The greatest war
in human history was fought 'c/o Mr Rance
'. In the 1930s as war approached, the British government
ordered the creation of a top-secret bunker
from which the prime minister
and military high command
could direct their operations. This bunker is now known as the Cabinet War Rooms
, and it is a popular tourist attraction, but in the dark days when it was being prepared and used, it was so secret
that it was never mentioned, and all equipment
c/o Mr Rance,
Office of Works,
Gregory Rance had been a sergeant in the Rifle Brigade in the first War, and was now a civil servant with responsibility for paying the cleaners in government departments. He was picked to outfit the bunker once war looked inevitable in 1937. To prevent the rest of Whitehall learning about its existence, everything was channelled through him personally, and he had the only keys. Surreptitiously he stocked it with furniture and supplies by slipping duplicate requests into any mundane requisition that passed through his hands.
He had thinning hair and a neat military moustache: there is a photograph of him with Churchill. The great bulldog is seated, exuding power; behind him to one side is Rance, upright, calm, waiting to serve. He looks into the camera with the same confidence as his master.
They were close. Mr Rance was later awarded the MBE for his services. He attended Churchill's state funeral in 1965; then he himself died eight years later, at the age of ninety-nine. This story is told in an archive of papers to be sold at Phillips on the 15th of June this year. I learnt of him and his enigmatic address by accident, in a discarded copy of yesterday's Daily Telegraph. That included that compelling photograph.
In 1950 Churchill wrote to him: "This secret place began under the address 'c/o Mr Rance' and under your faithful custody it remained until it grew into the great wartime centre."
The project began under the ministry of Neville Chamberlain, who has been remembered in history as an appeaser. The Second World War began in September 1939; Winston Churchill became prime minister in May 1940. Chamberlain had contingency plans to evacuate the Cabinet to the Cotswolds if failure in war made it necessary. Churchill was a different man: when he came to power and learnt of this, he said,
"Scrap the lot. We stand or fall by London."