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Craig recommends… Here’s my latest Imperial War Museum review. If you’re interested in the Second World War then don’t forget Winston Churchill’s underground bunker. The RAF Museum has some more Spitfires, Hurricanes and a Lancaster bomber. HMS Belfast is worth exploring as well. Or how about seeing where they cracked the Enigma codes at Bletchley Park? Check out our calendar of military events in London.
The Imperial War Museum is No.8 in our list of London’s best museums.
The big naval guns on the forecourt of the Imperial War Museum are just a taster for what’s on display inside – every kind of military might that you can imagine: guns, tanks, rockets, bombs, bi-planes, boats and submarines from 1914 onwards.
The exhibition covers both World Wars, the Suez crisis, the Falklands, the Gulf Wars, and practically every other battle involving the Commonwealth powers – from Korea to Vietnam.
The World War I exhibition explains the political tensions that existed in pre-war Europe, and how the balance of power was shifting as the empires waxed and waned, leading to new treaties and agreements that pitched the world into war.
The life-size Trench Experience recreates the day-to-day of life of a soldier in the sloppy mud and blood of a British trench.
As you walk through the exhibit you’ll see the troop’s living quarters, the basic communications and medical equipment, and how terrifying it must have been as you climbed over the top.
World War II covers the Home Front and overseas operations, and recreates a full-size bomb shelter during the Blitz.
There are plenty of original military vehicles on display, from jeeps and planes to tanks and boats, many of which have stories attached – like the tiny dinghy Tamzine, which was the smallest surviving boat at Dunkirk. They’ve even got some German machines, like a V2 rocket and Enigma code machine.
They also cover the birth of the Nazi party and Hitler’s rise to power. Germany's relentless military build-up and isolation of the Jews is brought vividly to life through hundreds of photos, newsreels and newspaper articles.
This leads onto one of the most haunting floors in the Imperial War Museum: the Holocaust Exhibition. Depressing footage from the extermination camps, alongside sombre items like solitary shoes, give force to the survivor’s accounts.
This review originally appeared in his London blog
I quite like the Second World War. It seems like it was a lot of fun… catching a boat across the channel and giving the Hun a good seeing to, etc. Take that Hitler! Take that you evil Nazis! Maybe I watch too many old war movies, but my visit to the Imperial War Museum today just made me like it even more. I think if I had a time machine then I’d hop aboard and travel back to 1925. That seems like the perfect year to be born.
When you step inside the main hall the first thing you see is a load of old tanks and planes swooping down from the ceiling: everything from an early Sopwith Camel, which looks like it’s made out of balsa wood and string, to a Mustang, Focke Wulf, and Spitfire Mark 1A.
They’ve got some original battle tanks as well, like the Sherman. You can’t go inside them, unfortunately, or even look inside them, which is a bit of a shame, but it’s still nice to get up close and imagine all the soldiers sitting on the tank tracks like they do in Band of Brothers. In every war movie you watch they’ll be sitting up there smoking a fag whilst they trundled through the towns, and you almost want to jump up and join them.
They’ve also got a couple of one-man Japanese submarines, which are unbelievebly small. The sailor must have had to lie down on his stomach to drive those things, in a space not much bigger than my shoe. It’s hard to imagine him slicing through the pitch black and choppy freezing sea for five hundred miles. He must have been nuts!
The rockets and bombs are very impressive. The Nazi V2 rocket looks big enough to land a man on the moon, let alone London. It’s big enough to blow a hole in the world! Then you move onto the guns and grenades, medals and memoribilia.
I have to admit that I skipped a lot of the World War I exhibits, but I did enjoy the Trench Experience, which is like a long, dark trench in the middle of the night. As you walk through it you hear the bombs overhead and soldiers peering over the edge of the trench. You can look into the little rooms and see the people on the blower talking to their boss behind the lines.
The Blitz Experience was even better. It’s a ten-minute event for about twenty people, but luckily there were only four of them when I did it… but two of those were chatty women who didn’t shut up the whole time we were in it. If it was a real air-raid then I think I would have taken my chances out on the street, just to escape their non-stop natter.
It begins with you entering a dark and gloomy air-raid shelter, which has been decorated so it looks like you’re underground. Then they turn out all the lights so it’s darker than night (so you can’t even see your hand in front of your face!), and then a old guy and his missus come on the speakers as if they are chatting by your side… it’s as if you’re eavesdropping on their conversation whilst they sit chatting about the bombing raids outside.
Eventually the bombs drop and the mechanics shake the seat you’re sitting in (that’s when the two women screamed), and you get up and head out into the street. The next section is done up to look like a bombed-out street with debris strewn across the road. Search lights and smoke all add to the atmosphere.
The Second World War section is okay. You’ve got all the normal kind of stuff in there that you’d expect to get: lots of uniforms, medals, guns, knives, etc. The stand-out pieces are a captured Enigma machine and the actual iron Eagle that stood upon the Reich Chancellery in Berlin – you can even see some bullet holes in it from where the Russians and Germans did the street fighting! One of the bits that I found the most interesting was a room full of old newspapers and radio broadcasts.
The exhibits continue on through the 1950s with the Suez crisis, and all the way up to the Falklands and the two Gulf wars.
After that it gets a bit depressing because it’s upstairs to the Holocaust Exhibition. There’s a big sign out the front that warns you it’s not suitable for kids, but there’s stuff inside that I wouldn’t even show an adult.
They’ve got pictures of the dead and dying, and people so starved that their bones are showing through their skin. The photo that I remember most was a big picture of a Russian so desperate to leave the camps that he’d jumped onto a barbed-wire electric fence. Another one showed a firing line, at the split-second before they pulled the trigger. One victim seemed to be begging and crying for his life, whilst another one just stood and smiled and begged them to get on with it.
I thought the most moving exhibit was a colossal model of Auschwitz, about fifty-feet long. They had every little detail done to perfection, from the steam trains driving in to the tiny little bits of razor on the barded-wire fence. You could see thousands of little model people disembarking off the train (literally thousands), and when you made it up to the end you could see the little building where they cooked the bodies… with smoke circling out the chimney. If it portrayed anywhere but Auschwitz you’d think it was the best model railway you’d ever seen, but instead it was the worst.
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If you enjoy this then try: Churchill War Rooms (walk it in 20 mins or catch a train from Lambeth North to Churchill War Rooms); HMS Belfast (walk it in 28 mins or catch a train from Lambeth North to HMS Belfast); National Army Museum (catch the tube from Lambeth North to National Army Museum) and National Maritime Museum (catch the tube from Lambeth North to National Maritime Museum).