Wednesday 13 July 2011

Chenies Street

On a warm evening in May 1944, General Dwight D Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander of all allied forces during WW II was hosting a dinner, and briefing session with some of his most important chiefs of staff, at his private suite at the Dorchester Hotel in London’s Park Lane. A light on the front of the bright red telephone to his right, started to flash, prompting him to pause the briefing for a moment while he answered it. All eyes were on him as he spoke a few very brief words in very hushed tones, and then placed the phone back on its cradle.

A very sombre General Eisenhower addressed the men around the table, telling them that they were going to abandon their meeting for the time being, as that was the Prime Minister, mister Winston Churchill, on the phone, and that something very important had come up, which needed his urgent attention. He excused himself and rose from the table, telling his guests that his secretary would be contacting them to make alternative arrangements to convene this meeting as soon as possible.

As General Eisenhower picked up his cap and briefcase, a young man who had been seated to his left, and had briefly left the room, returned and informed the General that his car was ready and waiting. Saluting quickly, Eisenhower left the room.

Outside the hotel, the doorman of the Dorchester rushed to open the door of the sleek black Buick limousine, which was parked directly outside on the forecourt, and Eisenhower climbed in. From the driver’s compartment, which was set separately from the passenger section, a sophisticated female voice, with just a hint of an Irish brogue, asked, very knowingly, ‘Where to sir, Bushy Park?’

The General had already started to look at some papers, which he had taken from his briefcase. A small light beside him illuminated his reading material, but the chauffeur’s compartment at the front of the car remained in darkness. He looked up from his papers to acknowledge the driver’s question, but could see nothing of her, apart from the reflection of her eyes in the interior mirror. Kay Summersby was Eisenhower’s driver, and sometimes personal assistant. She had beautiful eyes; in fact she was a beautiful young lady, and had worked for Eisenhower since his arrival in England in March 1942.

Bushy Park was the site of a large U.S. base called Camp Griffiss, which was headquarters to a number of Allied departments. Because of the constant threat of German bombing in London, Eisenhower had made Camp Griffiss in Bushy Park, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) the centre for planning Operation Overlord, also known as D-Day. Eisenhower also had sole use of Telegraph Cottage on Kingston Hill, which was very close to Camp Griffiss.

With this information, it was only natural that Kay Summersby would assume the General wanted to go to Bushy Park, ‘Not Bushy Park tonight Kay, take me direct to Chenies Street’.

Summersby knew how much Eisenhower hated working in London, which is why he had purposely chosen Bushy Park as the centre of his operations, and after his lengthy meeting at the Dorchester, she wondered what the purpose of this Chenies Street meeting was going to be. Just over ten minutes later, she turned off Tottenham Court Road, into Chenies Street, and pulled the Buick to a halt outside a rather modernistic looking building, consisting of two concrete blocks, one of a circular pillbox design, and the other, a slightly smaller one of octagonal shape. Eisenhower explained to Summersby that he might be some time, so she should park the car in an underground garage nearby and report back here to the centre, where she would be given her usual private room, where she could stay the night if need be.

A small metal door in the wall that connected the two buildings opened, and an armed guard appeared and saluted as Eisenhower approached him. The door was quickly closed once the General was inside, and the guard started to lead him, first down an iron spiral staircase, and then through a series of metal lined tunnels and passageways, each one having to be unlocked by the guard first before they could proceed through. They eventually stopped at a brightly painted green metal door, where the guard went to ring the buzzer, but was stopped by Eisenhower, ‘My driver will be arriving in a few minutes’, he said, ‘you know where to take her don’t you?’ The guard saluted Eisenhower and snapped ‘Yes sir, the room next to yours sir?’ Eisenhower confirmed that was correct and indicated that the buzzer could now be pushed.

Inside, the room was in stark contrast to the metal lined tunnels the General had just passed through. This could have been a boardroom or one of the many other conference rooms in 10 Downing Street, with its wood panelling, carpeted floor, bookcases, and a large oval mahogany table in the centre, a movie projector, and a map of Berlin mounted on an easel. The only thing that differentiated this room from those others was the fact that there were no windows. At the head of the table was the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who rose from his seat to greet Eisenhower as he came in. Only three other people were present, they were the Labour War Cabinet member, Ernest Bevin, the Conservative Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, and Churchill’s personal secretary, Elizabeth Nel.

No records have ever been published, as to what was said and what actually went on at this meeting, but according to a member of staff who worked there at the time, his job was to set the room up and make it ready for the meeting, and to be on call during the meeting to take in further documents, charts, and maps, as and when called for.

The following information is what was alleged to have happened during this meeting:

Originally Operation Overlord (D-Day) had been planned for some time, depending on weather conditions, towards the end of June 1944. Now, it seemed that Churchill had been presented with evidence that Hitler’s so called nuclear programme was indeed real, and much more advanced than had been expected.

In typical Churchillian style, Churchill was raving about the Nazis development of weapons capable of reversing the course of the war. One of our agents, trained in the skills of nuclear science and technology, had apparently infiltrated the Nazis' top-secret weapons plant at Peenemünde in Germany where this weapon, which they called the “disintegration bomb”, was being developed.

A few days later our agent travelled to what is now the holiday island of Rügen, just off the German coast, where he watched the detonation of such a weapon. According to Churchill’s report, our agent stood alongside two German and one Russian scientist in a
concrete bunker, where they all had to wear dark goggles, and view what was going on outside, through a narrow slit in the concrete. There was a countdown lasting one minute, followed by a serious tremor in the bunker. This was followed immediately by a blinding flash, and then a thick cloud of smoke in the shape of a column, which then developed into a mushroom shape cloud on top.

No one was allowed out of the bunker for several hours because of the effects of the explosion. When they did eventually leave, they were made to put on a sort of all in one suit made of some kind of asbestos material. They were then allowed to view the scene of the explosion, which was about one and a half kilometres away. There was nothing left of the plants or trees in the area, just carbon patches and stumps, where they had once stood. There were no birds, and no insects to be seen, although they did find several sheep, which looked like they had been burnt to death on a barbeque.

When Eisenhower asked how did we know if this was true, Churchill indicated towards Anthony Eden, who passed some papers across the table to the General. The papers were from the German Patent office, dated 1941, and showed that German scientists had lodged a patent claim for a plutonium bomb during that same year. ‘As you can see General, our agents have not been exactly idle during the last few years’ quipped Churchill, ‘but we didn’t expect them to have developed it, ready for use, quite this soon’.

Eisenhower starred long and hard at the document, seeming to turn things over in his mind before asking Churchill what was his thoughts on the matter. Churchill replied that his thoughts were that they had no time to lose, if the Nazis decided to drop these bombs on Britain, then we would be finished, and they will win the war. He paused and looked around the table in a typical Churchillian, and theatrical manner. The silence was almost deafening; even the smoke from his cigar seemed to pause in the air above him until he spoke again, stating simply, ‘we must bring Operation Overlord forward’.

The conversation around the table went on for several hours, with each party arguing their different points of view on the subject. Eisenhower was very worried about the amount of landing craft needed to get all the men ashore that day, could Churchill guarantee they would be ready, if the date was pushed forward as suggested?

At just after 1 a.m. Churchill had placated Eisenhower’s fears regarding the landing craft, and an agreement had been reached. Operation Overlord was now to take place on June 6th 1944.

Churchill, as usual, had his driver take him directly back to Downing Street, in open defiance of the German bombing raid which was taking place at the time, for he liked nothing better than to go up to the roof of Downing Street, donning a tin-helmet, and armed with a pair of binoculars, to watch the dogfights taking place over London between the British Spitfire pilots and the German Messerschmitts, which were there to protect their bombers.

Eisenhower meanwhile, retired to his private room in the underground complex. The room was not overtly large, but it did have everything needed to comply with his needs, including, beside the large double bed, two armchairs, a small coffee table, a desk, phone, filing cabinet, and a variety of wall-maps. It took Eisenhower just a few minutes to get into his pyjamas and climb into bed, where he immediately switched on his bedside light and started going over some of the notes he had made earlier whilst in the meeting with Churchill. He then pressed a buzzer beside his bed, and within a few seconds, an intercommunicating door to his left, opened up and Kay Summersby, attired only in her dressing gown, came into the room. She smiled at Eisenhower, asked how the meeting went, and remarked how tired he looked. Eisenhower patted the bed beside him, and smiled back at Summersby, and told her to sit down, saying that he needed her to take a few notes for him.

It was alleged that Kay Summersby and General Eisenhower had an ongoing affair throughout the war years. She did in fact write two books about her time working for him, the second of which, she admitted to the affair. Whatever the truth was, when Kay Summersby’s room was cleaned the following day, there was rumour amongst certain members of the staff that her bed had not been slept in.

But who are we to judge? What we do know is that Operation Overlord did take place on 6th June 1944, and was judged a success. We also know that the Germans never did launch their planned nuclear attack on Great Britain, but after the war, many German scientists were enlisted by the USA to help in their building of the first Atomic bomb, which was used by the Americans against Japan, and helped to end WW II.

The underground centre, which Eisenhower and Churchill used with great success during those now far off war years, still exists today in Chenies Street, which is a side street off Tottenham Court Road, almost opposite Goodge Street Underground Station. It has since been painted in cream and red, with the name ‘The Eisenhower Centre’ emblazoned across the front.

The idea for this remarkable structure was first formulated in the 1930s, when congestion on the Northern Underground Line was starting to increase. It was decided to build a second pair of tunnels, parallel with the Charing Cross branch of the Northern Line that would act as an express route through London. Work was halted however, at the outset of the Second World War, but as the Underground platforms became increasingly used by the general public as overnight air raid shelters, it was then decided in 1940, to go ahead with the work on the new tunnels, which would initially be used as deep level shelters, and thereafter as the platform tunnels for the new express route.

The Goodge Street shelter, as it was called, was not alone, upon the outbreak of war, a total of ten shelters were originally planned, five to the north of the Thames and five to the south. All of these were to eventually form part of the new Northern Line express route. The shelter's shafts were designed to prevent a direct hit from a bomb penetrating into the underground system. The two tunnels were interconnected at various places along their length, and provided two layers of accommodation. Ventilation, medical, and catering facilities were provided and electricity was obtained from two sources in case bombing caused one to fail.

Almost everything was thought of, in order to make these shelters as safe as possible, from double staircases in each shaft, to toilet facilities which were constructed near the lift shafts, sewage being periodically pumped up to a sewer close to the surface, storage facilities, and water being supplied from the local water supply There was even two, 3000 gallon water tanks, should the original supply fail.

Much thought had been put to the ventilation, especially when you consider that the shelter had been originally designed for 12,000 people, but was probably more likely to accommodate a much more sensible and comfortable, 8,000. Air entered the shelter in a normal way, through the entrances, and along the tunnels into the shelter area. Stale air was sucked out of the shelter through metal pipes through a ventilation shaft in the roof. When the fans were running at full power, the air in the shelter would be completely changed 15 times every hour. In case of a gas attack, the air was filtered, and all doors were designed with gas seals when closed.

With all these perfect amenities in place, what could have been better than the use of the Goodge Street shelter, as the central London headquarters, for General Eisenhower's headquarters during the second world war?

It was hoped that when their wartime use had come to an end, the tunnels would be interconnected, in the hope of restarting the original express route project, but the idea was shelved, and then ultimately dropped, as money for the project wasn't available. The site was later used as an army transit camp until a serious fire closed the camp on the night of May 21st 1956. Officials were alarmed by the fire and the deep tunnels beneath were no longer considered suitable for accommodation. They are now used by a private company, to store films and videotape.

No comments: