10 Downing Street

14 October 1940

By Ronan Thomas

10 Downing Street SW1, official residence of fifty three British Prime Ministers since the eighteenth century and enduring symbol of British political power, survived the Blitz but suffered blast damage in 1940 and 1944. The amalgamation of a mansion house built in 1677 overlooking Horse Guards Parade and a Georgian terraced house facing Downing Street SW1, No 10 was first occupied by a British Prime Minister (Sir Robert Walpole) from 1735.

Following the Munich Crisis of 1938, civil defence precautions were taken in Downing Street to protect Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his Cabinet from potential air attack. An air raid shelter was built in the No 10 gardens and construction began on an underground complex beneath the New Public Offices (NPO) at the junction of Horse Guards Road, Great George Street, Birdcage Walk and Storey's Gate. These Cabinet War Rooms (CWR) were supplied with filtered air pumped from the 'Anson' rotunda complex on Monck Street SW1 and protected above ground by pillboxes, sandbags and a concrete apron wall. The complex became operational on 27 August 1939, just before the outbreak of war on 3 September. Barricades, manned by Police, Royal Marines and Guardsmen, were erected at Downing Street's Whitehall entrance.

On 10 May 1940, after Chamberlain’s resignation, Winston Churchill was appointed Prime Minister. Churchill used rooms in Admiralty House on Whitehall until 14 June, after which he and his wife Clementine moved into No 10’s second-floor flat. From here, Churchill dictated correspondence and speeches during the Battle of Britain to a team of dedicated shorthand typists.

With the start of the Blitz on 7 September 1940, government buildings on Whitehall, Parliament Street and the area around Downing Street were soon targeted in air raids, by day and by night. In 1940, the layout of Whitehall differed from the offices of state visible today. The Home Office, India Office and New Public Works Offices occupied the site of today's Treasury at 1 Horse Guards Road. The Treasury Buildings were located in and behind today's Cabinet Office at 70 Whitehall. The Colonial Office occupied the site of today's Foreign Office (at the corner with Downing Street).

On 11 September 1940 an unexploded anti-aircraft shell fell on Horse Guards Avenue inflicting several casualties. On 12 September, Horse Guards Avenue and the Ministry of Transport were struck by high explosive bombs. The following day another anti-aircraft shell hit Horse Guards Parade, causing minor damage to No 10's windows and roof. The Scottish Office (Dover House) on Whitehall was damaged on 17 September and small fragments from an anti-aircraft shell penetrated one room in the Downing Street garden air raid shelter. Later that evening, windows in No 10 were broken by a parachute mine explosion across the Thames at County Hall, Lambeth.

Air raid precautions were now tightened in Downing Street. Churchill and his staff varied their daily routines, moving between several venues and making increasing use of the underground Cabinet War Rooms. The Garden Rooms of No 10 (formally downstairs typists' offices) were reinforced with steel and refurbished with a new bedroom, sitting room and dining room. Churchill's Assistant Private Secretary, John 'Jock' Colville - a key eyewitness to life at Downing Street in the Blitz years - described these new quarters as "resembling third-class accommodation on a Channel steamer". Anti-blast shutters were added to every window and most of No 10’s furniture was removed. Only the Garden Rooms, Cabinet Room and Private Secretaries’ office (occupied during 1940-1941 by Churchill’s Private Parliamentary Secretary Brendan Bracken, Assistant Private Secretary Colville and their staffs) were left in use. Winston and Clementine Churchill moved out briefly to the Carlton Hotel, Belgravia, whilst these conversions were made. As Colville further noted in his diary entry for 16 September 1940:

"At No 10 there is a certain chaos caused by the fact that the building is being fitted up for the PM to live and work in, and meanwhile much of the time is being spent in the disagreeable atmosphere of the Central War Room" (Cabinet War Rooms), Sir John Colville, 'The Fringes of Power. Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955', 1985.

Raids over Whitehall intensified. On 21 September over thirty windows in No 10 were shattered by blast from a bomb falling nearby. On the night of 24 September 1940, the Metropolitan Police extinguished an incendiary burning in Downing Street (as noted in a City of Westminster ARP message sent to the Home Office at 11.53pm). On 26 September, a high explosive bomb fell close to the Clive Steps at the western end of King Charles Street, next to the Cabinet War Rooms. Churchill was photographed inspecting the bomb crater the following day. Elsewhere, the War Office was hit twice (on 29 September and 8 October) and the Paymaster General's Office, Whitehall, was severely damaged (also on 8 October 1940). One corner of the Home Office received a direct hit. On 10 October, two unexploded bombs lying on Horse Guards Parade raised concerns for Churchill's personal safety before they were defused. The War Office was struck again on 12 October.

Two days later, the Blitz moved even closer to the heart of British government.

On the evening of 14 October 1940, Winston and Clementine Churchill were being served dinner in the Garden Rooms, when several heavy detonations were heard close by. Churchill ordered his butler and parlour maid into the garden shelter and returned to his dinner table. Several minutes later a high explosive bomb hit the Treasury Gardens, yards from No 10. Three civil servants on Home Guard duty in the Treasury Green shelter were killed and Treasury Building offices were destroyed. The blast rocked Downing Street. Although the Churchills were unharmed, No 10’s upstairs kitchen and pantry were wrecked, a large plate glass window was shattered and the State Drawing Rooms, Pillared Drawing Room and Soane Dining Rooms were damaged. 

After the 14 October incident, a full review of the Prime Minister's security took place. A new VIP concrete underground shelter (accommodating six people) was built directly under No 10. During the Blitz this was used by Churchill and his dinner guests - including King George VI - if the air raid sirens sounded.

The immediate area around Downing Street continued to suffer. On 16 October 1940 a bomb fell in the gardens of Dover House (the Scottish Office), causing additional local blast damage, including to a typist's bedroom in No 10. In the late evening of 17 October bombs were again dropped directly on the Treasury Buildings (killing two), outside the Home and Colonial Offices and close to the Horse Guards Building and Downing Street garden air raid shelter. As Colville noted in his diary:

"Slept at No 10...in the PM's dining-room till bed time. I had not fallen asleep before the crash of a falling bomb dragged us all from our beds. The air was thick with smoke and the choking smell of sulphur and gunpowder.....Four members of the Home Guard were trapped - and I fear killed - beneath the debris...Our shelter at No 10 - on the site of the old seventeenth-century Cockpit - is only about forty yards away from where the bomb hit....I followed the demolition squad and ARP men along an underground passage beneath the ruins (of the Treasury), but we could get no reply to knocks and calls from the room in which the men had been caught. This is the second hit within four days in almost the same place". (Sir John Colville, diary entry 18 October 1940, 'The Fringes of Power. Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955', 1985).

The high explosive bomb which hit the Colonial Office also blemished the Portland Stone façade of the Cenotaph (Parliament Street) and ruptured local coal gas and water mains. On 18 October, an unexploded parachute mine lying in St James's Park was sealed off and defused. On 19 October, high explosive bombs hit Horse Guards Parade and incendiaries fell on the Treasury and Foreign Office. By February 1941, it was estimated that 140 bombs of varying types had fallen (exploded or unexploded) in the general Whitehall area.

In response to this increased threat level, the Prime Minister and his wife moved into a purpose-built flat in the reinforced No 10 Annexe, another former typing pool situated directly above the Cabinet War Rooms on the ground floor of the New Public Offices (the first floor of today's Treasury). The removals process from No 10 lasted from 20 October until December 1940. Churchill now spent the daylight hours either in No 10 or in the Annexe, using his underground bedroom in the Cabinet War Rooms during the heaviest raids.  

Several secretaries recalled Churchill's routines in the Garden Rooms and the Annexe, including his penchant for dictating letters in bed into the early hours, in a cloud of cigar smoke, whilst his pet budgerigar fluttered freely above him. He also regularly observed air raids at night from the Annexe (today's Treasury) roof. On other occasions Churchill held meetings and stayed overnight in the disused Down Street Underground Station in Mayfair. From September 1944 to March 1945, as V2 rockets landed across London, Churchill was obliged to hold his War Cabinet meetings almost exclusively in the Cabinet War Rooms. 

Damage to No 10 was a talking point among visitors. Invited to lunch with Churchill on 6 November 1942, the MP and diarist Harold Nicolson recorded that:

I go downstairs to the basement where the Churchills are living, since the upper floors have been knocked about”: (Diaries and Letters 1939-45, Sir Harold Nicolson, 1967).

During the ‘Little Blitz’ of January to April 1944, Downing Street was directly affected again. On the night of 20 February 1944, two bombs struck Horse Guards Parade (others fell in St James’s Park and close to the Treasury), killing five, pockmarking the Guards' memorial, breaking windows and interior fittings in No 10 and causing minor damage along Downing Street. As Colville noted:

"No 10 was superficially damaged: all the windows were blown in and large pieces of plaster came down from the ceilings in the drawing rooms, leaving gaping holes. Downing Street is carpeted with glass, a bomb at the corner of the Treasury (which killed several people in Whitehall) burst a large water main, and generally speaking the atmosphere is quite 1940-like" (Sir John Colville, Diary entry 20 February 1944, 'The Fringes of Power. Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955', 1985).

Field Marshal Alanbrooke (Chief of the Imperial General Staff and Churchill's pivotal military aide during the war) also described the aftermath:

'Returned to London to find considerable damage done by bombs during previous night. One bomb (in) middle of Whitehall opposite Treasury had done much harm and blown in all windows of War Office except mine ! Two bombs in middle of Horse Guards had blown in all 10 Downing Street, Admiralty, Horse Guards windows etc. Guards Memorial badly chipped by bomb' (Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, diary entry 21 February 1944, War Diaries, 1939-1945, 1957. 

Downing Street was promptly festooned with repair ladders and by the next day all the broken windows in No 10 had been boarded up.

The seat of British government emerged from the Blitz intact. When the war in Europe ended on 8 May 1945 (VE Day), Winston and Clementine Churchill returned to their 10 Downing Street flat in triumph.

On VE Day, at 3pm, Churchill made his famous 'Advance Britannia!' radio broadcast direct from the Cabinet Room. This speech and a second made by Churchill from the balcony of the Treasury building - "This is your Victory!" - were relayed by loudspeaker to huge crowds, packed along Whitehall and Parliament Street from Trafalgar Square to the Houses of Parliament.

Despite his wartime leadership, Churchill was forced to leave Downing Street shortly afterwards. He lost to Labour Party leader Clement Attlee in the landslide Labour general election win of 26 July 1945. Under Attlee’s administration (from 1945-1951), war damage repairs to Downing Street were commenced and completed. Churchill returned to No 10 for a second and final term as Prime Minister during 1951-1955. Continuous refurbishments have been made to Downing Street since 1963, the latest in 2007.

Photo:10 Downing Street SW1

10 Downing Street SW1

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:ARP Message Form, Downing Street, 24 September 1940

ARP Message Form, Downing Street, 24 September 1940

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:Bomb Map: Downing Street

Bomb Map: Downing Street

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:Bomb Map: Downing Street, Foreign Office and St James's Park SW1

Bomb Map: Downing Street, Foreign Office and St James's Park SW1

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:Bomb Map: Horse Guards Parade

Bomb Map: Horse Guards Parade

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:Bomb Map: Whitehall Place and War Office

Bomb Map: Whitehall Place and War Office

Copyright Westminster City Archives

10 Downing Street SW1

This page was added by Ronan Thomas on 01/04/2011.

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