- Historic Sites
A Basement View Of Sir Winston
October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6
At 4:30 A.M. on a cold, drizzly day in the spring of 1944, there came a knock on the guarded door of the top-secret White House Map Room. The one officer on duty opened the door to admit a rotund gentleman in white tie and tails, smoking a cigar and offering a cordial “Good morning!”
It was in a lower-floor chamber of the White House that President Roosevelt, during the war years, presided over his Map Room. Here was a repository of the highest-level information, accessible only to him and to a select group of advisers and under the command of the Presidential Naval aide. In this room Sir Winston Churchill, on many occasions, found himself at home away from home. For it was in London, directly across from Number l o Downing Street, that he had set up what might be called the original model for F. D. R.’s Map Room. When the Prime Minister flew to Washington to consult with the President in December, 1941, he brought a portable map room with him: a collection of large-scale maps and charts showing all theatres of operation. The President observed, and shortly thereafter he directed that his own Map Room be activated.
The P.M. made many trips to Washington during World War n. There naturally was concern for his safety, and elaborate precautions were taken to conceal precise times and the mode of travel. On these visits he was always the guest of the President, rather than of the British ambassador. The reason, probably, was that here he could talk on a “feet-on-the-table” basis with the men around Roosevelt who were the decision makers—men like Admiral William D. Leahy, Harry Hopkins, and General George C. Marshall.
The daily routines of the President and of the Prime Minister differed greatly, much to the harassment of the White House domestic staff. It was the President’s custom to come to the Map Room each morning about nine thirty, following a brief medical check by his personal physician. After this he ordinarily would not make use of the room again during the day, but often would return for an evening visit, '!"he Prime Minister, on the other hand, was likely to pop in at any time, although he habitually rose later than the President and invariably tucked himself away for an hour’s nap after lunch. He was a night owl by nature and often put in an appearance long after Mr. Roosevelt had gone to bed.
Between Sir Winston and Harry Hopkins, the President’s confidential adviser, there was an easy rapport, a homespun air of give-and-take that I do not believe ever existed between Churchill and Roosevelt. I recall seeing the Prime Minister and Hopkins engaged in deep conversation, seated across from each other at two desks placed back to back in the Map Room. Churchill could talk to Hopkins, bouncing off ideas, measuring Hopkins’ reaction, and contemplating how he might best present his views in a later talk with the President.
Frequently the President and the Prime Minister would arrange to meet in the Map Room for a morning conference. The P.M. invariably would get there first, moving energetically about, chatting with Hopkins, and poring over situation maps. Then would come a knock on the door, and a White House usher would say, solemnly, “The President.” All would rise, those in uniform coming to attention. The President would enter in his wheelchair, assisted by a duty officer. “Good morning, Winston!” he would say; and Sir Winston would reply, “Good morning, Mr. President!” And the conference would proceed.
Churchill’s pending arrival at the White House, whispered a day or two before he was due, always caused excitement in the Map Room. When the Prime Minister was aboard, as the Naval members of our group always put it, almost anything could happen.
The Map Room operated on a twenty-four-hour basis. After the change of duty at midnight, the night officer in charge had to update all situation maps as information came in, so that everything would be kept up to the minute. When things quieted down—usually about three in the morning—he was authorized to pull out a small cot and catch a few hours’ sleep.
On that dank morning mentioned in the opening paragraph, I was the night duty officer. Word had been passed along that Sir Winston was to have been a dinner guest at the British embassy the previous evening. At 4:25 A.M. , assuming that he must have returned and gone to bed, I pulled out the cot, stripped to my shorts, and turned in.
A few minutes later came the knock on the door and the voice of the usher: “Sir, the Prime Minister.” I sprang from the cot, opened the door, and came to attention as best I could under the circumstances.
“Good evening, Mr. Prime Minister,” I said. “Please come in.” Sir Winston, immaculate in white tie and tails, eyed my “uniform” and said, in his gentle way, “Good morning, Captain. Perhaps it would be well for both of us to retire.”
That was the last time I saw the great man.