Winston Churchill's Toyshop: The Secret Weapons and Gadgets of World War II

By Bulent Yusuf on at

Wacko Jacko had his oxygen tent, and the Pope has his bulletproof Popemobile. But did you know that Winston Churchill had a special chamber designed for air travel? It was effectively a giant metal cocoon installed on his personal plane, complete with ventilation systems, inside which the great man would kick back and puff on his noxious cigars.

It’s all true, no word of a lie. There’s a fair share of urban legends swirling around Churchill, like developing the tank in World War I when he was First Lord of the Admiralty (true), or that he was indirectly responsible for the invention of penicillin (not true). But we can emphatically prove this flight contraption exists, thanks to photographic evidence in an issue of LIFE magazine (10th February 1947).

Sandwiched between photo-essays on occupied Germany and vintage adverts for cigarettes and beauty cream, there’s a picture of the pod being tested out by its designer, a mysterious chap known only as “Graham”. But what was the purpose of this strange device? Was it because they couldn’t build adequate seating to accommodate Churchill’s enormous girth?

According to the magazine, there’s a perfectly logical explanation:

"To protect the precious bulk of Winston Churchill in wartime, a special one-man pressure chamber was built for the personal plane which carried him many times across the Atlantic and to Casablanca, Moscow and Yalta.

Churchill, who also had a private air-raid shelter under Number 10 Downing Street, was warned by his doctors that it was too dangerous for a man of his age and physical condition to fly above 8,000 feet. Much higher altitudes were necessary, however, because of weather and the enemy.

The solution was a pressure chamber complete with ash-trays, telephone, and an air-circulation system good enough to prevent smoke from the ubiquitous cigar from fogging the atmosphere. While pressures within the chamber were kept at the equivalent of 5,000 feet, the prime ministerial figure could loll comfortably like an outsized pearl within a gigantic oyster shell."

In retrospect, given Churchill’s well documented enthusiasm for gadgetry and new weapons, it’s not surprising he used a technological solution to a thorny problem. This pressure chamber pales in comparison to the products that flowed from his “toyshop”, a secret division of the Ministry of Defence dedicated to weapon research and development during World War II.

 

Secret Weapons Lab

Department MD1 was nicknamed “Churchill’s Toyshop” because they reported directly to the Prime Minister (who wore another hat as the Minister of Defence at the time). MD1 were responsible for inventing a swathe of unusual bombs and weaponry, including the PIAT (Projector Infantry Anti-Tank), the first magnetic Limpet naval mines, and the Sticky Bomb.

The PIAT was effectively a forerunner of the bazooka, a hand-held anti-tank weapon. The Limpet mine would attach itself to naval targets using magnets. The Sticky Bomb, meanwhile, was a glass ball filled with explosive which clung to its target using a sticky residue. MD1 devised 26 different weapons altogether, which Churchill relied upon to surprise the enemy and keep them off balance.

Churchill would sometimes make some rash decisions, however. If he was particularly impressed by a new invention, he’d order thousands of them on the spot without further testing. In the case of the Sticky Bomb, the device was very fragile and often broke in transit. In a worse case scenario they’d sometimes detonate accidentally, or the sticky glass would cling to a soldier’s clothing instead of the tank.

And Churchill’s interest in technology or whacky ideas wasn’t limited to his toyshop. In the final days of the war, an idea mooted by his friend and advisor Frederick Lindemann, a physicist at the University of Oxford, was the creation of an “aerial minefield” that could be laid down in the path of bombers. The war had ended before it could be tested, however, and it remains unclear as to how exactly this plan would have been put into effect.

 

What's in the Box?

With the conclusion of World War II, MD1 was shut down down; their services no longer required. But one interesting artifact survives; a suitcase of tools for the wartime saboteur, used by MD1 staff to demonstrate their wares to outside personnel. Called The Box, it contains items like a cardboard-bodied mine, a Sticky Bomb, a Limpet mine, and various fuses and switches for time-delayed explosions. It’s a brilliant feat of miniaturisation and wartime engineering.

Today Churchill is remembered best as a waddling caricature of Englishness, chewing on a cigar and making inspirational speeches about fighting on the beaches. To that portrait we should also add his spirited advocacy of technology and innovation, albeit pressed into the service of war. He was one of the earliest of the early adopters, not least when perched in his metal egg and jetting around the world.

Image credits: LIFE magazine, Mills Grenades.