The Old War Office: From Churchill to Hotel

The Old War Office building has been a landmark on Whitehall for more than a century, its striking Edwardian Baroque exterior becoming a familiar sight on the London skyline. The former office building, boasting 1,100 rooms when operational, is famous for having been Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s headquarters during World War II.

© Kit Leong / Shutterstock.com

Today, the Grade II Listed building is being given a new lease of life as a luxury hotel and apartments by Raffles, one of the world’s leading hotel brands. The offices where Churchill and his War Cabinet once planned the Allied strategies will be replaced by 85 exclusive residences and 125 suites of hotel rooms.

Due to be completed before the end of the year, the apartments will offer residents 24/7 access to the hotel, as well as their own exclusive amenities. The properties will be put on the market in June 2023.

The building’s rich history will be a huge selling point when the apartments, known as the OWO Residences, go on sale.

 

Old War Office history

The previous War Office building, located on the south side of Pall Mall, had become too small by the 1880s. The department was based in a number of adjacent houses linked by doors in the partition walls and in other buildings a short distance away.

Facilities were poor, and a newspaper article reported how the health of the staff was suffering as a result. In the early 1900s, employees of the Directorate of Military Operations, based in separate premises in St James’s Square, fell ill with a recurring sore throat, also blamed on the poor state of the offices.

Calls for new premises led to the building known as the Old War Office being established in 1906, costing £1.2 million. The Secretaries of State for War who worked in the building during World War I included Herbert Asquith, Horatio Herbert Kitchener and David Lloyd-George. Churchill held the post from 1919 to 1921.

 

World War II

After the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940. The Old War office was used as his HQ until the war ended in 1945. Lt Gen Henry Pownall was the Chief of the Imperial General Staff.

Many years later, he recalled how air raid sirens were often wailing all over London. When this happened, a lot of the War Office staff left their regular desks and went down into the basement for safety. The sound of doors slamming above as they went down the lift shaft was so loud, it convinced them an air raid was in progress directly above.

The staff worked around the clock, with some ignoring all but the closest of air raids. Intrepid individuals would go onto the roof to see how near the bombings were. When they got close, they alerted the office staff, who would go to shelters in the basement. With an all-night canteen, when they were stuck at work for long hours, they could always get something to eat.

Four bombs did hit the War Office on 8th October 1940, sadly killing one person. The building suffered only superficial damage.

During the war, the War Office was bombed a further seven times, but the relatively small amount of damage was confined to the upper levels, and it always remained operational.

 

Dual role

The War Office played a dual role as a military HQ, as well as a government department. After the war, it was reported that Major General Archibald Edward Nye, the Director of Army Staff Duties, told staff there had been friction between the civil servants and the uniformed personnel during the Great War. He said in no way was this to be repeated during World War II.

The Secretary of State for War, Leslie Hore-Belisha, was later replaced by Oliver Stanley, followed by Anthony Eden, during the course of the war. Churchill appointed Eden, the former foreign secretary, himself.

Churchill commanded government officials, the armed forces and British spies at the Old War Office, where there was a network of secret tunnels as an emergency escape route. It has been widely reported that author Ian Fleming was inspired by the War Office to write his iconic James Bond novels. Several Bond movies were later filmed there.

After the war ended, the War Office continued to be the centre of the Army’s administration until 1st April 1964. With the formation of the unified Ministry of Defence, a lot of the former Army Department moved to new premises across Horse Guards Avenue.

Throughout subsequent years, the Old War Office remained in the MOD’s hands. The interior was refurbished in the early 21st century to provide office accommodation in the main building for London staff.

 

Old War Office’s future

The building has remained spectacular, with its inspiration drawn from Edwardian architecture. Ceilings soar to more than 14 ft high and the full-length windows allow natural light to pour into the interior.

It is seen as a bold move to tastefully transform what has become a national monument into a hotel and apartment suites. The rooms boast heritage features, including oak panelling and mosaic floors.

When it officially opens, the site will host London’s first Raffles hotel, with a spa and nine restaurants and bars. Perhaps the most modern addition to the historic building will be the automatic sliding doors – a crucial feature of modern hotels. The aesthetics are particularly important in a Listed building, as is the doors’ high performance.

Even when the Old War Office building becomes a hotel, it will always be remembered as Sir Winston Churchill’s HQ and the nerve centre of the Allies’ victory during World War II.

Automatic Access will be remembering those who gave their lives during times of conflict on Remembrance Sunday, 13th November, when people across the world will be observing a two-minute silence at 11 am. We will never forget.