time to leave would board a train at a small section of platform that was still accessible.
The train would know to stop if a red light was left at the platform, and the officials boarded via the driver’s cab to avoid any suspicion from the train’s passengers.
Following the conclusion of the war, Down Street Tube Station was given back to London Transport for engineering access and use as an emergency exit. The majority of the offices were removed, bar those on the platform, and as of the late 2010s, the London Transport Museum was offering public tours of the station.