Downing Street Annexe and Churchill Secretary Ellizabeth Layton Nel

Downing Street Annexe and Churchill Secretary Ellizabeth Layton Nel

Excerpt­ed from “Down­ing Street Annexe and War Rooms,” answered in full on the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project.

Who were John Evans and Tom Leonard?:

Ques­tion: In the 2017 film Dark­est Hour, on Churchill in May 1940. I am puz­zled by two char­ac­ters. There is a young man who is seen near Churchill at Chartwell and the under­ground War Rooms. The Dark­est Hour cast names him “John Evans.” The name of anoth­er man in the cast, “Tom Leonard,” sug­gests noth­ing. He is the dri­ver of Churchill’s car when the PM abrupt­ly bolts and heads for the Under­ground. (There fol­lows the dra­mat­ic but fic­tion­al “Under­ground scene” described in your review.) I won­der who those young men are sup­posed to be? An expla­na­tion of the above-ground Annexe and the below-ground War Rooms would also be help­ful, since Churchill seems to appear in both.

Respectively, John Colville, sort of, and the PM’s chauffeur

Nei­ther “John Evans” (played by Joe Arm­strong) nor “Tom Leonard” (Eric MacLen­nan) were real char­ac­ters. Evans, a pri­vate sec­re­tary seems clos­est in demeanor to John “Jock” Colville, pri­vate sec­re­tary in 1940-41, 1943-45 and 1951-55. Leonard rep­re­sents a chauf­feur from the gov­ern­ment pool Churchill used dur­ing the war. Typ­ist-sec­re­tary Eliz­a­beth Lay­ton (bril­liant­ly played by Lily James) did exist, but her appear­ing in 1940 is dra­mat­ic license. The real Eliz­a­beth actu­al­ly didn’t join Churchill’s staff until May 1941. And there is some small con­fu­sion about Down­ing Street Annexe and the more famous War Rooms.

Elizabeth Layton Nel

“Their loy­al­ty they kept….” For­mer Churchill sec­re­taries Eliz­a­beth Lay­ton Nel (served 1942-45) and Lady Williams, the for­mer Jane Por­tal (served 1949-55), at a reunion in 2006.

The late Eliz­a­beth Lay­ton, a faith­ful wartime sec­re­tary, would love her por­tray­al by Lily James. Although not present until 1941, her char­ac­ter was prob­a­bly select­ed for her sin­gu­lar promi­nence. Among many devot­ed stenog­ra­ph­er-sec­re­taries, she wrote with humor and elo­quence about her expe­ri­ences. Her book is well worth seek­ing out: Mr. Churchill’s Sec­re­tary (the orig­i­nal 1958 title), or the reprint, Win­ston Churchill by His Per­son­al Secretary.

In the Dark­est Hour film­script, “John Evans” is first seen at Chartwell, show­ing around the new­ly arrived Miss Lay­ton. The script describes him as “an immac­u­late­ly-groomed rake…snobbishly thinks him­self infi­nite­ly supe­ri­or to the Eliz­a­beth Lay­tons of the world.” (At times some thought of Jock Colville that way. Told once that work­ing peo­ple often drove their chil­dren to school, he quipped, “Couldn’t their nan­nies do that?”)

John Evans’ advis­ing Eliz­a­beth on Churchill’s habits is won­der­ful­ly expres­sive. His instruc­tions, dead accu­rate, show how care­ful­ly this film was script­ed: “If he stretch­es out his hand and says, ‘Gimme,’ you need to antic­i­pate what he wants: Black pen, red pen, paper, or ‘Klop,’  that’s his hole punch.” (Churchill hat­ed sta­ples, insist­ing on hole-punched pages con­nect­ed with a Trea­sury tag.) “He mum­bles, so it’s almost impos­si­ble to catch every­thing. And be pre­pared to type fast—short bursts—and dou­ble-spaced. He hates single-spaced—hates it! Good luck.”

Downing Street Annexe

Down­ing Street Annexe was housed in the ground floor rooms fac­ing St. James’s Park to the right of the War Rooms’ pub­lic entrance today. It was con­sid­ered much safer in an air raid than 10 Down­ing Street. Today, tourists flock to the Churchill War Rooms, drawn by the dra­ma and hubris of the Blitz. Sir Mar­tin Gilbert under­stood the rationale—the Annexe, after all, is pricey office space. But he always thought the Annexe should have a blue plaque for its his­toric role.

On walk­ing tours of Lon­don, Sir Mar­tin would always point to small filled-in square holes on each side of all the win­dows, where brack­ets for steel air raid shut­ters were once affixed. “That,” he would say, “is where Win­ston Churchill real­ly fought the war. Not the ‘hole in the ground,’ as he some­times called it.”

Mys­ti­fied at staff laugh­ter over an inad­ver­tent V-sign, Churchill asks Eliz­a­beth, “What’s so fun­ny?” She hes­i­tates, but he remon­strates: “I was a pris­on­er of the Boer. I spent time in a South African prison.” Embar­rassed, she tells him the V-sign ren­dered palm-inward is a renowned ges­ture of dis­dain. The PM roars with laugh­ter. Who knows if it was real­ly like that? (Focus Features)

The War Rooms

In her first edi­tion, Mr. Churchill’s Sec­re­tary, Eliz­a­beth Lay­ton Nel described the War Rooms:

…below [the Annexe] there stretched two whole floors of “safe­ty” accom­mo­da­tion. Beneath a vast con­crete block which had been set in at ground lev­el there was first of all Gen­er­al Head­quar­ters, known as the Cab­i­net War Room or C.W.R., where the Prime Min­is­ter, all Cab­i­net Min­is­ters and the Chiefs of Staff had rooms as well as the Ser­vice Plan­ning Staffs. Here some of the most bril­liant British offi­cers spent their days breath­ing con­di­tioned air and work­ing by day­light lamps, to emerge white-faced and blink­ing for a few hours in the evening.

The C.W.R. was reached by a spi­ral stair­case and was sup­posed to be safe from bomb­ing attack. Below it, on a still low­er lev­el, had been con­struct­ed a whole floor of tiny bed­rooms for the less­er lights, each with its allo­cat­ed own­er, and it was here that those on late duty would retire when bed­time came.

Mr. Churchill could hard­ly ever be per­suad­ed to descend to the C.W.R. mere­ly for “shel­ter­ing” pur­pos­es. He often held Cab­i­net meet­ings there in the evenings, after which he would return to the ground-lev­el flat to fin­ish off the evening in his study. I nev­er knew him use his bed­room below stairs—thick steel shut­ters guard­ed the win­dow of his bed­room in the flat, and these he felt [were] suf­fi­cient pro­tec­tion.

Since Eliz­a­beth arrived in 1941, she would not have known that Churchill did sleep a few nights below ground ear­li­er. These were dur­ing the height of the Blitz, in the autumn of 1940. After that the bomb­ing eased, and he spent his nights in the Annexe or Num­ber 10.

Click here for my review of “Dark­est Hour” with Gary Old­man as Win­ston Churchill and Lily James as Eliz­a­beth Layton.

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