Whether they originate from World War II, when operations against the enemy had to be kept top secret, or from the Cold War when the threat of mass destruction was very real, underground bunkers have been a necessary tool in 20th century military defence. Only a few of these once top secret bunkers are now open to the public; others still remain off limits. Here we have compiled a list of the bunkers which are currently open as museums. If you know of any we have missed, please do email to let us know.
The cabinet meeting room inside the Churchill War Rooms, underneath Westminster. Churchill would sit in the middle chair behind the red box.
After the ending of the Cold War in 1991, when the threat of a nuclear strike faded away with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the subterranean concrete bunkers that had been built to house emergency personnel during such an attack, became redundant. Some had been built much earlier and used during World War II, when the threat was more immediate but less potentially catastrophic, and revamped afterwards when the Cold War started.
Many have since been destroyed or sold off for private uses which range from underground farming to music schools, but a few still remain and have opened their doors to the public as museums. These once top secret bunkers with their blast doors, concealed entrances and underground habitation systems can provide a fascinating glimpse into the past, whether its the Cold War or the earlier days of World War II. The bleak concrete walls, endless narrow tunnels and utility furniture all help to bring the threats of the past vividly into the present in a way that many museums can’t, which makes them very intriguing places to visit.
The Churchill War Rooms, London
One of the five Imperial War Museums, this huge bunker is hidden underneath the streets of Westminster and is where Churchill and his cabinet directed World War II. You can see the meeting rooms, operations rooms, map room, living quarters and the vast network of corridors where staff spent so much time that they rarely saw the light of day. There is also a comprehensive exhibition about Churchill himself, filled with artefacts from his life including his hat, cigars and champagne bottles. A popular attraction, so buy your tickets online in advance. Review, photographs and visitor information for the Churchill War Rooms and other World War II sites in the UK >>
Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker, Nantwich
Photograph © Espresso Addict
Built in the 1950s and revamped in the 1980s when nuclear war became an even bigger threat, this top secret bunker was to be the home of regional government in the event of war. It now houses the largest public display of decommissioned nuclear weapons in Europe, as well as plenty of original equipment still in place; there is also a cinema showing once secret films, a simulator that recreates conditions in the bunker when undergoing a nuclear attack, a labyrinth of corridors to explore and plenty of hands on activities. The bunker hosts special events, has trails for kids and a cafe on site. Find out more >>
Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker, Brentwood
This relic from the Cold War was intended as a place of safety for government and council officials in the event of a nuclear attack. Deep underground it still has all of its 1980s machinery and technology, with faxes and teleprinters in abundance. Once secret films are on view, showing how people were expected to protect themselves when the bomb dropped, and just how futile sheltering under a table surrounded by doors and bags would be. As well as the bunker there is a cafe and plenty of family friendly outdoor activities on offer in the woodland above. More photographs, details and visitor information >>
Bunker Tours Around Europe with GetYourGuide
The Battle of Britain Bunker, Uxbridge
Here in the Operations Room deep underneath layers of steel and concrete is where the Battle of Britain was conducted saving the UK from the Luftwaffe in World War II. Still laid out as it was, the maps, pointers and the Tote board have all survived. An excellent new museum has recently opened above ground which tells the story of the momentous events which occurred there and explains how the creation of the Dowding System ensured that the Allies kept the upper hand. With plenty of interactive exhibits and events, the museum is family friendly. More information and photographs from my recent visit to the Battle of Britain Bunker in Uxbridge >>
Western Approaches Museum, Liverpool
Photograph © Liverpool War Museum
Also known as the Liverpool War Museum, this bunker underneath the streets of Liverpool was where the Battle of the Atlantic was directed during World War II. Convoy routes were monitored and the enemy hunted from the Operations Room, the naval version of the Battle of Britain operations room in the bunker in Uxbridge. 300 staff once worked here day and night and a visit to the bunker is said to be a trip back in time to their lives as it has been left exactly as it was in 1945 when the war was over. The museum hosts lots of events and family friendly activities, including a half term spy club and 1940s Time Traveller weekends. Find out more >>
York Cold War Bunker, York
Photograph © Mike Peel
Now owned by English Heritage, this bunker in the grounds of a large Edwardian house is another relic of the Cold War. It was in active use between the 1960s – 1990s. The bunker would have been staffed by the Royal Observer Core, and was the regional centre for a cluster of sub bunkers, which would have collated information on bomb drop sites, tracked nuclear fallout and radioactivity to give people warning. The bunker is still fully equipped and includes a decontamination room, dormitories and one of only two remaining AWDREY supercomputers. Access is by an hour long guided tour, which runs every hour. Find out more >>
Scotland’s Secret Bunker, Fife
A farmhouse hides the entrance to this underground nuclear command centre built in 1951. Government and military commanders would have run the country from here in the event of a nuclear attack. Intended to house 300 personnel, it is equipped with a nuclear command centre, an RAF control room, a BBC broadcasting room, a chapel, dormitories, weapons stores, cinemas and more, Much of the bunker is a recreation of how it would have looked during active service. There is also a CND room, to give visitors a balanced viewpoint around the issues connected to the site. Just five minutes outside St. Andrews, the bunker is a popular tourist attraction. Find out more >>
RAF Holmpton, near Hull
Photograph © RafHolmpton
Hidden beneath a bungalow in the former RAF base of Holmpton, this cold war defence bunker was built in the 1950s and was in active service until 2014. It started out as an early warning radar station and was used for observation and training purposes throughout the years. It is also the last place any member of the Royal Observer Corps served before the Corps was disbanded. It is now a privately run museum which shows the bunker as it was during the Cold War. Find out more >>
RAF Radar Museum, Norfolk
Photograph © Radar Museum
Housed in a Grade II listed radar operations building, this is a large museum which also includes an underground bunker as part of the building. The site was established during World War II, when the first secret radar system was installed. The three storey bunker was added in the 1950s to cope in the event of a nuclear attack. The museum has a huge collection of objects which covers all of the aspects involved in RAF radar, and is staffed by a team of volunteers, most of whom have worked in the still operational RAF base nearby. Find out more >>
Barnton Quarry, Edinburgh
Photograph © AlasdairW
This Cold War bunker is still undergoing a massive revamp before it can open its doors to the public. The site in a disused quarry was first used in World War II as RAF Fighter Command for 603 Squardon, with a bunker added in the 1950s. It is the only one left in the UK which has the original three level operations room. The bunker is being restored to how it was in 1952 and a museum and education centre constructed to tell its story and that of the RAF, particularly 603 Fighter Squadron. The project is nearly halfway through, so keep an eye on their website to see when it will be nearing completion. Find out more >>
Interactive Map – Find More Sites & Museums in England
Follow the link (or click on the map) to go to the interactive map, showing archaeology and history sites and museums in England. Here you will be able to locate the sites listed above (currently only for sites in England), as well as search for more World War II sites in England. You can also search for archaeology and history sites and museums near a location of your choosing. Go to the map >>